InnovaBuzz Episode #43 – Holger Seim: Blinkist

HolgerSeim: Blinkist

Holger Seim: Blinkist

In this episode number 43  of the InnovaBuzz podcast, Holger Seim, co-founder and CEO of Blinkist talks to me about book summaries, the rapid growth of Blinkist and their holocracy management model, “Blinkracy” as well as the process Blinkist use to produce their book summaries, Blinks.  Listen to the podcast to find out more.

Listen to the Podcast

in order to do more, you need to have good processes, good systems in place, you need to ensure good communications, so everyone has transparency on what’s going on, everyone knows how their own work affects others.

Holger Seim

Show Highlights

Some of the highlights of this episode include:

  • It’s vital to validate your idea with your audience – test if the problem is real, then test if the solution will help your audience.
  • Good and well documented systems and processes are vital to any company, right from the start.
  • Content Marketing is a really valuable and effective marketing channel, particularly for a content delivering company!
  • A flat (not hierarchical) management structure helps rapidly growing businesses to keep agile and focused on getting the right things done.
  • An innovation doesn’t have to be “rocket science” or a dramatically new invention – something different that has enormous value and impact on people’s lives is innovation.

There are great innovations that can fly you to the moon………and then a lot of little innovations that, in the end, have this great effect on peoples’ everyday lives. Both are important.

Holger Seim

The Buzz – Our Innovation Round

Here are Holger’s answers to the questions of our Innovation round.

  • #1 thing to be more innovative – Surround yourself with people and listen to their ideas.
  • Best thing for new ideas – Discuss new ideas with people, be patient and evolve them.  Take action!
  • Favourite tool for innovation – David Allen’s Getting Things Done system and Slack.
  • Keep project / client on track – Asana project management system and weekly meetings.
  • Differentiate –  Know what you’re good at and be better at that than anyone else, and then take action.

To Be a Leader

Get some mentors and learn from them.

Reach Out

You can reach out and thank Holger via LinkedIn, Twitter or email.

Suggested Guest

Holger suggested I interview Markus Witte, CEO of Babbel, a language learning app, on future InnovaBuzz podcasts. So Markus keep an eye on your Inbox for an invitation from me, for the InnovaBuzz Podcast, courtesy of Holger Seim.

Links

Full Transcript

Click to Read…

Intro:
Hi, I’m Jürgen Strauss from Innovabiz. Welcome to Episode No 43 of the InnovaBuzz Podcast – designed to help smart businesses with an interest in innovation become even more innovative.

In this episode, my guest is Holger Seim, co-founder and CEO of Blinkist. We talk about Blinkist’s conception, their process for making the book summaries and their model of holocracy which they’ve modified and called Blinkracy. If you haven’t taken a look at Blinkist, I suggest you give it a try – there is a 30 day trial that doesn’t even require you to provide your credit card details. It’s a great service and Holger tells us more about it in this interview.
Let’s get into the Innovation Hive and get the Buzz from Holger Seim.

Interview:
Hi, I’m Jürgen Strauss from Innovabiz, and I’m very excited to have here with me on today’s episode of the Innovabuzz Podcast, from Berlin, in Germany, Holger Seim, founder and CEO of Blinkist. Welcome, Holger. It’s a privilege to have you on the Innovabuzz podcast.

Holger:
Thanks, Jürgen. I’m really happy to be on your podcast. Thanks for having me. I’m really excited.

Jürgen:
I’ve been a fan and user of Blinkist for about two years, and it’s one of my favorite apps. But maybe you can tell us what it’s about.

Holger:
Sure. I’m happy to do so. We at Blinkist transform the key insights and big ideas from nonfiction books into a powerful, memorable “Blinks” that you can read or listen to in 15 minutes. You know, like four years ago, when we started Blinkist with four founders, we’ve been in jobs, and there were so many great books out there, and every year more of them got published. But it was really hard for us to keep up with our reading, and read everything we wanted to. And so we asked other people whether they have the same problem, and almost anyone said yes, it’s really hard to read everything you want to, and everyone had piles of books growing and growing without reading them.

So we digged into this problem a little more and found that actually people do read more than ever, but they just .. their reading habits went from reading books into reading short-form content on the mobile devices. And when we analyzed that situation and saw that problem, we also saw a great opportunity for our business and a great need for a business that transforms books, that gets the key insight from books into a form that you can read on the go on your mobile device to get you started with your reading. So Blinkist is all about inspiring people to keep learning and making it easier for them to fit in more reading into their daily routines. And the way, how we do this is we read through a lot of books every year, we skim all the new releases, and a team of experts ultimately selects the best titles out there, reads them, identifies the key insights, and ultimately transforms them into little texts that we call Blinks, because you can read them in a blink, and that’s where the name Blinkist comes from.
And it’s important to point out that we’re not aiming to replace books, we’re not saying “Hey, read our Blinks and then you don’t have to read the book anymore.” We just want to get the core ideas of a book into this form and to help people get started. And research shows that once you get started, once you can connect the content of a book to a personal or professional challenge you have, then it’s much easier for you to read on and read through 200 or 300 pages. And it’s much more efficient then because you read more actively, you already know what you’re looking for, you know why the book is relevant to you, and in the end can retain more of the book.

Jürgen:
Yes, and it’s very … the app is very interactive because it has key summaries at the end of each Blink and it also, there’s also a lot of audio content there, which I like a lot. But what I find is that it’s easy to read a lot of books that I may not consider buying, but if I’m then interested, I’ll go and buy the book, or alternatively, books that I’ve already read, revisiting the summary will just reinforce the key points. So, I find that really useful as well.

Holger:
Yes, and interesting that you say this. Like we, in the beginning, we really only saw that need of having an easier way into books and having a form that is a lower barrier than a 300-page book for the start. But then once we launched Blinkist, then after getting some customers on board, we found that a lot of customers also are using Blinkist after they read the full book to kind of retain it and to get, kind of refresh the knowledge after two or three months. So that was also a surprise for us that people would use it like that.

Jürgen:
Okay. Well, before we start talking much more about books and apps and innovation and your business, let’s find out how you started this journey. So did you have an idea of what you wanted to be when you were a young child?

Holger:
Well, when I was really young, I wanted to build roofs on houses. I grew up in a small town. It was really … I grew up in kind of a farm, and people would build a lot of stuff on their houses on their own. So, I was able to help building a roof on a house of our neighbors, like as a small kid, 10 years old, I found that really exciting. It was a great view from the top of a house. And building something tangible, and that was really cool. But then when I got older, when I was about 13, I discovered the internet and started building websites. So, that was kind of my initiation with tech and with the internet. So, I got more and more excited about everything related to tech and internet. And ultimately, by the end of high school, I discovered my passion for business and entrepreneurship. There was this one teacher, he taught politics and economics, and he had a project. He got a consulting company called the Boston Consulting Group involved in our school, and they did kind of a start-up competition or a business plan competition where the students could come up with an idea and develop it, all theoretically obviously, and then that idea was evaluated by consultants and they helped to shape the idea. And that was lots of fun, and I really kind of ultimately, or in the end, I decided okay let’s study business and administration with a focus on entrepreneurship and let’s dig deeper into that because, yes, I found I had the right skills to flourish in that and I had a strong passion for this.

Jürgen:
Yes. That’s great. Those simulations, I find those really good value. I’ve been involved in some, actually supporting some of them. They’re really fun.

Holger:
And I find this, I’m still so grateful for this one teacher. It was really about this one teacher’s initiative to get that project started that helped me find my path. If it wouldn’t have been for that teacher, maybe I would’ve found the path to entrepreneurship later on, but it’s these random events or these random people you meet in life that kind of shape your decisions and your path. And I’m really grateful for this teacher.

Jürgen:
That’s great. So, did you read a lot as a young child or as you were growing up?

Holger:
Yes. I think … I didn’t read … Like I was an average reader. It’s not like I’m, I particularly read a lot. But I loved reading. When I was younger, obviously a lot of fiction, so reading more and more nonfiction started in university, but yes, I would say I was an average reader, not really a bookworm that would read one book per week.

Jürgen:
So, tell us how the idea for Blinkist was born then, because there are four of you that started that, right?

Holger:
Right. I mean the four of us who started Blinkist, we also, we’d already started a business during university. We founded a student consultancy because we wanted to apply our knowledge and practice. So, we kind of gathered people together of different disciplines and acquired companies to hire us for projects. Like, let’s say, do a marketing strategy for a local brewery or conduct a customer survey for the university to improve their student facing processes and stuff like that. And when we did this, we found that it was really a lot of fun to work together and that it was actually not that hard to start something and get people excited about it to join your cause. So, after, you know, two years after founding that student consultancy, we reflected on that and said hey let’s do this again, but on a bigger scale after university. So, and that started frequent meetings where we met and brainstormed ideas, we looked at problems we had or problems that we found out there, and discussed if we can, if we have the skills to start a business to solve those problems. And one of the problems we kind of discussed really frequently was a problem around books that, and particularly about nonfiction books, that reading habits were changing quite fast, more and more people had smartphones and consumed a lot of information through smartphones and apps in particular, but the only innovation that had happened in the book industry was to bring the print books to digital devices, but not changing the form of that at all. And initially that idea wasn’t strong enough for us, so we started to work in regular companies. But then we kind of experienced that it got harder and harder to read books. And it was really sometimes really not satisfying to leave your, you know, after a 10-hour working day where you have learned a lot on the job, you just didn’t have the energy any more to read something off the job and kind of nurture your lifelong learning with topics beyond professional skills. And that was at some point so dissatisfying for us that we said okay, maybe there is a strong opportunity. Maybe it’s not only us thinking that books could be innovated somehow, but there is a strong need for helping people to read more and make it easier, have a lower barrier to start reading. So eventually at the end of 2011, we came together again and revisited that problem and discussed it again, and said okay, the app system is now developed enough to, and it’s getting bigger and bigger, and there were already initial learning services like language learning that got big in the app stores. So, we said okay, maybe there is actually a huge market for this. And then we started to validating it by asking more people whether they had the same problem by actually thinking about how could we, you know, what could we make out of books that makes them readable and easier to start with on mobile devices, and how could everything look like. And by March or April 2012, we had everything together and decided to quit our jobs, move to Berlin, pitch for funding, and then get started.

Jürgen:
So, it’s been four and a half years. That’s a pretty amazing journey, then.

Holger:
Yes, a long, long time.. You know, when you …. Like back then we thought okay, that’s in our first pitch for investors, we pitched that we would millions of users after two years, and it’s … We’re just reaching one million users right now, like in a couple of days. So, it took a little longer. I guess most of the time it takes longer than you initially think, but it’s been a great journey.

Jürgen:
Yes, so even so, that’s been pretty rapid growth. So, what are some of the challenges you see in managing that sort of rapid growth and supporting it?

Holger:
I think, well, there are a lot of challenges in different phases. One of the earliest challenges we had after we got the funding, we had the challenge to actually launch the product. And it’s the classic challenge that you can read in all the startup books that you want the product to be perfect, you really iterate a lot on it, but only with a small group, and at some point you launch it and no one likes it because you should have asked more people or you should have launched a more basic MVP version and then iterate together with actual customers. So, and we did the same mistakes back then and kind of iterated too much on our own before launching and before actually asking customers. When we kind of had after where we’ve … After working on the app and on the content for like three months, we went to a first open user testing, and the reactions we got, like when we asked, well, what do you think the product is when you look at the home screen, people answered that it looked like a video app. So that was a big fail, and we had to kind of redo the whole user experience and the whole visual design to make it look like a book app or an app for learning, for mobile learning. So that was one of the earliest challenges.

Right now, I think in the last six months, we raised to Series A funding, in December last year, and grew the team from 20 to 40 people within six months. And that brings completely new challenges right now, because when you’re 40 instead of 20 people, as a company, obviously you can do much more. But in order to do more, you need to have good processes, good systems in place, you need to ensure good communications, so everyone has transparency on what’s going on, everyone knows how their own work affects others, so everyone has kind of the right processes for communication in place. And everyone can work in a focused and efficiency way on their project, even though the company does a lot of projects at the same time. So, that’s a completely new challenge. Growing the company that quickly and still keeping up, like being fast, making quick decisions, and keeping the traction and the momentum is a completely different challenge. But it’s a nice, it’s a cool challenge. I’m personally learning a lot right now again.

Jürgen:
Yes. That’s a fascinating account. And one of the things that I … When I was planning out the interview, I was fascinated by how your process for summarizing the books actually works. Can you tell us a little bit about that.

Holger:
Yes, sure. I mean, like the first step starts with really selecting the book. So we get all of the information out there that we can have. We look at reviews from journalists, we look at the new books that are presented to us by authors and publishers. We look at Amazon bestseller lists. We listen to recommendations from customers. So, we get all these signals, and skim a lot of books ourselves, and then select the best books. That’s already a really important part in the value, really important value add we deliver for our customers, to only curate the best books so they don’t have to skim through the long list of titles in each category. And once we decided to read a book and bring it into our library, we have an expert reading through the book, and by expert I mean a person who is really knowledgeable about the field. So, if it’s a book on time management, we would have an expert that studied psychology or is a coach for self-management, and then that person reads the book, takes a lot of notes, and then gets together with one of our editors to review those notes, to discuss them, to kind of have a sparring partner that also skimmed through the book and to get … have a sparring partner to do some logical checks to discuss whether the structure of the Blinks or the structure of the notes make sense, whether it’s understandable for the reader, and whether it really covers the key insights of the book and covers the … brings the message across that the author wanted to get across. And once that is done, then we kind of produce the final Blinks that you can read, have that editor or that reader writing it into a nice text, and in the end do some copy editing and release the book in Blinks, to be specific.

Jürgen:
And then some of them you have an audio version done as well.

Holger:
Correct, yes. Like we started to offer audio versions in November 2014, so after being in business for two years, we launched in audio too. Our goal is by the end of the year to have every book that we have in text to have that in audio too. Which was yesterday we also launched audio versions in German, which is not as relevant for your listeners right now, but audio is really important for us, so we are kind of trying to grow our audio library in English and German to give readers and listeners a choice if they want to read or listen.

Jürgen:
That’s great. I’ll have to look for those audio versions in German to keep the language practice up. Okay, so yes, it’s interesting because I remember back, when I was in the corporate world, probably in the very early 1990s, I was subscribing to a thing called Executive Book Summaries, and they were a six-page PDF of various business tools, and you could, for an extra cost, you could get CDs sent to you as well as the books. And then at some point in the mid-90s, I think it went to an email of a PDF and an email of an MP3, which was in the early days of the internet. But even those summaries were not that easy to read. Which the Blink summaries, the Blinks are really well put together. They are really easy to read, even the heavy books, the Blinks are quite easy to read and consume.

Holger:
Thanks a lot. I appreciate hearing that a lot. I mean, obviously we looked at those competitors, those older web-based book summary services. And we knew them when we founded Blinkist, so we knew that there were already companies out that tackled the problem we were trying to solve, but we weren’t satisfied either. And we thought okay with the rise of mobile devices and with the rise of apps in general, there is a new … the business completely changes. You need to think mobile first, you need to rethink the way, how you produce content and the way how the form it looks like, the way how it’s delivered, the user experience and all that. So, we saw a strong opportunity to just start from scratch and still have a good chance to compete with those older incumbents.

Jürgen:
Yes, definitely having it on your phone and with the audio version, it just means it’s available everywhere. And I think I heard an interview of you saying they’re structured such that if you’re standing in queue somewhere and waiting for something, that you can take those two or three minutes and just read a little bit of a book.

Holger:
Yes, the core section is a Blink, and that can be read or listened to in two minutes. And one of those Blinks represents one key message, one key insight from the book. And then one book in Blinks, depending on how long the book is, contains around ten Blinks. So, you can split up a book, read two Blinks on your morning commute, then three waiting in line for lunch, and then the rest in the evening when you get home. So, that’s what makes it more suited for those mobile use cases.

Jürgen:
Yes. So how many books are in the library now?

Holger:
Right now, 1,600. And I said, not all of them are available as audio yet, but by the end of the year we should be at around 2,000 books, and we should have almost all of them in audio available too.

Jürgen:
That would be awesome. Alright. I’m fascinated. So, Blinkist is a software as a service. There’s an annual subscription, right, and you also have a 30-day free trial where you don’t even have to give your credit card, so you get to try it out for a whole month. What’s your overall sales process and plan to grow the number of subscribers?

Holger:
I think, as any other consumer company, we’re trying to develop the classic marketing growth channels. You know, we do marketing, we market our service through social media, especially Facebook. We are currently digging a lot into content marketing, because we have a lot of content, and it makes sense to use that content for marketing too. We have a digital magazine, which you can find at http://blinkist.com/magazine, where we release editions every two weeks. For example, we had an edition on productivity. We got David Allen as a contributor. We had an edition on sleep with Arianna Huffington as a featured guest. And around that edition, we also have a podcast that we recently launched. So, there also a Blinkist podcast. And those initiatives are meant to kind of get our content outside of our app and get it outside or in front of our sign-up wall, because when you want to read the Blinks, you need to sign up. But the podcast and the magazine bring our content to a world where you don’t have to use an app to, and the goal behind that is that people discover us more through search engines, through social media, and it’s more shareable, and it’s easier to just get in touch with a business. And then ultimately seeing, oh yes, Blinkist also has an app and a subscription service, and that’s also valuable, so I’m going to sign up for that. So, this is a really important channel for us. Obviously we are always working on the content and on the app to make it more engaging, to make it easier to start and finish a book in Blinks, because we see that the more people read on Blinkist, the more they talk about it because it’s a kind of, you know, when you learn something that you can apply in your job, then it’s natural to tell your colleague that you just read that and then you also say where you read it. So, we see a lot of this word-of-mouth, and we see that word-of-mouth correlates with the amount of books you read. So, we’re trying to make people read more books.

Jürgen:
Yes, that’s great. And I like, I really like the magazine. It’s got a really nice layout and the content is great. And I noticed you’ve got some really high profile guests on with David Allen and Arianna Huffington, so that’s really great as well. And you’ve got the Page 19 blog as well.

Holger:
Yes, that’s been … but the magazine is kind of the successor of the Page 19 blog. So, Page 19 is still there, but we’re probably going to disc … We’re not actively releasing new articles on Page 19, and at some point we may just merge all of the content toward Blinkist magazine. So, that’s kind of, yes, we launched Page 19 one and a half years ago, and learned a lot around what works, what doesn’t work, and then took all of those learnings together and came up with Blinkist magazine, which is version 2 of Page 19. And we decided to rename it to Blinkist Magazine to make it, to move it a little bit closer to the brand, to not have too many names out there where people can’t connect Page 19 to Blinkist and vice versa, so that was the thinking behind that.

Jürgen:
And we’ll have links to all of these resources on the show notes so that people can look them up. Now, one of the things I did want to follow up on. So, you talked a little bit earlier about processes and having processes in place. So, do you have a particular way you manage processes as you’re building the team, you know, from whatever it was, 17 up to 40, and then having all these moving parts within the business?

Holger:
So, the core of our organization is inspired by holacracy. Holacracy is a way of organizing companies without management or with only very little management. Like, two years ago, when we realized that we managed Blinkist or organized Blinkist, like we saw the companies we had worked for formerly, like they had been organized. And since we’ve worked in corporate companies and consulting companies, we applied the processes and tactics that they had applied, and we found, after two years in business, we found that those old hierarchies and old processes are just not really suitable for a fast-growing startup that is doing business in an uncertain world that has much more uncertainty than a big company that has been around for a couple of decades.

So, two years ago we researched a lot of different ways how to organize companies, and we found the holacracy approach and liked it a lot because it makes, it gives a lot of power to the individual employees instead of giving all of the decision power to managers, and that was in line with our culture. We wanted to build a workplace where people can really bring themselves to work, where people can take on decisions, where people feel motivated and engaged and can learn and grow a lot, and where we founders are not bottlenecks. Because two years ago, we’ve been asked for every decision, and so you couldn’t go on vacation or you always were the bottleneck and it wasn’t really fulfilling for our employees to not take their own decisions. And, so yes, the core of holacracy, we took some of the things from holacracy that we liked, but we didn’t take everything, that’s why we don’t call it holacracy, but we call it Blinkracy, so it’s our adapted form of holacracy.

There’s also an ebook and some articles you can find on Page 19, and there will be an edition around the topic on the magazine soon. We took what’s working from holacracy, and now coming back to your question, you asked about processes. Holacracy is organized in circles, so every team is a circle, every circle has certain roles, and those roles have certain accountabilities. So, making it really explicit who is working in what circle, like who is working in a certain circle, what’s the purpose of that circle, what roles do we need to create to fulfill those purposes, and what accountability do those roles have and what domains do those roles have. So, making this very explicit helps every employee and all of us to be aware, okay, what’s my purpose in this company, what are my accountabilities, and to what extent can I take decisions. And having this explicitly written down somewhere makes it much easier for people to focus on the things that they should focus on and that are important, and also to see, to identify the people they should talk to when doing something instead of just doing something and then it may affect someone and that person didn’t know about it. And then on top of this organization and circles there is … holacracy has two core meetings. Every circle meets for a tactical each week, and for a governance meeting every one or two months. And these meetings again are really structured. So, in a technical meeting, technical meetings are about updating everyone in the circle. So, every circle member gives a quick update, what she’s working on, where the roadblocks, and then everyone can discuss, like you have everyone in a room and everyone has transparency and knows what’s going on, and everyone knows, is aware of potential roadblocks and can work towards getting them out of the way. And then there is also kind of an open space or a bucket list where you can just submit topics that you want to discuss in the bigger, in the circle, but don’t want to discuss via email. Like two years ago, when I had an idea, I would write an email, and that would trigger a long email discussion, which is inefficient and just not really … it was just inefficient. And nowadays I can just put an agenda item into the tactical and then have that discussed in five minutes and have that transformed into an action or into a decision. And next to those tactical meetings, we have governance meetings on a circle basis every, depending on the circle, every month or every two months, where you reflect on the bigger picture – are we still doing the right things and are we still doing the right things right to kind of avoid that circle running in the wrong direction. And with this organization and with these meetings, you have the core processes that you need in place. You make sure that everyone who needs to talk with each other frequently actually talks to each other, so you ensure transparency and flow of information. And you make sure that decisions are taken efficiently and that also people reflect every now and then on whether they’re still doing the right things. So you don’t need to remind people every week or every month, hey, let’s meet or let’s do this or that, but you have a trusted system that does it automatically kind of, and helps everyone, you know, because if you want to empower people to take decisions on every level of the company, you also need to give them, you need to make sure that they have all of the information that is necessary to take a decision at hand and you need to make sure that they communicate their decisions. Otherwise, you can’t sleep well because everyone takes their own decisions, but in the end it creates chaos.

Jürgen:
Yes, it’s a really interesting model. I look forward to reading some more about that. So, the governance meetings are kind of the higher level considerations, looking at, say, longer-term goals or longer-term strategies?

Holger:
Right. Let’s say the content marketing circle meets for governance, and the purpose of the content marketing circle is to grow the brand awareness for Blinkist and to grow the number of unique readers we have on our magazine and the unique listeners we have on our podcast. So that would be the purpose of the content marketing circle. Then you can fulfill that purpose in very different ways. You can say, okay, let’s focus on a magazine, you can do stuff on social media, you can try to do guest posts on a lot of blogs or be an interview partner for podcasts to raise awareness. You can try to close syndication partnerships with other magazines, so there’s a lot of stuff you can do. And there are a lot of potential roles that should be energized by people. And the definition of this, how do we want to reach that goal, do we want to have a magazine, do we want to have a podcast, which roles do we need to produce a podcast on a frequent basis. Do we want to … Does it make sense to produce a podcast weekly, bi-weekly, every month, all of these questions are governance questions because they kind of set some, you know, set the framework in which you then work. And then the tacticals, the tacticals aren’t meant to do those bigger reflections. The tacticals are rather meant to really be efficient, quick meetings where everyone gives an update to ensure that information flows.

Jürgen:
Okay, that’s very clear in terms of the overall processes, so I really do look forward to reading some more detail about that. Thanks for sharing that. So, in terms of innovation, then, what’s one of the most innovative things you’re doing in your business?

Holger:
Like, we get more people to start reading again. Like it doesn’t sound innovative, but the effect it has is kind of innovative. We really, we rethought how nonfiction books can be presented on mobile devices. In the end, the result looks quite trivial, you know, it looks like, okay, these are ten articles, so it’s like the key messages of a book. Sometimes it doesn’t sound like, it’s not a technology that flies you to the moon or not a new great algorithm that does some crazy stuff. But the effect it has on people’s lives and the result it has for its users is quite big. And we have a lot of huge fans who reach out to us every day and say that we really help them to read more, we give them more food for thought, and make it easier for them to just keep learning. So there are a lot of little …

Jürgen:
Probably inspired other people to be innovative as well …

Holger:
Yes, right.

Jürgen:
…because they’ve learned new things.

Holger:
And the way we do this, you know, there are a lot of little innovations. So, you know, a new feature or a new user experience flow that makes it easier for people to discover something, tweaks in the content that make it easier for people retain or to … little cliffhangers here and there that make it easier to read on. It’s a lot of little innovations that, in the end, have this great effect on our users’ everyday life.

Jürgen:
Alright, that’s terrific, Holger. Thanks for that. I think we might move on to our innovation round, the Buzz. So that’s designed to help our audience, who are primarily innovators and leaders in their field, with some tips from your experience. So, I’m going to ask a series of five questions, and hopefully you’ll give us some really insightful answers and inspire people to do something awesome.

Holger:
Perfect. Yes. Looking for it.

Jürgen:
So, what do you think is the #1 thing anyone needs to do to be more innovative?

Holger:
I think everyone should surround themselves with other people and discuss their ideas. I think innovation really doesn’t happen in one room where you think about things, but it happens through getting a lot of different perspectives, getting a lot of different opinions, and communicate, communicate, communicate.

Jürgen:
That’s great. And I was giving a talk a couple of weeks ago and pulling together some advice from previous podcast guests. And one of the things I said was that innovation is a community thing, it’s not an individual thing.

Holger:
Yes.

Jürgen:
So, that’s consistent with that thought. So, what’s the best thing you’ve done to develop new ideas?

Holger:
I think as I probably also said in the founding story of Blinkist, the best thing for us has been to frequently talk about, to make time to talk about new ideas. To not just … It doesn’t happen, sometimes it happens randomly, but a lot of times you really need to make time and have a … say, okay, now let’s have a one-day workshop and let’s discuss about a certain problem that we want to solve or about a certain topic and come up with as many ideas as possible. So, for us, coming with the idea behind Blinkist, it was about meeting frequently specifically to come up with new ideas, and I think that was the best thing I’ve done to develop new ideas, to be …. to not expect that you meet for two hours and then you have a great idea and everything is solved, but to rather acknowledge that sometimes it takes time, you can’t force it, and that you just need to be consistent and gather people around you and meet frequently, and at some point eventually you’ll come up with a great idea that leads to an innovation.

Jürgen:
That’s great.

Holger:
And other than that, it’s also important to take action – that you come up with a new idea that leads to a great innovation. I’ve learned in university that the idea is only the first step of innovation. And that’s really important. Like there are so many ideas out there, and I am, I think whenever I meet founders here in Berlin, there’s no lack of ideas, but there is a lack of sometimes then taking this leap and taking the step to taking action and really say okay let’s get started. So, getting started is also a really important thing for innovation. Just being bold and trying out an idea. I mean, failure is nothing bad and not being afraid of failure and just taking an action and doing something is really important.

Jürgen:
Yes, that’s a really good point because ideas are just … Everybody’s got ideas in their head, but until they become action, it’s, they’re not really much help to anybody else. And failure is just feedback, right.

Holger:
Yes, right. Definitely.

Jürgen:
So, what’s your favorite tool or system for improving productivity and allowing you to be more innovative?

Holger:
There’s actually two systems or tools that I’m using for productivity. The first, I think in order to be innovative, you need to be productive, you know, you need to have your head free, like you need a free brain to really come up with creative ideas. You shouldn’t be, your brain shouldn’t be full of stuff that you need to think about, because then it’s kind of blocked to creating ideas. And since being productive, in my definition of it, so I listen to David Allen, being productive is or an important part is your head is not a storage tool but a thinking device. So keep, you know, set routines or apply a system that actually keeps your head free so you can use it as a thinking tool. I think that’s the underlying belief I have. And in order to keep my head free, I’m using two things. I try to get the stuff done that needs to get done as efficient and as fast as possible, and to do that I have most important tasks every day, so whenever I come to work in the morning, I quickly reflect, I look at okay what are the projects I’m currently working on, and what are my most important tasks for the day, what do I really want to get done today because someone is waiting it or because it has a high priority. And then I, like, that takes me five minutes, and then I start working on those most important tasks and get them done by noon so I rest easy and all of the most important stuff is done and I can move on to other things, and have peace of mind and can think more creatively. And the other thing is really, and it’s … Personally, I need to get into a flow to work efficiently. Like, when I, there’s some things like doing emails where you can just jump back and forth and do that efficiently, but when I want to do actual work, like coming up with a new campaign idea or thinking about a way to organize certain meetings in a better and more efficient way, that needs focus, and in order to get focus and to get into a flow, it’s really important for me to get rid of all distractions. So, I’m using a tool called Slack and turn off all notifications to work in a focused manner and get into a flow. So, these are less a tool or system, but more like some practical things I’m doing.

Jürgen:
Yes. I love David Allen’s philosophy. I discovered him, it must’ve been shortly after he published his first book, and I thought that’s just such a fundamental thing to get stuff out of your head and stop using your head as a memory storage device, like you said, and use it to think. And the other one, and it may’ve come from David Allen, but it’s kind of the idea of focus, you know, turning off all these notifications. I remember, I don’t know if you remember the Blackberries, when they first came out ….

Holger:
Yes, I had one in my corporate job.

Jürgen:
… and a lot of the sales folks that I was working with, they had the Blackberry when it first came out and they were on the road. And all of them said this thing is a real nuisance because it goes off all the time, we get all the emails and messages and it goes off all the time, and I said why don’t you just turn the notifications off. So, that’s something that I’ve just … I can’t remember when I did it, but when I set up a new computer, the first thing I do, or a new phone, the first thing I do is go and find all of the notification settings and turn everything off.

Holger:
Yes, that makes sense.

Jürgen:
Alright. So, what’s the best way to keep a project or a client on track?

Holger:
I’m a big fan, or we all at Blinkist are a big fan of Asana. Asana is a tool that helps us keep projects on track and collaborate. It’s like, it’s a space where you can organize a project’s tasks, where you can get people’s opinions, set yourself deadlines, and in general always be aware of what are your next tasks and what are your daily goals. And having that system in place, having everyone at the company use it is helping us a lot to keep projects on track and organize them efficiently. And other than, the more general thought, like, weekly meetings with the people that you work with for checking in on the status quo, aligning on the next steps, and getting the roadblocks out of the way are very helpful. So instead of having these long email discussions, writing an email for everything to everyone, rather make a space, make a weekly meeting, it’s system for our organization. You know, you have your Asana, you can use it as a process system for yourself or you can offload stuff and keep track of everything important, and then you also have a trusted system on a team basis that is a weekly meeting where you know you can put all the stuff that you need to discuss into a backlog and then you know it’s going to process officially in that meeting.

Jürgen:
So, again, it’s a combination of a tool that clears the mind and communication.

Holger:
Yes.

Jürgen:
So, what’s the … Sorry?

Holger:
…. No, no, you’re right. I was just acknowledging that.

Jürgen:
So, what’s the #1 thing anyone can do to differentiate themselves?

Holger:
I think, well, there’s no one thing, there are a lot of things. I mean a lot of people have different skills. You should know what you’re good at and then be good at it, and be better at it than anyone else to differentiate yourself. For me, it’s getting things done. Like I’m … yes, I think one of my skills is to really organize projects and initiatives in a way that they get done efficiently, and I get my stuff done really efficiently and really reliably. And, yes, I think also that comes from a belief that there are a lot of ideas, but only a few that take action and get stuff done. So, just being, you know, not only talking but also getting stuff out and staying ahead of competition in whatever you do.

Jürgen:
Yes, great advice. Know what you’re good at and be better at that than anyone else, and then take action.

Holger:
Yes. There’s also a good book about that from Cal Newport. And you may have guessed we have the Blinks on that book. It’s called ….

Jürgen:
I was going to ask.

Holger:
It’s called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. And it also elaborates on the thought that, you know, a lot of books tell you to follow your passion because when it’s your passion, then you’re good at it. And he takes a different perspective. He says that sometimes that’s bad advice. Sometimes your passion and your skills are not aligned and sometimes following your passion may lead you into a trap where you’re doing something in which you’re not good at and then that leads you nowhere. But if you run the focus on stuff that you’re good at and really work on them until you master them, then you learn to love them and you learn to have a passion for those things. So, I found that really inspiring advice because usually following your passion sounds good and who wouldn’t agree that you should follow your passion. So I like that perspective from Cal Newport, that sometimes passion has to develop. Sometimes you need to work a little bit to make a thing your passion, but then it’s actually then you get to a state where your passions and your skills align.

Jürgen:
Okay, I’ll have to add that one to my list. Alright. So, what’s the future for Blinkist then?

Holger:
We want to grow Blinkist into a globally known brand with a major footprint in our core markets. And we want to help millions of people to keep learning. So what we are doing on a small scale right now, we want to do that on a much bigger scale. And that means to just grow the user base, you know, to invest in marketing and growth so more people know about the product. It means that we have to broaden our category selection. Right now we have a lot of … We already have 13 categories in Blinkist, but there’s much more that people are interested in. And one major challenge for that is also to shift people’s mindset. There are still a lot of people out there that when they hear book summaries, they think of it as something negative. They think of it as something that is kind of cheating; you read the summary and not the full book and then you only learn things on a really abstract level and you don’t get, you don’t learn deeply. To shift the mindset and tell people that it’s not about replacing books, that it’s rather about getting started, helping them to explore and discover which books they want to read in full and still get food for thought on topics that they just don’t have the time to read in full. And helping them to read books they want to read in full more actively by priming them for reading the Blinks. All these things, getting that across is very key for us to grow into a mass market product.

And from a … personally, it’s, I think for everyone at Blinkist and me, is our future is at Blinkist and we want to grow alongside the company and help everyone, I personally want to help everyone else on our team to do so as well. Like we have to become better and if we want to manage a global brand and if we’re working in a 100-people company instead of a 40-people company. So it demands a lot of personal growth and a lot of learning on our end too. And I’m really excited to have the chance to work with such a great team and to have the chance to go through these different steps to learn, to have learned how to start a company, to have learned about the challenges in the early days and now also to learning alongside the challenges that you have in a high-growth phase of a startup.

Jürgen:
Well, it’s interesting to hear you talking for the whole interview, and it’s very clear that learning and personal development is a very strong value for you. And it obviously goes through the whole company, right.

Holger:
Yes, that’s one of our … yes, it’s in the DNA of Blinkist.

Jürgen:
Yes. Alright, what’s the #1 piece of advice you ‘d give to any business owner that wants to be a leader in their field?

Holger:
Like, if they’re already … Like, usually my advice is get started, but if they’re already a business owner and they want to be a leader, then just try to learn from others, try to connect with as many peers as possible. Try to find mentors that have done it before that are leaders in their industry and that you can learn from. You can either read a lot of books for those people to learn from others. I personally find it even more inspiring and more fruitful if you kind of talk to the people themselves, try to connect with them, and try to find yourself one or two mentors. And usually it seems, at least here in Berlin, the Berlin startup scene founders, business owners, are really open, they love to help, they love to pay it forward, because most of them have profited at some point from advice from more senior people. So, everyone is really willing to share their learnings and willing to listen to your challenges and provide advice.

Jürgen:
Yes, that’s great to get into those sort of communities where people are very open and giving. Alright, well this has been really great, Holger. Thanks very much. Where can people reach out to you and say thank you for all that you’ve shared with us?

Holger:
Well, you can follow me on Twitter, even though I’m not really active on Twitter, but my handle is hlgrsm. But I think it’s easier to connect with me on LinkedIn, Holger Seim, or shoot me an email at h@blinkist.com.

Jürgen:
Okay, and we’ll have those links underneath the show notes as well.

Holger:
Perfect.

Jürgen:
So finally then, before we wrap up, who would you like to see me or hear me interview on a future Innovabuzz podcast and why?

Holger:
I think, well, there are a lot of great founders here in Berlin. I think, I really admire Babbel. Babbel is an app for language learning, and they have, like they just recently announced one million customers, so they’ve reached one million paying customers. I mean Blinkist is at one million users, signups, and Babbel is already at one million paying customers. So, they’ve had tremendous growth within the last years. And I admire the CEO, Markus. He’s a mentor to me, like he’s really sharing his learnings and his experience openly with me, so I’m really grateful for knowing him, and he would be a good interview guest, definitely. And their product is great. It’s also encouraging people to learn new languages and they’ve really, really made Babbel a great success.

Jürgen:
Okay. Well, I have come across it, but I haven’t explored it a lot more, so it’s Markus. What’s his surname?

Holger:
Markus Witte.

Jürgen:
Witte.

Holger:
Yes.

Jürgen:
Okay. Well, maybe you can introduce us, but Markus, if you’re listening to this, look out for an invitation from us courtesy of Holger Seim to come on the Innovabuzz podcast.

Holger:
Perfect.

Jürgen:
Alright. Well, thanks very much for sharing all your insights and knowledge and being so open with the business model and the way you run Blinkist today, Holger. It’s been really great. I’ve enjoyed this and learned quite a bit, and got a couple of books that I need to go and find on Blinkist once we’re finished. And so some more reading. And I wish you all the best for the future, and let’s keep in touch.

Holger:
Thanks for having me, Jürgen. I also enjoyed it very much, and glad that you reached out in the first place. Let’s definitely keep in touch.

Jürgen:
Okay, thank you.

Holger:
Have a good one, Jürgen. Goodbye.

Jürgen:
You too. Bye.

Wrap Up:
I hope you enjoyed meeting Holger and learning about Blinkist, their service and their Blinkracy management model as much as I did. This company is really going places and I’m excited to watch their journey!
All the show notes for this episode will be at innovabiz.com.au/holgerseim, that is H-O-L-G-E-R-S-E-I-M, all lowercase, all one word, innovabiz.com.au/holgerseim, for all of the links and everything we spoke about in this episode .
Holger suggested I interview Markus Witte, CEO of Babbel, a language learning app, on a future InnovaBuzz podcast. So Markus, keep an eye on your Inbox for an invitation from me, for the Innovabuzz Podcast, courtesy of Holger Seim!

Thank you for listening. Pop over to iTunes or Stitcher or Pocket Casts and subscribe so you’ll never miss a future episode. While you’re there, you might leave us a review, because reviews help us get found and your feedback helps us improve. If there is anything you’d like us to cover, or questions you want answered on a future podcast, please send them to us.
Until next time, I’m Jürgen Strauss from Innovabiz.
Remember, if you don’t innovate, you stagnate, so think big, be adventurous and keep innovating!

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Jürgen

Jürgen is the chief innovator and founder of Innovabiz who partner with innovative, exceptional business coaches to enable you to acquire more leads and more business by reaching your ideal target prospects with your message, so that you will achieve growth and be able to make a difference to more ideal clients. You can find Jürgen on LinkedIn, as well as on Innovabiz' Twitter, Facebook and Google+ Pages.

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