Long Read: Blinkist co-founder and CEO Holger Seim on why learning should be a constant
Holger Seim along with Sebastian Klein, Tobias Balling and Niklas Jansen founded the ‘millennial’ app in 2012.
I first chanced upon Blinkist when an ad powered its way through what I was reading on a financial daily’s online page. “The Company That’s Harder To Get Into Than Harvard” was what grabbed my attention, so instead of playing noughts and crosses, I clicked on the link. (To find out why the company is harder to get into than Harvard, read the full interview.)
I was immediately hooked by the subscription-based (mobile and web) app’s proposition: smart-manage content into (approx.)15-minute chunks, retaining the nucleus, the insights, the learnings, doing away with the clutter. Basically, you get the kernel; the fruit you can have once you decide if it’s worth going the whole hog.
I looked up the history of this ‘millennial’ app, that was founded in 2012, and has since been feted and felicitated by reviews and awards the world over: by Holger Seim, along with Sebastian Klein, Tobias Balling and Niklas Jansen. They wanted to devise a way in which one could continue to “read and learn” all through life, not just in silo tenures. In an interview to www.tech.eu (as part of the website’s ‘Startup Spotlight’), Holger had remarked: “We realised that the majority of people... lacked the time to sit down and read an entire book, plus were constantly being distracted by other media while they were using their digital devices. We decided we wanted to help people use the time they spent on their phones and tablets more meaningfully — and Blinkist was born. We started by putting together the key insights from a variety of popular nonfiction books that could be consumed in 15 minutes, so that people would have no excuse to make reading and learning a daily activity.”
Blinks offer key insights you can read (or listen to in podcast format); if the content piques your interest, you can read the full book. And if you find the book interesting but not interesting enough to commit eight hours to, you at least have some food for thought.
In an earlier interview to theceolibrary.com, Holger had pointed out that he believed “finding the right books is key to building a habit. If you have a hard time sticking with a book and need to ‘push to continue reading’ instead of being ‘pulled by the book to continue reading’, then usually the book isn’t good enough or the content isn’t relevant and helpful enough”.
Today, nine years after Blinkist started and embarked on a route of innovating learning patterns, there are three ways in which information/knowledge/education is disseminated: (a) Getting key ideas from nonfiction bestsellers in minutes; (b) Getting book lists curated by experts and (receiving) personalised recommendations; (c) Tuning in to Shortcasts, where podcast creators bring you essential insights from (lengthy) podcasts.
We can all collectively sigh in relief to get yet another endorsement that reading is not dead, or dying, or even comatose. In fact, according to an internal survey, 95 per cent of Blinkist members have started reading significantly more after realising that brevity can be the soul (of the many aspects) of an education called life.
I think I wanted to interview Holger when I read him tell theceolibrary.com, “I deleted all social media apps except Twitter and LinkedIn because I noticed that I was killing too much time on the others without getting any value out of them. I kept Twitter and LinkedIn because they help me discover relevant and interesting content. One thing that I haven’t managed to do yet, but want to, is to create more smartphone-free times of the day.”
His own wisdom and insights belie the semantics of his brand name: it’s not “blink and you miss them”.
Excerpts from an interview to Khaleej Times.
You used to exchange school book notes — an idea that germinated into Blinkist: what were in those notes? Also, take us through the journey so far, and tell us, in a blink, what Blinkist stands for.
In 2010, my co-founders and I were transitioning from university life to working life. We were excited about our new professional lives but we really missed the exposure to new ideas and constant learning that we experienced in university. We didn’t want to give up on ideas and learning new things just because we didn’t have the time to read. So, in 2012, we came up with the Blinkist app — bite-sized insights from nonfiction books — to help us stay sharp and discover new ideas and schools of thought… and learn from them. The app has grown a lot over the years: we went from a team of 4 to 160, we moved from text-only to audio-first, and now we surface insights from the world’s best nonfiction podcasts as well as books. We currently have over 17 million users worldwide and we continue to see consistent growth in our core markets. In a world of information overload, Blinkist makes big ideas easy to discover and understand. This lowers the barrier to accessing information and allows people to quickly and easily learn and grow.
What is your business model?
We’re a subscription service app: so, we charge an annual subscription fee like Netflix or Spotify. For the subscription fee, you can have unlimited access to all of our content: Blinks (key ideas from nonfiction books in 15 minutes) and Shortcasts (key ideas from nonfiction podcasts in 15 minutes) as well as personalised recommendations and expert curation.
In one line, tell us why a Khaleej Times reader should get the Blinkist app?
There are so many great books, podcasts, and thinkers out there, but we all have limited time: Blinkist takes the hard work out of discovering and understanding potentially life-changing ideas around work, personal life and the world at large.
Before you started Blinkist, you must have undertaken a survey on reading habits. What were the most the relevant findings?
The most relevant finding was that everybody shared the same problem we were facing: a strong need and desire to read and learn more — but the inability to act on it due to a lack of time, not knowing where to start and too many other things competing for attention.
Do you believe conventional reading is dead or at least dying? In your own words, how would you describe a post-millennial reader?
Conventional reading is alive! The post-millennial reader is in a world saturated with information so what Blinkist provides is the ability to really sift through a lot of dense information and find the most salient points.
In many interviews, you have maintained that just because you are compressing content to put across the gist of a book, it doesn’t mean that you are weaning “readers” away from books. But given the current attention span levels and distractions, how do you know for sure that you aren’t? Everyone is looking for a hack or a shortcut: are you providing them the wherewithal?
Our customers tell us that they use Blinkist as a filter to provide clarity on the idea or book or podcast they’re interested in and then, they choose where to dive in in more detail. We solve the discovery and apprehension problem: i.e., we synthesise a lot of dense information and make it accessible for people. When it comes to diving in deeper, people are then better positioned to understand what they want to spend their time on.
You are also into audio. Personally, do you believe ‘hearing’ a book — or even its precis — makes us lazier? One doesn’t need the same rigour or concentration/focus and can actually multi-task while ‘listening’: are there dangers here?
Audio is a great way to fit knowledge into your life because you can listen and absorb information while you’re on the go and your eyes are busy. This doesn’t speak to laziness, rather a growing trend towards optimising time spent. That hour on the commute or at the gym can be enriched by listening to some engaging and entertaining content.
What is the Blinkist language? Is there a list of dos and donts?
From a tone perspective, we like to stay encouraging and human. Since the clarity of the ideas is key, we like to stay brief and straightforward in our language.
When a long book is compressed into a blink, you can have parallel narratives, different iterations: how do you know which is the best version? How do you know that you may NOT have, inadvertently, culled out the most compelling parts — since that is entirely subjective?
Our aim is to surface the most important ideas and concepts from a book or podcast. We also use techniques — for example, connecting key ideas with illustrative stories — to help people retain the ideas better. It is a different experience than reading a longer book or listening to a longer podcast. People can benefit from both.
So far, you have only explored the domain of non-fiction. Why not fiction?
We want to surface up the most important ideas in the world of non-fiction (from books to podcasts) to help people to learn, grow, and live smarter. Some of the most valuable ideas are in these non-fiction works and that’s why we focus on them. There is great value in the experience of reading fiction, but the tangible takeaways are less immediately apparent.
The company that is harder to get into than Harvard: that’s how Blinkist has been described. What do you mean by that — qualitatively?
Qualitatively, it refers to candidate acceptance rate: i.e., the number of applications we get for job positions vs the number of candidates we accept. Our current candidate acceptance rate is lower than Harvard’s, hence we’re “harder to get into”. It’s a little bit tongue in cheek — to reflect the fact that we have a great company culture and good status in the start-up scene in Europe and beyond. We’re always working to improve though, continuously learning and growing is at the heart of what we do.
When you hire, what do you look for in your future employees, what skills do they need to be equipped with? Describe a typical Blinkist-er.
We look for people aligned with our mission: to inspire people to learn and grow by making big ideas easy to discover and understand. We find that when people are really passionate about the mission, then they are extremely motivated and engaged team members. Our team is also constantly learning new things: we have in-house dedicated days for learning when people can concentrate on one topic that they want to learn about and our team members also run frequent micro-learning sessions to share with the wider team — for example, how to build the best skincare routine or how to supercharge your instant ramen. At the core, we’re a team of people passionate about sharing ideas and helping people to improve their lives.
What are your favourite books? Would you ever read them in Blinkist format?
My favourite book is Mindset by Carol Dweck. I’ve read it many times and I also frequently read the Blinks to brush up on the key ideas or recommend the Blinks to people I work with to help unblock them. The key idea is that people can either have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset: cultivating a growth mindset is important to enable you to keep learning and growing throughout your life. People with a fixed mindset seek approval, people with a growth mindset seek development. This has been a pivotal concept for me throughout my career (and also reflects the power of the work we do at Blinkist). My favourite fiction book is The Power of One — beautifully written and such a nice story!
So, we are at the end of this interview: if you had to ‘blink’ your points of views into a precis read, what would your copy look like?
Anyone can adopt a growth mindset and make the impossible possible. One first step is to look at the challenges you face as opportunities and believe in your own ability to overcome through strength of will, a sense of humour, and finding the right idea at the right time. Blinkist can help you with that last part.
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