‘We have trailers and teasers about a movie. So why shouldn’t there be a teaser or trailer for a book?’
When Niklas Jansen graduated he knew he wanted to start a business, but he didn’t know much about running a business. And he also realised that suddenly he didn’t have as much time as he’d had as a student for reading. So where better to start than creating a business that involved reading lots of business books and distilling the key ideas?
And so Blinkist was born, ‘bringing the ideas from the best nonfiction to some of the busiest people on the planet’.
In this conversation we talk about how reading is changing, why sharing ideas is essential for discoverability, and why your offline strategy matters just as much as your online content. And there’s an offer you won’t want to miss…The best marketing is actually valuable content, and content that's designed for specific platforms. Click To Tweet
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Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club, and it’s lovely to be here today with Niklas Jansen, who is an entrepreneur, innovator, and speaker, and the co-founder of Blinkist, the subscription-based reading service that condenses non-fiction books into digestible blinks for busy readers. Welcome to the show, Niklas.
Niklas Jansen: Hey. Thanks for having me.
Alison Jones: It’s good to have you here. I love Blinkist, so let’s start by talking about that. What is it, and how does it fit into the bigger book ecosystem? What was your vision when you set it up?
Niklas Jansen: Very simply put, Blinkist is a service that distils the key insights from non-fiction books into 15-minute text and audio versions. We started Blinkist seven years ago, so back in 2012 me and my co-founders, we graduated from university and started working full-time jobs. What we realised working full-time jobs is that we didn’t have time to read books anymore. We probably didn’t have time, or we didn’t have attention to read books anymore.
We chatted about this and said hey, isn’t this weird, because we have been avid readers at university, and we love books so much. Somehow it was really not cool that we … All these cool ideas would stay out of touch for us. And at the same time, we realised that there was a shift in how people consume content. And this was that more and more people would read on their mobile phones. We asked ourselves a very simple question: how would we have to restructure the content of the book to fit on a mobile screen? And this is how we started working on Blinkist.
The idea back then, the vision, was let’s rethink how content is structured, presented, and delivered to fit into the mobile lifestyle.
Alison Jones: And I remember when you launched back in 2012. I was in traditional publishing at the time. And you approached publishers. And you obviously had this sense that, “This is great. We’re doing something fantastic for the book industry.” And weirdly, you were almost universally seen as a threat at the time. And I remember the conversations, trying to sell this to people. “Why on earth would people buy our books if Blinkist is giving them the quick summary?” It’s fascinating. Personally, I see it as marketing. But it’s that fine line, isn’t it? So what are you? Are you a threat to publishers and authors? Or are you a partner? What are you?
Niklas Jansen: We see ourselves definitely as a partner. What I would say is that with Blinkist, we see ourselves as the bridge between no book and the book. So we’re not intending to replace books, but we want to bring books back to the life of people that either don’t have time to read books, or that haven’t purchased or read books in a while. So what we do is actually really rethink how to structure, deliver, and present the content of a book, and really make it available for a broad, mobile-first audience worldwide. What is happening then is that actually, people start discovering a lot of titles they never heard about on Blinkist, or they also use Blinkist as a tool to screen for book titles that are interesting for them. And they use Blinkist as a teaser, and then decide which book they want to read in full. We see ourselves, really, as a partner that helps publishers and authors to make the books discoverable and get the books to an audience that was not accessible for them in the first place.
And when you just look on Twitter, or when we talk to customers, or we do an annual survey, we realise that a lot of people actually tend to buy more books due to Blinkist. Because they suddenly discover so many books they never heard about before. Because it’s very hard to discover good books. And since Blinkist provides them with a 15-minute teaser, they really know, “Okay. This book is really, really relevant for me. There’s something in the book that I can really use to either live a better personal life or to be more successful in my job. And they’re really motivated to buy it and read the book afterwards.
Alison Jones: Yeah. It’s so interesting. I think the biggest threat to authors is not piracy, it’s not somebody taking … Which is what the people always think of. It’s just invisibility, isn’t it? So anything that gives you discoverability, anything that draws attention to what you’re doing, you’ve got to celebrate that.
Niklas Jansen: Absolutely. Look, reading a book is a lot of work. It’s hard work for people. And I think the better you can inform yourself before you make a decision to actually buy and read a book, the more likely you will be to read the book afterward. I definitely think … Look at a movie. There, it’s very natural that we have trailers and teasers about a movie. So why shouldn’t there be a teaser or trailer for a book?
Alison Jones: Yes. No, very good point. But it’s even more than that, isn’t it? Because you can look inside on Amazon. But to do that, you have to know about the book in the first place. And that’s the trick. How are people outside your existing reach, your existing network, how do they find out about you? I mean, how many … You probably can’t tell me exact figures. But what’s the reach of Blinkist now?
Niklas Jansen: We just said it last week. We have eight million users now, worldwide. We really … If you’re an author or a publisher, we can bring your book to a very global, big audience, probably much bigger than most publishers have their … Much more than the typical email list of a publisher is, for example.
Alison Jones: Yes. That’s a pretty good number. When you’re talking in the millions, that’s a pretty good number. And I have to say, Practical Inspiration is going to be partnering with Blinkist in 2019, which I’m really excited about. We’re going to be bringing our books to more readers.
Niklas Jansen: Yes.
Alison Jones: So if an author’s listening to this, they’re currently writing their book, is there anything that they can bear in mind? What advice would you have for them to make the most of services like this in the future?
Niklas Jansen: Yes. I think the first step is really just be open and think beyond the bookstore. Because what I believe is that the world of publishing is going to be a little bit more fragmented in the future. So there will be a lot of different services and platforms where you, as an author, can publish your ideas. And the book has its place in this world. But there will be more opportunities for you as a publisher. Because if you just look that the core. What is the core? What is a book? A book is a container of ideas. And it’s one defined container of around 200 pages, written with a table of contents, and then a couple of chapters to transport an idea or to transport knowledge. And I strongly believe that in the future, there will be more channels, more containers, so to speak, where you can take your ideas and bring them to new platforms. But what you have to do for that is that you definitely have to think outside of the box so you can present your ideas. Writing a book will be one step. But you should also think about, “Okay, how can I distil my idea into a form that is easily digestible for people that are time-constrained, that are attention constrained, that might live a very mobile lifestyle, so that I also get my idea to these people?”
And also I think what’s getting more and more important, I think where a service like Blinkist can also help, is that you, as the author, you have to put yourself at the forefront. What we have learned is that our users, they love to connect with people. They love to connect with the author. They love to hear what the author has to say. So, not only reading a book, but also hearing the voice of the author, seeing a video of the author. It’s a lot about building your own personal brand and being accessible to your audience. And I think if you want to make the most of a digital service like Blinkist, you should really try to put yourself at the forefront of your ideas.
Alison Jones: Yes. I love that. And it’s about building those multitude of touchpoints around the book, which, as you say, has traditionally been a container, an offline container, that didn’t interact, particularly, with the real world. But that’s not the case anymore. It’s interesting, as well, that the inspiration for Blinkist was so closely linked to the mobile screen becoming ubiquitous. It’s almost like you need to craft a story for each screen, isn’t it? And then the book being the Ur, the original, full-depth content. But, actually, there’s so many different ways that you can insert that into people’s everyday worlds and the touchpoints they have on their screens.
Niklas Jansen: Absolutely. I think the book is probably the deep work, where you can use a lot of examples and stories to really get the point across. But then, there are a lot of different services, and Blinkist is one of them. But, also, Instagram could be another one that can serve as springboards for people to discover your book and then decide if they want to go further. And if they want to go further, and if they want to go further, then dig into the book and really can read it in depth, and read all the stories and details. So I think it’s really, really important as an author to understand that these tools can really help you to market your ideas. But the best marketing is actually valuable content, and content that’s designed for specific platforms, not just an Instagram ad or Facebook advertisement.
Alison Jones: Absolutely. And that’s a shift required from protecting your content and keep it hidden away to protect the sales of the book, to actually a more open model, and saying, “Here’s that deep work, if you like. But here’s what I’m talking about.” And the people who find that will want more. They’ll want that deep work. I mean, not all of them. Some of them, the Blink will be fine. But many of them will want more. And they just didn’t know about you before. It’s funny, because publishers do this all the time. This is what marketing plans are. It’s about giving review copies to the right people. It’s about making extracts of the book available, and so on. But what we try and do with our authors is to get them thinking in that way, as well. What can I build around this? How can I be getting this message out into the world? So that when the book arrives, it’s got people waiting for it.
Niklas Jansen: Yes. There is this very interesting case study of Ray Dalio, he recently published his book Principles, which is basically, I would consider, his life work, where he condensed everything he has learned in 40 years in his professional career, and condensed it into one book. And what he started doing is, he not only … This book has … I don’t know. 400, 500 pages, it’s really great work. But what he started doing is to transform the chapters into video content that he’s giving away for free on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And this is a new channel for people to discover the ideas of Ray Dalio, and then when they get hooked by the ideas, then they go on and buy the full book. Because I would definitely assume that even this giving it away for free, and he’s really giving away a lot of his ideas for free on Instagram already, doesn’t cannibalise the book sales. It actually is adding to new book sales. Because there are a lot of more people discovering his ideas and his book through this…
Alison Jones: Right. And I think that’s really heartening. Because I have had people, when I was trying to explain Blinkist. And they were like, “Oh, this is just dumbing down. It’s just, you’re taking a book and you’re …” It’s not at all what it is. It’s just giving you that taste. And it’s great, I think, that there is still that appetite to take the book and to do the real, deep work. So it’s not about, “Oh, we have the attention span of a goldfish and that’s all we can manage these days.” It’s not that at all. It’s just about actually, when you’re standing in front of the fire hose of stuff that’s coming at you trying to demand your attention, you need to just get really smart about filtering that.
Niklas Jansen: Absolutely. Also, we … I think I like to compare it sometimes to food. Because there’s like … You crave different things at different times. Sometimes you might want to just have a quick snack. And that’s all you need at this point. And it’s all what you want. And sometimes you just want to have the full, five-course menu with wine pairing and all these things. You could also think about content and ideas in this way. Sometimes you just feel, “Okay, all I can do right now, all I have time for is just a 15-minute version of the key insights of the book. And then there’s another time where you feel, “Okay, now I’m really motivated. I’m in a good state of mind. And I’m really going to take my time to really go deep and read the book cover to cover.”
Alison Jones: Yeah.
Niklas Jansen: And I think the cool thing about all these services popping up, they give the readers, the users, choices. And I think that’s super-important, that there are different ways to explore and discover ideas. And there’s not only one way. Because people have different needs and different motivations at different times.
Alison Jones: Yes. And I like the food metaphor. Let’s play with that a bit more.
Niklas Jansen: Okay.
Alison Jones: Because what it suggests, as well, is that you know what you’re in the mood for. And it’s a function of lots of different things, isn’t it? It’s a function of how much time you have available, what tool you have to hand, whether it’s your mobile phone or actual access to your library and so on in a physical bookshelf. It’s a combination of all those different things, and also your state of mind and your appetite. That’s a good word for it. It’s quite interesting, just thinking about how people actively and consciously choose what they’re going to consume based on all those different variables. What I want to do is find something of interest to me, which at a later point, when I’m sitting down and relaxed, I’m kicking back, I’m ready to really absorb stuff and do the deep work, then I can dive in.
Niklas Jansen: Absolutely. That’s a very nice way to explain that. And that’s what we mean with a bridge. Right? This, basically. Because, otherwise, what is the alternative to that? Would be there’s no way to discover these ideas. So it’s very hard for you to pick up a book and be motivated to do that sometimes. So what we can provide is, yes, creating excitement to do the full work, the hard work, actually.
Alison Jones: Exactly. And I think that’s the challenge, for anybody listening to this, any author. Obviously, your focus is the book. And you get quite precious about it. Because, of course, it matters hugely. And the nuance of your argument is really important.
Niklas Jansen: Yeah.
Alison Jones: But you need to be thinking, what are those things that people can consume? What are the ways that people can discover this book when they only have two minutes sitting on a train or whatever it is? We have to be thinking about those stories as well, whether you like it or not. Because this is how people manage their attention these days.
Niklas Jansen: Yes. Also, I think what I would encourage every author to do is just also ask themselves, “Why do I want to write the book?” And I think a lot of people would come to the conclusion, “Okay. I want to write this book because I want to share what I’ve learned. I want to share my idea with the whole world. In the best case, I want to reach everyone with my idea.” You just have to think about different ways to reach people. Otherwise, you will always only reach a small amount of people. That’s also very important to keep in mind.
Alison Jones: Yes. Really good. Now, reading, as well, as an activity, I think is obviously evolving. It’s evolved massively over the last ten years, even. Just thinking about business books specifically, what do you … I mean, you must have lots of data on how people search for and discover and consume the content you have. What directions do you see emerging, particularly in business books?
Niklas Jansen: Yes. First I would say, I think I strongly believe in lifelong learning. Right? And I believe that business books, they have a place in this. And I always remember, when we started Blinkist, we didn’t have an idea what we did. We’re first time founders. We didn’t get any experience in a startup before. We basically were fresh out of university. And, especially for me, the first year, I learned a lot of the things, all the skills I needed, I learned through reading books. And for me, it was so cool just to have exposure to the ideas, learnings, and experiences from people that have done what I’m trying to do before. I think this is super-important. This is why I strongly believe that business books have a really, really important role in the learning mix of every professional.
When it comes to … Where I see business books going is, of course, where we see … There is still a lot of demand for everything around self help, productivity. Meditation, mindfulness are big topics. Health, nutrition, other important topics for our users. But also the classical business book literature, like management leadership. We definitely see a trend towards topics like, how do I lead teams in these times? What do I have to change in my leadership style? People are really curious to understand how to adapt themselves to the world we live in right now. Because I feel, especially in leadership literature, a lot of this has been written for 30 years ago, which… I think we lived in a very different paradigm than we live today. So people are actively searching for new ways of doing their job, basically.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Niklas Jansen: What we also have seen as a trend, and this is a pretty obvious one, probably, but we see a strong rise of audio when it comes to the usage of Blinkist.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Niklas Jansen: And this has grown like crazy over the last three years especially. And think it’s also very important for … There’s an interesting thought I have sometimes. We all see audio as rising in popularity, and audiobooks are also super-important. They’re the fastest-growing sector within the book industry right now. But, actually, most audiobooks are still a narrated version of a text version. What I’m thinking sometimes, and a trend I’m seeing is, if audio’s so much more popular these days, shouldn’t we think about writing books for audio first? Should we write an audio first book, and then maybe do a transcript of that and sell this as a text version? I could definitely see a trend towards books that are especially written for audio. We can also use new elements that you probably can’t use in text version. That’s definitely an interesting trend I’m thinking of.
Alison Jones: That’s interesting. And, actually, it ties in, even, to discovery, doesn’t it? Because more and more people are using screen-free discovery. They’re using audio search tools to find stuff. And having snippets that you can deliver back … Because you can’t deliver back the full text of a book. It doesn’t work. You can’t scan it. But if you have … Again, it’s about creating that story for the different use cases, isn’t it? You have your text snippet that can be easily read back over your — I’m not going to say the name of the device, ’cause it switches them on — your voice assistant of choice. That’s really interesting. Yes.
Niklas Jansen: Absolutely. That’s a very interesting trend I see and I think a lot about. And another one I started thinking a lot about recently is real world experiences. I think we humans, our society, we really crave offline experiences, connecting with real people again. Because everything has become digital. And I feel like … When you look at music, for example, the way most artists make money these days is not actually selling CDs or selling the album through Spotify or streaming. But it’s actually concerts. And there are so many conferences and retreats popping up here and there. If I was an author, I probably would also think, “Is there an offline strategy for my book? Is there a way how I can make the content of my book that my readers can experience the content of my book in an offline world? Is there some type of event I can create, some type of coaching practice I can set up around my book?” Because I really feel that people are craving these non-digital, offline settings again. That’s something I have been starting thinking about recently, is could business books also create an offline experience that’s still based on the knowledge and the ideas of the book, but probably a very different experience from just reading the book alone at home.
Alison Jones: Yes. I could not agree more. And it’s something we work on quite a lot. And the coaching, the strategy coaching bit when I work with a Practical Inspiration author, it’s like, “Okay. How does this book fit into your business? And what products and services are there around it that involve you?” Because, actually, what happens when somebody reads a book is that they feel like they know you. And they’re more likely to want to come and meet you and build that relationship. It’s a one-way, fake relationship when you’ve read a book. You feel like you completely know the author. But, of course, they haven’t got a clue who you are. So allowing those opportunities for people who have learned to love you by reading your book to actually meet you in person is really powerful.
Niklas Jansen: That’s … Yes. I think so too.
Alison Jones: Yeah. Really good. And I think that was a very smart move, by the way. If you’re going to set up a business straight out of university, and you don’t know what you’re doing, then setting up a business that allows you to read loads of business books along the way, that is really smart.
Niklas Jansen: And it’s true. That’s … Yeah. I think we didn’t think about that at this point. Although, probably, we did, in a way. Okay, what’s the worst thing that can happen is, okay, we just read 100 books and got smarter after that. That’s a risk we can take.
Alison Jones: That’s a good fail, isn’t it? I love that. This is going to be fascinating. I always ask my guests to recommend a business book. I mean, you must have so many you want to recommend. Are you able to restrict yourself?
Niklas Jansen: Sure. I will try to do, at least. Otherwise, we are still talking tomorrow.
Alison Jones: I know, right?
Niklas Jansen: I think, in general, I like business books that are based on an actual experience of an author. And what I like to do is, when I read a book, is that I really want to dive deep into the stories and examples. And for me, it’s less about the information, but more about try to uncover the mindset of the author. So why did they make specific decisions? What drove them to do that? So I find this fascinating, to really try to understand the psychology of the author. And when they explain, or when they talk about their experience, that’s important.
I think the book that I … Probably my favourite book right now is still Sapiens. And it was really eye-opening, a really eye-opening book for me. Because it helped me to understand a little bit like how humanity has evolved over the last 80,000 years. And I think this helps you, just understanding humanity, our species, helps you understand … Or to put the world we live in into better context. So I found this super-valuable for me. Just it’s probably the book I’m recommending everyone these days.
Alison Jones: And I’m laughing, because you’re about the third person to have recommended Sapiens. And I have now started reading it. It was on my guilt pile for … And it is. It’s superb. Yes. I can now endorse this.
Niklas Jansen: This is one of these books that I think you have to read with an open mind.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Niklas Jansen: And really dig beyond the words. There’s a lot of information there, but I think what’s fascinating about this book, because it gets you thinking all the time. And you start like, “Okay, now I understand why this and this is like this and that.” That’s really … I think that’s really interesting.
And two other books that really shaped my thinking, they’re probably a bit more … Probably have been mentioned as well, before, is Getting Things Done is probably still also one of my all-time favourites. I think it’s also the first business book I’ve ever read. I was an exchange student in Spain. And I don’t know … I found this book in a hostel and just started reading it. And for me it’s like, “Oh boy. Now I finally can get myself organised.” Because I’ve always been … I have too many ideas and too many thoughts and easily forget things. But Getting Things Done allowed me to find a way to find a productivity system where I feel like I have all my tasks, all my projects, under control. That’s a book that really shaped my thinking a lot, and probably was super-helpful for me, and is also a concept that’s easily applicable for everyone. And, although the book is probably 20 years old, it still feels really relevant today.
Alison Jones: Yes. It’s so practical, isn’t it? It’s Dave Allen, isn’t it?
Niklas Jansen: Dave Allen, yes.
Alison Jones: Also known as G.T.D. in this house. Yeah.
Niklas Jansen: Exactly.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Niklas Jansen: It’s so practical. And I think it also goes again to … It really tries to give you tips and tactics that are based on how our brain works.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Niklas Jansen: It doesn’t really matter if you do it on paper or on the computer. It works in every setting, which is cool…
Alison Jones: It does. And his ‘bring-forward’, his tickle file thing, I thought was genius. I love that idea.
Niklas Jansen: Yes. I love this book.
And the other book that shaped my thinking a lot is The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. I think it was the second book after Getting Things Done. I got hooked on business books. And the second book I found was-
Alison Jones: Just say the name again, Niklas. I missed that name. Sorry.
Niklas Jansen: 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris.
Alison Jones: Oh, of course. Yes. The 4-Hour Work Week. Sorry. Yes. Got it. Tim Ferris.
Niklas Jansen: I got hooked on business books. And just this was the second one. Getting Things Done helped me to get my tasks and projects under control. And 4-Hour Work Week helped me to focus on the important things, and less on the things where you feel, “Oh, I’m busy, and this feels good,” and really say, “Okay, what are the things that have the biggest impact on my goals, actually? And let’s focus on them.”
Alison Jones: Yes. Absolutely. And of course, it’s a really interesting publishing case study, as well. Because that 4-Hour concept, Tim Ferris has spun out of it a lots of books and the podcast. Really smart. That’s a great case study for anybody who wants to see how to really make a book work for their business.
Niklas Jansen: Absolutely. I think … Yes. That’s genius. And I think Tim Ferris was the first person where I … I think he understood the idea of personal brand very early. So he had built this personal brand around his 4-Hour concept. And now he’s leveraging his brand for everything he’s doing, from writing books to running a blog, to doing a podcast. I think … Yes. As you said, really interesting case study for every author. Also, for every entrepreneur, I would say.
Alison Jones: Yes. Absolutely. Brilliant recommendations. Thank you. And thank you for keeping it down to three. I’m sure there must have been 200 you could have recommended. But thank you. Now, Niklas, if people want to find out more about you, more about Blinkist, where should they go?
Niklas Jansen: Go to our website, Blinkist.com. Or download the Blinkist app in the iOS store or the Google Play store. I’m on Twitter @JansenNiklas, so my last name and first name, first last name then first name. It’s a bit complicated, but the other way around was already taken. Yeah. And just say, “Hi.” I always love conversations around books and the future of publishing.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Well, fascinating conversation. I could talk to you all day. But thank you so much for your time today.
Niklas Jansen: Yes. Thank you.