It doesn't get easier, it just gets different.
Lessons learned from building and scaling Blinkist
Earlier this month, we announced that Blinkist got acquired by Go1, a global leader in corporate learning and development.
After working on Blinkist for more than ten years, this was obviously a big milestone and triggered some reflection. I tried to distill some (hopefully not so obvious) learnings.
1) Solve Customer Problems, Not Business Problems. Over the last ten years, we have created some very impactful product innovations but also many failures. We launched Blinkist Audio in 2015, right before the boom of podcasts. At the same time, some big product failures, included a LinkedIn-style social network to drive viral growth or offering full audiobooks to increase revenue per user. While the last two were driven by business goals, the first was rooted in insights about a customer problem and routine. Many customers told us they liked the idea of Blinkist but lacked time to read. At the same time, they told us they spend hours every day commuting, with their eyes busy but ears free. Customers loved audio and the business profited as well as it accelerated our growth and led to hundreds of millions in accumulated revenues.
2) Product velocity may be the only viable leading indicator of early-stage startup success.
3) Obsession with A/B testing leads to incremental thinking and small experiments. Often features get broken down to “the smallest thing we can build” instead of “the smallest solution that solves the problem of our users”. After several weeks, someone looks at the data, and oh wonder, there’s no significant impact. Now you have wasted many weeks learning… nothing. And you come to the conclusion that the change was too small anyway to expect a real impact. Wtf?!&@#
4) The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Have less but more impactful goals. Focus on the ones that “add zeros to the dashboard”.
5) Hire outstanding people but don’t leave them alone. Great people get stuff done, but make sure to align their work with your vision. Everything else is a setup for failure. People who have successfully worked in bigger companies, are often used to having clear directions and even if they don’t tell you, many will appreciate it.
6) Don’t delegate product.
7) Have big goals, but you don’t tie your happiness to achieving those goals. When we tie our happiness solely to the achievement of our goals, we create a constant cycle of chasing the next milestone, always believing that happiness lies just beyond our current reach. Instead, I learned to appreciate the entrepreneurial journey itself, finding fulfillment and joy in the progress, the challenges, the people I worked with and the personal growth that came along the way. By embracing the process and also by finding happiness outside of Blinkist, I cultivated a healthier and more sustainable mindset.
8) Asking the right questions is more important than knowing the right answer.
9) Build a board of challengers, not cheerleaders. When you build a company, it’s easy to get lost in the details of the day to day. That’s why you need a board or advisors that take you out of the details and help you to take a bird's-eye view of the business. They challenge your ideas, they help you to uncover white spots, and also tell you when things are off track and what they expect from you.
10) The right behaviors are more important than the right structure. It’s easy to change the structure of a company, but what really matters is to show up every day with focus and show the right behaviors. In that regard, successful companies are a lot like a sports team: they may have the goal of winning the championship, but what matters is to be focused on the next practice and the next game.
11) If you think you have a people problem, you have a people problem.
12) Put yourself first. Like many startup founders, I also prioritized Blinkist over my needs and felt responsible for every problem. I’d adapt my way of working to fit the company or expectations of my teams. I felt this deep responsibility to do that and put my interests and needs after the interests of the company. This led to a situation where I was not just stressed but also less effective. Today I know that this is fundamentally wrong. It’s important to build a company that allows you to be authentic and create an operating system that plays to your strengths and interests.
13) Get a coach.
14) Functional founding teams create performing teams. Dysfunctional founding teams create chaos. Therefore, work on the relationship and communication with your cofounders.
15) Don’t be afraid to ask for help. For many years, I believed as a founder I had to be good at all things. For example, team building is not my natural skill. I love collaborating with people, but I’m not always on top of providing feedback, and I’m often too focused on the tasks and not enough on the person. I fully appreciate the importance of building strong teams, but for many years my teams often had a lower sense of belonging or performance. At the same time, I was surrounded by great team builders, but I didn’t ask for help. I thought I had to figure this out myself because that’s what great leaders do, right? Obviously, now I know that’s wrong. The better way is to be self-aware and ask for help or find people that complement you. When I’m building teams today, I’m very open with team members about what they can expect and what not, and I seek people on the team who can help me with creating structures and hold me accountable to deliver feedback.
16) Your team is your company. The team you build, especially in the early years, will not only shape your culture, but also determine your success. With the right people, you can solve any problem. Don't compromise on talent density in the early stages and only work with the best.
17) What brought you here typically won't get you there. When you build a fast-growing startup, your company basically changes every 12 months. But the speed of change also means that basically every year the needs of your company to reach the next-level changes. Great leaders constantly upgrade the team and make sure you have the right people in the right seats. I learned that as your startups grows, you can attract more high-caliber people and people that were out of reach two years ago are suddenly willing to work for you.
18) If you want your team to make good decisions, give them access to all the information. Be transparent with your financials and data, the challenges you see (even the really hard ones) and what you discuss with the board. At Blinkist, employees had access to our monthly P&L, all dashboards, and we reviewed the board deck and decisions with the whole team.
19) A manager is not a coach. Managers may use coaching techniques, but their main job is to produce business outcomes.
20) Write a “How To Work With Me” User Manual and have everyone on your team do the same.
21) Take breaks, even if it’s just for a few days. You’ll come back recharged and full of new ideas. I was always surprised by my creativity when I disconnected from the business.
22) Always be grateful for your "invisible" supporters such as your partner, your family & friends, mentors and early believers. Founders and investors typically get most of the credit when things go well, but without your supporters you likely wouldn't be here.
23) It doesn't get easier, it just gets different.