Blinkist Founding Story: How Two College Friends Built a Book Summary Company That Got Acquired By Go1 At A Combined $2B Valuation

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Blinkist is a book summary service that provides key insights from top nonfiction books in condensed, easy-to-digest descriptive and audio formats, in English, Spanish, and German. With over 23 million downloads and 6500 titles, it offers a subscription-based service, allowing users to enjoy unlimited access to a curated library of book summaries for a monthly fee.

Valued at around $100M and raising a total of $34.3M, Blinkist is one of the most successful content startups. However, this Berlin-based company has had a decade-long of hustle behind it that backs its success. 

Blinkist: The Story Behind The Idea 

Picture this: a couple of university buddies, Holger Seim and Niklas Jansen, sharing the dream of creating something impactful. The duo, both studying at The Phillip University of Marburg, a German University, had enthusiasm but lacked a solid idea.

The pivotal moment came when they identified a problem that many could relate to – the overwhelming volume of books and the scarcity of time to read them.

Throughout their time in academia, they identified note-taking as a tool to retain the knowledge from the books they delved into. Recognizing the immense value this practice brought to their own learning journey, they conceptualized an app that would grant them instant access to these insightful notes whenever needed.

The year was 2012, and a digital transformation was sweeping through various industries. Mobile phones were becoming the preferred medium for reading, and Seim and Jansen seized this opportunity. 

They envisioned a solution that would distill the key insights from non-fiction books, making knowledge accessible to those with time constraints.

Starting Up

Niklas Jansen, in an interview, acknowledges that the initial excitement and vision were tempered by the practical challenges of execution. The team found themselves in a co-working space in Berlin, working relentlessly to bring Blinkist to life. 

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Jansen took on the responsibility of conceptualizing the app, envisioning how it would deliver the distilled wisdom of books in a mobile-friendly format. The commitment was evident as Jansen recounts quitting his job and relocating to Berlin to dedicate himself entirely to Blinkist.

Embarking on entrepreneurial ventures usually feels like a solo gig, but Blinkist took shape as a group effort. With a business background, Jansen found his perfect match in the tech-savvy Seim. 

It blended skills and shared passion, proving that teamwork makes the dream work.  This dynamic duo joined forces with their friends Tobias Balling and Sebastian Klein, forming a spirited quartet ready to tackle the hurdles ahead.

Launching Blinkist

Fast forward to 2013, and Blinkist officially hit the digital shelves, offering a solution to the time-starved individuals yearning for knowledge. The concept was simple – to distill the essence of non-fiction books into bite-sized "Blinks" that could be consumed in just 15 minutes.

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Facing Challenges

The reception of Blinkist was encouraging, and it quickly gained traction. However, they realized that they were too product-focused and needed to shift their mindset towards solving the problem efficiently. 

Then, this journey brought an aha moment for the founders – obsess about the problem, not the product. Human needs stay constant, but solutions evolve. 

The founders confessed to falling into the "fancy app" trap initially. They learned the hard way that staying connected to the core problem is crucial. Solutions may change, but the essence of problem-solving remains.

In hindsight, they acknowledged that a more effective MVP (Minimum Viable Product) for Blinkist might have been a simple email delivering book summaries, allowing them to learn about user preferences and needs more rapidly. However, their MVP was the app. 

Next, often overlooked pricing emerged as a strategic weapon for Blinkist. Constantly tweaking and testing pricing structures became their secret sauce. Why? Because pricing decisions directly influence customer acquisition, customer value, and renewal rates. 

It wasn't about finding the perfect pricing but creating a system that could adapt to the ever-changing market dynamics.

Blinkist: The Investment Angle 

Raising Money

Pretty early on, Seim acknowledged in an interview, the co-founders recognized that their team of four founders alone wouldn't suffice for the meaningful development of their app.

Realizing the need for an app developer, content advisory support, and eventually marketing expertise, Blinklist understood that the learning platform they envisioned was beyond the scope of just the four of them and started looking for investment in order to afford all human resources. 

Holger Seim - CEO of Blinkist - Source

Convincing someone to hand over a six-digit amount – enough to fill a house – based on a PowerPoint presentation and a prototype was a tough sell. At the onset, the idea of securing a six-digit investment, a substantial amount for their project, seemed implausible to Niklas as he always doubted why someone would hand these boys that kind of money.

But hey, that's the venture capital world for you – they love finding eager young minds and betting on them because even if just a couple succeed out of ten, it's a win.

Blinkist’s Pitch

Blinkist's pitch wasn't just about an app; it was about revolutionizing reading habits in the digital age. The founders highlighted how Blinkist wasn't merely a tool but a gateway to a world where learning seamlessly integrated into busy lifestyles.

The Gradual Upward Curve

Blinkist’s first funding round brought €150k in 2012 and €1.8M in 2013 as seed investment into the company to scale operations, enhance the app's features, and reach a broader audience.

The company also bought its first office in 2013, in Berlin, and had a total of eight employees. By the close of 2014, the application had amassed a user base of 1,000 customers and simultaneously unveiled its audio functionality.

In 2016, Blinkist raised their Series-A round of €4M investment, boasted a library with 1,500 titles, and successfully garnered a user base of 1 million individuals. The app achieved notable recognition during the same year by clinching the prestigious World Summit Awards in the Education & Learning category, an accolade bestowed by the United Nations.

That also led to their next round of investments of $9.0M in 2017 and a huge leap in raising $18.8M in 2018. 

In that particular year, Blinkist experienced a surge in its user base, reaching an impressive milestone of 6 million users. Simultaneously, the app's library expanded, offering a diverse selection of 2,500 titles to cater to the growing and diverse audience.

The Aftermath: Blinkist's Growth Trajectory

Success is not a point that you arrive at. It’s the whole journey! Blinkist’s story proves exactly that. 10 years after its launch, in 2023, Blinkist has garnered 26 million downloads for its app and boasts a library featuring 6,500 titles.

Getting acquired by Go1

After securing $100 million at a valuation surpassing $2B, Australian ed-tech startup Go1 had set plans for expansion. An announcement in May 2023 revealed that Go1 had successfully acquired Blinkist.

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While Go1 specializes in B2B corporate online learning, Blinkist focuses on engaging content discovery. Go1 aims to leverage Blinkist's high user engagement to enhance its app.

Blinkist, with 25 million downloads and nearly 1 million paying users, will benefit from Go1's B2B expertise. 

During this process, Go1's significant investor, Insight Partners, secured $30 million in equity. Other than that, the exact financial details of the acquisition haven’t been revealed publicly, but the combined valuation of the companies is about $2B. 

Blikist Today

Blinkist has established partnerships with over 45 non-fiction publishers globally, actively collaborating with more than 50 authors and thought leaders to curate content for its application.

Blinkist is managed by Blinks Labs GmbH, situated in Berlin, Germany. The company's headquarters are situated in the Neukölln neighborhood of Berlin. Employing approximately 160 full-time staff and freelancers, Blinkist continues to thrive.

Niklas Jansen is now an investor and on the board of startups like Vision AI. Holger Seim, on the other hand, is working at Go1 as a Chief Product Officer. 

Blinkist: The Marketing Angle

In the initial stages, the co-founders’ focus was on effective PR strategies and creating a compelling narrative to capture journalists' interest. They leveraged their connections with journalists from our alma maters to build a base of early adopters, fostering organic growth.

A significant shift occurred when they fine-tuned their marketing approach, mastering user attribution and engagement tracking.

Building A Community

One of the key lessons emphasized by Jansen in an interview was the importance of focusing on members rather than subscribers. This shift in mindset from a financial concept (subscription) to a relational concept (membership) aimed to create a sense of belonging.

Creating a community of members instead of mere subscribers became a cornerstone of Blinkist's strategy. The emphasis on purpose, brand experience, and customer support played a crucial role in fostering loyalty and engagement. 

The founders recognized that customers who felt a sense of belonging were more loyal and became passionate advocates for the Blinkist brand. 

Blinkist is also great with content as they have a very active magazine called Blinkist Magazine, which is well-optimized and features some solid articles.

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Adapting To The Market and Leveraging Digital Channels 

As Blinkist expanded, its marketing channels diversified, encompassing Facebook, Instagram, paid content, content marketing, and AdWords. 

Paid acquisition has been a key growth channel for Blinkist, structuring the marketing team for channel diversity and finding effective marketing investments are part of their strategies for fast-paced growth.

Word of mouth emerged as a powerful ally, with users naturally sharing valuable insights they gained from the platform.

The importance of creative and targeted advertising became evident, with the right mix of images, videos, and messages crucial for campaign success. Utilizing platforms like Facebook allowed the company to precisely reach our target audience based on demographics and interests.

However, Holger Seim has acknowledged the dynamic nature of marketing – what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. To combat user boredom, Blinkist’s team always stayed on their toes. It's all about constantly testing by monitoring the book market, reviewing wishlists, analyzing release notes, tweaking, testing, and adapting to keep their users excited and engaged.

Blinkist’s marketing is nothing short of genius, though. With so many reviews, recommendations, and ads on YouTube, Blinkist has been everywhere. 

Conclusion

Biggest Mistakes Blinkist Made

Blinkist, like any trailblazer, had its fair share of lessons along the way. One of their mistakes was diving into the startup scene with a complex product, quickly realizing that simplicity is the key. 

They also owned up to spending nine months in beta when they could've been gathering more feedback. Next, picking the right language and market strategy from the get-go turned out to be another hurdle. 

What Worked For Blinkist?

Blinkist's got the winning formula, and here's why it clicked for them! First off, everyone knows the struggle with information overload, right? Blinkist stepped in with bite-sized mobile insights that people happily pay for. So they definitely had the first movers’ advantage. 

Plus, they rode the wave of informal mobile learning getting more popular – just what Blinkist serves up! With people tuning in more to audio, especially podcasts on the move, Blinkist tapped into that trend perfectly. 

Moreover, Blinkist features some great content. It posts interesting styles and formats of content, like the one mentioned in the tweet below.

They curate books based on user data with a big pool of freelance talent in different categories, like coaches, consultants, PhDs, etc., and ensure quality management from its end to produce solid content. 

Also, it’s not just good with content on its app but also on its social media platforms. Further, the company's commitment to maintaining constant awareness of core metrics and a targeted approach to crucial elements like user acquisition has been pivotal in sustaining its growth. 

Overall, Blinkist has had a pretty solid marketing and PR game. Finally, Blinkist showed pure perseverance, patience, consistency, and humility in their journey. They made mistakes, learned from them, developed the same product day in and day out for more than a decade, and simply never gave up.

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