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Inside The Multi-Million Dollar Startup That Nobody Believed In

Take a look inside Blinkist, one of Europe's most exciting startups that almost never existed.
by Tom Farrar | Jan 7 2022

Seven years ago, a student had an idea about how to read more books but in less time. He discovered that by sharing his notes of popular nonfiction books, he helped his friends stay on top of their reading list. What if he could do this for a larger group of people? Excited and full of ambition, the idea was turned into an app called Blinkist. The app has titles from all kinds of nonfiction categories, and just like the student’s notes, it allowed people to get the gist of each title, in merely 15 minutes.

Today, the Blinkist app is used by over 20 million people, and has raised over $35 million in VC funding. But it wasn’t all plain sailing — there were times when Blinkist, an underdog startup from Berlin, came dangerously close to collapse.

“Blinkist encourages you to read more nonfiction books. The app contains cleverly written digests—called Blinks—where books are broken down into their main arguments.”
The New York Times

The Blinkist Founders; Holger Seim, Niklas Jansen and Tobi Balling. Not Pictured: Sebastian Klein
Blinkist founders: Holger Seim, Niklas Jansen, and Tobi Balling. Sebastian Klein not pictured.

Since launch, the app has won awards from Google, been repeatedly featured by Apple, made countless headlines in the likes of The New York Times, The Guardian, and TechCrunch, and Apple CEO Tim Cook recently stopped by the office to meet the team.

“The biggest thing we’ve learned building a company from the ground up is keeping the employees and the users at the heart of what we do. That way, we all build something great together.”
–Tobi Balling, Blinkist co-founder

Facing Failure

At the start, Blinkist stirred up little investor interest. The app was repeatedly refused funding, nobody believed in the idea, and back in 2012, apps weren’t as popular as they are today.

Although they had little money, the small team of four quit their full-time jobs and worked tirelessly on their app. After months and months of burning the midnight oil, the app was launched, and the future looked bright for Blinkist. But an overnight success? No, far from it.

It took 3 months to get to 100 downloads and weeks to put new content into the app. They were small steps, but Blinkist was on the verge of starting a movement in micro-learning. By combining bite-sized learning, with an app and a subscription service to reach millions, it quickly became clear Blinkist was something special.

$35 Million Later

American VC firm Insight Partners, an early investor in Twitter and Tumblr, took notice of Blinkist, and although the app was still in the early stages, they saw the global potential.

“We only want to work with the brightest and most ambitious teams, and we know that Blinkist and its founders share our vision for making a positive, global impact.”
–Nicolas Wittenborn, Vice President of Insight Partners, Blinkist investors

As soon as money was in the bank, Blinkist skyrocketed. The founders were able to build a tech team, employing people from SoundCloud, Twitter, and even Google to take Blinkist to the next level. A sharp team of writers and knowledgeable experts were also hired to help read the books and create the thousands of snappy, memorable and easy-to-understand explainers.

“The mission at Blinkist has always been the same–we want to make it possible for people to read more nonfiction books. I’m proud that we’re able to expose great writers to people who care about reading, and now –– that’s 20 million people who are finding amazing books by amazing authors every day.”
–Holger Seim, Blinkist co-founder

How Millions Now Read More

How the Blinkist app looks

With Blinkist, each 15-minute explainer can be listened to or read, so even the busiest people can still fit reading and learning into their lives. Designed for lifelong learners, there are thousands of titles in the app, with the latest top sellers and must-reads added every week.

“If you’re a full-time parent, or an entrepreneur trying to launch a new company it shouldn’t mean you have no time to read. Just because you’re busy, doesn’t mean you’re not curious.”
–Holger Seim, Blinkist co-founder

Blinkist is particularly proud to help busy people squeeze reading and learning into their lives. Because the app is solving a problem we all share –– too little time –– there’s no single type of Blinkist customer.

“I use Blinkist when I’m in between meetings and can’t get a giant task done, but at least I can be productive.”
–Sarah Schupp, Professor & Founder of UniversityParent.com

The app is popular among ambitious entrepreneurs, busy parents, university professors and everyone in between. It’s the audio feature which is the saving grace –– with it, learning can happen through listening while commuting, cooking dinner, or even working out.

Startup founder, Kristo Ovaska, uses Blinkist to read the key ideas from 2 books a day; that’s 10 titles a week and over 500 a year!

“With Blinkist, I can listen to 2 books every morning when cycling to work. This means I can read ten books a week — something I’ve never been able to do before. This helps a lot to help maximize my learning.”
–Kristo Ovaska, CEO and Co-founder of Smartly.io

Award-Winning Design Makes Learning Easy

Blinkist’s unique design makes learning, but more importantly remembering what you’ve learned, easy. Its clean, sharp and distinctive design caught the attention of Google when the app was awarded a Material Design Award.

“The engaging presentation throughout Blinkist is further enhanced by clear, simple text. The end result is a reading experience which is distinct and engaging.”
–Google Material Design Awards, 2017

Since the design award, the multi-million dollar startup has catapulted from strength to strength, earning praise from the United Nations.

“With Blinkist you can boost your knowledge and gain new perspectives so that you can be a better professional, a better partner, or a better you.”
–The United Nations

And even got a mention from Apple CEO Tim Cook, who dropped by the Blinkist office in 2019 to meet the team and see how the app is built. He later commented on the visit that he was, “impressed with the growing and talented team at Blinkist. Helping everyone understand and experience some of the best non-fiction books is a great example of how a single idea from college can evolve into a solution for a problem we all share — too little time!”

Quite a journey for the four founders who launched the app initially as a way to read and learn more, and now it’s being used by the head of the biggest technology company in the world.

The secret behind Blinkist is that the founders always stuck to their purpose — to help more people read and learn from more books. They knew they wanted to be the destination for lifelong learners, and are well en route to making that happen. If you’re curious and want to keep learning everyday –– download the app now and surprise yourself with how much you can learn in just a few minutes.

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