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How to come back from ‘no’

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How to come back from ‘no’

Govind Balakrisnan

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Govind Balakrishnan says the key to starting a business is to find someone as crazy and as stupid as yourself to embark on the journey.

After leaving his job at the BBC, he had a spreadsheet filled to the brim with rejection, but he never saw this as a reason to give up on his idea of an audio journalism app.

Despite these setbacks, he eventually landed a $1.6m investment and now runs Curio, while empowering employees and encouraging power naps.

Dive into the episode below to learn his top tips on how to learn from your failures and push past rejection:

Curio: Finding the subscription model sweet spot

How working at the BBC led to creativity and Curio

Creating a business idea from an interaction problem

Partner with someone as crazy as you to start your business

Using low-cost software to launch your initial business idea

Funding a tech startup and pushing past rejection

The first piece of content on Curio

Find an organic growth hack for your business

Journalism helps us to understand the world we live in, so we can make effective change

As a founder it can be easy to overrule people when not needed—be mindful of this

Personality and cultural fit are just as important as skills when hiring

The greatest learning is humility—build an empowered organisation

Transferrable qualities from past career dreams

Fail big to learn big

Focus on your vision and create a space for creation

Don’t underestimate the power of a power nap

Curio: Finding the subscription model sweet spot

Bex Burn-Callander:

Hi Govind. So lovely to see you. How are you doing today?

Govind Balakrishnan:

I’m very well, thanks. Thank you so much for having me. I am very well. I’ve just recovered from a weekend with an eight-month-old, and we’ve had two new joiners at Curio today. So all very exciting.

Bex Burn-Callander:

It’s all the new starters, the new starter in the family and the new starters in the business.

Govind Balakrishnan:

Exactly right.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Can you tell me a bit about Curio? Tell me the basic concept.

Govind Balakrishnan:

At its most basic, Curio is an audio journalism app. We partner with big and small publishers, so everyone from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the FT, to more specialist publications like Wired or Scientific American.

What we really focus on is news you can learn from.

So we pick some of the standard pieces of journalism from all of these publications and get them professionally narrated into really great audio, and we offer it as a subscription package, so you can listen to all the publications on one app.

That’s what Curio is in a nutshell.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s interesting about the subscription package because I’m fascinated to know, when you were putting together this business, how many different kinds of revenue stream did you consider, and how did you end up working out the right model with the balance between the consumer paying but also brands contributing?

Tell me about that debate in your mind.

Govind Balakrishnan:

Actually, I think when we started Curio, and we launched our first product in late 2017, early 2018, and it was actually quite an exciting time because a lot of business models were being tried.

The usual of subscription and advertising is known, but there were a bunch of people trying micropayments as another model. But what we found was that subscription struck a really sweet spot, in the sense that, A, it kept us honest, that we were only serving one person and that was the end consumer.

So we didn’t have tangled incentives of advertising and the consumer, but also, we didn’t go down the micropayment route because a model that reduces cognitive load for consumers is what we need.

I think we were entering a phase when a lot of subscription models had really started taking off and people were tired of ads and wanted a product that delivered value without any of the faff and respected their time and that’s really why we went down subscriptions.

How working at the BBC led to creativity and Curio

Bex Burn-Callander:

And you were not a tech entrepreneur before you launched Curio, you were working for the BBC.

Tell me how you made that leap from secure, paid employment and then into the crazy world of the tech startup.

Govind Balakrishnan:

Well, there was an interim step. I’ll give you a bit of background. I joined the strategy team at the BBC around 2009 and initially a lot of work I did was, how can the BBC make money outside the UK?

At that time, when I came about, the iPlayer was consuming about 20% of the UK’s internet and that was slightly before Netflix had launched in a big way.

I thought it’s the perfect product that should be a subscription product internationally. So I spent a year of my life trying to make that happen, and I was unsuccessful in that.

Then I went on lead strategy for BBC News. What I saw there was that we would send correspondents to faraway places like Afghanistan, people would go to forward operating bases, risk their lives, and bring back an amazing story, which would get five minutes of engagement— which was pointless because we were spending all this money, people were risking their lives.

So I had an existential crisis, saying, “Two projects that I’m working on at the BBC seem to be going nowhere.”

So I thought, “You know what? The future of media, I need to learn how to build products.”

So I actually left the BBC and that’s when I left paid employment, and I went to the Royal College of Art and Imperial. There was a programme on innovation, design and engineering. So I left on a Friday. On Monday morning I was in a studio with woodworking workshops and metal workshops, knowing nothing about any of that.

I spent two years there and people would tell you, “Why?” Every week you’d build products and people would tell you why it’s rubbish. So you learned a lot and that was a transformation that I actually needed, and then I came about and started Curio after that.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Wait, so you did this art course with woodworking and metalworking. How did that feed into your startup or is that just about thinking creatively and solving problems?

Govind Balakrishnan:

Yeah, it was two years out of regular employment and my wife was very patient. But I think I had quickly understood that there is a big difference between appreciating a product and knowing how to build it.

I think there’s a philosophy which is, products say a lot about the values of the people who build them. So if there is carelessness in the output, you can see it, and it reflects on the values of people and so does thoughtfulness.

So I had to effectively unlearn everything I’d learned till that point to be able to take the next leap forward.

And that is what going to the RCA and Imperial helped me to do.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I like that idea of unlearning.

Creating a business idea from an interaction problem

Bex Burn-Callander:

And how did you know that there would be a market for this kind of quality journalism?

Because you obviously saw these amazing reports being wasted, but then you look at the general public, and you look at the media that gets consumed and so-and-so’s stretch marks on the beach ends up with the most hits.

How did you know that there were enough listeners out there who agreed with you that wanted to see this in-depth quality reporting?

Govind Balakrishnan:

I think a couple of things, Bex.

It’s a good question and if I’m really honest, the answer wasn’t obvious when we started. We had many, many false starts.

So I think for us, one of the things was that I had seen the early days of video streaming and I saw a similar resonance in the audio space, that podcasts were big, but hang on a second, they were $200m, $300 million-dollar businesses, so not that big.

I couldn’t believe that audio was a subset of podcasting.

I thought, “You know what? Audio is so much bigger than just podcasting and podcasting is one of the elements of audio.”

But the other thing was that when my co-founder came along, Srikant, his whole view was that the visual internet has been gamed for low attention spans, groom scrolling, and it wasn’t really conducive for a phenomenal experience when it came to consuming and learning.

And the third bit was, I think people do society a disservice when we say that people only want low attention span, clickbait content. We all love that. Nobody’s saying don’t go there. But also the world is a complex place, we are all navigating it, we all have an opportunity to shape it, we all have agency to make a change.

But to do that, one needs to understand the world, understand what’s happening in the world, understand deeply why it’s happening, and all forms of education have broken down. No longer do people go to university and education ends there.

So if you want to learn about geopolitics, you need to understand what’s happening in Russia today. If you want to know about the next wave of government or next evolution of government, where are you going to learn all of this?

It’s journalism. That’s the real-world education that you can get.

So we always knew that there were enough aspirational people who didn’t have the time or didn’t have the right interface. And this was where I came at it from.

I came at it from an interaction design problem, rather than, “Do people want this or not?” I said, “How can we make it so easy for people to consume really great content without making the time, without having to choose, but without being distracted?”

So instinctively, we knew that there was a space for this product, but convincing investors was a completely different ball game altogether.

Partner with someone as crazy as you to start your business

Bex Burn-Callander:

I want to hear all about that because I was going to ask, what steps did you take and in what order?

So you have the idea, you’ve done two years, where you’ve been playing with different creative ideas and really unlearning all the stuff from the corporate world before.

So then where do you start?

Do you start with a brand name? Do you start with trying to raise capital? Do you start with trying to build something yourself, writing lines of code?

What were the steps you took?

Govind Balakrishnan:

I often say, I don’t know if this other people’s experience of marriage, but I think really to go into something as big as marriage or startups, I think you need a little bit of stupidity in you. You need to be a bit dumb to think that you can do it because the information you have at that point, pales in comparison to what you’re going to gain along the journey.

If you date someone for a couple of years, but if you’re going to spend decades together, the information asymmetry is great.

So it’s similar with startups in the sense that there’s nothing at the beginning that’s going tell you that this is going to be a good idea, you’re going to succeed, none of it.

But I think I’m a big believer in the idea that you need to walk the path to be able to learn, and the path will reveal itself.

And that’s the only teacher if that makes sense.

I’m sure if you speak to entrepreneurs, every journey is unique. I started off with trying to find a co-founder and there was this brilliant friend of mine who would’ve been perfect as a co-founder. Really, really smart, very articulate.

But the problem was he was very smart. So he killed this idea immediately. And he was right.

There were enough reasons not to do this, but then you partner with someone crazy, like I did with my co-founder Srikant. And that was the beginning.

To be honest, we never started off as a narrated journalism app, if I’m really honest. Where it came about was that we were two guys with no money, and we were entering this audio space, and we wanted a subscription audio product.

And the first question you’d get asked is, “Hang on a second, there are all of these free podcasts out there, why should I pay for you guys?”

So we needed some distinctive content, which is very, very high quality. That’s when I reflected on my time at the BBC and said, “All the publications are sitting on the best journalism, not just breaking news.”

I think that was one of the problems, which is journalism is so linked to breaking news, and we wanted to break that link.

And then we started, we just went and spoke to publishers, they threw us out. When you get kicked out of the door, you come in through the window.

I remember for one of our publishers, I’d built a fake app, which I pretended it was a real app, and they were interested enough in it to give us a wedge in the door. And we just got started really. I remember, because I’m reasonably technical, but I’m not technically enough to build a proper full app.

So I’ll give you an example of this.

So we felt that we had to think out of the box. I would wander around Old Street and all over London saying, “Hey, is there anyone who can come on as a technical co-founder?” And nobody wanted it, because crazy to think that anyone’s going to download this app and let alone pay for it and listen.

Finally, we discovered that nobody wanted to join us, and we had to build this app. Then we found that there was a little service that would help coffee shops put together apps for themselves. So I just used that service.

Instead of making an app for a coffee shop, I made the first version of Curio, and we launched it on the App Store.

Honestly, there’s no better teacher than just starting it and keeping an open mind.

Bex Burn-Callander:

No, I totally see that. But I love that your first step was, find someone as crazy as you to come and launch the business.

I love that that’s the first piece of advice.

Using low-cost software to launch your initial business idea

Bex Burn-Callander:

But what is this bit of software that helps coffee shops launch apps? Can you remember what it was called?

Govind Balakrishnan:

It is called GoodBarber. I would recommend them because I remember in our early investor decks we would say, “Hey, our tech spend for the last six months is $30.”

Bex Burn-Callander:

Wow. That would be a very attractive slide for any VC [venture capitalist].

And did you know very early on that you needed to raise significant capital because you had to build this amazing product that people would be willing to buy subscription for? So did that mean you had to get ready to pitch to investors like boom, straight away?

Govind Balakrishnan:

We did. And one of the things, Bex, was when I was at the RCA, and if you ever go happen to one of these degree shows, the quality of ideas there is off the charts.

But I often discovered that that’s also the place where a lot of ideas go to die because people aren’t able to scale.

So one of the things that I was obsessed with was, “How do we scale this idea? How do we make it bigger?”

And obviously you need capital for that.

So in the early days I pitched to everyone, I pitched to the landlord of the flat below us in the corridor saying, “Hey, do you want to invest in us?”

I pitched to anybody who would listen, but I knew that we had to raise capital and if I’m really honest, there are easier ideas to have started, frankly B2B SaaS business, I have a lot of respect for people who do it, but that’s not for me.

But hang on a second.

Revolutionising audio was a very, very tall order and I pitched to basically, pretty much every VC, not just in the UK, in Europe, in the US, and it’s been a hard ride if I’m honest.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Did the landlord invest?

Govind Balakrishnan:

No he didn’t.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You had a hard sell, media companies, it’s a long, long way since the glory days when people were happy to throw money at media because there’ve been some spectacular implosions. So it is a hard sell.

Funding a tech startup and pushing past rejection

Bex Burn-Callander:

How did you get that first seed capital through the door? What was your winning argument?

Did you have to turn on the charm?

Govind Balakrishnan:

Sadly, I wish it was as easy as that be. Sadly I didn’t have enough charm to convert charm into money.

I suppose there were a couple of steps. One of the things we realised was that going to a good startup accelerator would help.

So we applied to Y Combinator, and we actually got an interview call. They flew us out to San Francisco. We went there, but one of the unfortunate things about that experience was that we had a third co-founder whom we had to part ways with for a multitude of reasons.

But what it meant was that when we applied, three of us applied and when we went to the interview, two of us turned up.

So the obvious question was even before you started, you’ve lost a third of the company, and they didn’t invest, which was very, very sad.

But from that experience, what I learned was that this is not a media company, we need to think of this as a tech company that’s in the content space.

So we applied to another startup accelerator called 500 Startups, again in San Francisco. And essentially in the interview every second word I used was AI [artificial intelligence] or machine learning. We actually use a lot of AI and machine learning now, but at that time we didn’t.

But they took a fancy to us and invested.

So we went out, and they gave us $100,000. But equally what had happened at that time, because the two questions that investors were asking was, A, “Would anyone pay for this?” and B, “Would anyone listen?” It was very fundamental questions.

So what we had done was, like I said, we had that free version of the app and a lot of people had downloaded the app, and we had a marketing hack for that, which I can talk about, if of interest.

But what effectively happened, was we wrote to all the people who had downloaded the free app and said, “Hey, we are going to go and in three months we’re going to launch this amazing new app, and it’s a subscription app. Will you give us your money?”

And about a thousand people gave us their money.

So it was bizarre that it didn’t get charged, but they gave us their money and it just so happened that when we were finishing up at this accelerator, it didn’t take us three months to build that app. It took us nine months to build that app. But a lot of the payments came through at that time and people started paying then.

So from zero, suddenly we had a revenue curve that was pretty much vertical and that was a really good data point to go out and try and raise money.

Now the problem was that we were trying to raise money in San Francisco, whereas we were not probably going to stay in San Francisco. And that was a big, big red flag for investors in the US. And Europe, I think investors have enough good stuff to invest here that they didn’t really want to invest in high risk, high reward companies.

So we did a hundred investor pitches, 123 to be precise, and we got three or four term sheets, and we finally went with a tremendous fund based in Berlin called Cherry Ventures who invested about $1.6m at that time.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Hundreds of pitches to get three term sheets back. That just boggles the mind.

How many hours is that and how many days of Excel spreadsheets is that?

Govind Balakrishnan:

I do have a spreadsheet which is painted red because every time someone rejected us, we colour them red. I think it is gruelling, there’s no disguising it, but what is interesting is, Bex, that I think you learn a lot through the process.

So we learned to run a proper fundraising process, which we didn’t know when we were in London because if an investor called us today, we would go and see them. If the investor called us in three weeks, we would go and see them.

But what we learned, at least the Silicon Valley way of running a fundraise process was to concentrate it in three, four weeks. Take five meetings a day so that by the end of it you don’t know who rejected you, who said what.

But it’s such a blur, but you’re going at a torrid pace.

Often, I’d be sitting at the reception of a fund waiting to speak to a partner, and I’d get four rejections in my phone, and then you’d have to just put your game face on and just go.

So it is a gruelling process.

But if I’m honest, this was our experience. Probably we were not that great at fundraising, but this was our experience. Others may have had it differently, but it’s a data point of one.

The first piece of content on Curio

Bex Burn-Callander:

And you said that you had this app that you hacked together initially, which had some content on it.

So I have to know, what was the first piece of content that you managed to get onto Curio? What was it that launched this app?

Govind Balakrishnan:

One of our first partners, and we still partner with them, is a publication called Aeon. And they’re tremendous because they partner with… I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but they’re like the New Yorker but more focused on psychology, philosophy, not just a literary magazine.

One of the things that the founder there, who’s phenomenal, Paul Hains, said was, “We want the audio back, so you can take the content, you can produce the audio, give them the audio back, and we would like to offer it to our audiences.”

And for me, and second, a fundamental theory was that if a publisher succeeds, we succeed. It wasn’t like a model where we wanted to grow at the expense of the publisher.

So we said, “Ok, no problem, take the audio back.”

And they gave us an attribution link and that is how we got our first marketing strategy going.

But the first piece of content was from them. It was a piece called Master of Many Trades, and it was about how in the world today, specialism is ruining creativity.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s interesting. And was that really popular? Did that get loads of listens?

Govind Balakrishnan:

It’s tremendously popular. Tremendously popular.

Find an organic growth hack for your business

Bex Burn-Callander:

And you said a moment ago, Govind, about this marketing hack that got loads of people to download the app in the first place.

My listeners will kill me if I don’t ask you immediately. What was that marketing hack?

Govind Balakrishnan:

Oh, the marketing hack was in giving the audio back to the publishers. And all we asked for them in return was a link through to say, “Hey this was produced in partnership with Curio.”

Bex Burn-Callander:

So they sent listeners to you basically?

Govind Balakrishnan:

Effectively, yes. We would give them the audio, so they would increase engagement on their side and if people wanted a Curio experience across publishers, they could come to us.

So we created a circular loop where people would come to us from publishers, and they would discover new publishers and if they wanted to find out more about the publishers, we would direct the traffic back to the publisher.

So for example, people would come to us from the Financial Times, and they would discover something tremendous in Scientific American, and they would go to Scientific American. So that was the loop.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s great advice because it can be very time-consuming to build your own community from scratch one by one. But if you can plug into these huge pre-existing communities then you know can grow at X pace.

Govind Balakrishnan:

Exactly. Because I think one of the pieces of advice I would give myself is to figure out an organic growth hack pretty early. Because there is one. There’s got to be one, but it’s a question of finding it.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How do you win new listeners now? Because presumably it’s got tougher as time has gone on.

Govind Balakrishnan:

No actually if anything, we’ve been growing at a torrid pace. Obviously, what worked with two people trying to hack together a product is not going to work now.

The product changes, how we grow changes, how we market changes. But I think the fundamental ethos of the product stays the same, but there’s actually been absolutely no slowing of subscriber acquisition.

And if all being well in the next 12 months, we should be hitting 100,000 paying subscribers. And also in terms of listening, people are listening for about 30 minutes a day to Curio. So it’s quite deep engagement.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s amazing. That’s like you are becoming part of the fabric of people’s everyday lives. If they’re tuning in every day, and it’s that many people, that’s massive.

Govind Balakrishnan:

It is massive. And I think for me, it’s very gratifying, because on average people spend probably a minute or two on the website of a newspaper or magazine.

Obviously, it’s a different proposition. But I’m absolutely delighted that all this journalism gets so much engagement on Curio.

Journalism helps us to understand the world we live in, so we can make effective change

Bex Burn-Callander:

When you started this story, you talked about war correspondents being sent to dangerous places, risking their lives, and bringing back this amazing journalism.

Did that end up being something that people wanted to hear or were you surprised by any of the audio trends that you saw coming through?

Govind Balakrishnan:

To be honest, it’s reaffirmed my faith in quality journalism, if I’m perfectly honest. Because there are three things people come to Curio for, Bex.

One, is people come to understand the world, not really know about what’s happening in the world, but understand deeply, what are the forces that are shaping our world? Why is inflation high? Why is the war in Ukraine affecting food prices?

The world is such a complex place that it’s very important to understand the interdependency of all of this.

So one reason why people come to us is to understand the world.

The second, is that people genuinely want our aspirational, both for themselves and society. So people want to learn about science, about history, about psychology, philosophy, all of this.

And one of our investors who’s actually the curator of TED, Chris Anderson, has this beautiful saying, which is, “In the future one needs to know a little bit about a lot of things if you want to effect change.”

So that’s been the second one, which is really about self-development, inspiration, wonder. Those are the aspects that people want to come for.

And the third is what we call smart escape.

People want to escape into a different world, but people don’t want heavy content. But equally people don’t want backwards content.

So a story or a piece of investigative journalism that’s really exciting and takes you into a different world, that works really well. So three things, understand the world, self-development and wonder and smart escape.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I’m sold, I want all of those things. I’m plugging in straight away after this call.

As a tech platform, presumably you have to be quite careful that you are apolitical, like you don’t seem to be supporting any particular agenda.

That must be really hard when you are publishing content all the time, which does have an opinion. How on earth do you find that balance and walk that line?

Govind Balakrishnan:

It’s something we take very seriously, and we’ve been talking about it a lot because you generally don’t want to create an echo chamber, you want to make space for a multiplicity of views.

Equally, you don’t want to patronise people or just give people better reasons to believe in what they already believe in. Or equally you don’t want to shy away from topics.

So the way we think of it, is that there are a lot of opinions on Curio, but as long as it’s a thoughtful argument, and it’s not a rant.

And often a lot of the feedback we get is, “Curio is news without anxiety.”

That’s not because it’s all good news, but it’s actually thoughtful. It tries and explains. You take specialist subjects to generalist audiences. So it’s something that we are very, very focused on.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Now that’s a really interesting response because I think a lot of content creators are wrestling with that right now, and we’re seeing a lot of conversations about people being, “No platforms,” so I was interested about your approach, but that seems very balanced and also the fact that you are relying on the prestige of your content creators.

So they are almost like the first guard against anything slipping through that you wouldn’t be proud to have on Curio.

Govind Balakrishnan:

Absolutely.

As a founder it can be easy to overrule people when not needed—be mindful of this

Bex Burn-Callander:

And I want to know about how the journey has been. Has it been slow, steady success and then building along the way?

Or have you made any dreadful mistakes that you can share with us or things that were hard to recover from?

Govind Balakrishnan:

I think every startup founder would have a cupboard full of mistakes. It’s definitely not been success, success, success, success. Far from it in fact. Every new step you take, you also open up new issues.

I think just to say, obviously if you take VC money then there are expectations that come from a VC which are legitimate. So you need to be very open to that.

Then a lot of it is about building the right product teams. So your early hires become very, very crucial. So how do you hire? Well I can’t say we’ve always done that, and we didn’t have a great product building culture.

We raised a bunch of money just before the pandemic, and then we went through the pandemic, and we just couldn’t scale the culture of the company, and it was very difficult, legitimately so, for people who felt the product should be X and some people felt the product should be Y, and there was nothing to harmonise across all of them.

So I mean honestly, there are so many mistakes, but I think I would like to think that we have an exceptional product building culture today.

So we did that because we did it wrong previously, even when I ran product it was horrendous because you need a certain sense of trust and openness when you build product, but as a founder suddenly you realise that you could overrule people just by whatever you say and that is not to the betterment of the product. You need to be very thoughtful about that.

Numerous issues like this come up with every stage and, in a way, I think I can now see the attraction of second time founders because at least you might short circuit some of this.

Personality and cultural fit are just as important as skills when hiring

Bex Burn-Callander:

I’m interested to hear more about how you learned to hire great tech people. Because I know that we’ve got a lot of listeners who are non-technical but might have a technical idea.

So you are trying to bring in the skills that you don’t have, but because you don’t have those skills, it’s quite hard sometimes to understand what you need.

So what would you say are some good questions or thoughts to have as a non-technical founder building a tech team?

What were the learnings from your journey?

Govind Balakrishnan:

While I can see the specific problem with hiring tech people, I think it goes across the board to hiring great people anywhere. I think everyone, including myself, has a limited time on planet earth, so you want to put your efforts towards something you believe in and that has high impact.

Perhaps, hopefully, when you’re 70 years old you look back and say, “Hey, that was something I was proud about. I did something phenomenal with a bunch of really, really smart people.”

So I think in a sea where there’s Facebook and Google who can pay multitudes. Really, it’s about what is the vision of your product.

In fact, the Bible says it as well, “Without vision, people perish.” So you really need that sense of vision, optimism, and somehow a product that people relate to, and eventually you’ll find them.

But the other thing is obviously, even a little bit of good spark can get you a long way because there are enough tools to get you started. You watch a course on software engineering from wherever, Coursera or Stanford.

You can do a lot by yourself, it’s not to be underestimated, but I think to hire exceptional people, particularly in the early days, it’s really, really important that you find alignment with products.

So just to give you an example on technology, our head of engineering, Abe, exceptional leader, he came for the interview, and we spent probably about 15 minutes in the interview talking about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and why it was amazing and why we liked it.

And really, you establish a great connection with someone, and you both believe in this vision and then people come along.

Bex Burn-Callander:

So it’s also, even in a tech hire, it’s about the personality and the cultural fit. You can get a gauge of someone just from whether or not they’ll fit with your team and the vision for your business.

Govind Balakrishnan:

Bex, in fact, it’s more important because if ultimately someone’s building your product, if they don’t have some empathy, and I think one of the things we talk a lot about is… In fact, if you think of our purpose, which you might say is a bit woo-hoo, but it’s, “Generate empathy through wonder,” and for us, it’s really about how are you building empathy with the consumer, empathy with your product.

Most people at Curio would listen to Curio regardless of whether they were employees here or not.

And it’s very, very important, particularly at an early stage. One or two people can destroy culture. Equally, one or two people can make culture.

So it’s very important to get people who believe in what you do.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s great advice. Everyone that works at the business should believe in the business and believe in the product and be a fan of what you are doing. Otherwise, why the hell are they there?

Govind Balakrishnan:

Exactly. You could go anywhere, you are so much in demand, and you could walk out of here and every time someone leaves us, I take it personally, but I hope that they go on to do better stuff than what we could offer them in that instance.

The greatest learning is humility—build an empowered organisation

Bex Burn-Callander:

Have you learned all these lessons about being an entrepreneur, being a leader, simply through building this business or are you a great fan of business books or leadership courses because you’ve got a very clear vision for how you want to lead, what kind of culture you want to have?

Is that something that’s just come about by accident or did you set about that journey?

Govind Balakrishnan:

You know what, I’ve never been a fan of business books if I’m really honest. I’ve always struggled with received wisdom because it’s like a form of nostalgia. Anyone who’s writing about giving advice is nostalgic about their past.

I think for us, we have made a lot of mistakes when it came to leadership, because I initially believed that one had to be micromanaged to a level, because otherwise how would you achieve perfection? And if there were people casualties along the way, so be it.

That’s what Steve Jobs did, presumably.

But you realise that all of that is nonsense, because really what you are building at one stage of the company, you have to be that dictatorial maniac because there’s nothing else going on.

But at some other stage you realise that you have reached the limits of your own knowledge and your own capabilities in that space, and it is actually much better to bring in exceptional people and empower them and take things away, make their life easy so that they can do their best job.

We are at that phase and that was a hard learned lesson.

I wish I could say that, “Yeah, I read some business book, and suddenly I realised that I needed to build an empowered organisation.” Sadly not.

People left. People were angry at the way we were running things, and we changed.

The only thing I perhaps learned is that I think you need to have a degree of self-awareness where you admit that you’re wrong, and you change how you do things.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I read an interview with you where you said the greatest learning was humility, that that was actually the guiding principle that made you a better leader to stop thinking that you know it all, or that you have all the answers, but to take the step back and be like, “Actually other people might be wiser than me.”

Govind Balakrishnan:

Yeah, honestly, it’s not that I’m some humble person who’s like, “No, everybody’s better.” No I’m not, far from it.

I could be so conceited that I would love to take all the credit, but the problem is that you realise… In fact my level of confidence in myself was perhaps much higher when I started than it is now.

But I have confidence in other areas.

Because I thought, “Hey, you know what, I did strategy consulting, I did a really great design course. People from that coast went on to raise an excess of $200m, so I’m part of this amazing club.”

But then over time you realise that isn’t working, you don’t know it all. And that’s been a very hard lesson to learn.

Transferrable qualities from past career dreams

Bex Burn-Callander:

And I’m interested as well in your background, because am I right that you studied to be a physicist?

That’s a complete far cry from what you’re doing now. So what went wrong, or what went right, that was no longer your path?

Govind Balakrishnan:

I did physics, I went to the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras in India, and I did physics and if I’m really honest, I did physics because I like the idea of being a physicist, like in Good Will Hunting [Editor’s note: Matt Damon’s character in the film was initially going to be a physics genius but the focus was changed to maths].

The one guy wanders around solving equations on the blackboard. I thought that’d be pretty cool.

But the sad reality is that it’s one of those fields, where if you’re not a genius, good enough isn’t getting you there. You have to be a genius to really effect change in that space and very quickly I realised that I wasn’t that person.

Because a scientific approach is fundamentally one of disproving theories, of being curious and those were transferable qualities I took away.

Ultimately, I wanted to have impact quickly and at scale, rather than as a physicist and frankly, now physics is not about a lone genius, it’s about large teams of people working on something.

And I didn’t want to be part of that, though I actually being part of that now.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You’ve learned to love being in the team, but now it’s too late. You’re doing something completely different.

Govind Balakrishnan:

Exactly.

Fail big to learn big

Bex Burn-Callander:

I liked that point about disproving theories.

Do you feel like that’s what you do at Curio where you might have an idea for something and then do you set about trying to disprove the hypothesis before you launch it?

Govind Balakrishnan:

We do a lot of it. And if you think of it right back, take Amazon or Google or Meta Facebook, we will never have the resources that they have or someday we might have it, but today we definitely don’t.

So we need to play it smart and the only way we can do it is being very, very smart about the hypothesis we do. In fact, the whole company is built on hypothesis. Everything is an experiment, and it’s ok to fail.

In fact, the encouragement is fail big, don’t fail small because by failing small, you’re going to learn small. So if you make a big mistake, that’s ok, we can recover from it.

But the big failure is not in trying and trying big.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You’ve got to give me an example of a big, failed experiment now. You can’t just tell me that as a theory. There’s got to be a concrete anecdote there.

Govind Balakrishnan:

I’ll give you something on the cultural front. We thought I could run product. How hard is it to run product? There are designers, there are engineers and there are things we need to try, and you stack rank them, prioritise them, and off you go.

So for probably about better half of six months, I led product, which actually meant that I would go to standups, I would go and prioritise, I would do requirements gathering, I would do the lot.

The consequence of that was, we lost two tremendous designers who left us. We lost two tremendous engineers who left us and everything, and we had made no progress.

Ok, you might say, “Ok, that sounds like a crazy experiment.”

But we lost time, and, in that lesson, I learned that actually having an appreciation for a product versus actually being a really great product leader are two very different things.

I aimed the latter, and it was a very, very expensive way of learning that I couldn’t run product.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That is a great example and I love that, you know can laugh now.

It must have been awful at the time, but you get some very, very insightful learnings about yourself and where your strengths lie within your own company that then will stand you in good stead for the rest of the lifespan of Curio.

Govind Balakrishnan:

100%. And it was not just that, Bex, because people would feel marginalised, people wouldn’t feel listened to.

So it was not just that the product team was frustrated, it was also that the rest of the company was frustrated because things that they wanted to get built couldn’t get built and as a result I would feel the pressure and I would snap at people. So it was awful, awful.

But that was an experiment in me running product.

Focus on your vision and create a space for creation

Bex Burn-Callander:

So what do you feel now is your absolute strength? What do you try and spend most of your time doing at Curio and how is that role evolving?

Govind Balakrishnan:

Obviously, the usual expectations of a founder are evangelising about the product, obviously fundraising. Those are the obvious ones, but I think a large part of my time is also spent in the vision and in there’s a quote which I love, which is by Alan Kay, who is a computer scientist.

He says, “A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points.”

I love that because in a way, as a founder, you’re trying to frame the future in the language of today, in a compelling way. And so much of your headspace goes into the vision and then a big part of my headspace is spent in empowering our leadership team and the wider team and really getting out of their way.

So being directive because without direction, everything’s lost, but not being prescriptive in everything and creating the space.

I think it sounds a bit woo-hoo when I say, “Oh we are creating space,” but it’s actually that.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How do you create space though? Is it just a case of someone says, “I want to try an idea,” and your automatic response needs to be, “Yeah, sure, go for it. What can I do to help?”

Or are there other actions that are involved when you are trying to encourage other people to fulfil their potential?

Govind Balakrishnan:

A lot of space creation goes into finding the right way of organising ourselves. The right model of organising people is crucial. Then getting in the right people is crucial and then creating the right incentives is crucial.

So that is how you create space.

Then figuring out what style of management works for certain individuals. Some people embrace the empowerment, and they do very well. Some people don’t want the empowerment.

They might want to be practitioners and be told what to do and that’s absolutely fine too. You need to be able to work with a multitude of personalities. So space creation is a complex art as I’ve realised.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s really interesting, and also it makes me feel really grateful that I am a company of one with one person to manage, which is myself because trying to change my style for 10, 20, 30 people, that sounds absolutely exhausting.

Govind Balakrishnan:

I hear you, Bex.

I feel the pain, but it’s also quite rewarding because when you finally stumble across, it’s like a puzzle, finally when you crack the puzzle, and you find an entity or a group of people, doing something that you would’ve never been able to do yourself and at a scale which you never thought was possible, at a quality and at a level of resolution, which just boggles the mind, then it feels very, very rewarding.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That does sound amazing.

Don’t underestimate the power of a power nap

Bex Burn-Callander:

Govind, I’ve got one more question for you, which was when I was doing some research on you and your tips for other startup founders, I found just a little sentence where you were like, “Don’t underestimate the power of a power nap,” which I thought was great.

So I want to know, what’s so fabulous about the power nap and are there any other things that you do that you think other startup founders should do too?

Govind Balakrishnan:

I think the power nap was picked up, for certain.

I think for me, I feel every job, even when I was with BBC, before that I was a strategy consultant, I would find some place to go and nap because I just needed a little bit of that break during the day.

I swore to myself that if ever I started a company, I would encourage people, if napping was what did it for them, let them nap.

But equally it can be applied to anything because if you wanted to take the afternoon off and go and take your kid to the park, or you wanted to go and cycle somewhere, do it.

It’s absolutely fine because I think we all need to respond to the natural cadence of our bodies. And there’s no point in shoehorning everyone from 9 to 5 and sit here and even if we’re falling asleep at your desk, you don’t want to be doing that.

So I think for me, if you extrapolate from the power nap it is, listen to yourself.

Everyone trusts you to do an amazing job. You don’t need to be policed. If a nap makes sense, nap. If you want to take the dog out for a walk, take the dog out for a walk. Do whatever makes sense to you.

I think there’s one thing I’ve also learned, Bex, is that I think too many people come to situations thinking it’s zero-sum. For you to win, someone else has to lose.

I’ve really resisted that because on this journey, people whom I can never repay have helped me in immeasurable ways.

And I genuinely believe when people ask me, “Oh, what about competition and everything?” And I say, “You know what? People are going to spend seven hours a day, not in front of screens, and it’s globally, and the opportunity is there for all of us.”

People optimise for the local maxima, you win the battle and lose the war, however you see it. And I think this idea of paying it forward, being quite generous, not because you are some sort of saintly character, but actually genuinely, you don’t believe in the zero-sum world.

At least I’ve found that to be quite healthy for myself.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And that’s a lovely piece of advice to finish on. Don’t get caught up in the zero-sum game. You can all be winners.

I love that, and I’ve loved talking to you. Thank you so much.

Govind Balakrishnan:

I really, really enjoyed this. So thank you so much for having me.

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You can also find Govind on Twitter.

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