We are seeing a proliferation of media startups trying to innovate the news industry. But becoming the head honcho of these enterprises is sometimes a cryptic endeavour. Journalists who take to these roles will find it requires new and old skills. In this series, we talk to the CEOs of media startups of all sizes to demystify their job description and understand what they have learned in the role.
Curio is a company that has entered the fray with a different take. Launched in beta in 2017, it handpicks content from leading publications and turns it into narrated audio for audiences to tune into, like e-books for journalism. It currently works with more than 50 publications, including the likes of The Financial Times, The Economist, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Vox, Wired and MIT Technology Review.
Curio has users across more than 150 countries and a portfolio with more than 8,000 stories. It has raised $11m to date from investors and now makes revenue via user subscriptions.
The CEO and co-founder Govind Balakrishnan sets the vision for the company. He also makes sure the company is hiring the right people, co-ordinates fundraising and instils a culture where people feel empowered to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
Before that, he was a strategist for BBC News. This was a leadership role, but he says nothing prepares you for building a business from scratch and running it. He speaks to Journalism.co.uk about the skills he has acquired from leading Curio.
How did you come up with the idea for your startup and find the courage to run with that vision?
The concept for Curio was born while I was working at the BBC, leading strategy for its news department. I learnt so much whilst I was there but also noticed how easily great reporting and insight can go to waste. Take conflict reporting for example – correspondents were sent to the front-line in Afghanistan at considerable expense, only for the story to get less than a few minutes of airtime.
It was not solely a broadcast issue either. I was regularly seeing exceptionally written pieces getting lost in endless feeds of unorganised content. The problem was not that the world was lacking compelling stories or insights, it just needed a more straightforward and engaging way for people to discover them. So, in 2016, my close friend Srikant Chakravarti and myself founded Curio to turn great journalism into opportunities for knowledge, open-mindedness, and inspiration that fits into your daily routine.
In terms of where we found the courage to "take the plunge", it was primarily in the knowledge that intelligent content was out there, the world just needed a platform that curated it in one place. It was that belief in the concept and of course a bit of blind faith that enabled us to run with the vision.
What sort of important decisions do you need to make regularly? And what is your decision-making process?
My role is to see that the overall culture fits together. We are simultaneously building a product and an organisation at Curio, both of which are equally important. I make a lot of day-to-day decisions about how to create an organisation that stimulates growth and therefore builds a better product for our audience. Without product vision, our employees are rudderless. But with a product vision and a dysfunctional set-up, they are equally rudderless. So giving that direction to our employees is my focus.
I also dedicate a huge amount of time to hiring decisions. We want to hire exceptional people who complement the culture that we are trying to build, and we must also implement ways of working that ensure these people are able to perform at their highest level. As CEO, you are building the future of the company, so you cannot always be slaved to process. The process adds rigidity and can take away from creativity. I try to create an organisation that is malleable but also has structure.
What are the key challenges with running a media startup and your specific business? What is your problem-solving process?
The key challenges we face at Curio are building the right business model, fundraising and distinctiveness.
If you are not able to figure out a successful business model at scale, then you are going to struggle and this we find is the main challenge. With Google and Facebook taking all the oxygen out of advertising, it is incumbent on media companies to figure out business models that go beyond traditional revenue-making streams. You need to be creative about how you make money via subscriptions, micropayments etc.
Nailing the business model is also fundamental from a fundraising perspective because there are not many big exits in media, so investors are sceptical of funding them. Therefore, you need to be really clear with investors about how you are operating.
With regard to distinctiveness, we know that the market is competitive and one of our challenges is communicating what Curio is - we are actually a whole new format, we are defining a new type of content format which is really exciting as a business. We turn the best articles from top publications and thinkers into high-quality audio for our customers to listen to on the go and practise curiosity.
Finally, you need to be clear on who you are serving with a media startup. A lot of media companies serve the 'masters' - end consumers and advertisers - which can create certain incentives.
The main challenge with running Curio specifically is striking the right balance between scaling and revenues. If we overly prioritise our business model, we might not achieve scale. If we only achieve scale and do not think of revenues, that is also a problem. We need to grow fast but in a way in which we can scale responsibly.
What are the key skills needed to do your job? How do you work on them?
The first skill needed to do my job is listening to the people around me. To make decisions, I think you need to listen to others’ opinions and surround yourself with people that are smarter and/or more experienced than you. This does not mean that every decision should be a 'decision by committee' but there are times when you need to build consensus and times when you need to lead. It is very important to know the difference.
The second is reframing problems in the right way. Alan Kay (American computer scientist) said "a change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points" - this is as important as trying to solve them.
Finally, I really believe you need humility - realising that my decisions have much more leverage within the organisation - it is not just me. So I try to be really thoughtful but also decisive.
What is one skill people might not expect you to need when becoming CEO?
You need to pay the same amount of attention to the organisation and culture as you pay to the product. They are both equally valuable in different contexts, so the skill of judgment is key.
Some people in business and some books on the topic will tell you that you need process, while others will tell you that you do not need a process so you need to find the unique approach that works for you.
I also find it extremely helpful to have a co-founder who thinks differently from me. Srikant gives me a different perspective and this negates confirmation bias. I surround myself with people who have divergent viewpoints and are not afraid to challenge me.
What advice would you give media professionals who aspire to become CEOs of startups?
Media professionals, whether producers, journalists, directors or actors, sometimes overvalue the skills they have. Building a startup and being a journalist requires very different skills. Therefore I believe they must break down their mindsets before building them back up again.
I would also tell them to stay humble. This whole journey has been a lesson in humility. I thought I could do it all but I was very wrong. If I operate from a place of humility, I am listening and learning all the time. I have adopted a beginner's mindset.
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