Holger Seim, Blinkist CEO, on Building a Reading Habit by Seeking out Books That Pull You In
So many books, never enough time! Sounds familiar? With today’s digital noise and information overload, it became inevitable. Holger Seim is the CEO and co-founder of a company that’s solving that problem, by helping people get more reading done and never stop learning. I’m talking about Blinkist, one of Europe’s fastest growing startups, that grew into a powerful global brand. It’s now used by 10 million people who want to consume powerful, condensed knowledge.
Subscription-based app Blinkist provides book summaries and allows you to read or listen to key lessons from them in 15 minutes or less – these are called ‘blinks’. It’s not meant to replace long-form reading, it’s complementary: Blinkist can help people include learning nuggets in their daily routine, decide whether a book is right for their current needs, if it’s what they were looking for, and recall the most important ideas from those books they already read.
The Berlin-based company was founded in 2012, at the initiative of Holger together with three friends, as a way to solve their own problem. After graduating from university, they started a student consultancy together. They wanted to read more non-fiction and business books that would help them, but they were always short on time, and this is how the idea of their new project was born.
In our interview, Holger talks about his favorite books, including the ones that helped him become a better leader, help his team perform well and avoid becoming dysfunctional, the soft skills that will be key in the future, how his reading habits changed since he became a dad, why he deleted most social media apps, and more. Keep on reading!
What books had the biggest impact on you? Perhaps changed the way you see things or dramatically changed your career path (business and non-business, if possible).
- Non-business: Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. By learning the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset, I was able to reflect more consciously when I approached situations with a fixed mindset and change my perspective for both myself and others. I’m far away from approaching everything with a growth mindset, but the book made me much more aware and drove positive change.
- Business: Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage & The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: Lencioni’s books helped me to shift my focus from individual performance to team performance, and what it takes to make a team perform well. It helped me to realize and take seriously the fact that great team performance doesn’t happen magically but needs conscious effort.
- Beyond that, I’m a big fan of reading biographies and true adventure stories that inspire me by showing what people can achieve with following their passion and showing grit and persistence in good and bad times.
When it comes to biographies I particularly like Losing My Virginity (Branson) and Let My People Go Surfing (Chouinard).
When it comes to adventure stories, I love Into Thin Air and Into the Wild (both Krakauer).
Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell us about it?
Reading and re-reading Lencioni’s books had probably the most direct and specific impact. Over the past 7 years, there have been times where the dynamics in certain teams at Blinkist haven’t always been great and functional. I believe that’s completely normal, especially in fast-growing companies in which teams change all the time.
When I discovered The Five Dysfunctions of a Team for the first time, we had a dysfunctional team at Blinkist and the book opened my eyes to see the problem clearly and showed clear steps for how they should be tackled. Beforehand I was aware that we had a problem, but I couldn’t pinpoint it specifically and hence, couldn’t solve it easily. This book helped a lot.
We’re a high-growth company and, as our teams grow, the dynamics change. For example, we now have 5 team leads that lead the different areas of our marketing team. This caused friction and confusion regarding strategic priorities and also led to different teams competing for resources and feeling blocked. The last thing we want is blocked, confused team leads as then, nothing will move forward.
I reread Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team in preparation for an offsite that we organized to tackle these questions and found the idea of Team 1. This means basically that, if you ask leaders in a company this question: what is your top priority: the team that you’re a member of (i.e. a leadership team) or the team that you lead? A lot of people will say that their top priority is the team that they lead. This is natural as leaders want to represent and support their team but it’s actually quite dangerous for the company. It means that the core leadership team has been deprioritized and, in strategic discussions, the different leaders spend their time advocating and lobbying for the teams they lead instead of making the best decisions for the company. For us as a marketing team, we got together and agreed to prioritize the marketing leadership team as “Team 1”: this helped us to move closer together, stop competing, and start finding the right solutions and projects to help us to get where we want to be. It also transforms the dynamics from competitive to collaborative which has a transformative impact on the working culture and the work itself.
We’re interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How do you make time for reading? What format do you prefer?
I’m more of a reader than a listener because if I read, I retain information better and stay focused, while I find it hard to stay focused when listening to a book.
I read most of the books on my Kindle because it’s easier to carry along and more convenient to handle. For fiction, I also love the ability to read the first 10% of a book to see whether the story is engaging and makes me want to read on.
Since becoming a dad 7 months ago, my reading habits have changed quite a bit. I try to fit in some reading every night before going to bed, but that got harder. These days I mostly read books on the weekends (in the afternoons) and during vacations.
For the shorter times in between, for example, when I’m commuting, I prefer reading or listening to shorter-form content and share that reading time between Blinkist, podcasts, and content I discover via Twitter and Medium.
With the jobs market more and more unstable and insecure, lifelong education is key. At the same time, learning resources are becoming increasingly commoditized and know-how also becomes obsolete faster. What fundamental skills, those that will always matter, do you believe should be learned in schools?
The importance of curiosity is key. Also, the idea of the growth mindset: it can be very limiting for someone to believe “I’m good at X and I’m bad at Y” because this fixed kind of mindset ultimately stops them from exploring alternative paths and trying something totally new–that they might be great at! Being flexible and able to manage change is also key for the fast-paced working environment that we work in. Finally, teaching children a level of self-empowerment is also crucial, i.e. coach them to manage themselves, their emotions, their responsibilities, and their own small projects. These soft skills will go a long way in the future.Book-talk with Holger Seim @hlgrsm, co-founder and CEO of @Blinkist : 'Finding the right books is key to building a habit.' Click To Tweet
There’s such an abundance of information and sources available at our fingertips, that we risk becoming “digitally obese”, and even be paralyzed by the extra information. Is there any way that you try to deal with information overwhelm and manage social media noise?
I deleted all social media apps except Twitter and LinkedIn because I noticed that I was killing too much time on the others without getting any value out of them. I kept Twitter and LinkedIn because they help me discover relevant and interesting content.
One thing that I haven’t managed to do yet, but want to, is to create more smartphone-free times of the day.
Last year, you said that Blinkist’s purpose isn’t to replace the actual book, but to get enough information about it to see whether someone would like to buy it. (“We’re trying to inspire people and make it easier to take the first step and engaging in literature. We are a complementary business in that regard.”). What other filters you personally have in order to decide the books that are worthy of your attention? Do you prioritize those recommended by certain people, for example?
Recommendations from people I trust are by far the most important filter for me because I know my friends’ and colleagues’ tastes in certain genres and so can be quite sure that a certain recommendation from a certain person is worth pursuing.
To discover new fiction titles, I also love going to small indie bookstores and browse through the store recommendations. There’s almost always something that I take home (in print) when I’m in a good bookstore.
What tips would you give to someone who’s struggling to read more books? How can they make it easy to build that habit?
I believe that finding the right books is key to building a habit. If you have a hard time sticking with a book and need to “push to continue reading” instead of being “pulled by the book to continue reading”, then usually the book isn’t good enough or the content isn’t relevant and helpful enough.
So one tip would be to actively seek reading recommendations from people who have a similar taste (fiction) or are in a similar situation or facing similar challenges (non-fiction). And after you’ve got some great advice, commit to reading through the first 50 pages to give the book a chance of getting you into the flow of “wanting to continue to read it”.
A decade ago, I (Cristina – co-founder of The CEO Library) was working in the music business during a major transitional period: streaming platforms were emerging and the old gatekeepers (record labels and other organizations representing the recording industry) were trying to control the digital medium, opposing technological changes. Of course, their attempts to control how people want to consume music didn’t work, and they happened anyways. Are there any similar challenges that you’re facing with publishers and regulations specific to the book industry?
We don’t experience that the publishing industry tries to oppose technological changes or new services like Blinkist, but we also don’t experience that they proactively try to partner with us and shape the change in a way that they want it to be.
Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?
I’m currently reading Trillion Dollar Coach from Eric Schmidt and expect to gain advice and inspiration on how to become a better leader and coach, and more specifically, to become better at helping the people I work with to grow.
Links where you can follow Holger Seim or learn more about Blinkist:
- Connect with Holger Seim on Twitter | Linkedin
- Techcrunch: ‘Blinkist raises $18.8M for its condensed reading platform for non-fiction books‘ (2018)
All books mentioned by Holger Seim in our interview:
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni
- The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business, by Patrick Lencioni
- Losing My Virginity, by Richard Branson
- Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman–Including 10 More Years of Business Unusual, by Yvon Chouinard
- Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, by Jon Krakauer
- Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
- Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell, by Eric Schmidt