Govind Balakrishnan

Co-Founder of Curio

Govind is the co-founder and CEO of London-based audio journalism platform Curio, which has been backed by investors to the tune of $11 million. Curio is a premium audio platform with a curated library of expert journalism, which provides listeners with stories and insights on critical topics shaping our world, helping them learn and grow. It partners with some of the best news publishers in the world, including The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Guardian and Wired. Govind grew up in India wanting to become a physicist. He attended the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras and quickly realised that it was a glacial way to change the world. His second love was media and he moved to London, eventually working for the BBC, leading strategy for BBC News. He got to witness first-hand the challenges facing a modern media organisation. He saw how great reporting and insight can go to waste when a correspondent was sent to the front-lines in Afghanistan, at considerable expense, only for the story to get less than a few minutes of airtime. He resolved to find a way to help users discover such insight and help give great journalism greater impact. After studying at Royal College of Art and Imperial College at the intersection of design and engineering, he and his close friend Srikant Chakravarti founded Curio in 2016.

Where did the idea for Curio come from?

We always wanted Curio to be a place where curious minds would come together to explore and understand the world better. Curio literally means a rare, unusual or intriguing object. It’s a bit like a resource to finding treasures and stories worth exploring further in our day-to-day. We partner with the world’s best publications to help our customers discover and learn from the world. We uncover and curate outstanding pieces from the likes of The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Guardian and Wired, bringing these stories to life through audio. We want to help everyone become wiser, more empathetic and fulfilled. I believe learning about ideas and insights shaping our future, and stories that move us can do exactly that.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Because of the pandemic I think everyone’s “typical day” became a bit different, mine included. Geographically, we are extremely spread out as a team at Curio – Japan, India, London, the US and Europe. This requires us to over-communicate with each other. I’ve adapted to make sure I am constantly nurturing communication between the members of our ever-growing team, keeping investors up-to-date, and finding new content partners. But not every channel of communication is right for everyone. We try to use a combination of Slack, with clear boundaries, and just picking up the phone as much as possible.

The wide geographical scope of our team also means the days can stretch out a lot longer, across multiple time zones, so boundaries are really important from a mental health perspective.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Ideas come from a multitude of places. Usually the obvious has already been thought of. It is very important to not let analytical brain power sabotage ideas at the early stages when they are still fragile. Instead, you must let them develop before starting to judge, and give them the benefit of the doubt. I think it is important to hire good people and often, just let them do their job and get out of the way.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Audio is growing in a major way globally, driven by cultural and technological advancements both for consumers and creators. Busier lives increase appetite for multi-tasking (this research shows we spend over 7 hours a day doing so), and audio allows us to listen while we work, exercise, cook, travel, or unwind. Audio, especially verbal speech, is tremendously high in information content. Most people are unaware of this. We mistakenly think of information as sensory input being thrown at us, usually with a bias towards our visual senses. But information isn’t what we’re told; it’s what we understand. Audio and speech resolve uncertainty and communicate meaning more powerfully than any other format. Interestingly, however, audio has not yet been monetised adequately. In China, the monetisation of the audio market is far more advanced. It is 7x that of the US, led by “the ‘pay for knowledge’ economy”. The US broadcast market is $315m, whereas the paid subscription audio market in China is $7.3bn or 23 times larger. The latter is successful for three reasons – it offers consistently high-quality content, the consumer experience is relevant and low cognitive-load, and producers are strongly incentivised. People are eager to discover and consume well-produced audio, and they are ready to pay for it. All this boils down to – Audio is big and going to get a lot bigger.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Hire smart people and push them a lot, but know when to back off. There is a fine line between challenging people and imposing. The sweet spot comes when you discover the right amount of tension – like on a guitar string.

What advice would you give your younger self?

That life is not a zero sum game – for you to win, someone else doesn’t necessarily have to lose. In this sense, the opportunities ahead far outstrip those that have passed. They are boundless and unconstrained by what has already happened, so go after them!

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Audio is the powerful articulation of augmented reality. If someone from 1930 came to today and saw Twitter, they wouldn’t understand it. Similarly, with audio, they would say it’s a radio show. This is completely underestimating the potential of the medium to act as an information layer on top of real life. In less than a minute, audio is the quickest route to augmented reality. It is sort of the first in a way!

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Don’t underestimate the power of a power nap!

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

A core ethos of Curio is that we succeed if our partner publications succeed. Therefore, we are passionate about helping them find new ways to monetise and engage their audiences. And we do this by enhancing their reach, engagement and revenue, and charging them based on their individual business models. As they grow, we grow. This means we don’t cannibalize our partners’ existing business models. We offer a new distribution channel to monetise the rest of their podcasts and other audio. Good storytelling in journalism is getting lost in the non-stop cycle of breaking news and social media feeds. We are in the age of infinite scrolling. Both journalists and publications are working hard but few people are noticing that there’s exceptional content out there. Over 60% of our current subscribers are not existing podcast/audio listeners. In this sense, we see a big opportunity in helping a broader range of people who are interested in quality stories.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Early on at Curio we allowed every critique from every investor we approached to sway us too much. Sometimes it is possible to overestimate the wisdom of others. We realised eventually that actually when it came to our vision and audio, we were in fact the experts. That’s not to say that you should not listen, of course. But it was the case that we spent a lot of time justifying the idea of audio, when we should have just been getting on with it.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Education in schools has not really changed in hundreds of years. Using data to improve teaching and artificial intelligence to design and deliver much more personalised learning seems to be a big opportunity.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Apple airpods. They are the key staple for lockdown times, keeping my family and work life as separated as they can be, and allowing me to multitask.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Apple Notes. To outsource my memory.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I love its insight and in sometimes absurd situations it shows you the pattern so that you can recognise how absurd it is.

What is your favorite quote?

“A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points,” Alan Kay, the American computer scientist. He is absolutely correct. I also love the Rudyard Kipling quote: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same.” It’s written above the tunnel leading from the locker room into Wimbledon’s fabled Centre Court.

Key Learnings:

  • When talking to someone try to listen more and talk less. Always ask questions so you can keep on learning and improving.
  • Audio will revolutionize the way we consume content. We’re moving towards the era of screenless media, where we’ll be scrolling less and consuming better quality, curated content.
  • Good quality journalism is not just about breaking news, it can be a great source of inspiration, learning and an agent for change. It can help us learn and feel more connected with the world and ourselves, becoming wiser, more empathetic, and fulfilled.