My Stories Startups

Short-form podcasts are the future, just not mine

Long story short, after coronavirus made me come back from the Los Angeles part of my March business trip early and importing was out of the question, I decided to start a podcasting company.

By myself, with my $150 Blue Yeti mic. Not much, but certainly enough to get started – or so I thought.

During the first recording session, I realized there’s one big problem: I sound terrible. Proper intonation and voice acting were more difficult than I expected.

I’ve spent 3 weeks trying to get it to an acceptable level – speaking faster, slower, louder, quieter, with more pauses, with fewer pauses… it just wasn’t there. Not being a native English speaker didn’t help, either.

So eventually there was no podcasting company.

But when figuring things out, I came to something that can be a big trend in the coming years: short-form podcasts.

When writing a script for the first episode that was meant to be about 20 minutes long, I found it pretty time-consuming.

Considering I wanted to start multiple podcasts, releasing at least 1 episode a week for each of them, it wasn’t possible to spend that much time just writing.

The solution proved to be very simple: why not just make the episodes shorter?

Instead of producing 1 20-minute episode, I’d produce 3 7-minute episodes. That meant 3 weeks’ worth of content instead of 1 week’s worth of content.

I needed some rationale to potentially explain why the heck are all podcasts so short. After some research, it started to make even more sense than I expected.

First, Edison Research found out in 2018 that 50% of people not listening to podcasts don’t listen because they’re too long.

Second, the video & audio analytics platform Pex tweeted the average length of a podcast episode fell from 45:44 in 2015 to 35:27 in 2020. The trend of shrinking episode length is there.

Third, the idea of short-form content is already getting a lot of attention, although in a different field – it’s Quibi with $1.75 billion raised to produce short-form mobile-only TV series.

UPDATE: Quibi is shutting down, but I think everybody knows it’s not because the TV shows were too short – it’s probably their mobile-only approach and vertical video (all content had to be shot in a certain way to fit the screen in portrait mode = a lot of limitations & higher production cost) that killed them. Launch during the Covid-19 pandemic also didn’t help (you don’t really need short-form content when you’re sitting home the entire day) but I think they would’ve survived this if not for the mobile-only & screen stuff mentioned above.

Fourth, there already are some successful short-form podcasts like Six Minutes, so it isn’t completely uncharted territory.

The decision was made: I’m going to start the first short-form podcasting company. All podcasts will be 10 minutes or less.

I was aware my podcasts won’t be anywhere near the best ones quality-wise, and I wanted to build the company to sell it, just like Gimlet did.

So I needed something more.

I needed to create and represent the short-form podcasting movement.

One of the reasons companies are acquired is that they provide the acquirer access to a new (sub-) industry. If I started a regular podcasting company, I would have to be too freaking good to stand out among tons of others.

By being a short-form podcasting company, I wanted to create a league of my own. 

Sometimes the positions of brands are so strong not necessarily because their product or service is the best, but because they were the first, good, and fast enough to make their brand represent their niche.

That means I’d focus almost as much on promoting and associating my company with short-form podcasts as on the podcasts themselves.

Who knows, maybe it would have worked.

My Stories

How I’ve almost become an importer

In November a former co-worker from one of the startups I was involved in reached out to me that he wants to start importing & establish Czech and Slovak food and beverage brands in the US and Canada.

There was a lot to work with – he got quite a few companies that were interested in expanding overseas.

After I left the Kaktus App couple of weeks ago I was free to start something new and I liked the idea, so I was in.

The first stage was about trying to get something done remotely (I’m from Slovakia, he’s from the Czech Rep).

It doesn’t sound very fancy – it was all about searching, emailing, and calling hundreds of US & Can distributors and retailers.

Initially, I wasn’t very big on calling but it turned out that it’s more effective to call instead of just sending an email. It also turned out that getting to the decision makers in Canada over the phone is much easier than in the US. I felt like the US secretaries were very clearly instructed about what to do with calls like mine.

Even though there was a little success, it definitely wasn’t the right way to go about it. We’ve sent out a few samples & were in touch with a couple of distributors that were kind of interested, but it still looked like a long shot.

A decision was made to go to the US & Canada and get the stuff done in person. The plan was that my business partner would be in Toronto for 3 weeks, I’d join him there during the 1st week and then I was meant to go to Los Angeles for the remaining 2 weeks.

To be honest, I didn’t think it was really necessary to go there in person, we have emails and phones and after all, we live in the 21st century. I thought that whatever there is to be done, it can be done over the phone/email.

The first week in Toronto went pretty well, but the other 2 in Los Angeles had to be cut short right at the beginning – the whole world started to freak out about the coronavirus, the flights were being canceled and airports (in Europe) and borders closed or restricted. I got nothing done in LA & went home ASAP.

Unfortunately, the EU-US-CAN borders are still closed and it’s very hard to say how long it will take until things get back to normal. And even when they do, who knows how the new normal will look like. The importing is probably done.

It’s pretty unfortunate because it looked like it could actually work. There was a lot of money to be made even if we only got to the few containers per year stage.

The huge advantage of this business is that once you get it going and establish the distribution there’s not that much you have to do & it’s just about how many other products you want to bring there.

It also doesn’t take very long to understand how the distributors think and what they are looking for or which products are and aren’t suited for import (we’ve learned that one by trial and error).

Few lessons from the trip:

1. From what I’ve experienced nobody in the US & Canada really cares about the sales numbers of the product in Europe.

2. Obviously, it’s much better to come to present the product in person as opposed to just sending a sample. To be able to come in person, you have to be in the city. Being in the city also proved pretty useful when trying to get appointments. “We’re in Toronto right now, what’s the best time for us to stop by?” sounds much better than “We’ll be in Toronto in 5 weeks, can we schedule a quick visit?”.

It has to be noted though that one of the reasons of the bad conversion rates of my calls from home was probably the way I was doing them. The live feedback from the business partner I was there with (he was managing a call center at the beginning of his career) certainly contributed to the success rate in Toronto.

3. I’ve incredibly underestimated the importance of personal meetings. As I mentioned above, I was skeptical about the face to face meetings. Sure, it’s the 21st century, but it looks like the in-person contact and relationships are crucial in this business.

Couple things about the personal meetings vs phone/email:

The first thing you can’t get over the phone or email is the local market intelligence – you know, those little details of how stuff works there. This often small information that gets mentioned as you talk to people can make a huge impact if acted upon properly. It’s the stuff you wouldn’t think of/had no way to know about unless you’re a local.

Next, there are recommendations from the people we’ve visited. At half the places where we went, we got recommendations to see someone else who may be interested in what we have. This is invaluable, but it doesn’t always come without asking, so don’t be afraid to do so.

Sometimes a person not only recommended a contact but called them right there or told us to say that they’ve sent us.

It almost looked like all you need to do wherever you’re going is to get a few appointments and then you can just ride on the wave of recommendations. Before we went to Toronto I was freaking out that we have only 3 or 4 meetings scheduled.

When meeting someone, you can actually see how the person reacts to your product and what you say. If you’re at least a little receptive there’s a great deal that can be learned about how the person feels about what you have. We could always tell whether there’s some potential business to be done or not.

Small talk – this is just another thing that’s pretty difficult to do over the phone or email. One distributor we’ve met with was literally more interested in the history of Czechoslovakia (Czech Rep and Slovakia were united until 1993) than our products. Of course, we didn’t mind – it’s a great way to build a relationship and establish some trust between us. People like this will sometimes do business with you just because they like you.

4. It also pays off to be a little creative and go for the long shot – I got us a meeting with a managing partner of the Toronto takeout franchise with 9 branches over Instagram. One of the branches just replied to my DM with a time & date when to come. I thought we’ll be meeting with the branch manager but to our surprise, the boss showed up.

5. The last point is about how fast it became clear which products have the potential to succeed and which are total busts. There’s just no better way to learn about a product potential in a particular market than going there and talking to people.

My Stories

Looking back

I was recently looking at my work in all of the projects I was a part of and it’s crazy to see how stupid I was. Some of them were a year or even a few months ago and I just can’t understand what I was thinking back then.

Even though I very modestly (just kidding) admit I’ve done some, or even a lot of things right, there were some bad decisions made or things done poorly/not done at all.

I know it means I’ve moved forward since I see my actions in past this way, but it’s still pretty terrifying – especially when I consider that in a few months I will probably see my current self in this exact way, too.

It’d be beneficial to look back on our lives/work more often so we can realize our mistakes faster & make sure not to do them again. Unfortunately, some of them have to be seen from a perspective only more time can offer.

As we learn and grow we would gradually disagree with a lot that we’ve done in the past, but it takes this looking back to fully realize what those things are.