EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Govind Balakrishnan, CEO Curio

It’s one of the strangest phenomena in technology, the inexorable rise and popularity of podcasts. While there is any number of places to access such content, one London-based company is focusing on quality.

Curio is a free app that offers curated content that gives listeners the opportunity to fully engage with audio and CEO Govind Balakrishnan talks exclusively about why his company’s product is music to our ears.

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Monty Munford: Welcome to Mob76 Outlook, Govind. I believe Curio produces quality podcasts, would that be right?

Yes, that’s right. In a world where everything is available at once, people’s time and attention are scarce resources. Curio solves that by helping people listen to the stories shaping our world as they go about their days.

Through high-quality audio and curation, we give people back time and surface content worthy of people’s attention.

We solve the two biggest problems for people in the world – time and attention. We choose content from the best providers in the world and get that narrated as high-quality audio – saving people the time of choosing the right content to consume.

Govind Balakrishna: Every startup has a founder’s story. What’s yours?

I was a strategist at the BBC and saw the really high engagement that radio and other audio were receiving online. This was particularly heartening when journalists had put themselves at great personal risk, such as in war zones.

At the same time, print engagement was plummeting and this prompted me to ask – why is a 100-year-old trusted medium getting so much more engagement than print or websites?

The insight was that people’s lifestyles had changed and the new world required a media platform that worked seamlessly with their busy, on-the-go lifestyles, while also actually rewarding content producers.

That was how Curio was born.

Would you describe yourself as a media company?

Media is the software that powers society, but we no longer have the time or attention to engage with it deeply. Curio is a subscription-based audio app that helps people live curiously, by allowing us to listen to the stories shaping our world as we go about our busy lives.

Is this the right time for Curio or are you awaiting a tipping point?

The advent of conversational devices, their popularity and the fact that technology is going through a fundamental paradigm shift means this is a perfect time.

Due to multitasking, we are becoming a species that is entering a post-literacy/ post-Gutenberg age. In the same way that Snapchat is a communication medium, so audio and voice will be as well.

It will go to the core of how we engage with media, content and entertainment and how it all fits in and around our lifestyles.

Why is now the right time for Curio?

We want to become the media platform of the conversational future. Most innovation so far has been in the form of functional interaction. But content consumption is also going to move in that direction.

And as it does, it’s going to go beyond one-way consumption to more a more interactive form, closer to augmented reality.

Ever since the year 1439 the visual medium – books, TV, screens – has dominated. When we are visually engaged we do little else. This future, however, will be characterised by audio, conversational interactions and ultimately augmented reality.

What particular problem are you solving?

We are solving the problem of time and reduced attention spans and using the power of audio to help build a more well-informed world effortlessly. In that way, we also indirectly help with breaking information bubbles, fake news and superficial engagement.

In a world where everything is available instantaneously, people’s time and attention are scarce resources and we are just unable to and deeply engage with stories that are shaping the future.

Who are you working with and on what platforms?

We partner with top publishers such as The Guardian, Salon, The Financial Times, Aeon and more than 40 other providers to gain access to their exceptional content base.

Our learning algorithm and human curators then scour their databases for the best content – across various topics which have current relevance, are part of the zeitgeist or are of evergreen interest – and we then get that narrated by the best voice actors in the industry.

That content is offered to our subscribers through our mobile apps, our website and our Alexa skill.

Please take me through a user journey

Simply download the free Curio app and sign up. You can either subscribe to a monthly or annual plan, or listen to a certain amount of content free everyday.

Subscribers get new audio tracks curated across our partners everyday. Much of the content on Curio is evergreen and is easily discoverable. Playlists on topics ranging from Hackers to Privacy, Stoicism to Creativity.

Why is Curio better than its competitors?

We consistently produce high-quality content from premium and niche brands, an all-you-can-listen ad-free experience, best-in-class curation that makes for both a lean-back and lean-forward experience.

We consider rival podcasts to be our competitors, but also traditional radio. One interesting company is Audible, but we believe we offer a more tailored curation, and content that fits any length of time for our audience.

How has the company been funded to date?

We’d like to keep this confidential at this time, but we have been through two early rounds of funding including our stint at 500 Startups in the US.

EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Christopher Kahler, CEO Qriously

Qriously was the only data company to predict the Labour surge in the last election, a story that Wired picked up and was one of their best-trafficked stories of the year. Company CEO Chris Kahler explains what happens next.

kahlerWelcome to the Mob76 Outlook audience, Mr Kahler. Tell us more about your company.

We are a research platform to understand and predict human behaviour in real-time, in particular with event-based predictions such as political elections.

The main alternative to our approach is to use traditional polling which is becoming increasingly inaccurate (as evidenced by the recent spate of hilariously wrong predictions).

We are in a state of political tumult and we think accurate polling is an important feedback mechanism for a government to function properly. This applies to readers ‘in tech’ and beyond.

What is currently happening in the world that makes Qriously relevant?

Ummm, the world is totally fucked. Russia, Putin, Trump, China… Name it! It feels like no one knows really what’s going on.

Right now it’s quiet, but the mid-terms in the US next year will be huge and we might be lulled into a false sense of security with Germany. Populism is threatening the EU.

Can’t argue with that summation. So what needs to be done?

Polling is broken but the need for it hasn’t diminished. That means something needs to be done about it if governments want to know what citizens really think.

Research and polling methodology has seen extremely little innovation since the invention of the first online panel. In particular, research methods have barely taken advantage of smartphones although it’s the most universal medium of information creation and communication of all time.

How, specifically, is Qriously helping to solve this problem?

Without diving into too much detail and giving away too much to our competitors, Qriously has developed a methodology that produces more accurate results and up to 10x faster than traditional methods.

The main problem our methodology is solving is that of sample bias: traditional landlines/panels capture an increasingly skewed subset of the population. Our method captures random people in random apps, making them more likely to random people.

So, it’s a mobile-first product?

Yes. We’ve developed a research methodology that replaces ads with surveys in smartphone apps. Instead of building a panel, we use machine learning to create representative samples in real-time.

Sounds simple enough, but describe it to somebody who knows nothing about technology.

Do you know those pesky banner ads you see in some smartphone apps and games? Qriously replaces those with surveys on smartphones that you can answer if you want to.

Because so many people have smartphones nowadays, we can get better data than other methods which use landlines (who has those nowadays anyway?) or online panels which are groups of people that are paid to answer surveys.

The Brexit decision, which you predicted, is making people nervous. Do you intend to stay based in London?

At the moment, yes, we plan to stay in London. Looking at how much work goes into predicting an election or referendum outcome, predicting something much more complicated like the political future of the UK is truly in the realm of pure speculation – we’re not that good yet!

We originally came to London because of access to capital, talent, and a diverse set of markets (important for young startups experimenting with business models). At the moment, those continue to be compelling reasons for us and many other startups to stay. Of these, however, talent is the main concern.

So how did you get this point and where did you start?

In 2010 my co-founders and I built a few simple consumer-facing apps for fun, just to see what would happen. In 2010 many apps weren’t designed really well and searching for apps didn’t work very well (it’s still nowhere near as good as web search).

So we discovered that if you built well-designed apps and gave them really boring descriptive names, you got tons of downloads (in our case, more than 30 million across all the titles we released).

We wanted to find a way to monetise those apps and began experimenting with display ads. However, we didn’t like the way those ads looked in our apps so we decided to do the only logical thing which was to build our own native ad unit. Once we had the unit, we began tinkering with other modes of engagement such as simple questions.

We were blown away by the response rates and once we did some basic data validation we knew this was something special, that we had stumbled across a new way of gathering data that wasn’t possible before. We also had our own user base to test out the technology and iterate quickly.

How much traction in the market do you have?

* Hundreds of clients across a range of industries, including government organisations, hedge funds, and brands.

* Hundreds of millions of answers

* Millions in revenue

Finally, Chris, you’re clearly good at predicting what other people are going to do? What’s next for Qriously?

Up until this point we’ve been busy getting the methodology right and building the technical infrastructure. That’s largely completed so the next area for us to focus on is opening up the predictive power of the data to everyone so we’re building a self-serve platform. We can’t say too much at this point, but we’re really excited to see what happens you open access to the opinions of >1b people all over the world.

That was awesome, Chris Kahler, thanks for sharing your story.

My pleasure, thanks for having me.