People, we have a really interesting person in the spotlight, this week. Rahul Nair is the founder and CEO of Storiyoh, a podcast social network.
Before having this chat with Rahul, I was checking out the bios of the Storiyoh team and frankly, they have more degrees between the 4 of them than an entire classroom.
This will be a 2 part series. In the first part, I asked Rahul about the genesis of the Storiyoh and a few more things about the platform. What followed makes for an absolutely fascinating read.
From selling IPOs in London to starting a podcast social network in India, how did this happen?
Rahul: So, it’s been a long journey which I think will continue forever.😊 For me, the fascination was always with building stuff – finding problems to solve, and it started during my university days. I played around with a lot of ideas during my student days, and I also co-founded the enterprise society in my university to promote entrepreneurship within the student body. But opportunities started crystallising during my stockbroking days.
I spent my spare time doing research on various problems and narrowed down to the lack of safe student housing in India as a key problem. Having been educated in England, my thinking was how can we in India make higher education a significant forex earner. That was too big a question with so many angles to think about.
I narrowed down on infrastructure and then narrowed it to student housing. Student housing is a really interesting real-estate asset class (the one closest to being recession-proof) and I was exposed to it and understood it pretty well being in England and being a customer myself. I thought it was a brilliant idea to start a company focused on providing clean and safe, managed housing for students in India. And so I quit my brokerage and went about exploring it. Made my first pitch at 22-23 and it was fun.
So, that was the formal beginning for me in entrepreneurship. And then as I failed, I learned what didn’t work and when I ran out of change, I went back into various jobs and then ventured out again…it’s been cycles. So, I’ve worked with big consultants (EY, PwC), financial services, started two ventures in between which failed for various reasons, then worked with a global education company called GEMS. And now Storiyoh. So, my pattern has been one of trying out new things…sometimes they are own ventures, sometimes they are different kinds of jobs. I’m in a permanent beta.
What’s the story behind Storiyoh? Both the name and the company?
Rahul: So, as I was thinking about my next gig, a few things got clear to me early in the journey. 1) whatever I create should be an everyday use product; 2) it should be general enough to be used by anyone with a smartphone; 3) it should be interactions focused.
So, I started to look at problems to solve across industries (having worked in financial services, consulting, education, hospitality etc, I had a pretty broad platter to look at), beginning with the education sector. We all know that the state of education around the world, especially in India, is pretty dismal. But solutions are difficult. I didn’t want to create another Byju’s or Mahesh Tutorials but something broader, something that is about lifelong learning, education in a more broader sense. That was really the beginning.
It didn’t take long to narrow down to audio because of my personal learning experiences with BBC. I’ve been a BBC World Service buff for a very long time. Just love it. I got obsessed with the audio medium and started to think more clearly about some problems to solve….and soon realised there are some really interesting ones.
So, Rohit (my brother and co-founder) and I started having very long discussions around what these are and what we could do about them, and soon we roped our dad into co-foundership as well, to make use of his decades of experience and accumulated wisdom.
The first thing Rohit and I realised was the black-box experience of podcasting we have right now. Our professor friends at London School of Economics (we both are LSE grads..in fact, Rohit is still there doing his PhD) also nudged us in very helpful directions and shaped our thinking about networks and content traps etc. The name Storiyoh was a mashup of stories, audio and stereo…..y e a p!
Explain what the app does and who are you targeting?
Rahul: So, I just mentioned above the key problem of a black-box podcasting UX. You and I could be using the same podcast app but we remain disconnected, and in this age that didn’t make much sense to us. Content is growing every day in the podcasting world. Discovery remains a problem and for us, user connections were a critical way of looking at the discovery.
We didn’t set out to build a social network at all but we thought that user connections were an important factor in the content discovery of any type. Take movies or restaurants for instance. You surely have your preferences, but time and again, you rely on your social capital to make decisions about which movie to watch or where to dine…right? So, why should it be any different for podcasting? That was the starting point for us.
So, what the app does are a few concentrated things right now. It has a social architecture around podcast content – you can create user profiles and follow others on the platform. Activities are then reflected in a news feed like UX and UI. This immediately helps with content discovery as you can see what others are listening to, and if they are trusted connections, you might give that content a shot yourself – content you wouldn’t have discovered by yourself, given your tastes and interests.
Secondly, it allows you to create playlists that others can follow if you make them public; again making content discovery a little more easier, especially around themes and interests. You can add shows to a smart playlist so that the playlist always picks up the latest episodes of those shows you added, keeping the playlist automatically updated for your listening.
We think playlisting in podcasting has a lot of potential and playlisters as tastemakers will be key influencers within the podcasting world, picking up and curating interesting stories to listen to. We have quite a few playlists on Storiyoh already, especially smart ones, ranging from global news, economics and international affairs, cricket, entrepreneurship, business and management, and many more.
Our discovery section is also very easy to use – designed around things you can discover on Storiyoh i.e. shows, playlists, smart playlists, collections, people, and podcast networks. Collections are also very useful, especially for a podcast virgin. Simply go the collections page and you can browse shows for kids, teens, BBC buffs, murder mysteries, tech, entrepreneurship…even for lawyers!
We are trying to make the apps as friendly as possible even for podcast virgins. Of course, the vast majority of users of Storiyoh are people who are already into podcasting. But we would want Storiyoh to be the entry-point or the gateway to the world of podcasting for all those hundreds of millions, billions, who are yet to experience the magic. Of course, anyone in the world can use Storiyoh, but we are particularly passionate and purposeful about India.
So, at the moment, the app tries to bring in social elements and create signals and signposts aiding podcast content discovery. But we have a lot more in store.
Why social? because social podcasts apps are nothing new. There are few apps such as Breaker, Podyssesy, and couple of others trying to do the same.
Rahul: Yes. There is nothing new in social. As I mentioned, I think social is who we are and how we go about finding stuff. It’s just fundamental to human nature. Content is always going to be there. Good ones, bad ones, atrocious ones, professional ones, amateur ones. But I believe it’s easy to fall into the content trap – the thinking behind creating “best content”.
I think we can get obsessed with the content itself without realising or recognising the conditions that make it spread. We look at content in isolation rather than as connected parts of a whole. Our current thinking makes us miss what is most important – connections.
Connections are – and will be for the foreseeable future – at the heart of any digital business. There are different types of connections, like user connections, product connections, and functional connections, but I don’t want to get into the details here. Suffice to say that connections are important.
Things like product quality and creative marketing have given way to terms like networks, communities, and conversations. That is not saying that content quality is not with; just that it isn’t the only factor to be considered. We can always make better content like we can always have better conversations with our friends and family.
Just because there are apps doesn’t mean we can’t make it better. We learn from others and improve upon what is already done. The market is getting very busy but I don’t spend too much time focusing on competitors…they are not the ones who will pay us….customers will. We think we have a solid focus on our customers (both listeners as well as creators), and we will continuously innovate on their behalf. I strongly believe we have a better product than Breaker and Podyssey…but of course, I could be slightly biased in that assessment.😊
The app description says “The podcast social network”. Doesn’t the term carry a lot of baggage today with the intense blowback against these platforms?
Rahul: Good question. Traditional social media spaces like FB, Twitter, Insta, and even LinkedIn to some extent, have been designed around your life updates. It’s almost always about what you did or where you are or what you had for breakfast. They are also to a large extent about creating and crafting an image of yourself, and sometimes obsessively.
We believe you can build communities not just around your “daily me” but also around pieces of content – in our case that is non-music audio content we call podcasts. You rely on your social capital to find books, movies and restaurants, so why not podcasts? So we are really about tapping into the power of social discovery to find interesting stories to listen to…stuff that might educate, entertain, and inspire you.
I think there is a more serious discussion to be had around business models. All of these guys rely on an ad-driven model, which means that their first (and TBH only) priority is to have maximum eyeballs or user engagement, as delivering ads to users depend on them being around to receive the ads right? This is where the slippery slope begins.
I’m sure none of these guys built these platforms with malicious intent but their business models force them to begin hacking into human psychology. You sleep for 8 hours, work for 8 hours and it’s the remaining 8 hours of your life that they and everybody are competing for. I call this attention extraction.
So they are thinking “what features can we build to ensure they do not leave our platform?” In other words, “how can we make the product as addictive as possible”? So that’s what you see on FB and other such platforms – designed to hook us more deeply – how many likes and comments have I got? Have I gotten social confirmation about my views, about my looks? That’s just unhealthy. Instagram glorifies the picture-perfect life, eroding our self-worth. Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities. YouTube autoplays the next video within seconds, even if it eats into our sleep.
To keep our attention, they turn to serving us sensational content – stuff that hits us at a visceral level – anger, outrage, false facts, and filter bubbles – to the extent that we lose our ability to converse and agree on what is true…or even disagree on stuff in a civilised manner.
So now we see regulators and policymakers jumping in and trying to create a new set of rules and that is an important step in the right direction. But we need more than political pressure and policy changes. We need to change the way tech products are designed so that they are more humane and don’t take advantage of our vulnerabilities.
Secondly, we need a massive campaign to build awareness of what is actually happening and how we can create healthier habits. And thirdly, tech teams and employees also need to be empowered to stand up against an extraction-based system and people are always the most important asset to any organisation. If the people in these organizations are empowered to change, then so will the motherships.
So where do we fit in? As it says on our About Us page: WE ARE NOT OUT TO CREATE AN ‘ADDICTIVE’ PRODUCT.
Addictions of any kind are bad because it demeans our sense of self-control. Our endeavour will be to design and develop products that people love, enjoy and find meaningful rather than churning products that people can’t stop using. We are not interested in hacking human psychology. Period.
PERSONALISATION IS GREAT BUT ONLY UP TO A POINT.
Over-personalisation simply leads to all of us living in a bubble; suspended from reality. So, while we love to recommend content to you – and we will – that is based on your likes, we will also give you opportunities to hear viewpoints that you wouldn’t typically come across going purely by your likes.
We are not in the attention extraction business because we do not make money by serving you ads. Plus, interactions such as ‘likes’ or ‘comments’ on Storiyoh are not used around user-generated content like your tweets, pictures or posts but instead around podcast content that one listens to. By your liking or sharing an opinion on the content, you are merely signalling the value you got (or didn’t get) from consuming an episode of content.
At the end of the day, we are not about self-promotions and social validations affecting our self-worth. We are really a knowledge platform, a learning platform, that is based around podcast content but powered by connected listeners. We hope people learn something new every day or are entertained and inspired by stories they listen to…..our platform wants to simply make it easier for you to discover something interesting from an expanding ocean of content.
Getting users to install and use a simple podcast app seems a whole lot easier than getting them to use Storiyoh. And why should someone use Storiyoh over the other apps?
Rahul: I actually don’t agree with that. Yes, Storiyoh is a lot more complex from a technical architecture point of view but not necessarily from a UX, UI point of view. I would argue it’s a lot easier than other apps. Once you have gone past registration, you enter a world that you are already quite familiar with….the social piece.
We don’t have to go through educating the user. The feedback I’ve been getting so far is that even for someone who is totally new to podcasting, it doesn’t take very long to understand what is going on. I’m not saying we have absolutely nailed it…there is always scope to improve and simplify, but we should be careful not to oversimplify to the point of losing our essence.
As to why someone should use Storiyoh, I think I’ve already kind of explained that. Social is in our instincts, it’s who we are. So I would say this app is more instinctual than other apps.
At the moment the main reasons are around ease of finding content through social connections. It’s really about building a network and a community around podcasts. Why do we have book clubs for example? For like-minded people to come together and read and discuss books right? Would you say “let’s get rid of that…just buying a book or reading it on a kindle is enough…who cares about the community..”?
What’s in store in the near future?
We will be introducing advanced player features that most have gotten used to expecting – narration speeds, silence trimmers, snooze timers etc. We will also continue to expand the range of social interactions possible on Storiyoh without overcomplicating things.
How do you plan to monetize Storiyoh?
Rahul: That’s the million dollar question everyone gets to especially when it comes to startups. We have a bigger challenge in front of us – finding product/market fit. The job of every startup out there is to figure out a problem worth solving, dabble in some potential solutions and finding a market for it. It’s pure exploration. There are very few with rock-solid plans.
The rest of us are swimming to stay alive and find a shore. So, our focus is on getting to product/market fit asap, from plan A to one that just works. God knows how many iterations and pivots would be required. Monetisation is the easy part after that. We have a few ideas, but I can tell you one thing for sure – we won’t be relying on a traditional targeted ad delivery model. The only ads we will entertain are likely to be content promotions, benefiting both the creator (getting noticed) and the listener (finding new content).
Podcasting is increasingly becoming an unbundled experience and soon the word subscribe may lose relevance. How do you see this shift playing out and the impact on Storiyoh?
Rahul: I agree to a point. The core value unit will be the episode as opposed to the show unless of course, it’s a series of some sort or a connected narrative storytelling. For example, with some books, you can go around reading some chapters and not read others and here chapters are the CVUs. But in other cases, you can’t because to understand one chapter you should have read the previous one…the linear structure. So, I would say it depends on the nature of the podcast.
If every episode is unconnected to the previous one, and they can be listened to independently of other episodes, then fine. You can’t unbundle Making Obama or The Assassination or Death in Ice Valley and make sense out of just one episode, can you? Narrative storytelling is never going to go away…it’s too central to our human culture. So, I wouldn’t push this unbundling phenom too far.
But having said that, we are already moving in that direction of giving episodes its due focus. That is why we have playlisting. Playlists on Storiyoh are lists of curated episodes as opposed to shows. As playlists proliferate on Storiyoh, the need for individual subscriptions of shows might disappear. You simply follow the playlists of your choice. Even the smart playlists will remove the need for you to subscribe to shows – just throw in shows into a bucket and it will always present you with the latest episode, without having to subscribe to those shows and check updates individually.
But I think unbundling has another impact that is not discussed enough. Can you imagine what will happen or can happen if every potential book author out there could launch his project through audio and using the lean methodology? Experimentally, release chapter by chapter>collect feedback>improve>release>collect feedback>improve>release…? A book that is co-created with the consumer? And in audio? Forget writing up your entire masterpiece and then go looking for a publisher. I think that kind of unbundling can have a pretty amazing impact, and we would want to be at the centre of that storm.
I see elements of curation in the app. How do you square the editorial with the platform?
Rahul: Good question. We do a lot of curation ourselves right now, to seed the platform and set some example and direction. Eventually, the community curation will take over, in volume. That is the essence of a platform. For e.g., on Quora, when it began, the team was initially posting all the questions and answers themselves, and after a point, the community kicked in.
We will always have our own curation but it will co-exist with community curations. At the end of the day, there is a limit to how much we can curate or even thinking that we can curate best…that is falling into the content trap again. We want to focus on the infra so that others can curate and the content can spread without much friction.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this conversation where we will talk about the podcasting industry at large.
If you want to check out the Storiyoh app, you can download it here.