Sebastian Bond, founder of world's largest Arabic audiobook platform
Swedish start-up Kitab Sawti raised $6 million in Series A funding to expand its content and reach and ultimately create over 5,000 jobs for content creators and narrators by 2021.
How did you get the idea for Kitab Sawti and why did you decide to launch it?
I was working for an educational audiobook company and an integration project for Syrian kids in Swedish society. There is a lack of support for the Arabic language in schools and in society at large, which makes integration difficult. As we did more research to solve the problem in Sweden, we noticed the big gap in the market when it comes to Arabic content in the audiobooks sphere. Audiobooks are gaining traction worldwide because they allow busy people and individuals who do not normally read to still be able to consume a book’s content on the go. We decided to come up with our own solution and the project’s initial scope has naturally expanded.
Where did the name come from?
Quite simply, Kitab Sawti is Arabic of “Audiobook”. We chose an Arabic name that is clear, intuitive and fits with our ambition to develop the world’s biggest Arabic audiobook library.
How difficult was it to attract funding for the company and did you bootstrap it at first? Tell us a little bit about your experience when it came to funding
Audiobooks were getting quite popular globally when we launched the platform, so from an industry perspective, the market gap and business case were obvious. But in the beginning, we funded the business with our own savings, and we did the angel round after almost a year from start. Bootstrapping has been a natural part of building the business and we are still very cost cautious.
It didn’t take long to attract the interest of experienced entrepreneurs and venture capital firms such as Northzone. We have spent a lot of time on finding the right investors who believe in what we do for the right reasons and share our vision and strong belief in the market. In the end, they are an important part of building the business both from a funding and knowledge point of view.
What is your business model?
We are a freemium subscription-based business, meaning free users have access and can enjoy a limited catalogue. Our paying customers have unlimited access to all the platform’s Arabic content as opposed to the credit-per-book model adopted by global platforms such as Audible. We provide a trial period for users to try out our platform then our users can subscribe to the annual, monthly, weekly or even daily model.
What are some of your biggest challenges at the moment?
In some way, we are building a new behaviour and that takes time. We want Arab-speaking individuals to start listening to audiobooks in their own language, which is effectively asking them to adopt a new hobby. But we noticed that once people are convinced of our offering and they see the value - they become hooked. Our objective is to break the barrier by promoting audiobooks as a good habit in an increasingly fast-paced lifestyle, making books cool again.
Another challenge is that we currently produce all the content ourselves, while in mature publishing markets, the publishers produce their own audiobooks which help the market to grow faster since there is a bigger supply. We hope that this will be the case for Arabic audiobooks as well, soon, since there is so much opportunity for publishers and authors in the audiobook space.
How is Kitab Sawti performing at the moment and since launching?
When we launched in 2016, we dedicated the first year for testing and research before we launched our beta version of the app. At the moment, we are in an early commercial phase, we have around one million downloads, 250,000 active users, and an average of 20 percent month-on-month-growth. This has allowed us to garner the interest of existing and new investors, and we believe this is just the beginning of a burgeoning industry.
What are your future growth and expansion plans for the business?
We will continue our strategy of investing in high-quality Arabic content to strengthen our position as the number one Arabic audiobook service. We are also aiming to provide more than 5,000 opportunities to content creators and narrators in the region, with a focus on Saudi Arabia, our fastest growing market. We also plan to grow through key partners and commercial relationships such as the one we just established with Paltel, which is a telecommunications company in Palestine that will provide our service to its users.
Another key part of this strategy is to grow our team in the Middle East. Finding the best talents who want to be a part of our mission is something that we will spend a lot of time on. In the end, we believe that our heroes (employees) are the most important asset we have.
What do you see it growing into?
The audiobook trend is just starting to take off in the region and I believe we have not really scratched the surface of its potential since there are over 400 million Arabic speakers worldwide. With today’s fast-paced lifestyle and the need for Arabic content, we expect strong adoption rates going forward. We aim to become the go-to platform for Arabic audio content, and our success means that we will promote self-education and the Arabic language while providing opportunities to thousands of content creators.
What was your background prior to setting up Kitab Sawti and when did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Since I was a kid, I always had many ongoing projects at the same time. In school I sold fish, flowers and other things, to save money for school trips and I started my first company when I was 17 - it was a ski travel business that I ran for ten years before I sold it when I felt it was the right time to move on.
I worked for an international media company in London and Easter Europe which was focused on business development within e-commerce and online content - a Swedish version of Netflix. And my most recent endeavour prior to Kitab Sawti was when I worked for an educational audiobook company which provided audiobooks for students with reading disorders such as dyslexia, for example.
If you could go back, what would you have done differently in your career or in the setting up of Kitab Sawti?
Good question. In everything I do, I set clear goals and I have a “diary” where I write down the big decisions I made - also the why and what I expected from it. It makes it a lot easier to go back later and review my decision with a more evolved mindset...
I can’t point out to any major thing that I would have done differently in my life, but there are many things that I know now that would have been very helpful for me to know ten years ago.
In general, I believe it’s super important to have great people around you.
Get a mentor or two and always try to work with people that are better than you in what they do; that way, the learning process never stops. Getting out of your comfort zone to learning new things is probably the most rewarding thing in life for me personally.