From the likes of Ximalaya in China to audio media giants such as Spotify and Audible in the US, audio media has seen a steady rise in adoption in the past few years and is projected to grow even more. Today, 21% of the US adult population consume audio media content regularly, with 31% of them listening to podcasts on a daily basis and 66% at least once a week.
In this month of Startup Conversations, we caught up with Oscar Jesionek, Co-Founder and CEO of Fonos. Oscar shared with us his thoughts on the drivers for audio media and as a founder how he looks at product development and unit economics.
Hi Oscar! Thank you for taking the time to do this sharing!
I would like to start with your background. Having grown up in Austria and studying Business & Economics then going on to do various Finance, Sales & Marketing jobs, how did you end up in Vietnam and eventually starting Fonos?
Oscar: I was already working remotely in marketing and developer roles for companies in the US and UK before I came to Vietnam. So, I was able to live anywhere and ended up traveling around a little in Asia. I got a little tired of changing countries, and I was looking to stay somewhere long term. Also, I really love the city of Saigon and in general, I felt great in Vietnam. There was also a strong community of online entrepreneurs in Vietnam. So,r it was a great time to come here and I ended up staying much longer than I initially expected.
Fonos was inspired by my co-founder, Xuan. She was running her previous businesses and F&B chains but did not have enough time to sit down and read books. She was really into business books and was looking for a great audiobook application but could not find anything in the market. That was really how the idea started.
Starting a company in a foreign country must be daunting, what were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Oscar: When it comes to Fonos, I never really planned to start a business for the Vietnamese market. Of course, being on the ground here, I saw that there are tons of opportunities, and there is a lot of exciting stuff happening in the startup space. However, I did not necessarily think that I was the right person to tackle that being a foreigner and not speaking the language.
There are also a lot of intricacies about running a business in Vietnam that is different from other countries, such as accounting or hiring people. Additionally, there are also ongoing challenges such as communication with employees and cultural differences. As a foreigner, it is not impossible but it is definitely a big challenge. It would take a lot of time to get your head around it.
The number one shortcut for any foreigner thinking of starting a company is getting a local co-founder, especially one that already has the experience of running a company locally.
Everything has its pros and cons. There are benefits in starting a company in a foreign country, where I can bring my experience from other countries that I have lived in. I have a little perspective of what is outside of the box and can then contribute here. At the same time, there are downsides such as communications issues but they are not insurmountable. It will just take a little work to find the right methods.
The media landscape has gone through several revolutions and many are saying the increasing adoption of audio media will be permanent.
In your opinion, what are some of the long-term permanent drivers for the increasing adoption of audio media?
Oscar: I think that the adoption of audio media is permanent and I even saw it in my own behavior. In my opinion, the long-term drivers for audio media are:
- The convenience of consuming audio media,
- Rise in smartphone adoption and,
- The availability of fast internet to stream high-quality audio from anywhere.
I actually consume much more audio than video content because of the convenience that audio content provides. I can have my headphones on listening to an audiobook or a podcast while I am cleaning the apartment, going for a walk, or while I am in the gym. In all these situations, it would be really inconvenient to pull up a video and watch from a screen. So audio media in a way allow me to utilize the time that was previously not available.
Also, it can’t really be replaced by something else. Whether it is a screen, VR, or AR, it takes you out of whatever else you’re doing. You can’t drive a car and watch a video, but you can drive a car and listen to audio at the same time. Hence, I do not think that this is going to change and the adoption of audio media will continue.
I think the interesting new trends are around live audio, such as Clubhouse. I think this is quite new and I do not think it will go away. The question is, how big will it get? The current trend of on-demand live audio conversations is really interesting and this was also not possible just a few years ago.
Fonos is an audio super-app that started with audiobooks. Today, what are some of the products on Fonos (other than audiobooks)?
When it comes to product development, when do you know it is the right time to develop and release new products/services?
Oscar: Right now, besides Audiobooks, we have Book Summaries and Wellness content such as meditations, sleep stores, and relaxation music. In addition to these audio first products, we also release exclusive short audio series by partnering with other media companies. For example, we partner with Vietcetera, a well-known media company in Vietnam, and we release some of their audio content that is exclusive to Fonos only.
When we release a new product, the most important factor is whether there is demand for it. Hence, we roll out new products in phases. We would release the first batch to test the interest and make sure that this is something our users want. Once we have “proved our concept”, then we will release it on a bigger scale and make sure that this is the best possible type of content available.
Additionally, when we release new products, we always make sure we do not deviate from the main product. The main product for us continues to be audiobooks. So that is always the number one priority. Only when we’re satisfied with what is happening in that part of the business then do we put time and effort and resources into other types of content.
In your opinion, do you think that unit economics and growth are in contrast? What would be your strategy when looking at unit economics and growth?
Oscar: In my opinion, when you’re still a relatively new startup, it is not the time to be optimizing unit economics. However, I think many startups take that too far and do not pay attention to unit economics at all, which I think is very wrong.
My approach is to have a very clear path to the unit economics that I am aiming for in the long run, and I am very well aware of how to achieve it. I am not a fan of growing with horrible unit economics, and hopefully, figure it out in the future.
On the premise of the above, then I think it is not the right time to optimize for unit economics at the start because you are still optimizing for experimentation and growth. I think it is fine to run sub-optimally for some time, if you’re getting enough benefit when it comes to growth, building network effects, or partnerships that will pay off in the long run.
Being based in Vietnam, how would you describe the startup ecosystem?
Oscar: I think the energy is great. Vietnamese are very passionate about startups, they are young, well educated, and have technical skills. I think that is the positive side of it. The ecosystem is also growing, we are seeing more and more VCs and angel investors.
The main challenge is that it is still quite an inexperienced ecosystem. There are not many experienced entrepreneurs that have built great companies that are mentoring young people. It is still mostly young people trying their first startup with a few mentors here and there.
Therefore, there is a lot of growth left to be done. That said, I think things are on the right path, the country is developing well and there are tons of opportunities and that also applies to the startup ecosystem. So it is a really great time to be here and to see all of the change and growth potential that is happening in the country.
Which book would you recommend for people in the audience aspiring to be an entrepreneur?
Oscar: I am personally very into biographies and an example of that would be Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike.
The reason why I am recommending biographies instead of a specific business book is that I think there are many approaches to being an entrepreneur. Whether it’s having your own small business, joining a VC, or going into technology, there are many different strategies and many books for each of them.
I think the biggest lesson people can learn by reading biographies is understanding that even the founders of the most successful companies such as Nike or Amazon had to overcome many challenges before achieving success. Understanding the struggle and how hard it was for these people will prepare aspiring entrepreneurs well for their own journey as an entrepreneur. The path of an entrepreneur will not be smooth, even for the most successful people, and any aspiring entrepreneur needs to be prepared for that.
How was the experience of pitching and raising funds through AngelCentral as a Syndicated company?
Oscar: It was great, I love the support from the whole team. The partners, Shao-Ning, Der Shing, and Teck Moh are all very knowledgeable about the startup scene and they are great at advising when it comes to fundraising. I think they are extremely well respected in the Singapore angel investing scene. Hence, having them on our side has been great for us. I’m very thankful to them and all the angels that invested in us through the syndicate. Overall, it was a very good experience.
To close the session, where do you see Fonos in the next 5 years?
Oscar: With our modern lifestyle, people are very busy and stressed. The way I think about Fonos is providing users with high-quality content in both their free time and also during the time that they previously did not have such as when they are cooking.
I think in the next 5 years, Fonos will be the number one place for that in Vietnam, and possibly in Southeast Asia. We are just going to continue focusing on making our users as happy as possible with great content whether it is through Audiobooks, Book Summaries, Wellness content, or something else that we introduce in the future. It all depends on what our users really love and we want to be the best place to get that kind of content.
“It all depends on what our users really love and we want to be the best place to get that kind of content.” – Oscar Jesionek, Co-Founder & CEO, Fonos
Fonos’ mission is to bring high-quality audio content to everyone in Vietnam. The Fonos app is the leading Vietnamese audio app with hundreds of exclusive best-selling audiobooks, hundreds of book summaries, and a wide selection of curated meditations.
Learn more at www.fonos.vn“
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