Alex Roman spent 15 years working in digital media before founding her startup, Listenable LLC in 2016. Throughout her career working for world-renowned media companies, Alex learned to design and build digital products, evolve them, and grow various digital businesses. Then an idea and an opportunity collided, creating the perfect storm for Alex to launch Listenable, a full-service digital audio solution for publishers.
NAN PRICE: During your career in corporate digital media, were you thinking in the back of your mind that you wanted to start your own company?
ALEX ROMAN: I’ve had the entrepreneurial bug ever since I was a little kid. I always felt like I was going to have my own business someday. I saw the need for easy-to-use digital audio. With content accessibility becoming a real moral and legal concern and the challenges that professionals face trying to keep up with enormous amounts of content and many distractions, I saw audio as a simple and economical way to improve people’s lives.
NP: When did you start getting the idea for Listenable?
AR: Well, I’ve always felt that there’s a lot to read and too little time. Having managed various digital businesses, I’ve seen the power of new media time and again and ever-evolving content consumption habits.
The smartphone has changed consumption habits once again and the nature of the mobile lifestyle is quite perfect for a listening experience. And, to be honest, I’ve always had a passion for voiceover work. I think it’s fun and so an opportunity to use voice narration with technology was best of both worlds!
In late 2015 I found myself at an interesting career intersection. After some time and much thought, I decided the timing was right for me to take my shot to lean in to a whole other space—that of an entrepreneur.
Once I made that decision and began to dive deeper in to the business potential of digital audio, the momentum was like a wave and I knew that I had no choice but to ride it. I was all in. The aliveness, creativity, and excitement I was feeling couldn’t be ignored or suppressed. I knew I was on the right track.
NP: How did you come up with this idea?
AR: Like so many people, I want to take in high-value, quality content—and there’s so much of it. I don’t always have time to stop and read something. I earmark things to go back and read later, but often that just doesn’t happen.
The problem is, reading is a standstill activity and we’re a mobile lifestyle. Reading, and even video content, require stand-still, full attention. I wanted to give people a way to consume content that’s important to them while maximizing their productivity. Burning 300 calories on the treadmill while listening to a high-quality narration of a white paper seems pretty productive to me!
That was the essence of what I wanted to do and some informal surveying of friends and colleagues told me I was on to something. I developed some ideas about how to design and build such an experience and I was off and running.
The Listenable experience was taking shape through exploring questions like: Is it a consumer app? Is it business-to-business? How does it work? What’s the business model?
Eventually these things came in to focus and we launched our product late last year. In these early days, things are always subject to change based on new learnings or opportunities.
NP: Did you use any Connecticut resources to help launch the startup?
AR: I find the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Connecticut to be quite alive and I took advantage of that. I participated in a startup accelerator at The Refinery in Westport last year. I wanted to learn about funding and make connections in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. I learned the stages of funding and the expectations and criteria associated with each level.
Listenable partnered with Checkmate Creations, which is a digital agency focused on helping startups bring their concepts to reality with solid, scalable, affordable prototypes. We built the Listenable web application within a couple of months.
NP: Can you explain how Listenable works?
AR: The Listenable solution is an economical turn-key software and professional service that allows publishers to keep their customers on their site and create a customer-centric premium content offering.
When a publisher partners with Listenable we provide them with code they embed within their website code. This simple one-time step is what allows the Listenable web application to run on the publisher’s site. After that, the publisher selects the content to be narrated and we coordinate availability and timing. The Listenable voice talent produces the narration and uploads it to the Listenable platform where we handle the hosting and streaming. Then the narration can be accessible right from the publisher’s web page, which is typically the page where the written content is displayed. It’s all quite simple, and for the user there’s no downloading, no logging in, no searching—it’s right there. One tap and you’re listening.
NP: Is the product creating a podcast?
AR: I like to make a distinction between podcasting and the kind of audio on demand Listenable provides. Podcasting is basically the audio on demand 1.0 that is in the marketplace today with its share of flaws. It’s hard to find and use and measure, and publishers often lose the direct relationship with their customer if their podcast is distributed on a third-party platform like iTunes.
Listenable is audio on demand 2.0—it fixes all of the flaws with podcasting and creates new direct revenue models for the publisher. Also, podcasts are usually mini radio shows with hosts having conversations. Listenable narrations are just that, narrations, as opposed to hosted conversations.
NP: What is your target market and how are you building the customer base?
AR: Publishers of high-value, long-lasting content will see the strongest business results with Listenable.
Scholarly and professional publishers produce content that is premium and has a long shelf-life. Scholarly publishing is nearly a $10 billion industry consisting of thousands of journals, which include millions of articles that can and should be listenable.
We’re working with the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering (CASE), which is a private, nonprofit member organization that the state of Connecticut commissions to do research and publish studies and articles based on findings. The studies and articles CASE publishes are high-value and have a relatively long shelf-life.
In December, I had the pleasure of speaking to a global audience representing the world’s largest and most influential scholarly publishers at the STM Innovations Conference in London. There is strong consensus among in the scholarly publishing industry that audio is missing on a grand scale and likely that that will change.
NP: Why do you think publishers should use Listenable?
AR: Having a Listenable version of written content is not only a true customer-centric experience it’s also a new revenue stream. Today more than ever, digital content creators are concerned about reaching audiences and making sure their content is accessible to everyone—and Listenable helps make that happen.
When people can choose the modality in which they prefer to consume content, be it read, watch, or listen, engagement and comprehension will go up—and that’s important if you’re a publisher spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on creating a piece of content.
The timing to leverage audio is now. Audio on demand is poised to break out in 2017, and according to industry leader, Audible (owned by Amazon), consumers are willing to pay for it. Audible recently expanded their audio subscription product to include short-form content narrations.
NP: Can you talk about some of the challenges and growth you’ve experienced as an entrepreneur?
AR: Even amidst all of the excitement of bringing an idea to life, it’s still a big challenge on both emotional and business levels. The entrepreneurial ecosystem is alive and well in Connecticut and I’ve built a new network of people and team that will support the venture and make Listenable successful.
This is where new skills are uncovered and honed. Entrepreneurial work is a view of everything—sales funnel, product development, funding, legal, people, business model, and more. The key is to stay open and flexible and adjust as needed.
NP: That’s some good advice and honesty about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.
AR: I’m savoring the learning experience and have grown to become comfortable with practical risk and uncertainty. That’s been a big area of personal growth. I get out of my comfort zone on a regular basis. I have to remind myself that this is what’s to be expected and if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.
NP: You are a true entrepreneur.
AR: Thanks. Listenable is off to a great start and poised for growth in 2017, which is projected to be a break-out year for audio on demand.