Warsaw native, Marcin Beme studied economics, math and computer science at Warsaw University and Warsaw University of Technology.
After founding startups in the telecoms and media sectors, he got into creating audiobook content in 2011, which led to the foundation of Audioteka. Despite a challenging start, he and his cofounder succeeded in creating a market for what proved to be a highly successful business model. Today, Marcin is no longer involved in Audioteka’s day-to-day operations and is focusing instead on closing the biggest funding round of his career for his next groundbreaking venture involving content, NFTs and gaming. His contributions to advancing digital technologies, entrepreneurship and Polish culture have been recognized by the likes of Forbes, Business Insider and the Polish government, among many others.
How did you get into the media and tech sectors?
After I finished my studies, I dreamed of becoming a venture capitalist. It was all about money, investing, building stuff, etc. I literally believed I would finish my studies and launch my own VC fund. As you can imagine, it was not that easy to graduate and get people’s money without any track record, so I ended up on the other side and started my first business. I was invited by my colleague to join him in a technology company producing software and hardware for wireless data transmission. It was a long time ago, but today you would call it an IoT sector. We produced our own hardware and software that enabled devices, ATMs, gauges and electricity, gas meters, etc. to be managed online, remotely. That was the first venture. We sold it, and then the second venture was closer to Audioteka. It was a TV production company, which gave me the first experience of doing business with content. I learned that you either own the IP or control the distribution channel. The TV production company wasn’t a big success, but it was the best school to learn the media business. After that, I started Audioteka, which connected the dots from my two previous businesses (because it was all about managing IP for a certain type of content – first audiobooks and then audio in general) and a bit of the experience I had in the technology company, because Audioteka was very strongly technological, at least at the beginning.
And why audiobooks? Where did the idea come from?
It was from when I was very intensely training in kite surfing at the Polish seaside, so I was traveling with my brother almost every weekend. From Warsaw, the seaside is a five–hundred-kilometer drive, so we were totally bored during those trips and we started to listen to audiobooks. On CDs, of course. And the other angle of how the audiobook idea landed on my table was that my colleague, a brilliant sound engineer, approached me with an idea to build a publishing house to put audiobooks on CDs. He had some contacts with the state-owned Polish radio, which has lots of archives. We were discussing the concept over dinner at my place, and my girl, now my wife, said, “Guys, this makes no sense to do CDs. You should put it on the internet.” And I thought this was the most stupid idea, because I was about to exit the TV-production company. We were switching from TV to content production because TV production had stopped being a business; it became a commodity. It was very difficult, it became very competitive, and we had started to invest in internet shows because every TV production company has a problem of delivering services to a very limited number of clients. Here in Poland, we had public TV and two private stations. There was no growth story, so we started to look for other ways to produce something for ourselves and build our own channels. And it was twenty years ago, so there weren’t any internet shows, no Netflix, not even social media. It was much too early, and the content we put on the internet was a disaster because there was no viewership, no technology for people to watch it. So when I heard “Let's put some content on the internet,” I was not too enthusiastic. But my conscience said we have to do it, so we did. This was in 2011.
Also, I was never a strong reader – I was always the sports guy, always on the move – and maybe I did it subconsciously for all the people who are not strong readers. And it changed my life, because I consumed a lot of books I would never have consumed.
What other challenges did you face early on? And how did you overcome them?
We were way ahead of the market. In the first years, there were no sales. Of course, in the US, Audible was already very big, and Amazon was already acquiring it; there was a market. But in Europe, audiobooks were for blind people and kids. They were not a sexy product, so the market was not there. The biggest struggle was to change perceptions. And our stubbornness, consistency and focus saved us, and a belief that we were doing this not only for money because I truly believe we can have some impact on the universe. I mean, we're a small company, but I believe that with our abilities, and the money we have access to, we can make a change.
At a certain moment, it started to take off. Of course, apps became normal. The first app we created was for Nokia. I managed to make the huge Nokia corporation have our application installed on Nokia phones, so we got over a million phones where our application was just a click away. That made us push ahead. Second, huge creativity on the content-creation side, because we created a format that I call super-production. We started to promote it as not just audiobooks but an audio experience, using actors and music to produce our content – moving away from books but towards listening – and it was a much wider market. These were two turning points in our history.
Of course, both had hiccups. We made apps for all devices, even those that didn’t exist, because we wanted to be everywhere. It cost a lot of money, and lots of those apps died; only the Apple and Android ones remain. And super-production costs a lot of money. It’s ten times more expensive than traditional audiobooks, so we really had to believe that it was going to pay off.
You were pretty visionary, then?
Yes. There was a feeling I never had, before or after. I just saw ahead, to be honest. I can't explain it, but I just knew what would happen, step by step. I didn't know exactly, but the direction was so clear to me. Of course, this isn’t rocket science or a cure for cancer, but we had a pretty good feeling about what we're doing. As I said before, it’s about believing why we were doing it, because in the beginning, it was totally not about money. It wasn’t making any money. The start especially was very difficult.
What advice do you have for other founders?
Believing is fundamental. Understanding why you do it. If you ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” and the answer is, “To make some money,” maybe that's not the best answer – maybe you’re wasting your time a bit. So, believe what you do, look for some real problem solving, and mind the market. The audiobook market was very small, and building a market takes time. So, understand why you do it, look for solutions to real problems, check the solutions are solving a problem for a market which is big enough.
Today, everything happens very quickly compared to before, so if you want to grab a chance, you have to act super quickly, both spending money, hiring people, firing people, testing your idea, verifying. These are completely different times now. You can bootstrap almost anything these days. And, of course, understand technology deeply. Because even if you do business in culture, it’s still technology driven, so you have to understand tech. It must become part of your DNA.
Warsaw is a good place to hire tech talent. Are there any other advantages to being here?
Warsaw and Poland had an advantage some time ago because we had good talent, especially in technology, and it was not so expensive, so it was quite different starting in Warsaw versus Munich, for example. Now, it has completely changed because of the pandemic. Remote working became normal and prices are more or less equal, which is good because taking advantage of cheap people isn't a very good and sustainable advantage. On the other hand, when you open up from this perspective, you also open up for business people, which Poland was never very strong at. It’s starting now. Other colleagues more successful than me built and sold their companies, and they’re investing back. There's experience being built on the technological level but also on the business level, especially in digital, because we don't have many people who have succeeded in this area from Poland, from Warsaw. But there are more and more coming in and getting back on the market. It’s very important that they contribute their money and experience.
What are your top work essentials?
My phone, my Mac and my headphones, of course.
At what age did you found your company?
What’s your most used app?
Windguru (for kite-surfing), Snow-Forecast (for skiing), Google apps (for work).
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
Understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and believe in it.
What’s your greatest skill?
Making things happen, giving energy to others, creating stuff from nothing.