Startup Stories: How Umano Found Product-Market Fit in an Emerging Industry

With podcasts coming into a “golden age,” it seems the convenience and immersion of audio is on the rise. That’s why it feels like the perfect time for Umano.

In cofounder Ian Mendiola’s own words, here’s the elevator pitch: “Have you ever seen a bunch of articles online that you couldn’t read because you didn’t have enough time? Well Umano turns them into audio so you can actually listen to them while you do other things.”


This isn’t a text-to-speech situation either. Each Umano story is narrated by one of many paid voice artists, and with their newest feature, Umano for Writers, writers can contribute narrations of their own pieces too.

I talked to Mendiola about the early days of Umano and what it took to become a go-to app.

(This is the second piece in our new Startup Stories series. Check out our first installment where we talked to Minbox founder Alexander Mimran about his viral product teaser.)

Finding the Big Idea

The company has actually been around since 2012 and was founed by Mendiola, Anton Lopyrev and Prabhdeep Gill. Since they met in school, the team of engineers always knew they wanted to create a startup together, so after working at some big companies like Google and Bloomberg, they took to bootstrapping and decided on what their venture was going to be.

“Eventually, we landed on Umano to solve a need for ourselves and a need that we thought our friends were having … Everybody talks about how they wish they were more informed … but just simply didn’t have enough time.

“In everybody’s day, there are these blocks of time where you can’t really interact with your phone whether you’re commuting, you’re at the gym, or you’re walking around from point A to point B, and people … just fill it with music. So we thought, ‘Okay, if this content was actually accessible in those time periods and users had a choice between hundreds of songs that they’ve listened to for the hundredth time or … articles about things that they’re interested in, would they use it?’”

The Umano app and web service was their solution to a problem that they saw in the scope of Internet content and from there, it grew pretty organically and without much of a pivot. But, as with any startup, there’s been a lot of learning along the way.

Starting the Startup

As a team of three engineers with no audio or journalism experience, they started doing what they know how to do best — building the product. Since then, Mendiola told me, “The idea that we had and our visions of what the product should be have sort of remained the same:

‘Let’s make content more accessible using audio.’”

Even with the Lean Startup model being the go-to for tech startups at the time (which continues today), the Umano team kind of deviated from the idea of spending minimal time on the product. Instead of waiting to perfect the product until after it went through testing, Mendiola said that their first step was a “hybrid approach”of what they learned from the Lean Startup model and what they knew about their product.

“We knew that despite what people would say, we wanted to still build a product that was usable and was polished in some sort of sense.” So they started in their wheelhouse, building and launching a “kickass product.” For them, that was the easy part. The hard part was getting the app into the smartphones of people who would use it.

One of their early strategies was to hit the Caltrain station early in the morning and go from car to car handing out flyers and pitching the app to commuters. They also emailed various publications and blogs, some with contacts they had and others with just cold emailing. Mendiola said, “One out of 20 would stick.”

The neat thing, and kind of difficult thing for Umano from a PR point of view is that it’s not a podcast or radio and it’s not exclusively news. Explaining this person by person was no doubt a clever grassroots approach, but Umano was still left looking for “the initial spike.”

The Spike

Being featured on the front page of the App Store and Google Play is kind of like having your business featured in a window display on the Internet and that was just the spike that Umano needed. Apple and Google really liked what Umano was doing, so in late 2012/early 2013 after the app was featured, they were finally getting the attention they were seeking.

“I wouldn’t say it made it easy, but it definitely played in our favor that we were in the press and getting featured a lot … and it made it easier to eventually raise our first round of funding” said Mendiola.

As more and more people used the app and it was featured several more times, the Umano team got stats to prove that they were on the right track with their initial train PR. Mendiola said that there’s a clear rise in use during the morning and evening commutes. Also, much like with articles you read word by word, people seem to gravitate toward lifestyle stories and list-formatted articles, even on audio. But their histograms also brought up another interesting trend that they didn’t expect.

“There’s a large number of users in Asia … What they’re doing is … playing the audio, reading along with it and helping them with their English.”

Umano continues to be one of the top apps in Korea. It’s so popular that on a trip to meet with investors in Asia, Mendiola was totally blown away by the amount of attention he got for Umano. “They all knew about it. They all loved it,” he said.

So I asked the obvious question: Have you done further investigation into that space to see if you could expand there? It had been a temptation for sure. “It’s a debate that goes on often just for fun,” he said. “It’s just one of those things where … you have to be very disciplined about [pushing it] … It was just too far from our core business that it didn’t totally make sense.” So for now, they’ve stayed focused on the problem they set out to solve instead of bringing a new one into the mix.

A New Industry

With this new venture, the Umano team was tapping into two industries they didn’t know much about, audio and publishing, and they’ve learned a lot about both of them.

When they first really delved into the world of audio and podcasts, Mendiola said, “It was like this other world that was starting to grow and that we didn’t know really existed … so that was the real eye opener there for us to see that there’s actually a really large market for it.” In fact, there were already large media companies tapping into the space.

Umano has gained some media partners of their own: Forbes, MIT Technology Review, Entrepreneur, and VentureBeat, but pitching to media companies didn’t go as simply as they’d planned. Regardless of their front-page app status, the team came to the realization that “publishers only give a shit about two things and that’s eyeballs and money. As a startup, you don’t really have either.”

Mendiola added, “When we first started [pitching to media companies] we thought there’s a clear value add to [their] content.” Their pitch was something like, “We’re not competing with your readers, we’re just enabling your content to be in other places where you won’t exist. Let’s partner.”

But it didn’t go over that easily, as they found out that even in this time of sharing, sharing and more sharing, publishers are extremely protective of their content. So, Mendiola says that with publishing companies, they learned “it’s a long game.”

Umano-top stories

And the hurdles don’t stop there. While it’s not a concern that pops up super often, sometimes writers have beef with the platform when the find out their articles were read without their knowing. Mendiola and his team don’t take these concerns lightly and they handle them on a case by case basis. “[We] actually reach out to them … and really work with them to communicate what we’re trying to do … I think honestly the initial inclination is to think, ‘These guys are just copying off my content and they don’t really give a shit about me, but … I think in general when we explain our overarching vision and that we’re here to help the publishing industry, most people are pretty receptive to it.” Especially with the new addition of the Umano for Writers platform (more on that below).

The Process

From the time a text article is published on the web to the time it’s published in its audio format on Umano, it goes through several steps that all start with the software.

“We pull in articles from feeds that we have in our system and once we have all those articles, we built some tech that’s able to identify which articles would be interesting to our users … Once that’s categorized and curated…then we have real people [on the editorial team] actually look at the content. Once that’s in the system, it gets shipped off to the narration community and they receive it when they log in … They record it and upload it back to our system.”

Not every narrator on Umano is a professional voice actor. In fact, anyone can “audition” from the site by reading a test article and submitting it. Mendiola said, some people do it for the money, and some people do it just out of a passion for the medium and further expanding the limits of content.

But just to be clear, everyone does get paid. The narration community gets paid per upload and with the Umano for Writers platform, writers get paid per thousand listens.

The Elusive Product-Market Fit

Mendiola said that Umano is asking many of the same questions as other startups in their phase: “[We’re] figuring out how to get to product-market fit. How to continue to grow the user base and thinking through what your customer acquisition strategy is and how it scales up.”

When I first read about Umano, I thought of it like a marriage of podcasts and radio, but it seems I was in the minority. Mendiola said that most people don’t really compare Umano to podcasts, but that may be because — despite the viral fame of Serial — podcasts are still not a widely-used vehicle for information.

“In theory [podcasts] sound like this amazing platform … everybody can broadcast themselves and it’s kind of like the new form of radio … It’s really interesting that not a lot of people really know about [them] … I don’t know what people in the audio space or what Umano has to do to fix that to let people know that this content exists.”

Umano is still attracting users, but Mendiola said they saw no spike from the rise of the “podcast golden age.” Instead, he said some of their big competition is Audible (which distributes content from New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the like, in addition to books), SoundCloud, Spotify, the Apple Podcast App and even Pandora. Mendiola said, “[w]e consider all audio platforms competition,” and that’s because they’re all vying for a very specific space.

“Every person only has a small amount of time to listen to stuff, so … it’s very competitive to get into that space. Since [people] only have that small amount of time, they can be very picky about what they listen to.”

Two Hits and a Miss

One of the most exciting parts of starting a startup is taking risks on new ideas, but chances are they won’t all pan out. While Umano has not pivoted from their initial mission, they’ve taken some risks and not all of them worked out. Let’s start with the miss.

The Miss: Automated Podcasts

While this idea didn’t take off, it’s one that Mendiola still stands firmly behind. Through an automated process, Umano could create 30-minute podcasts of similar articles back to back, using narrated content they already had, and they could automatically push the content to iTunes.

They thought they could fill the gap where big publishers didn’t have any audio content on iTunes, and they essentially did. When you searched a publication like Forbes in iTunes for example, you could potentially see an article from Umano pop up. “But what we realized is … most people don’t actually search for specific podcasts. They just either hear about it or they look at what Apple’s featuring.”

Hit: Umano for Writers

Umano released their Writers platform on December 10, and it got a great response on Product Hunt. “We want to partner with writers to deliver that content as well as monetize that content and give you complete control.” Not only are writers able to read and upload their own content to the platform, Umano provides an in-browser recording studio so the writers don’t need to have a bunch of professional equipment.

You just import your article, then the software breaks your article into chunks so you can record in stages. When you’re done, it combines all of your stages into one audio file and publishes it to your channel on Umano. It’s a new way to expand your reader base and reach new eyes ears.

Umano-recording screeshot

Mendiola and his team are still working on making improvements to the recording software, “For us, to take it to the next level, we’re figuring out a way to get the sound quality up for our readers whether that’s educating them or building some tech that [fixes] some of those things like white noise …”

I tried out the current recording software for myself, using only the mic in a pair of headphones, and it worked great. In fact, when you’re finished reading this, you can hear my narration of last week’s Startup Story right here.

Hit: Auto-Attributing Authors

This was one of those oh-so-simple ideas that had a big impact on how people hear about Umano. Umano updated the Twitter sharing feature on an article page to automatically include the Twitter handle of the author in the tweet. Sometimes this led to instant RTs and praise from the authors and other times, skepticism. But either way, people discovered Umano who didn’t know about it before and even the skeptics usually come around to the Umano mission of making content more accessible by way of audio.

Mendiola said, “It’s crazy how the really small things can make such a huge impact … in the long run.”

While Umano continues to find where in the market they fit in in a world of streaming services and podcast apps, it’s definitely inspiring to see the success of an app that the team believed in, even without being pros in the space they were about to enter. In fact, when they first quit their steady jobs and sat down at their whiteboard looking for their big idea, they didn’t have anything praticular in mind — they just wanted to start a starteup.

Mendiola said, “It was this ‘We can do it too’ mentality.” It’s a mentality that continues to serve them well. You can download the app, or use the web platform to curate playlists and suggest new articles on the Umano website.

Do you get your media through audio? We’d love to know your thoughts about Umano in the comments. 

Featured image was taken from this video by Umano.

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