Interview with Wenbin Fang: Founder and CEO of Listen Notes (the #1 search engine for podcasts)
If you haven’t explored Listen Note: https://www.listennotes.com/, it’s the most powerful and useful search engine for not only podcasts but also podcast episodes.
It’s an innovative tool to help you dive deep into a subject and binge listen to a series of episodes related to that subject. The subject may be a person, a place, a new discovery, etc.
I interviewed the CEO and Founder of Listen Notes, Wenbin Fang. Originally from China, Wenbin found himself working in the United States as an engineer, and listening to a ton of podcasts when he wasn’t working. Listen Notes was just a side project for him but it quickly caught attention from a couple of venture capitalists months shortly after he shipped his prototype.
At the same time as Wenbin was developing Listen Notes, podcasting continued to be on the rise. Today (September 2019), there are more than 700,000 podcasts in the market today compared to 250,000 in 2014.
How do you explain ListenNotes to people here who are hearing it for the first time? What is it? What does it do?
Wenbin: [00:02:27] So it is a search engine for podcasts. It's like Google, but for podcasts. You type in keywords and then you can search the whole Internet’s podcasts and episodes.
Fei: [00:02:43] I saw some impressive stats on the site today. Noticed that when you launch the home page of ListenNotes., I guess it was a lot like Google and you saw research search results immediately. But now you actually see the big stats. And I was really stunned to see the number of podcasts that you found. What was the process like? Did you reach out to podcasters or do they find you first?
Wenbin: [00:03:09] So, again, it’s pretty similar to Google. How does Google build the index for the whole internet? Well, there's an automated program called Crawler. So similarly, we have such an automated program to crawl the whole internet to find podcasts. As ListenNotes gets more and more popular, podcasters find my website and they submit podcasts themselves. Google had a similar process. If you start a new website today, maybe two months later, you will get indexed by Google automatically. But if you want to be indexed right away, well, you can submit your website to Google. So ListenNotes has a similar thing.
How long did it take for you to build it? I'm sure it's still an ongoing process.
Wenbin: [00:04:15] It's an ongoing process. So you can imagine right now there are some machines running this kind of crawler somewhere in the cloud.
Fei: [00:04:26] Yep. And so let's talk about the fact that you and I talked last year and between last year and this year, just a short 12 months or so, we think we're all aware that podcast is a very much a booming media. There are many more podcasters and podcasts today. And so what were your thoughts initially in terms of, OK, this is the project I want to work on. Take us back to the origin of this. How many years ago? What was it like at that moment?
Wenbin: [00:05:00] Ok, so ListenNotes was a side project of mine. I started it as a side project in early 2017, so it's about two years ago. Yeah, but let's take a step back to talk about podcasts. Personally, I like podcasts a lot. I started to listen to podcast ten years ago when I was in China. I was practicing my English listening. About two and a half years ago I found myself consuming more information from podcasts than from other media. Now I don't watch much TV. I read books, but the podcast is a more effective channel to gain knowledge, nowadays you can just listen to the 20-minute- interview and then learn a lot. I always wanted to have a search engine for podcast episodes. I want it to be episode-centric so I can type in keywords and then find a bunch of episodes from different podcasts. I don’t want to subscribe to a few podcasts and then listen to them again and again. Instead, I want to explore many different podcasts. However, I couldn't find a good episode-centric search engine back then (end of 2016). So I started Listen Notes as a side project. I spend maybe less than one week and built a prototype, it was very basic, but I used it a lot to search episodes myself. I launched it. I put it on the internet. About nine months later, I started to work on it full time. So that was about September 2017. And then, yeah, I was full time since then.
Fei: [00:06:57] So there is a lot to break down there. I thought it was really intriguing to search episodes as opposed to podcasts, and the reason for that is for me as a podcaster within our lifespan of four and a half years running the show. There are episodes that are extremely popular. There are episodes that are not as popular, not because there aren't good episodes in our opinion, but maybe because the subject wasn't what people were looking for or you know, we don't really know. We didn't know the answer. But you actually cracked the code, which is, you know, before ListenNotes, it was really difficult for anybody to be exposed to the episode level unless somebody searches on your Website, you know, Feisworld.com, or somebody knows where to go already. But most people wouldn't. This is really brilliant. And I also saw on Listen Notes, you are now able to create your own playlists, which means you could find 20 episodes from your favorite shows and listen to it continuously.
What’s “Listen Later”?
Wenbin: [00:08:01] There's a feature called "Listen Later", and it's quite popular right now. I see some very interesting use cases here.
If you’re a school teacher and you want to teach a topic, you can give students a list of books or you can give them a list of podcast episodes about a topic. And also some media people use "Listen Later" to curate episodes by topics of interest.
Fei: [00:08:45] Wow, that's really cool.
Fei: [00:10:54] When you mentioned creating playlists for me for the podcast, I thought, wow, there's a whole new space and a business model for that, because as you know, Spotify became such a revenue-generating engine based on people's playlists. And now up and coming artists to be featured in the playlist toppers, those pay significant money to be part of that. So playlist supports this idea of exposing people to so much more content that they end up loving but never knew existed.
Wenbin: [00:11:48] Well, I know very little about the music industry. I don't really understand the revenue model here. Do musicians pay Spotify or do they pay the curators?
Fei: [00:12:07] The curators.
Wenbin: [00:12:09] Ok. So it's an underground economy here.
Fei: [00:12:13] They paid the curators, a lot of the curators are influencers as well.
Wenbin: [00:12:17] I see.
Fei: [00:12:19] Don't know which part of the music industry specifically they come from, but they promote certain music. And for example, Starbucks might need to purchase playlists from these people and you can also create your own playlist. I think it's my podcast that I can really explain this a lot better. Something that we really as podcasters want to see happen, is that cross pollination of topics and interests that we have. And we want to know what other people are doing, what other people are talking about, both the podcasters and the interviewees. So I really was really keen on seeing that feature. It made me very happy today.
Wenbin: [00:13:18] Cool.
How did you fund Listen Notes at the beginning and later on?
Fei: [00:13:20] So I'm going to move on to the second part of your origin story related to listennotes. You brought up 2017 when it came to the month of September, you started working on it full time. Did you fund the first nine months out of your own pocket? Did you have another job to kind of do this? Because a lot of our listeners, entrepreneurs themselves, they're thinking like, wow, how does he do that? How do I save up enough money? What was your situation at the time?
Wenbin: [00:13:50] Yeah. Here's the timeline. So the end of 2016, I quit my day job. Previously, I was an engineer in Nextdoor, which is a social network for neighborhoods. And then I quit my day job. I started a company together with my former co-worker. So that was the first 9 months in 2017. That didn't work out. And then I left the company I cofounded. I needed to find something to do. And I looked at one of my side projects, ListenNotes. I saw the potential of it. So I started working on it full-time. Initially, I used my own personal savings. That didn't last very long. But right before I ran out of my personal savings, I was pretty lucky. One investor found me on the internet.
He reached out to me and after a phone call and in-person meeting he decided to fund me.
Fei: [00:15:09] Wow. So, you know, you are welcome to share as much or as little information as you feel comfortable. When did you realize that there was a clear potential for ListenNotes? What did you see?
Wenbin: [00:15:29] Yeah. I did an experiment. I sent an email to 3 reporters. And then one reporter replied. He wrote an article about Listen Notes. This was some kind of validation on the idea of Listen Notes. And during that period of time, of course, I listen to a ton of podcasts. So, yeah, I was not from a business background. I didn't do much business analysis there. I just follow my passion.
Let’s talk about a leap of faith and the uncertainty of an entrepreneur.
Fei: [00:16:11] Well, that's definitely a leap of faith right there. May I ask, you know, was there any external pressure for you? When you're starting off your business, did you have a family to support or kids as well?
Wenbin: [00:16:27] My wife is very supportive. Actually, she helped me with a bunch of things in the company.
Fei: [00:16:41] Wow, that's incredible. And I know very intimately, not just with my own business, but so many other peoples that I ended up helping and contribute to, and it's a very big deal. And the same time, you know, when I started my own business there, there are people sometimes, podcast guests, who really, you know, lend me a helping hand, referred more clients. What was the negotiation like with your investor? Were they VCs or angel investors? What category do they fall under?
Wenbin: [00:17:16] Yeah, so my first investor was Boost VC (https://www.boost.vc/), a Startup Accelerator. Basically they fund startups in batch, every year they fund 20 startups or so, and for each startup, they write a small check. Maybe 100K or 200K something like that. Yes. It is not enough money to hire people full time, but it's enough to support one person to work on this startup
Fei: [00:18:04] I am not sure, but was it your first interaction with VC?
Wenbin: [00:18:15] I would say yes, the first time, but in my last company, we'd raise a small amount of money from friends. They are no formal investors.
Fei: [00:18:30] I see. It was very reassuring to know that it doesn't matter: one hundred, two hundred thousand dollars for a start, it's still significant money and especially if you decide to work full time on it. And did you have any fear or doubts in terms of how long would this revenue stream last? And what do I need to prove, the features I need to develop or kind of sell back to the VC that we're making progress?
Wenbin: [00:18:58] Yes, certainly there was pressure. Actually, you want some people to hold you accountable. Well, so far for me it was a one-person company. Now, I can give up any time, basically, if there are no investors out there. So you embrace this external pressure. I think it is a good thing.
How the website listennotes is generating revenue?
Wenbin: [00:19:47] Actually there are two parts of the business. So one is the user-facing website. As you can see, is ListenNotes.com. And a second part is a podcast API. API means application programming interface, it is for developers to use. So let's say today you want to build a podcast app. You need to access to a podcast database. You can choose to build your own database or you can choose to use my API and you need to pay me for using the API. So the website brings in revenue via advertisement. You visit the Website, and you'll see ads there. On the API side, the developers pay us. So two revenue streams.
Fei: [00:20:43] Oh, interesting. So I'm on the website right now. You have a free plan for ListenNotes API, and you have a paid plan.
Wenbin: [00:20:53] Yeah, it is a freemium model. So if you want to try it out, it is free. If your usage exceeds the quota limit, then you need to pay the overage.
Fei: [00:21:04] And what is the rate? I don't see the pricing information here.
Oh, pricing details. I see.
Wenbin: [00:21:39] Yes.
How did you come up with this? This is the first time for me to see it, even though it may have existed for a long time. How long has this been visible or available?
Wenbin: [00:21:52] Well, I started this API back at the end of 2017, it didn't take off until the end of last year (2018). It took almost a year to gain momentum.
Fei: [00:22:15] Were people, developers, in this case, waiting for this to come out? Did you get a lot of requests or messages from people?
Wenbin: [00:22:24] Yep, yep. So how did I start the API – at the end of 2017, one developer, who was building a podcast app, asked me to provide this kind of API. I was not sure whether this is the thing I want to do. But anyway, I spent one day building the API for this developer. But he ended up not using my API, I don’t really know why. But gradually, people discovered this API, maybe from Google, maybe from some forums. So well, to build an app, it takes time. maybe they started the development in the middle of last year, but it took some time. And they launched at the end of last year. So okay, I saw some traffic, I saw some API usage, and then there are more and more apps using my API today. And I constantly talk to the developers, answering their questions about using the API.
Fei: [00:23:56] And right now, you're still the one-person team who supports everyone, these users, which I think is very liberating because your overhead is going to be very low. How many developers or users do you have currently for this API?
Wenbin: [00:24:15] 320 subscribers (as of March 2019). A subscriber may be an individual developer or one company.
Fei: [00:24:31] That's a lot of people.
Wenbin: [00:25:43] Yep.
Fei: [00:25:44] You know, you talked briefly about your background. Sounds like you were obviously in technology and programming when you launched Listennotes. I don't know how much marketing experience you've had in the past. Like you, a lot of early solar pioneers, even young entrepreneurs, think about it. They put up a blog, a Web site, a YouTube channel, and they don't know how to really engage with so many people. What was your plan to kind of explore and expose the Internet to your brand new thing that nobody ever heard of?
Wenbin: [00:26:29] So clearly I'm not an expert myself. That's why I reached out to you. I’m still learning. So, yeah, I tried many marketing channels over the past year. I posted to forums like Hacker News. I have a blog, company blog. And I talked to users a lot. I put my email on the website everywhere. this makes it easy for other people to reach out to me. I find this very effective. So when you make users happy, they stick to your website.
As I say, it's easy for people to contact me. I'm not a big company so they can always reach out to me.
Fei: [00:27:50] Oh, I see, they see a picture, they see an email address that's not just info or support. They know that they're talking to you. You're not just anybody, you're the founder of the company.
Wenbin: [00:28:01] Yep, yep, yep.
What would be an ideal situation, where would you like to see Listen Notes travel to in terms of marketing, what would be like a dream come true for you?
Wenbin: [00:28:18] Let's see, so actually more than half of the visitors to our website come from outside the US. Some of them are from, of course, the UK, from Canada, Australia, English speaking countries, but a lot of them are from non- English speaking countries. So I want to see a non-English speaking audience increase a lot because this will be a good thing for the entire podcast industry. now podcasts are very English-centered. Most content is in English. But I think podcasts have great potential with other countries as well.
Fei: [00:29:29] For sure. I mean, I think you became someone who is so passionate about this almost in the same way as we have, except for we don't really have necessarily the development chops as you do. You know, in terms of a non- English listeners and also possibly non-English podcasts, I didn't do my research. I mean, how many of your podcasts are not in English? And then why are people coming to your website?
Wenbin: [00:30:00] So about 30 percent or so. They come from Google, from Twitter. And we get to see someone sharing it on social media as well.
Fei: [00:30:20] Out of the non-English podcasts on your channel, or we can talk about the listeners too, what are the languages that they speak? Do you have any stats on that? Like, where are these people from?
Wenbin: [00:30:33] Yeah, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and Chinese, these are all pretty big. Maybe French, German. I assume they are also in the top 10.
Fei: [00:31:12] Let's talk about Chinese podcasting for a second because I'm also in the process of developing a course to help people move their shows to Ximalaya FM, which is a completely separate platform. And as you know, it's so popular. What are your thoughts of exposing the Chinese podcasters with their crazy followings to Listennotes?
Wenbin: [00:31:47] Sorry, what was the question for this one?
There are a lot of podcasts on Ximalaya FM right now. Are they also available on Listennotes?
Wenbin: [00:32:00] Oh, some of them. There are many paid-only shows on Ximalaya. So for this kind of shows, they are not on Listen notes because they are not public. On Listen Notes, you can only find podcasts that are distributed by RSS.
Fei: [00:32:28] So in other words, there are many Chinese podcasts that are already available on missing notes.
Wenbin: [00:32:37] Not as much.
Fei: [00:32:41] And what do you think is the reason? Why do you think that is? Because they aren't aware of Listen notes or they are harder to crawl on your end?
Wenbin: [00:32:53] For podcast in western countries, is mostly distributed through RSS. In China, very few people know what podcast is, and all the content is on Ximalaya FM. In the western world podcasts are not controlled by a single company. It's an open protocol, RSS.
Fei: [00:33:43] Yeah, that's a really good note. I had trouble kind of explaining why English podcasters have to take that many extra steps to put their shows on Ximalaya FM, and it’s this very reason - because it's almost a game of Monopoly where Ximalaya dominates so many of these podcasts.
Wenbin: [00:34:02] Right.
Fei: [00:34:02] If you don't go to them, they're not going to come to you. So fascinating. I want to talk about your origins stories, how old were you or what year did you move to the US and for what purpose?
Wenbin: [00:34:30] I came here in 2010 to pursue Ph.D. degree in the University of Wisconsin. I was a computer science major. Yeah. And then I studied there for two years and I quit my Ph.D. I came to Silicon Valley to work for a startup
Fei: [00:34:55] Why did you quit your Ph.D.?
Wenbin: [00:34:57] Actually, I already passed the Ph.D. qual exam, but then I realized that I don’t want to spend another two, three, or more years on a research topic that I was not particularly interested in. And I quit. So I was more excited in the internet industry. So back then in the school, I started to work on some side projects, mostly learning how to build apps, iOS apps, building websites, which was not very technical actually.
Fei: [00:36:02] Oh, that's great. So you moved to Silicon Valley right around the year of 2012-13.
Wenbin: [00:36:10] Yes.
Fei: [00:36:11] And did you find a job there? What did you do?
Wenbin: [00:36:16] Yeah, my first job was in a company called Quantcast, so it's a digital advertising & analytics company, they are doing a bunch of big data and machine learning stuff.I wanted to gain some industry experience about how to operate, and how to sell online services.
Fei: [00:36:44] So now we're kind of at the beginning of your journey, immigrant journey, as you know, the first few years.
As an immigrant, what did you find easy or difficult about it? I know immigrant refers to someone who was a green card holder, but in this case, you know, we're speaking to people who are immigrants as well as students and temporary workers.
Wenbin: [00:37:10] Yeah.
Fei: [00:37:11] What was your experience like? What was easy and difficult that you can recall or remember at this stage?
Wenbin: [00:37:16] Immigration stuff's always very tricky. I was an F1 visa holder when I was a student. And then when I started to work, I was an H1B visa holder.
And when I needed to switch a job, I need to transfer to H1 visa.
I always wanted to start my own company, so I needed a green card for this.
Fei: [00:37:50] That's kind of what you worked on as the next stage to start your company.
Wenbin: [00:37:54] Right.
Fei: [00:37:56] And so that's already been done. How did you apply for your green card? Was it through your work experience, from H1B to green card?
Wenbin: [00:38:09] Yes.
Fei: [00:38:09] Usual process.
Wenbin: [00:38:10] Yes, my company sponsored my green card application (EB1B)
Fei: [00:38:15] And that came through very quickly. Sounds like.
So it took approximately how long, two to three years altogether?
Wenbin One year or so.
Fei Oh, one year? My goodness. That is like lightning speed. Yeah. Wow. And you know, what, other than the sort of the logistical side of visa and transfer, what did you find challenging when it comes to life and culture? Or was it like for like a walk in the park that was pretty easy for the most part.
Wenbin: [00:39:21] Okay, for me coming into the United States, I think it is no big problem for new immigrants from China nowadays. Also, we got used to Western culture a lot. When we were in China, we watch the TV series from the US. So there was no much cultural shock for me. The most challenging thing I would say is pretty similar to my peers in China. Such as, how do we develop our professional skills? How do we advance in our careers? It is a different environment.
Fei: [00:40:15] Yes. The rules are not written on the wall.
Wenbin: [00:40:21] Yes.
Fei: [00:40:21] It wasn't very clear always. And it's also the social scene may be very different. I know that as a Chinese person, I mean, I'm speaking for myself of, you know, liking to go to restaurants, with friends, and what I found is I worked in corporate America for more than 10 years and it's a constant stream of every night going to a bar. There's no food, I can hear anybody, I did it in the early years. I remember it was already hard because you're trying to learn the language, and at a bar, it was just the worst place to try to socialize for foreigners. And, you know, so I often avoided a lot of those social situations. But that's also when people from the office are developing their relationships and they're talking about sometimes business, sometimes not. So you feel like sometimes a little left out of the social scene. You know, it's hard to navigate.
Wenbin: [00:41:19] Yeah. I think there's also a difference between different professionals. Many engineers in Silicon Valley are also immigrants. And yes, we hang out a lot.
Fei: [00:41:41] That's wonderful.
Wenbin: [00:41:43] Yeah. I mean, maybe engineers are a different type of profession.
Fei: [00:41:52] Yeah, I worked in advertising and marketing. And like you said, most people are not immigrants. They are from here, from the United States.
Wenbin: [00:42:02] Yeah.
Fei: [00:42:03] You know, from local towns. And there's like a lot to talk about. And it's interesting, even within the US, when I work with people from California or not from where I'm based, in Boston, if somebody who's home isn't based here, they tend to be more social and trying to develop new relationships, new social circles for themselves. Well, so what would you say to someone in engineering, I guess, in this case, or just people in sort of the creative field as immigrants? What do you think you've learned, especially during recent years as an immigrant building your own business? That really helped, you know, that was really taught by your teachers, your parents and things that you learned along the way. Like, what would you say those things are?
What do you think you've learned, especially during recent years as an immigrant building your own business?
Wenbin: [00:42:54] You need to learn how to deal with rejection. Because we are constantly rejected in our life, by different people for different things. For example, earlier on, we talked about the immigration process, you may get rejected by the government. And when you try to sell to customers, you try to sell to investors, you can get rejection all the way. So you need to learn how to deal with rejection.
Fei: [00:43:38] So how to deal with it? How do you deal with it differently than you used to?
Wenbin: [00:43:44] Well, just move on. So figure out what's the goal here. Some people reject you because it’s not a good fit. It's about a good fit or not. You can always find a good fit somewhere else because the world is big enough. Don't be too upset.
Fei: [00:44:21] Love it. So one thing. Is there anything that you would like to share with the audience that I haven't asked yet? Anything that comes to mind.
Wenbin: [00:44:33] If you haven't listened to the podcast, do it. I consume more information from podcasts than from anywhere else.
What are some of your favorite podcasts?
Wenbin: [00:44:53] Difficult question, I don't subscribe to podcasts, so I only see my episodes.
Fei: [00:45:00] Sure. Then I can change the question. What are some of the areas that interest you?
Wenbin: [00:45:06] Yeah. I listened to a lot of interview podcasts on business people, venture capital, startup areas. I also listened to some Chinese startup scene podcasts [Note: anyone in the world can subscribe to my podcast playlist https://lnns.co/8OfbFlditV2].
Fei: [00:45:23] In Chinese or in English?
Wenbin: [00:45:24] In English.
Fei: [00:45:27] Interesting.
Wenbin: [00:45:27] I always try to keep up with the tech scene in China.
And I listen to quite a few history podcasts, so when I'm interested in a topic, I just search and find a few episodes to binge.
Fei: [00:46:13] This is great. Maybe you should do a little mini-course or something, in terms of how to create a playlist that you really enjoy. And I hear you. A lot of the new things I do search for, I love listening, I love audiobooks, to begin with, and using podcasts to learn something new. Learn someone new. It's just super helpful. And for me, that's much easier than to find the time and to read the text content only.
Wenbin: [00:46:44] You can see that I'm already wearing glasses, so I don't like reading too long.
Fei: [00:46:49] Yes. Well, that's good for your health as well. But thank you so much. This was wonderful and I thank you so much for answering a lot of the questions and delving pretty deep into your business, your origins. And thank you so much for joining me. And I really look forward to using Listen notes more fully.
I will keep you posted. And are you on Facebook? Are you popular, active, anywhere else?
Wenbin: [00:47:58] You can follow ListenNotes on Twitter (https://twitter.com/ListenNotes)
Hey it’s Fei, I’m so glad you found me!
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