Founders Series: Anna Ratala, Co-Founder & CEO of Zvook

The founder series takes a deep dive into the journey of Antler portfolio company founders and sheds light on the the space they are building in. This week, we spoke to Anna Ratala, Co-Founder & CEO of Zvook.

Zvook is the first platform matching brands with podcasts for targeted ads and interviews, optimized for the brand’s budget and customer persona. It is the only platform to suggest instant, content-based recommendations of podcast bundles across networks and podcasts of any size.

With just a few clicks, you can explore, create and purchase podcast campaigns of your choice. Start today by creating a free profile at zvook.co.

What is Zvook’s vision?

Anna: There are roughly 1.5 million podcasts in the world (and counting!) with an exploding listenership. But only 15% of them currently work with brands and monetize their content because there are no smart ways for most podcasts to be discovered by the brands in an easy and transparent way. We solve this problem and we think bigger. Influencer marketing is projected to be a $15B industry in the U.S. alone by 2022. Audio storytellers are becoming the new influencers, but the opportunities for them to monetize their content and, on the other hand, for brands to collaborate with them to reach their audience in an authentic way are still lagging behind. As audio is becoming an increasingly prevalent medium, it opens up tremendous opportunities for both companies and content creators. Zvook aims to be the top-of-mind platform addressing the opportunities in the audio influencer space.

What has been your biggest learning about building a product in the podcast space?

Anna: What we learned was that the price or the ease of buying were secondary issues. The main problem was that brands weren’t sure which podcasts to buy. They had no idea how to choose out of the search results and came back asking for our recommendations, which took a lot of time and back-and-forth communication. That’s when we realized that we were right about the need for customized bundles that are already optimized for the brands’ criteria.

Our platform now generates bundles and we are working further to improve the recommendations with the help of audio analysis and a comprehensive knowledge graph that is the secret sauce of our platform. We are also working on better understanding the customer personas of the brands. What makes our platform great is that it provides full transparency to brands on which podcasts are recommended and why, and everything happens instantly.

Tell us about the expansion to the U.S. as you felt the market for this vertical was more developed there. How was that whole experience for you?

Anna: We realized very early that the main market for podcast advertising is in the U.S. Two weeks after Antler’s Investment Committee pitch, me and my co-founder Malik were on the plane on our way to New York for a few weeks to explore the market. It became clear that we needed to be where our market is. In July 2019, I packed two suitcases, bought a flight ticket to New York and rented an Airbnb room in Brooklyn.

Starting from scratch in a big city like New York has been a wild experience. I didn’t know anyone and had to start building my networks from scratch. My co-founder flew back to Southeast Asia after a couple of months which made it even tougher mentally. I was alone in a new city, trying to network, pitch to investors and validate the idea. By the time our 6-month runway ran out, we had lots of encouraging feedback but no real product, no clients, no money and no further investment. We had to make a tough decision to either call it a day or to push through. We decided to push through because we saw enough positive signals to indicate that we were onto something. Now I am, of course, glad that we did!

Pitching Zvook in New York, Summer 2019

How is what you are doing in the podcast space different and why is it needed? Why now?

Anna: The explosion in podcast listenership has resulted in podcasts becoming a more mainstream medium, and the demand for podcast advertising is stronger than ever. Podcast advertising revenue is projected to grow 167% by 2022. But the tools to respond to this demand are lagging behind.

It is a Wild West for brands to figure out which podcasts to work with or advertise in. Traditional players offer agency approaches which are highly manual, slow and lack transparency. They also work with a set number of podcasts, mostly big, well-known shows, which limits the opportunities available for brands.

Zvook is not an agency. We are a tech-driven platform and a recommendation engine that essentially helps reduce the workload of finding what you are looking for. We pre-filter, pre-select and bundle the matches that best optimize for your criteria. We are the only platform enabling content-based matching, which is powered by our audio analysis and knowledge graph.

With Zvook, brands are matched with podcasts they were not even aware of, the results are transparent and securing a campaign can be done instantly with a few clicks of a button. We also take great pride in our UI, which is something praised by anyone who visits the platform!

You recently raised a round? What was it like doing that during the lockdown in New York?

Anna: Our startup journey had just started to look brighter around March this year. We had a mini team (of non-paid believers), pushed out an MVP and started our official fundraising for pre-seed. Two weeks later corona shut down the whole world. Our team at the time left and investors went silent.

I quarantined in my tiny rental room in Brooklyn for 10 weeks while New York was in full lockdown as the world’s worst COVID-19 hotspot. It was a surreal experience. But I asked myself what options do I have. Sure, I could quit. But then what? All the challenges I overcame in New York would have been for nothing. Again, I decided to push through. Although not physically there, my co-founder was a great support and I felt a sense of responsibility as the CEO to keep the company going.

I recruited two new team members, resumed my investor outreach and focused on sales, bringing in new clients for our MVP. That proved that we were, indeed, building something the market wanted. When our investor made us an offer after 4 weeks of conversations, it felt like a reward for all the hard work we had put in and the immense conviction we had for our business. But despite having an empty bank account and being in the middle of the pandemic, we still took a little time to negotiate on the terms!

My commute from our Brooklyn office to Manhattan for meetings

Tell us about some of your lowest lows and highest highs being an entrepreneur.

Anna: The lowest low was definitely fall 2019. I felt like we were “building” a startup, in quotation marks. Having a power point is great but we didn’t have a real product, no clients, no money and no investor rushing to write us a check. Despite being very extroverted and having lots of people around me, I felt really lonely in the big city. The uncertainty of the future definitely kept me up at night. It was both empowering and overwhelming to think that, as the CEO, it was up to me to take us through this rough path and to find a way out of it.

Luckily, there have been many highs! Closing the pre-seed round in the middle of the pandemic with a wonderful VC was definitely one of them. Signing employee agreements with our first employees was amazing, as well as paying their first salaries. It’s such an incredible milestone for any new startup.

Recently we welcomed onboard our biggest client, Panasonic, and their global media agency, McCann Relationship Marketing. Not only does it feel great to work with such well-known brands but their raving reviews of our platform and service are strong indicators that we are doing the right things. Also getting calls from the biggest players in the podcasting space because they “have heard good things” feels pretty incredible. We are really leaving a mark on the podcasting industry!

What advice would you give founders?

Anna: Choose your tribe and ignore all other noise. There will be many people coming to you with advice and feedback - investors, advisors, consultants, friends. But the only advice and feedback that matters is either from your customers or from your “believers”, those who see and share your vision. Everything else is just noise that you have to ignore. It’s really tough but spending energy on listening to people who are not your tribe will hurt you more than help you.

With my co-founder Malik, on our first flight from Singapore to New York

What has been your biggest learning since launching Zvook?

Anna: People say being a startup founder is a rollercoaster. What nobody tells you is that it is a daily rollercoaster. It sounds very bipolar but literally in the morning you can wake up feeling on top of the world, and by the evening you are wondering if your business has any future.

I remember feeling like a queen the day we received a signed term sheet. And literally the next day I was wrestling with whatever challenges we had at the moment, wondering if we were doing the right things.

I’ve learned to recognize this rollercoaster and to regard it for what it is: a passing emotion. It’s been really important for my mental wellbeing to understand that doubts and tough days are a part of the journey. I have learned not to read into them too much. Selfcare overall has become a conscious effort for me as a founder and CEO. I want to be able to be there, happy and sane, when I run a $100M business.

Are there some interesting and fascinating statistics about the industry that you would like to share?

Anna: What always fascinates me is the unique relationship between podcast listeners and the host. Podcasts are not your typical channel, the same way YouTube or Instagram are. Podcast listeners are the most engaged audience in the world, and have an incredibly strong host loyalty.

Podcast listeners also love ads! Only 15% of listeners skip ads, while on YouTube the skip rate is 65%. Almost half of podcast listeners in the U.S. are Millennials and Gen Zs, which means they are less exposed to traditional advertising. Podcast listeners say they are more likely to buy brands after hearing them in a podcast, and 80% of listeners in the U.S. have acted upon a podcast ad (out of those that have listened to podcasts for over 4 years).

Fun fact: While we are taking over the U.S. market, the world’s most active podcast listeners are actually not Americans.. They are South Koreans! And they don’t even have Joe Rogan.

What are you most looking forward to in the last quarter and 2021 for Zvook?

Anna: 2021 will be a big year for us. We’re looking to raise our next round beginning of the year, hire further key personnel and introduce many new concepts around podcast advertising.

What is exciting for us is that the podcasting industry has been dominated by large, traditional players, many of whom are comfortable working with a few big advertisers matching them manually with top shows. Nobody is looking into monetizing the long tail of podcasts, going after the new age “challenger brands” or adding the self-serve element into the mix. There is so much room to be creative, to do things differently and to shake up the industry. We have what it takes to do just that, and 2021 will be our year to show it.

Anna and Malik met at Antler and were part of the second Singapore cohort. They started Zvook and first pitched about their company at Demo Day in July 2019.

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