How Don Katz went from magazine journalist to founder of Audible
In the 25 years since Don Katz launched Audible as a pioneering audiobook service, the audio space has been awash with content. It’s easier than ever to record a podcast in your bedroom and reach a huge number of listeners on social media.
Rather than trying to chase the widest possible audience, Audible – which was acquired by Amazon for $300 million in 2008 and now reaches millions of listeners worldwide – is stepping up its efforts to create exclusive content and prestigious that users will not be able to obtain. Anywhere else. Example: This week, Michelle Obama announced that she would adapt her book The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Timesin a podcast that will debut on Audible on March 7, with guests like Oprah Winfrey and Conan O’Brien.
“When you look at deep, pro-quality storytelling, I’m more comfortable with how Audible Originals selected that world than a world of millions and millions of custom options,” Katz says.
In a Zoom interview, Katz reflected on the past two and a half decades: from leaving a career as a writer to launch an audiobook industry that didn’t yet exist; moving Audible from a public company to an Amazon subsidiary; and moving the business to Newark at a time when other businesses were fleeing the city. Each of these measures paid off: Audible consumers consumed nearly 4 billion hours of audio in 2022 across audiobooks, podcasts and theater productions, according to the company.
Here are excerpts from the conversation.
TIME: you wrote for rolling stone and other magazines for years. How has your background in journalism influenced your approach to business?
Don Katz: For years I’ve said that probably the best entrepreneurial startup experience you could have is being a curious, worldly journalist. Because you have to have a great idea that preferably someone else hasn’t had, and then you chase it down by persuading people to give you ideas in a way that they haven’t had. in the past.
You need a disruptive business plan and you need to convince people to believe in your mission. And then the bottom line is that you have to be incredibly honest about what you personally don’t know, and then supplement that with people who do.
In college, you took a course with the famous novelist Ralph Ellison on long-standing American traditions of oral storytelling. What impact did it have on you and Audible?
It is quite rare for a great American writer to be the patron of a great American company. But Ralph Ellison showed me that if any society had to have storytelling and verbal tradition as a type of mainstream media, it was the United States of America.
From him, I understood that the reason Stephen Crane wrote like an American was because he listened to this amazing polyglot storytelling that brought together so many voices from so many universes. Mark Twain wrote as an American because of his understanding of this culture.
When I started Audible, I was criticized for giving up a good literary career for this inferior form of audio transmission. And I would basically give mini-lectures about how the Greeks were vehemently opposed to the text in every way. All that made the difference intellectually, for thousands of years, was oral culture.
This autumn, Spotify launched its own audiobook wing. Are you worried that they will reduce your market share?
Spotify is one of dozens of companies that have entered the space over the past 25 years since our launch. For years we didn’t have much competition, and that meant we had to create global awareness of the power of this medium. So on some level it’s “welcome to the party”.
But on another level, we’ve been at it for a long time. It’s harder than it looks to help people incorporate a habit into their lives. They will certainly find out.
Another thing that comes to mind when you mention Spotify is how happy I am that my days as CEO of a public company – and my responsibility to sell our stock price – are over. While I enjoyed running a public company in many ways, it’s also true that shareholder prioritization responsibilities can skew a company’s long-term goals.
I study American corporations and victory from Milton Friedman’s perspective on shareholders very carefully. To his credit, he said taking care of your employees is part of your core responsibility. But what also said fundamentally was that the private sector had nothing to do with trying to impact society, let alone correct social inequalities. It’s not something I’ve ever bought.
The other thing that really touched me was how people like Martin Luther King spoke about what became the go-to decision for companies doing any kind of social self-help, which was to do a check to nonprofits and charities. Charity is fine. But if you don’t look at the sources of the cause – which we now know to be institutionalized racism and a whole host of other inequities – then you’re just going to cover up the root problems.
One of the ways you’re trying to solve a central problem with Audible is with your paid internship program for Newark public school students. Do you think this program has demystified perceptions about the need for companies to hire from prestigious schools?
Yes. We have been gifted by these children. They enhance the quality of our culture and they make us better in every way.
But what they haven’t necessarily grown up with is the substantive conversation of resumes and organizational language. This has led to some pretty dire pre-COVID employment statistics for black college graduates having a massive disparity with white college graduates. So now we have come to the point of “curricularizing” organizational vocabulary.
And that led to another program, Cornerstone. We have had so much success with these amazing students. What if we hired people in Newark who, on paper, were the least employable? People without a degree, single parents on public assistance, people just released from prison: could you change your teaching style to get them into a tech-driven customer service organization?
The answer is yes, you could. What I said at the beginning was simply, “you just have to be native smart and outgoing”. And we’ll take care of it from there. And these people from non-obvious backgrounds are some of the most successful in the business.
What advice do you have for beginning entrepreneurs?
If you want to run a business and be good at managing people, that’s great. But if you want to be enterprising or inventive, it’s a bit of a gift to be able to take a step back; to connect several dots and think about what something might be in the most important way.
There are many, many successful businesses that are primarily focused on solving problems or improving productivity. Uber is clearly a better, faster and cheaper way to get from here to there. But I always tell people, “Don’t look sideways.” Don’t just fix the problem at hand. Take it to a more inventive level of what something could be. And you’ll start to see things that excite you and make you want to do whatever it takes to operationalize something big.
More must-reads from TIME