Serving Curiosity

By Ashesha Mehrotra

 The human race is born curious. But when answers are valued more than questions, humans forget to ask and be curious. This is exactly where the founding team of Curiosity.com saw a business opportunity.

To inspire people, teach them something new everyday is the motto of this online content curation platform that features learning-oriented content from all nooks and corners of world wide web.

“As kids you’re curious naturally. As students it’s either by choice or your teacher telling you to find something and learn about that. But as you grow older and get into your career at what point in the day will you take time out to learn about the deepest parts of the ocean?” was the task at-hand for their team said Michael Burke, head of business strategy and partnerships at Curiosity.

After meticulous research and surveys conducted founder and CEO Gabe Vehovsky decided to tackle the challenge to build a “platform that inspired curiosity first.”

Launched in 2014 and incubated under Chicago-based Discovery Communications, Inc., Curiosity.com touts itself as the “Spotify for Educational Content” and has Web-based courses, classes and e-tutorials from over 900 content creators, including Naked Scientist, MIT K+12, Naked Scientists and Khan Academy.

Burke said that target audience includes “anyone interested in becoming smart,” but based on their findings millennials consume their content the most.

Michael Burke, head of partnerships at Curiosity, talks about how the online education platform came about. (Ashesha Mehrotra/MEDILL)

The company differentiates itself from search engines such as Google and Yahoo!, and community-written sites such as Wikipedia by reaching out to users instead of the latter looking for answers.

“You go to Wikipedia because someone asked you a question and you want to find out the answer. Wikipedia doesn’t reach out to you and say, Hey, did you learn something new today?” said Burke.

“Wikipedia sits there, waiting for you, but Curiosity reaches out to you throughout the day to teach you something new,” he said.

Curiosity’s Android, iOS and tablet apps were launched last year and allow users to receive notifications at their chosen times on five topics daily, the items handpicked by the editors at Curiosity.

Currently, Curiosity is at its “pre-profit” stage and hoping to become “profitable” by the end of this year, according to Andy O’Dekirk, head of finance. At the time of its launch, the content-curation platform had raised $6 million series A led by Discovery and four other local investors namely Pritzker Group Venture Capital, Origin Ventures, Chicago Ventures and Corazon Capital.

“It is digital advertising. That’s how most websites make their money, and that is certainly how we will make our money,” said O’Dekirk. “But what we’re doing differently is to do it in fashion that’s additive to the user experience.”

O’Dekirk said that unlike most of the run-of-the-mill banner advertisements that detract users from what they’re trying to consume online, his company will ensure that all forms of advertising that are up on their website or mobile apps have a strong story to tell, and align well with other content that users read on Curiosity.

“Think about like a video from a computer manufacturer talking about their R&D model alongside other content on the topic ‘Supercomputers and the future of computing’,” he said.

The company believes that if leveraged appropriately, digital advertising can prove to be a great opportunity for brands with a strong story to tell to connect with the right audience. And to publish this branded content, or ask the editorial team to create it for the brand, Curiosity charges a sum of money.

“So, we choose to work with brands that have stories with intellectual value, and won’t detract users from what we want them to accomplish on our platform, that is, learn.”

This creates an opportunity for the platform as well, as there are not many creative outlets for brands to reach out to consumers with their goals.

“Our business model is to work with advertisers and brands, helping them to tell stories. Brands don’t have an authentic way to inform consumers about their missions, their goals. Any sort of intellectual messaging, there’s no app for that. We kinda want to do that,” added Burke, head of partnerships.

However, the company doesn’t create only branded content.

“We also simply feature content created by brands – think about a video a brand had already created for its youtube page being featured as one of the pieces of video content on a specific topic.  In that case, we didn’t create anything for them, we just featured them and created a captive audience interested in that topic,” said O’Dekirk.

According to the company heads, since its spin-out at the beginning of November 2014, Curiosity has grown a 20 percent on a compounded monthly growth rate.

Andy O’Dower, head of product at Curiosity, said that 60 percent of its traffic is through mobile web/mobile apps. The majority of its traffic comes through Facebook. Additionally, they tracked that 85 percent check Facebook on their phones. Thus, the organization heads saw a need to take charge of their mobile traffic, and built in-house apps for iOS and Android users last year.

But what the company reported to be their biggest achievement last year, was also its biggest challenge until it successfully rolled out with the features they intended.

O’Dekirk of Curiosity said, “Building apps in-house, natively across each platform, an app that is seamless, exciting and well-built as is ours, updates in operating systems. Burke says that it was our high that we did it somehow, no reliance on third party apps, but it was frustrating.”

He cited reasons such as how long it took, the challenge of grappling with a new iOS language (SWIFT) and a succeeding update to the iOS operating system that required an immediate re-work of the app to get it up to date, but the app-builders powered through.

However, the results look fairly positive for the apps, so far. Since the time of its release, downloads for both our iOS and Android app is approximately 200,000 and growing, said O’Dower. The rating is 4.6 on Android and 5.0 iOS.

Bian Elkhatib explains the different features available on the Curiosity mobile app. (Audio: Bian Elkhatib/ Video:Ashesha Mehrotra/MEDILL)

In his note on LinkedIn, O’Dower announced that they added new features such as multitasking, slide over, split view and picture in picture to make the user experience more seamless.

“More than everything else, Curiosity is not just an app, it’s an experience, a great experience for users. The learning experience through our app and website is unique,” said O’Dower.

For year 2016, the company is planning to add new “Spotify-like Discover feature” on to its apps, which generates personalized playlists for users that feel fresh and familiar at the same time.

Currently, Curiosity releases 5 posts on mobile and 10 to 12 posts on social media everyday. Company heads say they leverage their social media engagement to receive feedback on their content and keep effectively improving by responding to users’ interests and requests on what more do they want to see.

“We’re lucky that our consumers want more content, more content they love. They want to engage more deeply with the content. And these are all great problems because they expect more out of us, and like us,” said O’Dower.

With this challenge, it is the organization’s duty to deliver. To which effect, employees at Curiosity are working on all increasing headcount and advancing technologically. An average user spends 4 minutes on the website, which they value dearly and want to keep maintain it, if not increase it radically.

The company has 22 employees right now, and hopes to grow to 40 by the end of the year.

“We are a tech-powered, human hybrid of cool and awesome content creation. And we really do just want to inspire people to learn,” said O’Dower, before he signed-off.

Photo at top: Curiosity.com was launched in 2014. (Ashesha Mehrotra/MEDILL)