Newly Minted Web Entrepreneur Attracts VIP Vinod Khosla

Earlier today Vinod Khosla tweeted cryptically while on vacation: “Thinking clear: professor was swimming naked in river. He was getting out as a boat of undergrads went by. He wrapped it around his head.”

Khosla hasn’t taken to writing poetry. Instead, he was promoting London-based Blurb.fm, a startup whose subscribers will receive a free, daily email featuring a “blurb” about a nonfiction book, beginning this Sunday. The company is also promising to plant a “nice, big oxygen producing, earth-saving tree” for every person who signs up for the service.

“I haven’t invested in Blurb.fm but like the idea,” Khosla told me in a later email.

To find out what’s piqued Khosla’s curiosity, I talked with the startup’s 20-year-old founder, Tapha Ngum. To my surprise, he told me that his big idea was born just two Sundays ago.

So just to be clear, your company is not at all affiliated with the on-demand print service Blurb, correct?

Right.

Who are you?

I’m quite a young individual. I was going to school at Brunel [University] in London, but I decided that it wasn’t for me and I dropped out and started doing my own thing.

This thing or something else?

I’ve tried loads of different things. I wouldn’t even want to know the number of businesses I’ve started this year. I dropped one a week ago because we decided that the market wasn’t big enough.

And when did you dream up Blurb.fm?

On a Sunday morning about two weeks ago, and [CD Baby founder] Derek Sivers was the first person to subscribe to the thing. This is the first project that’s gotten significant interest. We started hosting parties in London but it’s a crowded space to be in with high costs and low profits, so a couple of months ago we began focusing on the Internet.

Who’s we?

Me and a friend of mine who helps me with programming and is also a designer, though it’s mainly me who comes up with ideas and I’m the majority shareholder in the business.

How did you already snag the attention of Vinod Khosla?

I emailed him. I basically decided that if I was going to launch this, I wanted interesting people to get interested, because then I’d get more interesting people interested. And he’s like a hero of mine. Young entrepreneurs look up to old entrepreneurs. I figured if I could get him on board, I could get anyone on board. I saw he was out of his office, then I saw his tweet. I haven’t spoken with him yet but hopefully I can get to know him more when we launch.

I love that at 20 years of age, you decided on a daily email. Were you influenced by anyone or anything in particular?

One article is by [entrepreneur] Jason Baptiste, saying: They are the hottest thing right now and they aren’t dead as people were saying a year or two ago. And basically I started doing more research, looking at Thrillist and DailyCandy and thought about what I’d want to get every single day in my inbox and this is what I came up with. I’m not going to be writing them, though. We’ll ask someone to write for us and if they suggest a nonfiction book and we like it, then they can do it. We don’t want to get into that area where we decide everything; we’d rather other people choose than [subject readers] to our tastes alone.

What would you say is the difference between a blurb and a review?

A blurb is like a movie trailer for a book, although it’s better because a blurb actually gives you a taste of the book in a way that a review cannot do. If you subscribe, you’ll see.

Have you partnered yet with any booksellers?

Our intention is to increase nonfiction book sales, so we will, but not yet. I’m hesitant to approach them now when we haven’t even launched yet.

How many people have signed up for the service?

Today, it may have grown a lot, but I’d say we have around 500 people, which is okay for a list that hasn’t launched yet.

Does that mean you’ll plant 500 trees?

We’ve made a commitment to plant 100,000 trees over the next five years, and that’s very achievable. I created a Facebook group once that now has 40,000 fans, so I know how to grow things like that. And we’ll set milestones, so maybe when we get to 1,000 subscribers, we’ll plant so many trees. It wouldn’t work if we planted a tree every time someone new subscribed.

What was that Facebook group called?

Worlds Funniest Pick-Up Lines, though it’s died down lately. There are only so many funny pick-up lines.