An Interview with Diet Code’s Janosch Sander

If you’re an iPad user hooked to the revolutionary niiu app, Janosch Sander is the man you should thank. Janosch hails from Berlin, and is the co-founder of Diet Code, a recently-established Goa-based coding studio involved in the development of the niiu app, a subscription-based iOS application which delivers personalized news content. We caught up with Janosch to chat about his journey..

1) Tell us a little about yourself.?

I am from Berlin, Germany. I completed my education at TU Berlin and Berlin School of Economics. In 2009, I started an App Development company together with Marek L. Spak, with whom I later co-founded niiu – in 2011. At niiu, I am filling the role of CTO.

While working with Marek on Web Applications for SMEs in Germany, we made contacts to engage with freelance developers and designers in India which we later utilised to start Diet Code in Goa in 2013. Since then, I have been splitting equally my time between Berlin and Goa, in a 3-month on/off rhythm.

2) What is the story of Diet Code’s inception? Also tell us a little about niiu?.

niiu was originally started as a personalised printed newspaper by Hendrik Tiedemann and Wanja S. Oberhof in 2009.

Customers were able to combine parts of newspapers and mix in content from their favourite online blogs to form a printed newspaper which would be delivered to their doorstep every morning. While the idea received quite some publicity and was praised for its revolutionary concept, Hendrik and Wanja soon had to deal with obstacles in production and distribution of the newspapers which forced them to abandon the printed newspaper and pivot for a purely digital approach in 2011.

As Hendrik and Wanja had outsourced all IT related work to another company for the printed version of niiu, one of their biggest learning from it was that it is necessary to take qualified IT professionals in founding a team. This is when Marek and I met them, as they were looking to put together a team for a new digital product. Soon after, we founded niiu Publishing GmbH with them as a new company, taking along only the brand name “niiu” from their previous venture with the printed newspaper.

We started out in a small office space in Berlin with just the four of us and 2 employees. As we didn’t have the funds to build a bigger team in Berlin at the time, Marek and I activated our freelance contacts in India. We brought in Sam Sugandh, who is now managing our office in Goa, as our Art-Director, and a team of developers from Chennai. We split the work up so that in Berlin we were working on the client application while the team in Chennai was working on the back-end system.

After one year of working in this way, we came to realise that working with freelancers remotely in the long term is very difficult. So we decided to start our own office in India as a development studio for niiu, which we later named Diet Code.

3) Why did you choose to build a product startup in Goa??

We visited several major cities in India and met with our freelance contacts to evaluate with which of them we could potentially partner for our new venture. We quickly narrowed it down to Goa and Chennai, as our best contacts were residing there. Goa was the compelling winner, as it offered a great mix of what we wanted from our venture: great work-life-balance, a place that attracts talented people and relatively low costs for office space and housing.

4) What has your experience been running a company here?

It has been a very good experience altogether. Our best decision was to get Sam on board as Managing Director. Marek and I are in Goa only part time, therefore it was very important for us to find a reliable Director for the company that would keep things running when we are not around.

Having an Indian co-founder also helped a lot especially during the initial phase when Marek and I were still adjusting to cultural differences.

We have tried to run this company here in a similar fashion as we run our office in Berlin, especially in building a great culture, company ethic and strong team spirit.

5) How have you tackled the challenges of hiring and retaining talent in Goa??

Hiring has definitely been one of the key challenges for us. Our biggest concern about picking Goa as a location for our office was the lack of developers. Since Goa is a small state, there are fewer engineering graduates available on the job market than elsewhere in India.

When we first started this company, we tried to hire an entire team at once. This was a very difficult task as our app was not launched yet and nobody had ever heard about us. It also didn’t help that our website was purely in German. English language information about who we are and what we do was limited to what we wrote in our job adverts on web portals and newspapers.

When we had our first set of candidates for interviews, all we had to offer was a nice sea view office space with one large table and a set of chairs. The view might have been a key factor in convincing these first candidates to join us over other companies. We started out with a team of 4 very talented developers, all Goan, out of which two are still working with us today.

After setting up a dedicated English-language website, proper social media accounts and profiles on major job platforms, talent acquisition of non-Goan developers started to pick up. Out of the 9 employees we have in our office today, 4 are from other states and have relocated here to work with us.

As for hiring Goans, word of mouth about our workplace conditions, team spirit and our willingness to continuously improve and adjust has helped a lot.

All in all, I believe that while Goa definitely has a smaller pool of talent to source from, it probably has a higher retention rate than metros like Bangalore. People are less likely to switch jobs here because work-life balance is much better and there are less companies competing for the talent.

6) What is the thought behind the concept of ‘personalised news content’?

The original idea behind niiu is that most people do not read an entire newspaper from start to finish but rather pick certain parts or interesting stories within them. Many people also prefer to read news about entertainment from tabloid newspapers, while they would rather read news on Politics from more quality papers.

With our digital version, the goal is to offer a convenient way of consuming ‘relevant news’ by reduce the amount of uninteresting articles a user would have to browse through while looking for interesting news on the web. We are doing that by letting the user combine sections from various sources and by letting the user subscribe to keywords, i.e. to get all the news about your favourite football team from all our sources. Since we have licensing contracts with the publishers, we can present full-text articles within a consistent design without making the user jump to the publishers’ website as other news apps are doing.

Currently, we are developing a machine learning algorithm which we call ‘relevant content engine’. This will allow us to suggest articles to users, based on complex analyses of their behaviour and fetching data about trending topics from several 3rd party APIs.

7) Who were your target customers when you came up with this idea?

Our primary target group of customers are people from 30 to 60 years of age who consume news from more than one source on smartphones and tablets.

8) How has the response to your app been in the market so far? What kinds of reviews have you received?

The response is pretty good so far. We received positive reviews from German media. We had to change a few things in the beginning, because our users wanted to have more personalisation possibilities than we were offering. Another change we had to make was switching from a purely subscription based business model to a freemium model.

It is also very important to our customers that we continue to onboard new publishers on a regular basis and expand to more platforms.

9) What do you plan on rolling out in the near future?

We are currently working on a recommendation engine to make our app smarter in suggesting articles to users by analysing their behaviour and crunching data from social media and other 3rd party APIs. Besides that, we are also working on expanding to additional platforms. Currently, we have our app only available for iPads. A responsive Web App and a native iPhone App are already in beta state and will be rolled out soon.

Internationalisation is also being planned and we are constantly working on adding additional sources from different countries. Also, we are currently undergoing the process of changing the company name from Diet Code to niiu Asia!