God and geeks make a fruitful combination, says Johan Jörgensen, Swedish internet entrepreneur. So do the Bible and business.
Sweden has plenty of geeks and a strong business culture. It may be one of the world’s most secular countries, when measured by church attendance, but it still has a powerful historical link with Lutheran Christianity, says Mr Jörgensen.
His company, Voxbiblia, is using the latest digital technology to make the spoken Bible available over the internet – in Swedish and English – for download as an MP3 file or in other audio formats for listening on the move or at home.
“There is no shortage of audio Bibles,” says Mr Jörgensen who is a lay member of the Church of Sweden. “What we offer is a new way of navigating through the Bible.
“We scrapped the focus on chapters and verses, which were introduced in the Middle Ages and 16th century respectively,” he continues. “Instead, we broke the Bible up into about 3,000 stories on different themes. Then we made it easy for people to choose something that suits what they need at the time.”
The stories are collected into “albums”, each of which contains stories about a particular subject – such as Christmas, Easter, faith, hope, women, children, money and many others.
The inspiration for Voxbiblia came about 10 years ago when Mats Sundman, a young Church of Sweden minister, told his friend Mr Jörgensen about the trouble he was having with his confirmation class. The children did not understand the Bible when they read it themselves; he had to tell them stories before they understood.
Mr Jörgensen, previously a technology journalist, was then developing a career as an internet entrepreneur. Encouraged by Mr Sundman, he raised €1m ($1.3m) to found Voxbiblia in 2000.
From the beginning it was a dotcom company, funded by secular venture capital firms to make money from digital recordings of the Bible. “We started it and still run it as a business, not a Christian charity,” Mr Jörgensen says. “But I try to be a nice businessman and I do believe the world would be a better place if people read the Bible more.”
For the Church of Sweden, the world’s largest Lutheran congregation, lack of Bible reading is a particular problem. Although 75 per cent of Swedes are nominally members of the church, only 2 per cent attend regularly.
In January 2001, a month after Voxbiblia’s launch, its second round of funding was due. It became clear, however, that the money would not be forthcoming as the dotcom crash was beginning to hit Sweden hard. Mr Jörgensen just managed to save the company, “hitting the brakes really hard” and putting Voxbiblia into suspension until the climate improved.
Over the following four years, Mr Jörgensen returned part-time to technology writing while selling property and other assets to raise enough money to buy out the other shareholders in Voxbiblia. He kept its offices in Stockholm, renting them out to other tech companies, including Kazaa and Skype.
By 2005, Mr Jörgensen’s financial health was good enough for him to restart the company, putting in a further €500,000 of his own money and recruiting Noa Resare, a talented Swedish programmer, as chief technologist. Ten people are now working for Voxbiblia.
Voxbiblia’s original English recording is the venerable King James version. Mr Jörgensen commissioned two semi-professional British actors based in Stockholm, Alan Manson and Paul Leopold, to read the whole Bible.
“We though it was right to have totally unknown voices rather than well-known actors reading the Bible,” he says. “And we decided to record every word – even in the most obscure books of the Old Testament. It was not our place to decide what is important.”
The finished reading of the whole Bible is a two-gigabyte audio file, running for almost 100 hours. “But it took thousands and thousands of hours of studio time to record,” Mr Jörgensen says – a difficult experience that he is keen to avoid in future. So Voxbiblia agreed with Hodder & Stoughton, the UK publisher, to license its audio recordings of the New International Version and Today’s New International Version.
“Our ambition is to work with all the leading Bible translations available, thereby making it possible for all Bibles to benefit from centrally developed technology,” says Mr Jörgensen. “Six versions of the Bible are needed to reach 99 per cent of Christians in north America.” The Bible-loving US is the company’s biggest long-term prospect.
In due course Voxbiblia wants to make audio Bibles available in many other languages. Few of the world’s languages currently have a Bible in recorded format, according to the International Bible Society.
Voxbiblia takes a purist voice-only approach to Bible recording, without added sound effects to distract from the spoken word.
On top of the technological and audio work, he and colleagues are touring the Christian world’s leading churches, Bible societies and publishers, seeking partnerships and alliances. They are also meeting Apple’s iTunes and iPod teams, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and other technology channels.
The business plan involves offering a lot of free downloads of Bible stories and albums through Christian organisations and the Voxbiblia.com website. “If people are hooked by what they hear, they will then be prepared to pay for downloads,” Mr Jörgensen says. Most albums cost $5.
Three million Bible stories have already been downloaded in Sweden and the roll-out in English is just beginning. If the business expands according to plan, sales will be “several million dollars” within two or three years.
Although the 2001 dotcom collapse almost killed Voxbiblia, Mr Jörgensen is confident it has the technical and financial resilience to survive the credit crunch.
“I believe that, because our product is the best-selling book of all time, in a different, more convenient medium, we have a winner,” he says. “People just aren’t reading traditional, bound books the way they used to…with children learning to read on TV and computers, soon everybody will be used to consuming their information on a computer screen or listening to audio books made easy. “In times of crisis, Christians go back to church and the Bible for guidance and consolation.”
Get alerts on Entrepreneurship when a new story is published