Focus on Making The Best Possible Product

Digital innovation seems to create a state of constant competition. Startups — with their role to disrupt the marketplace and steal customers — are contenders threatening established businesses.

Even the genteel world of book publishing can be a battleground between old and new. Last December trade mag The Bookseller invited startups to shake up traditional industry insiders at its annual digital conference Futurebook.

The conference included a BookTech event that showcased the brightest tech startups working in publishing. My early-stage startup Write Track was selected as one of the finalists.

Insider-outsider

My juggling act of working while trying to get my side project off the ground put me in the position of turncoat. As head of innovation for an established academic publisher, I am very much part of the old guard, yet being a finalist in the startup competition, put me on the opposing side.

As an insider-outsider I couldn’t decide whether to make polite chit chat about the death of the book whilst sipping coffee with my publishing peers, or to be a disruptive upstart shouting and chucking biscuits at the establishment.

Pitted against each other

We weren’t just battling the establishment. The startup finalists in BookTech were also pitted against each other: the culmination of the contest was a live pitch off where we competed for the attention of a panel of dragons.

Pitch offs are business as usual for startups and if you want to play the game you have to enter the arena. All this fighting is quite exhausting — it’s a wonder anyone’s got any time to innovate.

The startup threat

Startup Lost My Name earned a place on the main conference programme because it has already threatened traditional publishing territory. There was much to learn from co-founder Asi Sharabi when he spoke about how his startup got to innovate “one of the oldest and most beloved things — the book”.

But was this statement a challenge to the sector, or an opportunity to share an alternative way of publishing books?

When is a book not a book?

Lost My Name has a disruptive value proposition and business model that disintermediates traditional publishing routes to market.

It has been a huge success, with over one million sales of its personalised picture book. In 2014 it had more sales than the highest ranking picture book — Julia Donaldson’s Superworm. Yet it didn’t top any bestseller lists because it was sold direct to consumers, didn’t have an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) and wasn’t listed in Nielsen BookScan, the master database of book sales figures.

So, when is a book not a book? Seemingly, when it’s made by a startup.

So, when is a book not a book? Seemingly, when it’s made by a startup. It might look like book, and read like a book, but because it lacked industry signifiers, it operated outside of the publishing sector.

Innovation from outside the tent

Despite having a career in publishing, the inspiration for my early-stage startup Write Track came from beyond the sector. Write Track is a creative productivity tool — dubbed FitBit for writers — that uses behaviour change science to help writers set, monitor and achieve their goals. We don’t look to the publishing or creative writing sectors for inspiration but rather to products like Nike+ and Headspace — companies that have revolutionised the fitness and wellbeing markets.

I was the only founder who had a publishing background. All of the other BookTech finalists worked outside the sector. Together we’re pushing at the boundaries of what technology can do for storytelling, and how books are written, made, distributed and consumed.

Learning from startups

Emmanuel Nataf, founder and CEO of BookTech winner Reedsy, said that: “well-established players only start looking at startups when they feel threatened by them.”

“well-established players only start looking at startups when they feel threatened by them.”

All eyes were on Lost My Name whose goal is to combine the power of stories with the possibilities of technology. Its success came from making something readers wanted: books that put individual children at the heart of the story. Parents were prepared to look outside the bookselling trade to find the product and pay a premium price because they knew it would deliver on its promise.

Because it was an outsider, the company didn’t have the baggage of more established players. It didn’t spend its time worrying about the death of publishing, whether ebook sales would cannibalise the printed version, or complain about the eroding margins forced on them by discounting. The team instead focussed on making the best possible product, for a small number of customers, and used feedback to iteratively improve the product and grow the company.

The team instead focussed on making the best possible product, for a small number of customers, and used feedback to iteratively improve

Rather than feeling threatened, traditional publishers should learn from the user-centred approach of startups. Let’s hope that puts a stop to all this fighting talk.


Originally published at www.create-hub.com.