Fall 2017 AFRL Commercialization Academy Series: Inky’s Bookshelf
Simon Bruno is the founder of Inky’s Bookshelf, an online subscription service for avid readers. Subscribers send in pictures of their bookshelves, reading lists, or essays on their reading habits, and Inky curates a selection of books based on their reading history and interests. Then subscribers are sent hard copies of those books monthly.
How did your journey in startup world/tech industry begin?
When I was 14 or 15 years old, I started a small business with my cousin that we ran until we graduated from high school. Up to that point, I wanted to go to art school, but I fell in love with business and startups. Then I came to Siena College and got involved with the Stack Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the rest of the Upstate New York startup community.
I did a Kickstarter-funded project, called Glassback Playing Cards, when I was a freshman in college. I was a magician growing up, so I knew a lot of about the playing cards market. I saw a market gap, so I produced playing cards overseas, shipped them to the United States, and then did fulfillment in all 50 states and 17 countries. Then I shut that down, because it was more of a project than a business.
In my sophomore and junior years of college, I worked on various projects. I developed a solar-powered watch with two other students. We built the go-to-market strategy and then pulled the plug right before we launched.
Around the middle of my junior year at Siena, I started working on Inky’s Bookshelf. It started off as a platform for short-written expression poetry. Our goal was always to make products for writers and readers. We hadn’t stumbled upon our business model at that time, though.
After we were accepted into IgniteU NY’s Summer Accelerator program, we nailed down our business model. My team went in with a completely different business model and problem and ended up moving to the model that we have now. Since that time, we have won IgniteU NY’s Final Startup Showcase on August 2, 2017, and participated in several business plan competitions. That leads us to where we are today.
Why did you create Inky’s Bookshelf? Are you an avid reader? Do you like to write?
I’ve always had a passion for reading and writing. Believe it or not, I really struggled with reading comprehension when I was younger. Then I read a book in my freshman year of college, and at the end of the book it said, ‘Read all these books before you read anything else’. So, I read all those books, and ever since then I’ve read everything I can get my hands on.
When I was growing up, I used to spend hours sitting in Barnes and Noble looking at all the books. Then I would go online and read book reviews. So, building a website where we pick books for other people was a good fit for me. We stumbled upon it, though. Inky’s Bookshelf was a side project for some time, but it ended up becoming our main project.
Would you say that one of your goals in creating Inky’s Bookshelf was to encourage literacy?
When I’m asked that question, I say that we as a team have been very fortunate because we’ve had the ability to compare two distinctly different, but very important, learning experiences. The first one is having a college education and the second one is reading everything we can, regardless of where we go to school. We’ve had the privilege of being able to compare those two experiences, and while we think both are very important, our goal is to have an impact in education through selling books, and giving people the opportunity to read everything they can get their hands on. If we can provide that first step — that first book — to turn someone on to reading, then we’ve done our job well.
Tell us about Inky, your company’s mascot.
We as a team have fallen in love with Inky as a character, and we have plans to develop that character more. It all stems from our original passions, reading and writing. In the beginning, we were trying to come up with a name, and I made it our goal as a team to make the name arbitrary so that it had nothing to do with what we’re doing. In this way, it would be more memorable.
We originally came up with “Inky” because we had the idea of books being full of ink, then we added the “y” at the end, and it stuck. We came up with the name on a car ride while we were throwing around names. My cofounder Mikayla and I created the character itself one night in the Stack Center. Then we ran an ad with it, and people hated it. After that experience, we made small adjustments, ran another ad, and got great feedback. Ever since then, people seem to like Inky.
How did you hear about the AFRL Commercialization Academy?
Prior to our half-way pitch at IgniteU NY, the cohort went to the Spring 2017 Commercialization Academy Demo Day on June 29, 2017. That was my first introduction to the program. Then at the Final Startup Showcase at IgniteU NY, I met Wasabi Ventures Academy Associate Dean Michele Pesula-Kuegler and we spoke in more detail about the AFRL Commercialization Academy.
What motivated you in that conversation to participate in the AFRL Commercialization Academy?
It seemed like the next stepping stone coming out of IgniteU NY. I’ve always said that we’re very fortunate to be part of the programs that we’ve been allowed to participate in. We’re very lucky to have gotten into IgniteU NY’s program. We feel very lucky to have gotten into the AFRL Commercialization Academy. One of the things that was great about IgniteU NY — and that is also great about the Commercialization Academy — is being surrounded by other teams who are working on their projects as well. It’s a little different because it’s a virtual program, but being surrounded by the kind of people who are doing the same things as we’re doing is very special.
What does the Fall 2017 AFRL Commercialization Academy Demo Day, on November 30, 2017, mean to your team?
As a team, sometimes we get a little distracted by pitching because we want it so much. We’re readers and writers, so the act of creating and articulating a story through a pitch is something that we love to do. We’re looking forward to that process before Demo Day: sitting down and storyboarding a pitch. Those are the kinds of things we like to do in our free time anyways, so it gives us an opportunity to really hone our craft and show people what we’ve been working on.
If there was a company or person you’d like to collaborate with, who it would be?
For starters, when people ask what we sell, we tell them that we do sell books; but, in actuality, we don’t sell books. If you want a book and you know exactly what book you want, you’re not going to buy it from us. You’re going to log on to a website like Amazon, make your purchase, and the book is at your door in two days.
What we sell is an experience and a surprise, because you don’t know what you’re getting. If you want the experience of a bookstore, you’ll go to a bookstore. All brick-and-mortar bookstores are transitioning from selling books to selling an experience — the experience of a bookstore. Barnes and Noble is an example of a company that has made that transition recently. We do that same thing, but on an online platform, so it would be interesting to meet and partner with people who own or run brick-and-mortar bookstores to learn how they’re making the same transition as we are.
Discover how Simon and his team are creating an enriching experience for avid readers. Meet Inky’s Bookshelf at the Fall 2017 AFRL Commercialization Academy Demo Day on November 30, 2017. Then watch them pitch to compete for the chance to win either the Judges’ Vote of $15,000 or the live Audience Vote of $5,000 at Griffiss Institute, 725 Daedalian Drive, Rome, New York!