Alastair Adam and John Eielson of FlatWorld: “Why you should be willing to admit your mistakes”
Be willing to admit to mistakes. For example, we initially thought that the sales motion should primarily be about awareness. We were convinced that what we were offering was so compelling, that it would fly off the shelves. All we needed to do was get the word out and it would sell itself. That was naive: while we do have an awesome product, this is a system sale. The professor is somewhat shielded from the cost of the book, as students are the ones that pay, but more importantly, this is a critical tool for professors, so they need to be absolutely sure that all the components of the FlatWorld solution are going to work for them. That requires more time and support through the switch than we had envisaged.
As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alastair Adam and John Eielson, co-CEOs of FlatWorld, a digital-first publisher of award-winning college textbooks that are both affordable and high quality.
Alastair obtained an MA in Law from Cambridge University and then spent five years in corporate finance and M&A in London. He moved to Boston in 1998, where he met his Co-CEO, John Eielson. John obtained a BS in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering from the Coast Guard Academy and an MBA from Yale University. Alastair and John specialize in Information and Publishing and launched their first company together in 2002. In 2016, they launched the new FlatWorld business.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
We used to joke that the best golf handicaps could be found in the college textbook industry: raise prices each year, then head off to the golf course. But we also recognized that this market was following a pattern common to others: a few key players consolidate the space by buying up the competition; they take advantage of their enhanced market power to raise prices. While barriers to entry keep competitors out for a while, eventually the price umbrella becomes sufficiently big that, often in combination with a technology change, a disruptor emerges. It happened in the airline industry, with SouthWest and JetBlue. It happened in stock prices, where you used to have to pay vast amounts for a Reuters or Bloomberg terminal. So, in 2015, having sold our company, we decided to be that disruptor in this market. That we had children who were soon to be college-bound was the frosting on the cake.
Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.
JE: A big piece of our new company came from the former Flat World Knowledge business. While that company had been started by leaders with tremendous vision, was backed by some great venture funds, had built a great platform and had signed wonderful authors, it was ultimately let down by its freemium business model and it ran out of cash. The model had students pay for print copies of a textbook, but digital textbooks were free. To us, that was like running a bar where you charge for glasses, but give away the beer. Even if they prefer to drink from a glass, most people will be just fine drinking from the can or bottle if the beer is free! And a whole bunch of them may even prefer it. The digital textbook product was getting better and better, students were more and more comfortable in a digital world, so there simply wasn’t enough money generated from print sales.
What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
JE: By the time we acquired the assets from Flat World Knowledge, the company had been bleeding for a long time. The parts that we acquired had been run for cash, so there was a lot of deferred investment and maintenance. We viewed it like an old house: great bones, but it needed a ton of work. Think structural work, not just a fresh coat of paint. But, particularly when we combined it with other assets that we acquired, including some fantastic new titles, we were confident that we’d have something that would work really, really well for professors and students. Even before factoring in our super-affordable pricing, we were confident that we would be able to go toe to toe with the incumbent publishers. Then, having built the company as a modern, digital-first, efficient business — without the competitors’ burden of legacy infrastructure, bloated overhead and stretched balance sheets — we knew that we’d also have a sustainable cost advantage, too.
Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?
JE: Well, we’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re on the right path and we are growing strongly. Initially the conversations with professors tended to be “What’s FlatWorld?”. Then it was a bit like the experience moving away from cable TV: we really disliked cable — the poor technology, the awful customer support and, of course, the price gouging. But despite all that, it took us both a while to cut the cord and move to internet TV. Of course, we both wish we’d done it far sooner. More and more though, we are able to point to the 1,500-plus schools who have adopted a FlatWorld book and the conversations with faculty have shifted from “How do I know that this will work for my class?” and more “I want to save my students money, how do I make this happen as soon as possible?”
Based on your experience, can you share 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)
AA: Make sure you are really clear about a robust, high-level strategy — in our case, that the combination of equivalent quality, at a much more attractive price, could take share. You will keep coming back to this foundation and it will pull you through the difficult times.
JE: Be very clear who your customer is and listen to them carefully. Not just the words they are using, but what they are really trying to convey, particularly in rejection. For example, our customer is the faculty teaching a course for which we offer a textbook. If they say “No”, you need to be able to distinguish between, “No, over my dead body, I’m never going to use your darn product,” “No, but I’m interested, just not until next year, when I have the tenure process under my belt,” “No, you need to fix these things first,” and “No, but that can be changed to “Yes” with perseverance on your part.”
AA: Be willing to admit to mistakes. For example, we initially thought that the sales motion should primarily be about awareness. We were convinced that what we were offering was so compelling, that it would fly off the shelves. All we needed to do was get the word out and it would sell itself. That was naive: while we do have an awesome product, this is a system sale. The professor is somewhat shielded from the cost of the book, as students are the ones that pay, but more importantly, this is a critical tool for professors, so they need to be absolutely sure that all the components of the FlatWorld solution are going to work for them. That requires more time and support through the switch than we had envisaged.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
AA: The two of us have worked together closely for over twenty years. While our personalities are quite different, they seem to complement each other well. We’ve definitely achieved more by teaming up. And I’d add our CFO / COO, Sherri Floros into the equation too — she’s been a huge part of our combined success for well over a decade now. Externally, very early on in our careers, when we launched our first company, we had critical backing from three very important people: Brian Hall, Dennis Beckingham and David Hanssens. They gave us our first orders but, more importantly, gave us the encouragement, support and confidence to strike out on our own.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
JE: The build from this point, with a great platform in place, is about scaling to reach more professors and their students, rather than break-through launches. A bit more BMW 3 series or Porsche 911 — a series of seemingly small, but rapid and continuous improvements. Suddenly, though, you look back and realize, wow, it’s really very different, we’ve come a long way. For years, a lot of people have spent a lot of money trying to revolutionize education. It is hard to point to too many that have succeeded. We believe that rapid evolution is more likely to bring change, specifically lowering spend per student, per semester, on educational materials.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
AA: Education is the most incredible multiplier, with the power to transform lives. It’s not just the student who benefits from the knowledge and the enhanced earning potential of the college experience, it’s society as a whole. In that context, that students avoid taking certain courses solely because the assigned textbook is too expensive, which is exactly what happens right across the country, every single semester, is a travesty and a clear sign that the textbook market is fundamentally broken. We intend to fix that.
Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?
AA: I’m not sure about wisdom, but our goal is both to shine a spotlight on what is broken, but also to point to a viable, scalable solution to fixing the problem.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
AA: We can be found on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/alastairadam/ and https://www.linkedin.com/in/john-eielson-523a1422/.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.