Building Story, Creating Intellectual Property & Marketing Imagination. Why Project Pen Has 99 Problems — And Finding an Investor is Number ‘One.’
Project pen has 99 problems. And finding an investor is one.
For the past month I’ve been living in Los Angeles, based out of WeWork LA. There’s a beer keg next to my workspace desk. People bring their dogs to work. Outside is Hollywood Boulevard; the names of Hollywood legends are set into stars on the pavement. I walk up and down that street every day; it reminds me of the power of imagination, and good art.
Spiderman, Marilyn Monroe and Optimus Prime beg for dollars and pose for Selfie’s outside the famous Chinese Theater. I feel their pain. They should be saving the planet. Not worrying about rent.
Meanwhile in the Middle East, Maisa our Co-Founder has got back to Jordan after travels in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and an MIT Entrepreneur Forum in Kuwait.
Things are Going Great… No, Really …
On the face of it all, things could not be going better.
Project Pen books are now in bookstores across UAE and Jordan, with a pending distribution deal that could expand on that significantly.
Our Arabic content is expanding on an early-market lead; Arabic readers are spending + 2 minutes on the site, with decent organic traction.
We’re bypassing censorship to publish a new generation of writers digitally, discovering new kinds of content and storytelling, and commercializing it in new ways; from Google Adwords and Al Bawaba Syndication, to for sale physical products and sponsored events like Disrupt!/Books!/
We’ve brought in almost exactly $47,000 in a just over a year; so more than our initial cash investment from Oasis500 incubator.
Finally, kids and millennial’s like us. Our brand is hot; we’ve held some of the largest, most fun and collaborative creative events in the Middle East, from Storylabs, to twitter stories, to Instagram Stories.
On paper, we’re killing it. So what’s going wrong?
Revenue, Digital Audience, Story-Building & Making Mistakes.
Revenue was important for project pen — as a creative team we were told we had something to prove back in May 2014, and that revenue was the best test of market need and market validation.
Looking back, i wish we’d had the confidence to go a different way. I was worried that over-emphasis on revenue generation would compromise something way more valuable; digital audience creation and conversion into eBook sales.
Instead of working on building our community, we focused on trying to impress investors.
It was the kind of classic mistake, that startups all over the world make.
The bright side has been being able to move into print, and pay salaries; and we always pay salaries, because skill and creative talent are what make books like Jamila’s Thread sell.
Salwa building her first print book — and nailing it.
Our team knew we had the in-team skills to get traction in future; what we had to prove, was that we could develop and build great stories, out of Amman. For me, this was the fundamental test — and right now, it’s probably what I feel proudest about.
Last year i sat with a friend in Jordan who knows everything about publishing and books. He’s someone who’s achieved things no one else has, and a brilliant human being. As we were leaving, he said to me “you’ll never make money from selling books, we do it because we love it”. I laughed, but also qualified the statement. “We don’t sell books. We sell stories”.
It’s something we’ve tried and tried, but ultimately failed to communicate.
In terms of project pen’s business development, Jamila’s Thread isn’t a ‘book’. It’s a piece of intellectual property contained in a book format, for now. Consumers across the Middle East are investing in this story for their kids. If we can license and adapt it into other formats, we will.
In the MENA market, the ‘book’ remains the most convenient container for delivering and distributing the story. That’s why we use it.
When we do pitch project pen, we divide our work into four areas: project pen digital, project pen books, and project pen licensing. We also talk a lot about brand engagement online and at offline events.
Here’s our Pitch Deck.
It might not be as easy as ‘Etsy in Arabic’ or ‘Maktoub for creative-content’, but it does make sense. Or does it?
What the hell is going wrong? Why aren’t investors investing!?
Investors Have Imaginations Too. Oh yes, they do.
The problem with project pen right now, its that we’ve failed to capture the imagination of the investment class, in the same way we captured the imagination of the creative class when we first launched.
In most ways, it’s our fault. We began as naturally suspicious of guys in suits, after some horror stories in the MENA creative scene and some bad experiences with larger corporations.
It’s still a ridiculous attitude; if you’re asking someone for $$, you’d better learn speak his or her language, and be receptive to feedback.
That said, there is one issue no one speaks about; only a tiny percentage of VC’s or institutional investors in the Middle East have a humanities or art’s background. Anything creative is still regarded as ‘feminine’. And of course, most VC’s are guys.
This is makes it harder for project pen, than it would be if we were pitching an app to a tech investor, or a news channel to a content publisher.
The idea that ‘creativity’ has a measurable economic impact and value — as well as all sorts of other psychological and social benefits, like technology does — is something I don’t know how to reflect on a balance sheet.
My favorite Star on Hollywood Blvd.
“Creativity” has market value.
When consumers choose one creative product over another, they make a creative rather than product-based decision. Why do kid’s love Frozen or Tangled? Why did Pixar invest so much, and take such huge risks, with the first ‘Toy Story’ movie?
I once asked this question in Amman, and was told it was because Pixar are great ‘animators’. My reply, that Pixar “are storytellers who use animation, rather than animators who tell stories,” got us quickly dispatched from the room for being way too smartass. That’s a personal problem I’m working on.
Why audiences pay and respond to one creative idea over another, is something we think about a lot. Right now, we’re afraid to even discuss it.
We also argue and debate a lot; that’s how we make cool stuff. Our company culture, which is pretty fresh, is getting us fried in investor meetings.
So what to do?
Right now. Pitching Project Pen in the United States!
Before I left for LA, our team, Zinc Campus and Gamelab were sitting in a meeting room with MidEastCreatives.
We talked about how project pen was doing such cool stuff, hitting out all our milestones, but when it came to talking to investors we were collectively a disaster.
When I mentioned exploring the US investment climate, we were told that we had zero chance of getting anywhere — project pen was not competitive enough, Americans have HBO and Netflix, and don’t need more content.
All of which made me jump on a plane to Los Angeles. Because that statement needs A-B testing.
Between East and West: A Rock and A Hard Place
بين المطرقة والسندان
Is project pen a concept for Arabs who have no-where to publish, or a company working to create a platform for a new generation of imaginations and creators on the Internet? We were always interested in the second part.
Every time project pen received plaudits for ‘promoting Arabic content’ I winced — it was about promoting storytelling, in a beautiful idiom. This wasn’t an NGO.
Why is Arabic regarded as such a niche, mysterious Orientalized language, anyway?
Back to LA — At the moment things are going much as was predicted in that meeting. We’re getting curious interest, smart questions, and brutal but constructive feedback. Project pen’s concept/mission is regarded as compelling… but without a clearer market-fit, it’s not enough.
The US is more inviting, and more open to digital immersive content experiences outside of traditional formats, than anywhere else. Just don’t waste people’s time here. And if you do it — do it right.
After managing to build project pen in the Middle East — the most bonkers publishing space on the planet — I’m not as phased as i expected to be.
Right now, project pen is between a rock and a hard place; between East & West, creative and business, technology and art.
There’s no blueprint for where we are right now. Which makes us the dumbest team of smart people i know.