The Startup Interview: IndieShade
For a startup run by an entrepreneur so concerned with openness and transparency, there’s something eerie about IndieShade, a new online marketplace for independent comic book publishers. Perhaps it’s the dark background that has adorned the landing page in the past weeks… So, in the hope of uncovering more about this startup and the views of its founder, I met up with Nicholas Kubera for a chat. Here’s how things panned out.
Nicholas appears outside the Informatics Forum at the University of Edinburgh a few minutes late, clad in his large black hoodie and brown corduroy trousers. As we walk towards the nearest University café, he tells me a little bit about his upbringing and, with no hesitation, his rather stark views on education. “I was born in Poland where I grew up. While I was there, I studied Chinese Philosophy, especially Taoism, so intuitive rather than rational philosophy,” he says. “It’s kind of the trait of my character — to be more intuitive than rational.” At the age of twenty-two, Nicholas moved to Edinburgh where he now studies web development at the Edinburgh College. As he explains, however, this isn’t his first attempt at education in the UK; “I went to university and studied a year of history and politics. I hated it. I love history, but not in an academic way so writing essays to Harvard standards which are completely soulless and deprived of view didn’t suit me at all.” We enter the café and find two seats amidst the hoards of students revising for their upcoming exams.
“So why did you choose to study web development?” I ask him. “Money,” he says, quickly. It’s not an untypical answer, I suppose, given the interest of many graduates in working for Facebook or Google nowadays. But then, after a pause, Nicholas continues, “but then my values and my ideals overwhelmed me.” Nicholas is a very ethical individual — this trait of his character is inescapable, even to someone who’s meeting him for the first time. He has strong views on data privacy, is determined not to be dishonest and disagrees with profit making, money and other business tactics. “I needed to do something ethical. I needed to do it my way,” he tells me.
As such, it comes as no surprise that his startup, IndieShade, takes the form of a social enterprise. “It’s a community interest company,” Nicholas argues, “there are no shareholders; I never wanted any strings attached.” IndieShade, which has since been released in beta, is primarily an online marketplace where independent comic book creators can sell their work in digital form. But, as a social enterprise, the company also focuses on the reinvestment of any profits in the indie community. “It’s a kind of wheel,” Nicholas comments, “where I’ll take a 35% commission [a major competitor, Amazon’s comiXology, take 50%-65% commission] on any sales and reinvest it to help others publish their works and send out an independent magazine every couple of months.”
Intrigued as to exactly how much commission he expects to make, I ask about how the comic books will be priced. Although comic books will be priced by their publishers, Nicholas has set up some barriers with regard to how they are priced, in line with his own ideals and ethics. “Many things that are common are not right and this includes charging users 99 pence for a product. If you see a product for £9.99, it seems like it’s nine and something but it’s really ten. You wouldn’t buy it as fast if it were £10. They’re tricking you into thinking that there’s a difference,” he says, pointing the finger at giants like Apple. “I don’t want it — I don’t think it’s honest and, if IndieShade is anything else, it is proving that things can be done another way.” As such, he’s allowing creators to price their work at 25p intervals (£0.25, £0.50, £0.75, £1,…). And, to answer my original question; “I don’t know. The average price is $2 so I’d expect £1.25 or £1.50 — that’s the average right now for comic books that are twenty of thirty pages long.”
“So is there a market for digital-only comics?” I ask. “Oh, absolutely. They [comics] can first be digital and later printed — this is how it often goes,” he says. He points to his Twitter following of a few hundred followers as an indicator of the potential for his product, “they’ve followed us based on a basic idea — nothing more. But more importantly, last year eBooks were better selling than physical books for the first time and I’d expect comic books to be no different.” Unlike many digital publishers, however, Nicholas has committed IndieShade to being free of Digital Rights Management (DRM), allowing the copying of any works purchased on his marketplace without charge and eliminating the need to use a dedicated application in order to read them. “The problem with DRM is that small publishers, small creators, they usually don’t want it anyway — it’s too much hassle,” he says, sitting back in his chair confidently. “The second thing is that DRM involves things that are not nice. The way it works is that when you buy something, you don’t actually own it.” Nicholas makes the point of Amazon — who famously deleted copies of 1984 from Kindle users’ devices without their knowledge. “In this society, it’s nice to feel like we can buy and support stuff,” he says. “I figured that it is better to allow people to buy something and copy it if they want to and share it with other people because, in the end, creators get more fans and maybe those who can’t pay today will be able to in a year’s time because they have more money.” It’s an intriguing argument, and not one which I expect many students or others would agree with, but I opt to move on with my questioning.
Perhaps I don’t look in the right places, however, I get the impression that the comic scene in Scotland is minimal so ask why Nicholas has decided to set up his business here. “There are a lot of guys on Twitter, actually,” he starts on the defensive, “Glasgow has a comic and drink group or something like that and, at the University of Dundee, there’s a dedicated course for comic books which, as far as I’m aware, is the only one in the world, or Europe — definitely the UK anyway. I’m not a big fan of academics and university, but that could be kind of fun.” Nevertheless, he admits that, in comparison to Francophone countries and the likes of Japan where comic books are widely considered as a form of art and expression, English speaking countries have paid relatively little attention to comic artists. As such, Nicholas is using his base in Scotland as an opportunity to grow Scottish interest in the art form; “there’s no reason that somebody who enjoys Victorian poetry, literature and George Orwell couldn’t enjoy comic books,” he says. Down the line, he hopes to launch an independent comic book festival in Scotland and, by publishing more artistic and socially significant works (he gives an example of a comic about the desire to escape Thatcherism) through the publishing arm of his enterprise, gradually change our mentality regarding comics.
I decide to turn the conversation away from IndieShade to focus more on Nicholas and his entrepreneurial journey thus far. “Would you consider yourself an entrepreneur?” I ask him. “No. Probably because I don’t understand the word. It’s just a word I’d never call myself.” He argues that, although his day-to-day routine includes facets of an entrepreneur, he also engages in a variety of other activities. So, instead, he opts to describe himself as a ‘Human Being’ which encompases his work at IndieShade and his other interests in writing, poetry, theatre, music composition and doodling. “People forget that we’re human beings. We have huge potential but it is often limited by things like roles, etc,” Nicholas says.
“Do you have any previous business experience?” I ask. “No. Everything is new. Everything is scary at first, but it becomes familiar after a while and,” he pauses, “it’s a sort of journey I guess.” He’s aided on his journey by the Scottish Institute for Enterprise and their Edinburgh advisor, Tom McGuire who, I get the impression, has been carefully selected. “He’s pretty much the best support when it comes to business and offering me experience,” Nicholas exclaims. “The vast majority of business people I met lacked a soul and knowledge of art. Profits, money, selling points — they had them. I disagree with those. I don’t think it’s positive for society or good for me. I found a niche within a niche. Tom is a niche. IndieComic books are even more niche — they’re much more geeky, much more artistic, it’s a different approach. It’s a pretty good match. I don’t like business too much.”
I wonder whether Nicholas has any advice for other entrepereneurs or ‘human beings’ from his business experience thus far. “Never give up on your values — use them to convince and show people who you are and hope that others resonate with your ideas and what you’re trying to do,” he tells me. “In the case of IndieShade, re-investing profits into the community — that’s what many would call a selling point or something like that but I don’t see it in those terms. If you know that the people who are likely to be your customers care about such things — and people care more than the business world realises, I think, you’ll win them over by caring.”
We change focus again, this time centering on Nicholas’ opinions on data privacy. From my first contact with him, he expressed a dislike for the use of Google and other cloud-based services given revelations that internet companies had been aiding government data collection programmes including PRISM. “I’ll make it very simple,” he says, sitting up in his chair. “I don’t like PRISM, I don’t like spying and I don’t like the idea that a government or any other entity collects data and stores it so long that people can be convicted of crimes they didn’t commit when the data was collected but are now deemed to have committed thanks to a more recent change in the law […] There is so much data that analysts could never analyse it when it was needed. And we’re not giving it up freely anyway.” As such, he’s clear that IndieShade be transparent about the data it collects, that it is limited to the bare minimum and that nobody else get’s their hands on it.
Our interview draws to a close and we head outside into the sunshine. I’m just about to head for lunch when Nicholas asks me whether or not I’ve read any comic books. I admit that I haven’t at which point he rattles off a list of ten or twenty that I should read over lunch. Some sound interesting, some sound a little heavy. Either way, there’s no doubting that Nicholas will have no trouble in persuading at least a small portion of the population to appreciate comic books outside of the Francophone market.