One night last summer I couldn’t sleep and was surfing the internet. I stumbled across a few articles on POTTERMORE, the start-up web site founded by J.K. Rowing. After five years, they announced their first profitable year. I thought, if it takes five years to break even for one of the strongest brands ever, then what chance does anyone else have?
I then started to think back to the previous decade and all of the start-ups entering publishing. The rise of digital (in ebooks, audio, marketing, publicity, data, etc) has created untold opportunities. But, opportunity does not always lead to success. Frankly, the majority of the start-ups failed. I focused on some of them, but I actually wanted to look at the success stores more. I had consulted (formally or informally) with dozens after I founded 38enso Consulting. So, I had insight to the mentality of various publishing start-ups.
I wrote up a rough outline and sent to Andrea Chambers, head of the NYU SPS Masters Program in Publishing. She liked the idea but had some suggestions to the format to make the class fit better with NYU standards. We went back and forth 6-7 times to get it right. I enjoyed the collaboration as the class was being built.
The class was offered as a 7-week elective in Fall 2017. Not enough students signed up. So, it was postponed.
It was offered again in Spring 2018. This time, 19 people signed up. I had planned for less than 10. So, immediately pivoted and changed aspects of the course.
The first class was in late January, and the last class was this week. Final papers are graded and will soon post the grades.
So what did I learn?
It is an enormous amount of work preparing 2.5 hours of lecture on a weekly basis. It is necessary to create at least and extra hour of material.
- Video is effective – show a clip of the founders describing their vision.
- The pitch decks for some of the most successful companies are not that profound, but were effective.
- Started with 200 companies as possible discussions, and selected 20 (two were suggested by students):
- Oyster; Scribd; EPIC!; The Atavist; Book Riot
- Goodreads; BookBub; Open Road Integrated Media; Bookish; Wattpad
- BookBaby; Smashwords; Callisto Media; the Skimm;
- Mail Chimp; Uber; Casper; Slack; Warby Parker; Humble Bundle
- Have great guest lectures. Learn from those who have the experience / who have done it. Our class was blessed to have four:
- Thea James – Book Smugglers (also Workman and currently PRH) – a ten-year old company that just ran a successful Kickstarter campaign.
- Evan Schnittman — OptiQly (also Hachette and Oxford) – his story of how fast things can move in start-ups.
- Brendan Cahill — Open Road and NatureShare (now at PRH labs) – did a brilliant job discussing funding and process
- Anthony Zaccardi — Post Hill Press (also S&S and PRH) – his two-year old publisher is one of the fasting growing in the industry.
- I also asked Josh Shanker (BookBub), Molly Barton (Serial Box), John Kilkullen (Callisto Media and many other start-ups) and Thad McIlroy (The Future of Publishing). Other committments didn’t allow them to speak – but maybe next time. Josh, Molly and John all have great stories to tell about running a start-up and Thad has done some excellent research on start-ups in publishing.
- The final paper was for each student to select a publishing start-up over the past decade and do an analysis. There were some great profiles. One of the better ones was about Aer.io (started by Ron Martinez and sold to Ingram)
We also did a very-deep dive on Amazon. Given that they were a start-up just 20 years ago. Plus, Amazon is involved as a competitor, partner or parent to every one of the 20 start-ups . Amazon is everywhere — as most in publishing know, but their depth and expansion into so many areas is amazing
One of the pieces used to evaluate Start-Ups was from a TedTalk by Bill Gross, founder of IdeaLab: