My Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship: nine months in

Every three months, I sum up what I’ve been doing during my Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship. At the time of writing this, I’m also reapplying for another year as a Fellow, so this report is more thorough than usual. In particular, I wanted to talk about lessons I’ve learned, what we’ve built over the last nine months, and where we’re headed.

The summary

Big milestones for Paperight:

Lessons learned:

  • The human story is more powerful than the financial one (even when both are good).
  • Spending lots of time chasing big publishers isn’t worth it. There are many smaller, more interesting fish.
  • We needed to focus more on how we make it legal to print books.
  • We’ve learned to blend patience and impatience in software development.
  • Too much choice for our customers is paralysing. Simplify the offering.
  • Making our own content is hard work, but very important.

Speaking event highlights:

Other highlights were hiring our outlet team, co-branding promotional material with ITEC Innovate, a forward-thinking local copier company, and spending time with Zakes Ncwanya, who is moving back to his rural hometown to set up an Internet Cafe and Paperight outlet. (This later became a story in the Mail & Guardian written by our communications manager.)

A personal note: The Fellowship is not just a great way to build and nurture valuable projects. It’s a personal- and professional-development drag race that produces tougher, smarter, more effective people. It’s also addictive.

The details

After nine months, we’ve reached some big milestones for Paperight. Most importantly, the instant-delivery rights marketplace we set out to build is a reality, now that the Paperight 1.0 site is live. We have over 50 outlets registered – including copy shops, schools and NGOs – and have made our first revenue.

Innovative publishing companies have joined us, including Cover2Cover (youth fiction), Modjaji Books (acclaimed fiction and biography), the Health and Medical Publishing Group (publishers of the South African Medical Journal and a dozen others the and SA Medicines Formulary), and the African Books Collective, a renowned agency representing over 140 small and medium publishers from around Africa. (There are also several very small publishers signed up.) We are in advanced talks with several large educational and trade publishers in South Africa, too.

Promotional partnerships with Silulo Ulutho Technologies, a fast-growing chain of Internet-cafe-copy-shops, and copier-printer companies Canon and ITEC are kicking in now, too.

We’ve also made some shifts in our promotional strategy as we’ve learned through trial and error where time, energy and money are best spent.

Lessons learned

I’m proud and pleased with where we are in large part because, in getting there, we’ve had to learn fast from mistakes and successes. Some of the lessons we’ve learned:

  • The human story is more powerful than the financial one. I thought initially that publishers and copy shops would sign up because we offered them a new revenue stream. However, at first glance no one really believes it when someone promises them a ‘new revenue stream’. They really make their buying decision – which is always an emotional decision – because they connect with our social-impact vision. Then, they go on to justify that decision to themselves by calculating potential revenue, or by citing a need to look for new opportunities in tough times. Similarly, I’ve seen that when individuals don’t connect with our social-impact vision, they use the financial numbers to justify not participating. So most of our Paperight pitches now emphasise the human story – books are the key to upliftment, they save lives, we all have a responsibility to spread education – and then when necessary we move onto the numbers. This was a crucial lesson that took months of trial and error to learn.
  • Perhaps the hardest lesson was realising that three months approaching big publishing companies early on was not a good use of my time. Paperight is a classic disruptive innovation: a simple, relatively low-margin product for a new market. No matter how well run they are, established companies cannot justify putting resources into a disruptive innovation very early on. They can only follow smaller, more nimble players for whom new, early-stage markets are attractive. (I wish I’d read The Innovator’s Dilemma sooner; it makes this so clear.) Now that we have a growing stable of publishers and outlet footprint, it’s easier for larger publishers to justify joining us.
  • When pitching Paperight to outlets, it’s good to focus on the word ‘legal’. I initially emphasised concepts like ‘easy’, ‘more customers’ and ‘broader product offering’, thinking that the fact that Paperight is the first ever legal way to print books out was obvious and beside the point. While those features are important, we’ve also realised that ‘legal’ is a key feature: copy shops know they are often asked to copy books illegally, and this creates anxiety for managers. Our pitch then speaks to that emotion.
  • Building good software requires patience and impatience simultaneously: planning and designing Paperight 1.0 (the current site) took much longer than expected. We had to very patiently thrash a great deal early on, and this paid off in a very smooth build process that resulted in a great site. But none of this would have been possible without the impatiently built Paperight 0.5, a duct-tape solution on which we impatiently registered our first users and delivered our first documents. Even though we had to use 0.5 for two more months than expected, we learned from it right to the end. The lessons included refining terminology, online agreements, book metadata and taxonomies, customer expectations around document quality, marketing strategies (customers love free credit more than books priced at free, even though they’re effectively the same thing), and search and browsing behaviour.
  • My initial strategy was to create a large catalogue early on so that users could ‘walk into an outlet and ask for anything’. This was flawed – and not just because it’s very hard to build a large catalogue fast. The flaw is that with a new service, too much choice is paralysing. To gain new outlet sign-ups, we had to focus on one product: past exam papers for grade-12 learners. We have since got much better traction among outlets, who can visualise marketing that to their customers. We learned this lesson while distributing our first Paperight catalogue poster, and watching how outlets engaged with it. (That said, it’s important to note that many users want to browse a range of books not to buy but to evaluate the service before signing up.)
  • Unique, tailor-made content is hard work but incredibly valuable. Creating packs of past grade-12 papers involved a serious investment of time and energy. (Nick Mulgrew tells the story on our blog.) Essentially, we’re creating this content from disparate sources (no one organ or government can provide all matric past papers; we’ve had to visit various offices, numerous websites, and beg favours of officials). It is possible that the creation of Paperight-specific content may form a key part of our content strategy over time – potentially more important for growing our customer base than simply gathering others’ content. This is something I’m keeping an eye on.
  • A key future revenue model is selling integration with institutions’ user systems to deliver documents to specific people in remote places – for example, distance-learning students picking up their personalised printed course materials from a copy shop, using a code or student number plugged into Paperight, rather than relying on the post. However, to get in the door of large institutions – universities in particular – the outlet footprint has to be in place first. The first question I get is always ‘Where are your outlets?’. It’s a market where vaporware doesn’t cut it. In our first six months, this was a setback that wasted time. Now that our footprint is growing, we can begin making these pitches again.
  • Copy shops don’t want to be selling advertising. We had reserved advertising space on the pages of our documents for copy shops to sell to local businesses. It seemed like a good idea. But, for a copy shop, the cost of acquiring advertising is much greater than the likely advertising revenue. We’ve discovered, however, that publishers are interested in using this ad space to cross-sell books. So I’m looking into this ad space as a potential revenue stream for Paperight instead, potentially using it to offset rights fees.

Speaking events

I’ve enjoyed speaking at several events over the last nine months, mostly on Paperight, sometimes on broader innovative publishing issues (Foundation projects like Yoza and Live magazine often came up):

  • Open Book, Cape Town’s premier literary festival, panel discussion with Steve Vosloo and Ben Williams on digitisation in publishing.
  • Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedebad, India: ran half-day seminar on publishing technology for senior publishing execs on a five-day MBA-style program at India’s top management school. It was great to get to sit in on the course, too: some of the best business teaching I’ve ever seen.
  • ANFASA (Academic and Non-Fiction Authors Association of South Africa) AGM: presentation on Paperight to authors and publishers from around South Africa.
  • Publishers Association of South Africa, Higher-Education sector meeting: presentation on Paperight to the senior management of most South African higher-ed publishers.
  • British Council panel discussion event, ‘The Future of International Publishing’, at the London Book Fair 2012.
  • International New Publishers Network launch, London Book Fair 2012, pecha-kucha presentation on Paperight (see my slides-and-speech version).
  • Van Schaik Booksellers Ebook Conference (middle and senior management of several dozen trade and higher-ed publishing companies), presentation on how existing ebook infrastructure can be used to sell books to an offline audience using Paperight.
  • Franschhoek Literary Festival: Chaired panel discussion on fiction on mobile phones.
  • TED Talent Search, Soweto: talk on Paperight, as part of TED’s global auditions for their 2013 event (I was one of 19 South Africans selected for the event, huge honour to present alongside such incredible innovators).
  • Forthcoming: International Publishers Association World Congress, Cape Town (11 June): Presenting on innovative business models in SA publishing (Yoza and similar, Paperight, and Siyavula).
  • Forthcoming: Cape Town Book Fair, 14 June, Goethe Institute invitation programme, on trends in digital publishing.
  • Forthcoming: TEDxCapeTown (21 July): talking about Paperight.

Website development

Getting Paperight 1.0 live was a huge milestone for us. While the build in the end – from scratch, without a base CMS, over only two months – was fast and smooth, this was only possible because we put every ounce of learning and planning I’d done for the site over the previous three years into its design and planning. It’s a very simple thing now, but that is deliberate simplicity.

I had one key principle for the site: all our choices had to favour making the site as fast and light as possible. Outlets have slow connections and busy shop floors. This informed decisions like our simple prepaid accounts (the outlet manager can top up an account in advance very quickly); account balances and licence fees had to be shown in the user’s currency, no matter where they are in the world; the interface had to be clean with large figures and buttons, for quick, simple use at the point-of-sale.

I worked very closely with the team at Realm Digital on this. Realm were an expensive choice, and I’m pleased that our decision to use them paid off in fantastic service, great design, and real dedication to the time-frames and to the business model itself. Lead developer Shaine Gordon has described technically how the site’s built on our blog.

In addition to ongoing refinements, we’re now planning a second round of development for Paperight 1.1.

Team

Tarryn and Nick, our content team, have been amazing. Both high-achieving type-As, they’ve ensured our products are meticulously documented and organised. A recent achievement has been their forty-page Paperight user manual for outlets (grab the PDF). It’s beautifully written, and includes not only step-by-step guidance on using the site, but also clear guidelines and suggestions for how to use Paperight to grow a printing business, even beyond printing books out for people.

The content team has also been keeping our blog busy – Nick’s author-of-the-week posts are particularly enjoyable. We have a growing mailing list, and Twitter and Facebook followings. These will be increasingly important over time.

A major highlight of the last two months for me has been hiring our outlet team. Zimkita, Zukisani and Yazeed joined us in April with the job of signing up outlets and providing ongoing training and support to them. Each brings a different skill set to Paperight that’s been invaluable: Zukisani has contacts at almost every school in the Western Cape, especially in the underprivileged areas we’re targeting; Zimkita’s six years at Vodacom customer service make her our friendly and meticulous email- and phone-support person; and Yazeed’s experience running his family’s business, combined with a startling energy for producing high-quality work, brings great business-savvy to the team.

Partnerships

Silulo (fully, Silulo Ulutho Technologies) is a fast-growing chain of Internet cafe cum copy-shop cum training academies in underprivileged areas. They have nine branches and several more planned (some in partnership with Vodacom). We’re working with them to promote Paperight to matric students in poor parts of Cape Town, Khayelitsha in particular. We’ve been training their staff, and have produced co-branded marketing materials that their teams will be distributing during late May and early June, in addition to radio and Facebook advertising. The goal is to make Silulo stores a recognised destination for matric students looking for learning materials.

We’ve developed a good partnership with copier-companies ITEC and Canon, creating co-branded flyers with copier-printer packages to suit small entrepreneurs wanting to open printing businesses. An example is Zakes Ncanywa, a former molecular oncologist who is setting up an Internet Cafe-copyshop in Peddie in the rural Eastern Cape.

Infrastructure

An unglamorous but critically important side of our work over the last months has been Paperight’s back-office setup and systems.

Most importantly, Paperight is now a registered company with bank accounts. We’re days from moving into our new offices (sublet from Electric Book Works). We have workflows around various online tools for bug tracking, accounting, and document management, and our internal wiki is now a substantial store of invaluable info, from guidance to new staff and practical how-tos to recommended reading for team members.

A personal note

The last nine months, for me personally, has been a ride of epic proportions. The opportunity to build a dream business with generous resources – alongside fellow Fellows who are constantly amazing and inspiring – is a kind of exquisite torture.

I’ve grown and learned as an entrepreneur at a rate I didn’t think possible a year earlier while running Electric Book Works. I’ve had to learn to let go in many ways, too: my role has transformed in the last three months from doing the work of Paperight to driving our team’s work, and making sure each individual is equipped and confident enough to deliver. I’ve learned new levels of focus, too, and have been forced to perfect time- and task-management skills. I’ve always been an efficient person; I reckon I’ve doubled that efficiency. I’ve always been a good public speaker; I’m ten times better now and still improving. I used to be a poor salesperson; I’m miles from that now, and know where I have to keep working to be better.

The Fellowship is not just a great way to build and nurture valuable projects. It’s a personal- and professional-development drag race that produces tougher, smarter, more effective people. As I prepare to apply for another year, I realise it’s also kind of addictive.

4 thoughts on “My Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship: nine months in

  1. Pingback: Keeping up with the highlights | Arthur Attwell

  2. Pingback: New stuff we’ve made | The Paperight Story

  3. The Shuttleworth foundation published very good maths books everything maths Siyavula. I am interested in buying these books for teaching purposes.

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