A conversation on innovation at Paperight (and beyond)

I recently enjoyed an email conversation with Wouter Burger, a marketing executive who, for his part-time studies, is writing a paper on innovation and brand leadership. We talked about Paperight in particular, and innovation in general. Here is the conversation.

WB: An organisations ability to innovate is a strategic asset. What is your view on innovation?

AA: Innovation is a bit broad to have ‘a view’ on. It’s a big, complex area. I suppose in short you could say that without innovating, a company will die quickly. But that’s obvious, and not an interesting or useful thing to say. My two favourite takes on how innovation does or can happen are described in Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma and Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup. Both centre around the principle that to innovate you have to be enthusiastic about experimentation and learning from failure. Everything I’ve built at Electric Book Works and Paperight is the product of a long genealogy of experimentation and failure.

WB: How is Paperight set up to drive innovation and not see the same fate as Kontax?

AA: Kontax was great – it proved that teens would read if they had easy access to stories, something many publishers doubted – but it never set out to have a self-sustaining business model. Paperight is structured very differently: it’s a for-profit company with a clear revenue model. This means the team culture is oriented around self-sustainability. Our conversations are literally of a different sort. And then that self-sustainability requires constant innovation. Every day we’re tweaking the system, our marketing messages, our promotional strategies, our approach to content. And those tweaks can add up to or precipitate large strategic shifts.

WB: Do you actively consider the appointment of employees in relation to their ability to contribute to the innovation process?

AA: We’re lucky to have attracted a team of naturally innovative people. I think innovative people get what Paperight is about more quickly than those who think ecosystems are static. So they tend to apply to work with us first. If I’ve had not-very-innovative team members over the years, I suspect they moved on, I can’t even remember. Statically minded people struggle with constant experimentation and failure. Innovative people thrive on it.

WB: Can you explain your organisations culture?

AA: Culture is hard to describe briefly. Perhaps most importantly, we’re a tight-knit team of multi-talented people who focus above all else on shipping – getting stuff done and out the door. But there is so much more to company culture. We follow a similar ethos to two companies who have tried to write describe their culture clearly: Valve (the game-software company) gives its new employees the Valve Handbook, and there’s a lot there that rings true for us. And HubSpot have summarised their culture in a great slide deck. HubSpot’s approach is almost exactly ours, except that we don’t have unlimited vacation time!

WB: Was it a conscious effort to get to this place (the culture mentioned above)?

AA: Absolutely. Culture does not happen by accident. It starts with conscious decisions by a company’s leaders about how a company must feel to be a part of. Then you have to translate that feeling into clear, concrete ways of working that get passed on to the team as they join. Every recruitment decision must take culture into account (I’ve turned away highly talented job applicants because their personalities don’t suit the culture we’re building), but also tiny decisions like where people sit, where and how they make coffee, how meetings are run, what software we use, and how we answer the phone.

WB: Do you mix teams to get the innovation going i.e. a creative with a strategic person?

AA: Yes. There’s no pre-existing formula. But when you put a team together for a project, you’re making a decision about the culture of that project. It will have a subculture of its own, within the greater organisational culture. I take for granted that our project teams will be innovative, but perhaps unconsciously I’d avoid teaming people who as a combination might stifle each others’ ability to innovate.

WB: Do you think innovation is a creative or a strategic spinoff and which type of thinking is better conducive for this?

AA: Creative and strategic ways of thinking can’t be neatly separated. They’re a big grey jumble. Any successful project needs both to be innovative, effective and sustainable. But there’s no recipe.

WB: With the innovation of Paperight, who played the roles of creative and strategist?

AA: Since I’m the sole founder, I suppose I’ve worn both hats. I designed the logo, wrote most of the early messaging, and developed the product-development strategy, for instance. But if I’d been on my own entirely, it all would have sucked. What we’ve done well has only been good because I and my team have actively gathered input from others. You have to be humble about what you can do yourself, and excited about what others bring to a project. In addition to the amazing team I have around me now, over the years my co-workers, friends and suppliers have helped invent and refine many of the creative and strategic innovations at Paperight. Nowadays, my role is to filter that input, organise it usefully, and have a casting vote on what we implement.

WB: Looking at yourself as the leader of a brand awarded with such a prestigious innovation award must feel great and validate your efforts. What qualities do you see compulsory for leaders looking to drive this innovation?

AA: There are many different ways to drive innovation, so there’s probably not a single set of qualities you have to have. If I have to name one, I’d say empathy. You have to be able to put yourself in others’ shoes, to see the world as they do. Who you choose to empathise with may differ: not many would say Steve Jobs was empathetic to his staff, but he was masterfully empathetic to his customers: he understood perfectly what it is and should be like to use a device as a consumer. When I encounter people who struggle to innovate, I get the feeling they’re low on empathy: they’re locked into their own worldview and don’t see the world as others do.

WB: While working in your previous publishing position, did you always look out for ways to innovate?

AA: Absolutely! I genuinely can’t believe everyone isn’t always trying to innovate, whether that means changing the world or changing your doorbell. Wherever a system isn’t perfect, there’s an opportunity to innovate – why wouldn’t you want to take that opportunity? Improving things, doing them in new, better ways is the most fun you can have in life.

WB: In the commercial sense, Amazon did a lot for digital publishing with the Kindle – however, this did not help lower income groups attain quality reading materials. The spinoff for Africa came in the form of Worldreader – looking to bring the e-readers to Africa. This is also happening too slow to get the level of reach and education you are targeting. There will be a stage where the above scenario starts changing and copyshops will then become less frequented (although quite far in the future). How will you position your offering to innovate for such a challenge, or is it something you keep in mind but only assess when you’re at that junction?

AA: Ereading is the future. No question. But that future is much, much further off than most people think. We could build Paperight for twenty years and never run out of customers.

That said, Paperight is a small piece of a bigger puzzle. It may look like we’re just printing books out. What we’re really doing is building a rights marketplace where licences to repackage content are instantly and effortlessly traded. In time, those licences might be for repackaging software, music, or video. Already most African economies are driven by small-scale entrepreneurs who understand their specific local markets. Those entrepreneurs are best placed to know what their communities want and how to package and sell it – not some suit-wearing editor in London or New York. The editor should create great content, and leave it to the entrepreneur to repackage and sell it under licence to specific, local markets.

Most exciting of all, a network of local outlets could produce 3D-printed objects, like crockery or spectacles. Right now, we live in a world where, for the most part, the creators of objects control their design and their physical production: Ikea designs your desk lamp and controls its production. Oakley designs your glasses and controls their production. But production of even the most complex items is getting cheaper and cheaper to do locally, on-demand, using generic tools and open hardware, like 3D printers. In future, Ikea may design your new desk lamp, but your local corner store will print it for you on demand, with a quick, easy licence from Ikea. At that point, I hope we’ll power those licensing platforms, and serve that network of printing and repackaging outlets.

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