Tag Archives: prototype

New experiments shipped

From September to November we’ve put together a number of new experiments in product mix and marketing.

It’ll be interesting and hopefully valuable to see what works.

We also got out of the office a bit:

We learned a lot of hard lessons about how and now not to describe Paperight to consumers. This and other feedback and experience in October led us to completely overhaul our messaging … and our marketing focus, shifting from pushing ‘Paperight’ to pushing our outlets and backgrounding Paperight.

  • 24 Sep 2012: Well-received panel discussion titled “The Future of the Book” at the excellent Open Book Festival in Cape Town
  • 11 Oct 2012: Our comms manager Nick was on national TV show ‘Hectic Nine 9’, and wrote it up on our blog. Here’s the video. It didn’t go as planned. We learned a lot of hard lessons about how and now not to describe Paperight to consumers. This and other feedback and experience in October led us to completely overhaul our messaging (from standard pitches to site UI) and our marketing focus, shifting from pushing ‘Paperight’ to pushing our outlets and backgrounding Paperight. (More on that in a separate post.)
  • 15 Oct 2012: Content manager Tarryn attended the Frankfurt Book Fair. Here’s her blog post about it.
  • 7 Nov 2012: We announced our Paperight Young Writers Anthology: a collection of writing and illustration by high-school learners to be published on Paperight in 2013
  • 20 Nov 2012: I spoke at the Owl Club, a most venerable institution. Here’s the text of my talk.

A number of people have been talking about us. Some highlights:

Lessons learned so far

Nine months into our Shuttleworth Foundation funding, 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.

My fellowship newly underway

So, I’m three months in to my Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship, which is three months into building Paperight full-time. If you don’t know, Paperight is a website that turns any business with any printer into a print-on-demand bookstore. So, what have I been doing with that time?

The first thing has been to get a working demo, or prototype site, up and running, so that we can show the service to others, test some ideas, and develop our vocabulary and sign-up documents in a live environment. So I knocked that together in WordPress during September, along with a bunch of back-room workflow tests and documentation. It’s been hugely valuable.

With that done, it was time to start talking seriously to rightsholders, licensing agencies and content aggregators. So in October I headed off to the Frankfurt Book Fair and London to speak to a wide range of people. And the response was, almost entirely, overwhelmingly positive.

Two years ago, when I first asked publishers about the Paperight concept, they were cautiously optimistic, but many were worried about how their books would look, and how much they would cost to consumers. Luckily for us, since then Amazon Kindle has shown that most readers just want stories and info, and that easy, affordable distribution is often more important than high-end production values when you’re growing a market. Suddenly a book printed out on A4 paper seems just fine. Especially if it’s on every street corner in countries you’ve never sold in before.

So there were far fewer concerns from publishers about Paperight in 2011 than in 2009. Where there were concerns, they have been really helpful in tailoring our message. I certainly have a much better idea of what makes publishers interested in using Paperight. One key issue – which I discussed recently on the Paperight blog – is that Paperight can compete with piracy on accessibility, convenience, and often in total cost (energy, time, money).

Rightsholder agreement

Our messaging is captured largely in our rightsholder agreement, which is really short, and in plain language. It took a lot of time and effort to get it that way. This is really important to us, because Paperight is built on the idea that the once arcane world of rights and licensing can actually be managed simply, and anyone can participate in it. I went through the distribution contracts of a bunch of other businesses, took the most important concepts, and boiled them down to simple sentences and paragraphs. The input of Foundation alumnus Andrew Rens was really valuable here, too. It’s something we’ll constantly evolve, but I’m pleased with the way we’ve started.


Another important area of our messaging is pricing. Most people find it hard to believe it can be cheaper to print a book out than to buy a copy that the publisher printed in its thousands. But now we can show in most cases that that isn’t true. In the video that goes with this post, I give a concrete example of how a publisher can earn as much from a Paperight sale as from a conventional book sale, and yet save the consumer more than 25% on the retail price of the conventional edition.


My conversations with rightsholders and others have also led to discussions about putting a range of non-book content on Paperight, including newspapers, exams, sheet music, classifieds and administrative documents.

The process of prioritising and prepping this content will fall to our content manager.Tarryn-Anne Anderson joined us in November to work on this. Over the next couple of months, she’ll also be putting together a print catalogue of books and documents we think people will like, and we’ll put that catalogue in copy shops around the country. It’ll include textbooks, novels, past matric exam papers, how-to guides and more. And from that we hope to learn more about what print-shop customers are likely to find most valuable.

The website

last-screenshot-live_20120509_10-43pm_cropMeanwhile, all along I’ve been working on a redesigned site that will replace the working prototype in the first half of next year. It’s simpler and will be much faster. And it’ll give us the ability to distribute certain documents in certain regions, which is crucial to publishers who want to reach new markets without competing, for now, with their conventional editions in their home markets.

This means long hours studying and developing user interface and user experience best practice, and chatting to print-shop managers about how their stores work, and how the Paperight site can best work at their point of sale.

Here’s an early mockup of a product page, prepared long before I built the prototype.


The Shuttleworth Foundation

Working with the Foundation has been fantastic. I get to share ideas with and learn from a group of seriously amazing people, who’re working in mobile technology, user-created publishing, biocultural communities, open knowledge and educational resources, peer education, open data, citizen cyberscience, new approaches to IP, and more. And the Foundation staff work tirelessly to support our work and help us focus on making an impact. They all make the Paperight team much bigger than it seems on paper.