Tag Archives: Shuttleworth Foundation

An overview of the Paperight journey

This article by Arthur Attwell was originally published in Art&Thought magazine, published by the Goethe Institute.

Everyone knows that books are critical to development and education. Everyone knows that bookshops and libraries are vanishingly rare in Africa. Everyone knows that most families have fewer than ten books at home. So why do we still have this problem?

The book business is expensive. It costs a fortune to stock a bookstore. Even a small store needs to carry a few thousand books just to keep customers coming back. What’s more, bookstores need lots of floor space for shelves, and they are highly dependent on foot traffic, so the rent is expensive. So the margins are low, and the risks are high.

And if you want to try to start an online store instead, you need to be ready to lose a lot of money at first. And then, in most of Africa, most people don’t have credit cards, or can’t get online to use them.

A few years ago, the Centre for the Book in South Africa distributed free children’s books to 7000 rural homes. But there was no existing way to get them there. In some places, volunteers used wheelbarrows to carry the books from a post office to homes and schools. If you live any distance from a wealthy city suburb, books are simply not a part of your landscape.

The problem is particularly desperate when books can even save lives. In Tanzania, an NGO called CCBRT treats over 120 000 people with disabilities every year. To train nurses and midwives, they order their course books by post from Cape Town, 5000 kilometres away. A leading neonatologist there said recently that training with these books could save many of the 45000 newborn lives lost in Tanzania every year. But the cost of getting the books there is absurdly high.

By the time a book travels to a printer, and then to a warehouse, gets shipped across countries, stored again, displayed and finally purchased, its cost has risen four times over.

One way to tackle this problem is to put books on mobile phones. The website childhealthcare.co.za, the free online version of a textbook for nurses, had 27000 visits last year, about half of those from developing countries. That’s a hundred times the number of printed copies sold. A free novel by Sam Wilson called Kontax, which is read on feature phones, has been read over 63000 times by South African teens from every part of the country. And more and more schoolchildren are reading free Siyavula science and maths textbooks on their phones.

But there are still obstacles: no publisher has figured out how to make these mobile books pay for themselves yet. And to read a book on a phone you need electricity and airtime, and you have to read on a small screen that can’t handle complex images.

Worst of all, Internet access is not as widespread as we like to believe. If you look at a map of 3G internet coverage in South Africa, from a great distance it seems you can get online anywhere. But as you zoom in, and get closer to the ground, you find that coverage actually extends in hundreds of narrow spines from city centres, leaving big gaps in coverage only a short distance from significant towns. In reality, the Internet is not in everyone’s pocket.

Books on phones might be the way of the future, but they don’t work for everyone today. Of course, people are resourceful. Despite these obstacles, they do read. They find a way to get to school and study. Where do they get their books? More than anything, they photocopy.

There are print-and-copy shops in every town in the world, churning out pamphlets, flyers, adverts, CVs, and books. Unlike bookselling, you can get a copy-print shop profitable quickly. For a monthly lease of only a few hundred rand, and just a small space to work in, you can get a copier business selling thousands of sheets a month. As a result, the copier-printer may be the single most common distribution channel for publishing in the developing world.

Copy shops will laboriously scan and print the books their customers find and bring in. And since those customers often have no other way to find or afford a book, they’re performing an important social function. But they have to do it illegally.

By law in most countries, you can’t scan and print a copyrighted book, and you definitely can’t sell that print-out to someone else.

As you can imagine, copy shops terrify publishers. When I was publishing textbooks some years ago, we even tried printing in special inks that we thought wouldn’t photocopy well. (It didn’t work.) And the more our books were copied, the fewer we sold, and the higher we pushed our prices. And the more that happened, the more convinced we became that copy shops could never be trusted, that they didn’t understand our industry, and that they were our sworn enemy.

But copy shops are solving our customer’s problems, and putting books more books in the world, surely we should help them do it better and faster? Surely a partnership would be better for both sides? Imagine if we made their jobs easier, and legal.

What if we let copy shops print and sell from a whole library of books on a simple website? What if we made that website so fast and easy to use that it was more profitable for the copy shop – and more cost-effective for their customer – to pay for the service than to keep copying old books the hard way? Only a local corner store would have to be online for a whole village to have access to books.

And would publishers make money selling books through copy shops?

I decided to find out. I gathered a team and, with investment from the Shuttleworth Foundation, we built a website called Paperight.

On Paperight, anyone with a printer could download books and print them out for customers. Many books were free to download, and for others, the publisher charged a rights fee. Amazingly, publishers could make the same margins from these downloads that they do from their fancy editions, and still the total cost to the customer was usually less than that fancy edition sold in a mall.

Instantly, with only a basic Internet connection, every copy shop would be a bookstore. Even in the most remote village, every school could have access to new study guides. Every hospital with a laser printer could train new nurses and midwives with up-to-date information.

The idea was so promising, and for six years it consumed most of my waking hours. But by December 2014, the journey ended. We couldn’t make it work financially. And its story tells us a lot about publishing and innovation.

What happened to Paperight?

Our aims seemed simple: turn photocopiers into bookstores in every village in Africa, dramatically reduce the cost of tertiary (higher-ed, university college) textbooks, and prove that publishers could make money selling instant licenses (we’d sustain ourselves from commission).

In short, we wanted to offer a more effective way to get textbooks to students. And thanks to the Shuttleworth Foundation, we had time and money to make it happen.

From our site’s launch in May 2012 to Dec 2014 we put over 200 print-shop outlets on our map, signed up over 150 publishers, added over 2100 titles, and distributed 4049 copies of books.

But revenue didn’t climb. I began to realise that, starting from a small base, a trickle of sales can look like traction. A trickle can inspire confidence that is both valuable – to confidence, to our ability to sell – and terribly misleading. It’s a dangerous time for an ambitious team, because both trickle and traction make you think your model is working, and that it’s time to plan for scale. But a trickle that isn’t traction can hide fundamental problems with your model.

In 2.5 years we charged a total R57500 (about US$5750) in licence fees. Of this, R26000 went to publishers, we earned R20000 from books we published ourselves, and we earned R11500 in commission. It was tiny, not even enough to meet one month’s payroll. More importantly, after a year the rate of growth in sales had slowed to almost zero.

So what happened? Our problems were of course, in part, the result of our strategic decisions: out of an infinite number of possible alternatives, some decisions would have been better than others. We probably didn’t have enough sales people on the ground, and perhaps we scaled too fast, and didn’t bed down the model locally before going nationwide. We’ll never know if that would have changed things. But aside from that, we knew we had three major external challenges, ones we would have faced to matter what our strategy had been.

Firstly, and most importantly, while many publishers joined us, almost none let us sell their most popular, high-value titles. They asked us to test with their least popular titles, thinking they were mitigating risk. In reality, they were inadvertently setting us up to fail: we could not sell books that no one wanted. (See the section at the end of this article, ‘Tough truths about selling to publishers’.)

Secondly, most copy shops were not active partners, which is not surprising when we had so few high-value titles for them to promote. Many also gave their customers poor service (we double-checked ourselves by spending hours and days in stores). This meant we weren’t attracting new or returning customers.

And thirdly, our target market – potential readers and students with poor backgrounds – have grown up without books. They don’t attach much value to reading. Certainly not enough to buy books before food and clothing. And South African publishing has done very little in the last twenty years to change that.

Despite our disappointment, though, buried in our revenue stats is a promising story: one small collection of high-value, low-priced titles that we created ourselves sold well: a hundred low-priced collections of past grade-12 exam papers. That one small collection of high-value, low-priced titles made as much as all our other sales combined. And that’s after those past-papers were free for the first seven months.

These sales showed that if we’d had the right content, we might have done well. But it’s almost impossible to build a working experiment relying on commercial publishers’ content when those publishers are too risk averse to let us use popular books. Experimental projects like ours need high-value content to work with.

I had been determined to push for change in publishing by enabling a better way to sell. But I now believe that you cannot create industrial change by enabling its participants. It’s like saying ‘Here’s a tool that will completely change the way you work!’ No one wants a tool that will change the way they work. Work is complicated enough as it is without having to learn about new tools.

Nonetheless, change must be possible. People just need different motivators. I now believe that to change an industry you shouldn’t try to enable organisations to change for the better. You should take those new tools and compete with them. Challenge traditional methods head-on by challenging for market share. If you fail, you can always try something else. And if you succeed, you will either replace the incumbents or force them to change. Both outcomes are good.

South African publishing today

South Africa has been democratic for twenty-one years. It’s a good time to reflect on how far the local book industry has come. Book production values have soared. We have more black authors, more major women writers, and they’re selling well internationally in more popular genres. It’s a very good time to be a wealthy book lover in South Africa.

It’s not a good time to be anyone else. The number of bookstores outside suburban malls has hardly changed. Working from the Publisher’s Association’s most recent industry survey, the number of trade book buyers is probably less than two million, or 4% of the population, if they are spending about R700 ($70) per person, per year at retail value. That’s roughly four paperbacks each. New books are almost all in English and Afrikaans, the home languages of wealthy, white South Africans. Of R312 million ($30 million) in local trade publishing revenue, only R1.7 million, or 0.5%, comes from books in the country’s nine official African languages. In adult fiction, the proportion of African-language revenue is only 0.2%. (In 2008, this figure was 0.6%, so it’s got worse.) Essentially, zero with isolated experiments.

The conventional view is that, outside a narrow cohort, most South Africans don’t like reading. In casual conversation, this view sometimes correlates dangerously with racial stereotypes. For instance, two senior book industry figures have told me that black South African children wouldn’t read Harry Potter in Zulu because it’s “culturally irrelevant.” If this mindset is common among editors, it’s a key reason we’ve made so little progress.

Outside traditional publishing companies, there are bold attempts to sell books to new readers. Projects like FunDza, Bookly and EverEgg focus on mobile phones as a way to grow reading, though none have found a business model that would satisfy traditional publishers. Others, like Megabooks, focus on print-on-demand – though like Paperight did, they struggle without committed buy-in from local publishers who control the most valuable educational content.

So market-based solutions seem unable to get off the ground. Where markets should grow from little pockets of early adopters, there may not be enough pockets to grow from. For most South Africans, books are a luxury they could never afford. New data from the University of Cape Town’s Unilever Institute shows that over 34 million South Africans (70%) survive on an average household income of R3000 ($300) per month. They regularly skip meals and turn off electrical appliances long before payday. In those homes, even the cheapest books would never be prioritized over food and clothing.

For those who’ve made it out of poverty, books remain invisible. When books have never been a part of your life, you are unlikely to seek out and invest in them. At Paperight, even when we solved for price and availability, books remained largely invisible without intense and expensive local marketing.

If as a publishing industry in 1994 we’d taken a twenty-year view, we might have seen that our biggest challenge lay in making books visible to South Africans. We’d have given away millions of free books to children – just as the UK does on National Book Day every year – and seen many of those children blossom into keen book buyers today. Seen this way, the market-based challenge lies not in finding right business model, but in taking a long-term view. Less like Jack’s beanstalk, more like bonsai.

A new non-profit called Book Dash, which I helped found last year, takes exactly that view. Book Dash focuses on creating and giving away free, high-quality books to needy children. The books are created by volunteers, all creative professionals, who participate in twelve-hour book-making marathons. Some are from book publishing, but most are from other industries: animators, artists, copywriters, journalists and designers. Almost everything is done by these volunteers – to date, my company and a few other donors have covered direct costs worth about R200 000 (US$20000), and Book Dash has crowdfunded R80000 for printing books for children.

Everything the volunteers create is open-licensed (Creative Commons Attribution), so that anyone can translate, print and distribute the books freely. And Book Dash is creating basic HTML versions for mobile-phone initiatives. Already, other organisations have come to the party: the African Storybook Project has funded Book Dash creation days, and they and the Nal’ibali reading campaign have translated Book Dash stories into several African languages. And Book Dash stories are appearing in Nal’ibali’s fold-your-own-book newspaper inserts, where commercial publishers’ stories were used before under proprietary licenses.

The aim is to slash the cost of high-quality children’s books for literacy organizations to the cost of printing alone. When printing as few as 5000 copies, unit costs dip under a dollar for bookshop-quality editions.

Book Dash is very different from Paperight, but it aims to solve essentially the same problems. And if it succeeds, perhaps in ten or twenty years time there will be far more readers, and bolder publishers, and Paperight’s distributed print-on-demand model might have another, better chance.


Sidebar: Tough truths about selling to publishers

This is adapted from a slightly longer version on Arthur Attwell’s blog here.

For every innovative startup in publishing, it’s hard to remain patient while pitching to publishers over and over again. Most of the time these companies seem impervious to change. Here are my five hard truths about pitching to publishers.

1. People love you. Their organisations don’t.

When people buy a product or buy into an idea, it’s emotion that makes them do it. They use logic to justify the emotional decision after they’ve made it. And emotionally, publishers get very excited about social impact. But convincing a person with emotions is very different from convincing an organisation. It takes an untiring champion to get a decision through an organisation’s decision-making process, and this is where innovation stalls.

2. The right person is rarely the right person.

When we pitched Paperight, we were bounced from the rights-and-licensing manager to the sales manager to the digital manager, and none of them were sure they could just sign up their company. In the end, it matters less that you figure out who is responsible and more that you find someone, somewhere who’ll just get on with it.

3. Most people don’t speak XML.

Most publishers don’t understand technical jargon. They have their own vocabulary to describe their needs. When pitching, you have to ask sensible questions till they describe the product they need in their terms. Only then can you explain why what you’re offering solves their problem. This sounds obvious, but it’s really hard to do and takes lots of practice.

4. Anchored numbers are sticky

Here’s a number: 55%. The gross margin that most publishers aim for on each book. In many companies, it’s a sacred number. The rule is: “Do not propose publishing a book that does not hit this number.” Sacred numbers are very useful if you want people to produce the same kind of product over and over again to sustain an established business. But when you want to innovate, sacred numbers are big obstacles. When the decisions a company’s staff can make are circumscribed by specific numbers, the numbers define how the company thinks. Sacred numbers define a company’s culture.

In psychology, these sacred numbers also cause what’s called anchoring. When a number is an anchor, we use it to evaluate any other number by comparison. In the case of a 55% margin, or a standard print run or a common price point, publishers compare any number you give them to these anchors. If you pitch a project that will make a million sales at a gross margin of 10%, they’re going to have trouble believing in it. Their anchors make it hard to fit new numbers into their company culture. Every innovative publishing service or startup is trying to offer publishers a new set of numbers. But company values are big rocks to move.

Moreover, the staff must actually know how their company’s numbers interrelate. Often, publishers I speak to don’t know the real costs and margins on their products, especially warehousing, wastage and other provisions that don’t appear on their standard costings spreadsheets. As a result, they simply aren’t empowered to make the kinds of decisions that innovations require.

5. Risk and regret loom large.

People fear losing much more than they desire a corresponding gain. When you’re pitching a service to a publisher, they fear regretting their decision much, much more than they want your product. Even if they want your product a lot.

As a result, publishers felt safer giving us low-value, low-selling content, thinking this would reduce their risk of failure. Ironically, this had the opposite effect: by putting low-selling content on our site, they actually increased their risk of failure, because this low-value content did not sell at all. To make an innovation work, you have to maximise your chances of success by using it for the best content you have.

Paperight and beyond: learning from disappointment

At a Mobile Literacy Network Meeting this week hosted by the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg, I talked about Paperight, why we had to close, and some of the lessons my team and I are taking to our next ventures – particularly Bettercare and Book Dash


In the next ten minutes I’m going to talk about three things: what was Paperight, why we had to close, and a few lessons (out of a great many) that I’m taking into my next ventures.


But first, a quick note on learning lessons from disappointment.


Hindsight is cruel, because it’s almost certainly wrong.

The disappointment you feel when you decide that your project didn’t work only indicates what particular set of circumstances, and series of events, didn’t work out the way you hoped. That disappointment makes us regret our decisions, and looking back we’re tempted to say ‘We should have done this instead.’ The problem is that your journey was one of an infinite number of possible alternatives, and you have no way of knowing what exactly you should have done differently.

So when we draw lessons, we can say ‘For us, this didn’t work and this did’. We can’t say ‘If we’d done this, everything would have turned out well.’

  • It’s okay to say ‘This didn’t work.’
  • It’s foolish to say ‘This would have worked better.’

Watch out for that trap of wishful alternatives. Once you start noticing it, you realise that we all fall into it all the time, wasting energy on we-should-haves.

It also means that our lessons might not apply to your project directly, but perhaps they are a rough guide to potential challenges.

So, let’s see what happened to Paperight.


At Paperight we built a network of independent print shops that could print books out for their customers on demand.

We worked with publishers to provide an online library of books that print shops could legally download, print and sell to customers.


We wanted to:

  • turn photocopiers into bookstores in every village in Africa
  • dramatically reduce the cost of tertiary (higher-ed, university college) textbooks
  • prove that publishers could make money selling instant licenses (we’d sustain ourselves from commission).

In short, we wanted to offer a more effective way to get textbooks to students. And thanks to the Shuttleworth Foundation, we had time and money to make it happen.


So how did we do?


From May 2012 to Dec 2014 we got to:

  • 200+ outlets on our map (there were about 200 more that we didn’t believe were active copy shops)
  • 150+ publishers
  • 2100+ titles (with 1000+ in our queue)
  • 4049 copies distributed.

We worked with copy shops to make sure their customers knew about the service.


In some cases, we helped with signage, and in others…


…copy shops did a great job of promoting on-demand books themselves. The early signs were promising – we told ourselves we had traction.


But revenue just didn’t climb. I began to realise that, starting from a small base, a trickle can look like traction. A trickle can inspire confidence that is both valuable – to confidence, to our ability to sell – and misleading. It’s a dangerous time for an ambitious team, because both trickle and traction make you think your model is working, and that it’s time to plan for scale. A trickle can hide fundamental problems with your model.

A trickle can look like traction. It’s a dangerous time for an ambitious team, because both make you think your model is working, and that it’s time to plan for scale. A trickle can hide fundamental problems with your model.

In 2.5 years we charged R57500 in licence fees. Of this:

  • R26000 to publishers
  • R20000 as a publisher ourselves
  • R11500 in commission

That wasn’t enough to meet one month’s payroll. More importantly, after a year the rate of growth in sales had slowed to almost zero.


Our problems were of course, in part, the result our strategic decisions: out of an infinite number of possible alternatives, some would have been better than others. But aside from that, we knew we had three major external challenges:

One small collection of high-value, low-price titles made as much as all our other sales combined.

Despite our disappointment, buried in those revenue stats is a promising story: we made far more as a publisher than as a distributor. We had created a hundred simple, low-priced books of our own: collections of past grade-12 exam papers. That one small collection of high-value, low-priced titles made as much as all our other sales combined. And that’s after those past-papers were free for the first seven months.

Even though we made so much of our revenue from past exam papers, we often regretted deciding to charge for them. When they were still free, we made really good headway growing customers for copy shops in poor areas, especially in Khayelitsha and in peri-urban Eastern Cape towns.

From the day we started charging for them – between $1 and $2 a copy – those sales declined massively. It was a great lesson in the infinite distance between free and paid.


Free content is easy to sell. Paid content is infinitely more difficult.
You don’t just ‘add on’ paid to a free model. Payment changes a project fundamentally.

Still, we really wanted to prove a paid model. And we did have paying customers.

If I had to draw broad conclusions from this, I’d confidently say that if we’d had the right content, we could have done well.


A few high-value titles will sell. But it’s almost impossible to build a working experiment relying on commercial publishers’ content. Experimental projects like ours need high-value content to work with. If it’s open-licensed, we all get much further much faster. It’s critical that impact-minded content projects and funders prioritise open licensing.

I was determined to push for change in publishing by enabling a better way to sell. But I now believe that you cannot create industrial change by enabling its participants.


‘Here’s a tool that will change the way you work!’ No one wants a tool that will change the way they work. Work is complicated enough as it is.

Nonetheless, change must be possible. We just need different motivators. So I’ll try a different approach: competition. I’m actively implementing open-access models, easy licenses and print-on-demand at Bettercare.


If we can take market share at Bettercare by doing things differently, perhaps we’ll tempt established players to do the same.

Meanwhile, in other work I’ll focus on building readership for the long term. If twenty years ago, South African publishers had made a concerted effort to invest in early-childhood reading, perhaps Paperight’s distributed print-on-demand might have worked out better.


So at Book Dash, a volunteer-based non-profit, we’re creating new, high-quality, African books for little children that anyone can freely translate, print and distribute. Already our books are being reused by literacy projects like Nal’ibali and the African Storybook Project, who in turn create translations in many local languages. We’ll soon be distributing digital versions through FunDza, Worldreader and others. And we’ve recently crowd-funded over R80000 to print copies to give to children.

It was disappointing that Paperight didn’t work, but my excitement about our next steps far outweighs that. Those were good lessons.




Managing Shuttleworth Foundation funding, project by project

Arthur’s fellowship with the Shuttleworth Foundation began 1 September 2011. He has received in total three years of funding which have been used in 17 projects which make up the total Paperight project.

The process is well organised and thoroughly monitored by the Foundation. We submit detailed pitches which are analysed and discussed before being approved. Memorandums of Agreement are created for each pitch and signed by Arthur and the Foundation’s representative. Invoices are submitted against each project and are tracked. At the end of each project, detailed closing reports are done and the remaining funds which have not been spent are returned to the pool.

Funding we have received and allocated to projects so far includes:

Project 1 – Beta

This is the first Paperight project pitched to the Shuttleworth Foundation. The plan for this project was to hire a core team, build and launch a minimum-featured beta site with automated content licencing and acquisition. The project went better than expected and took four months instead of three. A large portion of the funding requested for this project was put back into the pool to use for other projects. Our budget included a senior developer, a content manager, office costs, interns, registrations, and two laptops.

Total spend: R92 500

We learnt about:

  • The value of great internships
  • The mixed quality of of open sources of content
  • PDF technology
  • Workflow best practice using wiki-based operational manuals
  • The high cost of building open software
  • The difficulty of getting commercial publishers to provide content to new businesses.

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Tarryn-Anne Anderson
  • Nick Mulgrew
  • Arthur Attwell
  • Electric Book Works
  • Michal Blaszczyk

Project 2 – Promotion

The plan for this project was to promote outlets and customers while launching the instant-delivery website. The big goal was to get 100 outlets to register on our website and have 1000 documents purchased within two months. It took over two months to get 100 outlets, some of which were not viable outlets. In the first two months we sold about 100 free documents, and it took ten months to sell 1000 copies. Our budget included three months salaries for an outlet manager, a marketing consultant, a content manager, travelling costs, advertising costs, three computers, office costs and Adobe CS5.5.

Total spend: R489 372

Reasons for the low number of sales:

  • Very few outlets were advertising their Paperight service. Those who did advertise made sales.
  • The concept was very new to outlets.
  • Our marketing did not reach customers.
  • Our catalogue consisted of a small range of material.
  • We had few products to sell which were in demand by customers.
  • There is generally a low interest in the books which we had available on our site to purchase.

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Tarryn-Anne Anderson
  • Nick Mulgrew
  • Yazeed Peters
  • Zimkita
  • Zukisani
  • Arthur Attwell
  • Newsclip Media (social media monitoring)
  • Mega Digital (printing)
  • Nicole Sochen (marketing)
  • Strand Signs (Signboard)
  • Facebook (advertising)
  • Radio Zibonele (advertising)
  • Craig Hughes (content)
  • Caitlin Bracken (content)
  • Raeesa Pather (content)
  • Diann Selman (content)
  • Niki Anderson (marketing)

Project 3 – Site 1.0

it is always necessary to test your own coding and websites over and above that of the developer testing

This project was for creating the first release of the current paperight.com. We contracted Realm Digital and the project went really well. All objectives were achieved. We learnt that it is always necessary to test your own coding and websites over and above that of the developer testing.

Our budget included complete basic frontend components (landing, registration and profile pages, account-credit topup page, catalogue page, licence purchasing page, manage licences page, manage meta data page) and complete basic backend components (account credit management, user search and language page, doc search and manage page, licence search and manage page, PDF watermarking).

Total spend: R509 238

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Arthur Attwell
  • Realm Digital

Project 4 – Office

We planned to move to a formal office space and set up the office infrastructure. All objectives were achieved, the team settled in straight away, enjoyed their new working environment and productivity definitely increased. Our budget covered office furniture, rent, stationery, telephone and general office costs.

Total spend: R92 052

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Tarryn-Anne Anderson
  • Nick Mulgrew
  • Yazeed Peters
  • Dezre Little
  • Arthur Attwell

Project 5 – Team 2.0

We wanted to extend two existing contracts, create two new positions based on new needs and priorities, and allow us to bring in more interns. We first extended our contract positions: Our Chief Operating Officer (Tarryn Ann Anderson) and our Creative Director (Nick Mulgrew). Then we added new positions: Our Financial Manager (Dezre Little), and our Business Development Manager (Yazeed Peters). For our interns we found: Philippa Dewey as our Content Manager, Oscar Masinyana our Reading Communities Manager, and Marie-Louse Rouget our Marketing Coordinator. The team worked really well together and all were amazing team members. Our budget included three months salaries and three new laptops.

Total spend: R200 682

We learnt that

  • Our excellent team were the result of carefully selecting young purpose driven people
  • and a supportive environment.
  • Managing a team is an ongoing learning process. Arthur found giving each team member their own simple functional authority, and clear reporting lines helped to create ‘job coach’ relationships rather than task-based managerial relationships.
  • The process of including the team in the employment selection process meant that a team was created who bought into their team members success, built strong and loyal relationships where everyone is naturally interested in assisting their colleagues in both their career and personal development.
  • It helped a great deal that all team members valued each other as experts in their own area of work, and therefore saw each other as equals and relied on each others strengths wherever possible.

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Tarryn-Anne Anderson
  • Nick Mulgrew
  • Yazeed Peters
  • Oscar Masinyana
  • Dezre Little
  • Arthur Attwell
  • Philippa Dewey
  • Caitlin Bracken (content freelancer)

Project 6 – 6A and B Software phase 2.1 and 2.2

This project was originally written in three parts and then added together to make up what was finally Phase 2.1 and 2.2. As with most development projects, it turned out that more development was needed as Paperight progressed. Overall this project went very well, thanks to good preparation on our side and great professionalism by Realm Digital. The work included building 3rd party product integration and product ownership functionality.

Total spend: R553 641

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Tarryn-Anne Anderson
  • Nick Mulgrew
  • Yazeed Peters
  • Arthur Attwell
  • Dezre Little
  • Realm Digital (website development)
  • Dommisse Attorneys (legal advice)
  • Von Seidels (trademarking advice)

Project 7 – Live magazine

Here we collaborated with Live Magazine, placing a full-page advert in their magazine. The full-page ad featured a story-like cartoon highlighting our Let’s Talk About Varsity and Project H (a graphic novel) . The piece was well executed but there was no discernible increase in sales.

Total spend: R37 500

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Tarryn-Anne Anderson
  • Nick Mulgrew
  • Yazeed Peters
  • Arthur Attwell
  • Live Magazine (advertising)

Project 8 – Team infrastructure

Our team is established and we started focussing on scaling our reach. This project created a year long foundation of infrastructure. We created our Paperight targets and goals to achieve over the next year.

Total spend: R912 555.25

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Tarryn-Anne Anderson
  • Nick Mulgrew
  • Yazeed Peters
  • Arthur Attwell
  • Dezre Little
  • Marie-Louise Rouget
  • Oscar Masinyana
  • Philippa Dewey
  • Wolfsohn and Associates (Accountants)
  • The Book Lounge
  • Publishing Association of South Africa (membership)
  • Facebook (advertising)
  • Topcopy (printing)
  • Newsclip (social media monitoring)
  • Digital Express (printing)
  • Caitlin Bracken (content)
  • Diann Selman (content)
  • Limnos Backery (cakes)
  • Brendan Hughes (legal advice)
  • Freeagent (accounting program)
  • Paypal (payment partner)
  • Dropbox (document storage)
  • South African Book Association (membership)
  • Transforming minds (BEE application)

Project 9 – Frankfurt Book Fair

We sent Tarryn to the Frankfurt Book Fair to develop contacts and build relationships with international publishers. Great relationships were created and additional publishers signed up as a result.

Total spend: R17 180.35

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Tarryn-Anne Anderson
  • Millenium Travel (travel booking)

Project 10 – Trademarking

Trademarking Paperight in South Africa, the US and Europe.

Total spend: Still current, we expect a total cost around R100 000.

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Arthur Attwell
  • Dezre Little
  • Von Seidels (trademarking)

Project 11 – London Book Fair

We sent Tarryn to the London Book Fair to develop contacts and continue to build relationships. Again this was a great success.

Total spend: R18 660.97

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Tarryn-Anne Anderson
  • Citisprint (courier)
  • Millenium Travel (travel booking)

Project 12 – Sales course Yazeed

A ten-week course on selling for our Outlet Development Manager Yazeed Peters, intended primarily to boost sales from outlets to bulk-printing customers, resulting in revenue for Paperight in rights and service fees.

Total spend: R13 369.62

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Yazeed Peters

Project 13 – Unisa guide

This project was for creating and publishing Now What?, a short book on how to succeed as a UNISA student.

Total spend: R30 850.00

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Tarryn-Anne Anderson
  • Nick Mulgrew
  • Yazeed Peters
  • Arthur Attwell
  • Dezre Little
  • Oscar Masinyana
  • Philippa Dewey

Project 14 – Software development

The third major phase of software development on Paperight.com.

Total spend: R139 080

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Arthur Attwell
  • Realm Digital

Project 15 – Software phase 4

Our next pilot project to add dynamically designed food packaging print-outs on paperight.com. Only kidding –this was our April fools joke for the Shuttleworth Foundation. We loved writing is as much as they enjoyed reading it.

Total spend: R0

Project 16 – Team operational costs

Paperight’s team infrastructure costs for 6 months, September 2013 to February 2014

Total spend: Still current, we expect approx R1m

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Tarryn-Anne Anderson
  • Nick Mulgrew
  • Yazeed Peters
  • Arthur Attwell
  • Dezre Little
  • Marie-Louise Rouget
  • Oscar Masinyana
  • Philippa Dewey
  • Wolfsohn and Associates (Accountants)
  • Publishing Association of South Africa (membership)
  • South African Book Association (membership)
  • Freeagent (accounting program)
  • FNB Instant Accounting (accounting program)
  • Dropbox (online storage)
  • Docraptor (Invoicing package)

Project 17 – Marketing budget

Initial marketing budget and plans for 6 months, including staff, September 2013 to February 2014.

Total spend: Still current, we expect to spend almost R600K

Current team members/people involved in this project:

  • Tarryn-Anne Anderson
  • Nick Mulgrew
  • Yazeed Peters
  • Arthur Attwell
  • Dezre Little
  • Marie-Louise Rouget
  • Oscar Masinyana
  • Philippa Dewey
  • Daily Maverick (advertising)
  • Minute Man Press (advertising)
  • Shaun Swingler (photography and media)
  • University of Cape Town (advertising and promotions)
  • The Good Times (advertising)
  • Fitees (tshirt printing)
  • C2 Digital (printing)
  • Top Copy (printing)
  • UCT Sax Appeal (advertising)
  • Mega Digital (printing)
  • Newsclip (social media monitoring)
  • Facebook (advertising)
  • Martin Graphix (roller banner)

Messaging is a hard, winding journey

Sometimes a strategy emerges without you choosing it, because when you set out you didn’t know you had options. That’s how Paperight’s approach to growth and marketing emerged over the last few years. With hindsight, I can summarise this strategy as:

  • create a web brand (cool domain, slick website, friendly blog and social media, tech coverage) that consumers recognise and seek out.
  • use that brand recognition to attract consumers to Paperight outlets.
  • use that consumer-attraction to sign up more outlets.

To do this, we called Paperight a ‘website that turns any printer into a bookstore’, an ‘online library that copy shops use to print books for customers’, and other phrases that described Paperight as a website with downloadable content.

We kept describing the tool, but not the product. To the consumer, the product is a print-out from a local copy shop. To a copy shop, Paperight is a movement, a network of forward-thinking copy shop owners.

The fatal flaw here was that this required us to build brand recognition among consumers for a product that didn’t exist in their world yet. In other words: how could we get consumers to love Paperight before their local copy shop, which they already recognise, is using it? And worse, how could we attract low-income consumers to a web brand, when they spend no time on the web? To a consumer, Paperight is not a website. Describing Paperight as a website is like describing car repair as a spanner. We kept describing the tool, but not the product. To the consumer, the product is a print-out from a local copy shop. To a copy shop, Paperight is a movement, a network of forward-thinking copy shop owners.

Our mistaken approach was holding us back, but we didn’t have enough distance from it to realise that we had other options. I was obsessed with focusing on Paperight as a website. But I knew something was wrong, so I was looking for alternatives. Three key moments were Nick’s appearance on Hectic Nine 9, a misleading article in the Daily Dispatch about us, and Ben Maxwell’s sage session at the Nov 2012 Shuttleworth Foundation Gathering.

While preparing for Hectic Nine 9, whose audience is mostly teens, we realised that sending teens to paperight.com wouldn’t work. We needed to send them to outlets. We did NOT want them arriving at paperight.com and treating it like an ebook store (the interface doesn’t work as an ebook store, and our print-optimised PDFs make for terrible ebooks). But we weren’t allowed to mention brand names on air, like our major copy shop chain Jetline. So we decided to send the audience to a mobile-optimised, consumer-focused site at m.paperight.com. The problem was that when Nick got to the recording, the presenter and producer had other ideas. They were only interested in asking Nick about entrepreneurship, insisted on referring to Nick as the founder of Paperight (which is not a big problem, except that it made Nick uncomfortable), and then showed paperight.com and not m.paperight.com on screen during the interview.

The experience highlighted a few things:

  1. We didn’t have a concise, clear enough message that could cut through what the presenter had in mind about Paperight. Our approach was too broad and fuzzy, so the presenter went with what she thought already.
  2. A mobile site at m.paperight.com cannot be different in look and functionality from paperight.com, because (a) consumers will go to paperight.com by default anyway, and (b) users expect mobile sites to be essentially the same in purpose to their desktop parents.
  3. The whole notion of appealing directly to consumers was flawed because we don’t want them coming to our site. We want them going to our outlets.

Somehow, we had got completely the wrong message to the journalist. We briefly blamed her for being sloppy, but realised soon that it was our fault.

Shortly afterwards, the Daily Dispatch published an article about Paperight that described us explicitly as a site that matrics could use to download exam papers. There was barely a reference to copy shops. To make it worse, the article lightly criticised Paperight for being useful only to matrics who were wealthy enough to have Internet access. Somehow, we had got completely the wrong message to the journalist. We briefly blamed her for being sloppy, but realised soon that it was our fault. We simply weren’t being clear or focused enough in our messaging.

I also realised we (every member of our team) didn’t *love* copy shops enough. If we didn’t truly love them, we wouldn’t be able to create a tribe

We had to put our outlets first in everything. Our messaging, our elevator pitches, our promotional material, and most importantly, our minds. It was after Ben Maxwell emphasised to me the importance of creating in our messaging and on our site a sense of belonging (to a movement) for copy shops that I also realised we (every member of our team) didn’t love copy shops enough. If we didn’t truly love them, we wouldn’t be able to create a tribe, a sense that we were joining them in a grand march of progress.

Importantly, this meant we had to remove all references to our website and to ourselves as an online business or service from our messaging, especially any messaging that consumers might see. What would we replace it with? A movement, a network, a revolution.

Right now, our new messaging is built around the phrase, ‘Paperight is a network of independent print-on-demand bookstores’. If someone asks how we deliver content, we say we do it with a website.

The Daily Dispatch agreed to run a follow-up story with the ‘correct’ information. That story ran a few weeks later (see below, 14 Nov 2012), and is an example of the kind of thing we believe will work much better going forward.

The personal impact of a fellowship to build Paperight

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.

Highlights from the first nine months

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. 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. This post is the brief summary. In related posts I go into more detail about:

  • lessons learned
  • speaking events
  • website development
  • team and infrastructure
  • partnerships
  • a personal take.

screenshot_20120510After 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.

So, listing the key milestones:

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.

After six months of funding, where are we now?

It’s hard to believe I’m already halfway through my Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship. Only moments ago I was writing up highlights from the first three months. Those were largely backoffice-building and research months:

  • we got our site (version-named Paperight 0.5) up and running with pilot content from EBW Healthcare
  • tested and established workflows, QA tests and standard documentation
  • spoke to dozens of publishers in South Africa, at the Frankfurt Book Fair and in London
  • finalised our plain-language rightsholder agreement and outlet licence
  • refined our pricing and publisher-revenue models
  • recruited a Content Manager
  • and started on UX and specs for Paperight 1.0.

In our second quarter, we’ve focused on building a viable first-stage content list, planning our marketing for the next six months, and early thrashing for the Paperight 1.0 site build.

  • We added over 1000 publications to paperight.com – Tarryn’s content report on the Paperight blog includes a great analysis of the work she and Michal Blazsczyk did to make this happen
  • created a high-quality poster catalogue that we give to outlets to help them advertise book-printing to outlets (check it out on the Paperight blog), complete with soap-style blurbs for the classics
  • continued collaboration discussions with publishers, licensing agencies, technology companies, consumer-facing businesses with multiple outlets, and our provincial education department
  • planned the 1.0 site in detail, which involved refining wireframes and UI, investigating and negotiating with software development partners, drawing up IP agreements (we’d like to GPL our code eventually, so we can’t build with proprietary tools), and workshopping and polishing a functional spec for the entire build
  • planned a marketing campaign and recruited promotional staff, including marketing consultant Niki Anderson and (soon to be appointed) an outlet-relations manager
  • found and planned the great new office space we’ll be in from April
  • and continued to develop our internal ops manual (guides, standard docs, and reference info) in a wiki, to help new team members get up to speed quickly, and keep existing staff up-to-date.

The team’s now four people, and about to be five: myself, Tarryn-Anne Anderson (Content Manager), Nick Mulgrew (content-team intern), Niki Anderson (part-time marketing), and an outlet-relations manager we’re appointing shortly. Michal Blazscyk (content-team intern) finished his internship and is off the London, where some lucky publishing company will snap him up.

So, that’s two quarters down. We have a gameplan for each one, even if day-to-day things seem to turn on a dime. The first quarter was infrastructure and research. The second: a substantial content offering, marketing planning, and Paperight 1.0 thrashing.

For our third quarter, we’re getting out of the office with direct outlet approaches and a PR-heavy marketing campaign, and getting Paperight 1.0 built and running. 1.0 gives us key new functionality important to outlets and publishers: especially instant doc-delivery, currency conversion, and catalogues defined by territory.

The fourth quarter will also be marketing-heavy, and will include pushing commercial-publisher content that we can only sell with 1.0′s territoriality features.

Behind our efforts, the ever-supportive, midnight-oil-burning team at the Shuttleworth Foundation keeps our mental, emotional, and electrical lights on. And my fellow Fellows are an unending source of inspiration, common sense, and cryable shoulders. Cheers to them.

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.