Slow start to the year

I spent the most of my time in January 2013 completing the outlet-wide survey which I had started in December. December and January are very quiet months for books sales, not only at Paperight but also traditional bookstores.

We collaborated with an entrepreneur from the Eastern Cape to arrange for Paperight branded-signage to be fitted to his outlet. Our correspondence with him lasted several months because, he wanted signage according his own design. I feel that our goodwill was abused during this correspondence and we subsequently decided to halt our plans to assist small businesses by supplying them with Paperight branded signage.

More progress, and a letter from Parliament

In February 2013 the team published a great little book called Now what? A guide to studying with Unisa. Here’s our blog post about it.  We also produced a printable Paperight catalogue.

While the team was hard at work, I travelled to New York for the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference, where we won the Startup Showcase, and I gave a talk on ‘Disruptive Innovations in Emerging Markets: Mxit [book projects including Yoza], Siyavula, Paperight and Worldreader’, along with Michael Smith of Worldreader. (This was covered nicely by PaidContent.)

I also gave a talk in Jan at TEDxAIMS in Jan called ‘Tech spreads slowly.’ Here’s the video and text.

I reproduced that as a post on the Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader blog.

Media coverage

We’ve been happy to see lots of coverage. Some highlights:

The highlight was that on 28 Feb 2013 The National Assembly of South Africa (Parliament) congratulated Paperight!


Here are the minutes from the Government Gazette:

8. The Chief Whip of the Opposition moved without notice: That the House –
(1) notes that Paperight, a Cape Town based print-on-demand company received the O’Reilly Tools of Change Start-Up Showcase’s award for Most Entrepreneurial Publishing Start-Up in New York City on 14 February 2013;
(2) further notes that Paperight, a company funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation, received this award for its ingenious solution to widespread book shortages in the developing world through a service that allows photocopy shops to legally print books, consisting of more than 200 registered independent outlets in South Africa;
(3) recognises that Paperight was one of 10 finalists, the only company nominated outside the United States of America and Europe and the first ever to come from South Africa;
(4) acknowledges the difficulty that millions in South Africa face in
accessing published works;
(5) further acknowledges the importance of making published works
easily accessible to millions of people throughout Africa; and
(6) congratulates Paperight and encourages publishers to register with Paperight in making their works accessible to all. Agreed to.

Our roadmap for the next 3 months

Next up:

  • Promotional campaigns around the Paperight Young Writers Anthology, the Now What? UNISA guide, and planning promotional campaigns around healthcare and young-adult titles.
  • Boost content team to clear the backlog of books we have, including over 150 student guides for distance-learning university College Campus.
  • Complete negotiations with two major US publishers (O’Reilly, Harlequin) that have been ongoing for a long time.
  • Aim to sign MOU (or similar) with Postnet.
  • Last phase (Phase 3) of software feature development, including A5 printing, high-res covers, and VAT support.

We’re on track with our early-stage financial targets.


Updates to Content Master and Helpsite (and launch of Now What?)

now-what_together-we-pass-paperight_cover_low-res_20130228Once we’d received student feedback on Now What?, Nick began the process of editing and typesetting the book. We paid Paul Carter for his writing work, and made some last minute updates of our own. By the end of the month, we’d finalised the design of the book, uploaded it to Paperight, and launched it on the Together We Pass network.

Throughout this process we continued to work with Mampoer to get high-res covers for their titles, as well as with publishers, like PUO, P-Ridge Press, College Campus, and Hesperian, following their registration. I created a mock-up for Future Managers to show them what their books would look like in Paperight’s format. We met with Dylan Wray of Shikaya about finding a way to work together (we greatly admire the work that they’re doing, but couldn’t find a shared purpose in our current contexts) with Nelleke of NB Publishers to catch her up on progress with Paperight, and signed a contract with New Africa Books.

Plans for London Book Fair were well under way. We continued to work alongside PASA to get sponsorship for Oscar to join me at the fair, and I began researching attendees and sending out meeting requests.

We had previously been working with offline spreadsheets, but found the updating and version control to have become difficult to manage with a growing team. A Google Spreadsheet provided more piece of mind that the sheet was current, and there was less opportunity for confusion.

Philippa began working on the first draft of the new helpsite pages, and then we later went on to edit, upload and add screenshots to these posts. In the meantime, I revised the Content Master spreadsheet (metadata repository), and loaded this as a shared resource on Google Docs. We had previously been working with offline spreadsheets, but found the updating and version control to have become difficult to manage with a growing team. A Google Spreadsheet provided more piece of mind that the sheet was current, and there was less opportunity for confusion.

Publisher registrations

  • Hesperian (12/2/2013)
  • Bright Girl Books (19/2/2013)
  • AOTA Press (20/2/2013)

Applying to the Indigo Trust

The Indigo Trust focuses on funding technology-driven projects to bring about social change, especially in African countries. We thought that it would be a good idea to send them a concept note for web-based software that we wanted to develop. This software would replace postage in distance education, bringing textbooks within easy and affordable reach of students countrywide.

The idea behind the application

Higher education in South Africa is heavily dependent on distance education. South Africa’s biggest distance-learning institution, the University of South Africa (UNISA), has over 350 000 students. Every one of those students gets something in the post, ranging from administrative documents to learning materials. The post is unreliable. Sometimes the wrong materials are posted. The institution never knows whether the package arrived at its destination.

As a result, some institutions like UNISA are implementing compulsory online study for many students. This is a problem: two-thirds of South Africans have no Internet access, even through mobile phones (according to South African census data). If you can’t afford internet access, or if you live in a place where personal Internet connections aren’t available, you can’t study through UNISA.

According to UNISA’s announcements, the shift to online learning is part of helping their students adapt to the digital age. In reality, the shift to online means that higher education is becoming even more inaccessible.

We believe Paperight can provide an alternative. Imagine if any student could walk into any copy shop (or NGO, church, or community centre), hand in their student number, and have the books they need for their course appear on the Paperight screen for instant printing.

The student would print what they need only when they need it. No waiting for the post to arrive. No travelling to the post office – instead, any nearby copy shop would do. And the institution would know as soon as the student had collected their materials. Plus, we’d reduce the carbon footprint of shipping printed materials around the country.

This service could be also used by any organisation that needs to get documents to specific people, such as trade unions, churches, schools, clubs, or journals with subscribers.

Outcome of the application

The Trust thought that our approach seemed to be a more efficient way of doing business than is currently happening, unfortunately this did not fit into their definition of social change, and we were unsuccessful this time around.

Lessons learned from updating the help site

I began updating the help site early in 2013. In order to make using the site easier for our copy shops, I created a few videos demonstrating how to sign up; how to top-up their credits; how to download a document etc. I then updated the written help posts to reflect some changes that had been made to the user interface. This was a great way for me to learn about how the site works and to understand some of the difficulties copy shops might have with it.

Going through this process definitely helped me handle customer queries more adeptly. I began to realise that most of the copy shops who were using our site had only a basic understanding of how to use websites. We may have thought we were making everything as straightforward as possible, but still we would get calls asking us the most basic things. It made me think how important it is to understand who is going to be using your website, and what their technological understanding is.

Relying on copy shops to be our bookstores and expecting them to be able to work the site was perhaps one of our biggest mistakes/learning curves. In my mind, one of the best things about being a small start up is the kind of customer service and attention to detail you can afford to give. However, on this model, we were not able to give that kind of service because we relied on copy shops to do this. This resulted in a few distressing phone calls from customers that had been turned away from a registered copy shop who said they “didn’t print books” even though we had been through the process with the shops on the phone. We expected that copyshops would be excited about Paperight as it offers them a way of increasing their printing load, which is how they make their money. However, the relative difficulty of using the site (i.e. they had to learn something new) combined with bad customer service meant that we lost quite a few potential customers.