A big blow

customer service in most copy shops is atrocious. This is a major blow to our business model

We have finally concluded, under the weight of years of anecdotal evidence and topped off with a full day in a top Stellenbosch copy shop, that customer service in most copy shops is atrocious. This is a major blow to our business model. I’d long worked on the assumption that 80% of stores would offer good service (or care about offering good service and aim for that actively), and 20% would be bad. I’ve now come to believe the opposite is true. As a result, under our current model we will never consistently create return customers. And without return customers, we could never hit the growth rates we need in order to sustain our current overheads.

We’ve tried hard to train outlets, but managers consistently gatekeep or just don’t work with us. We would only be able to tackle this problem in the long term by owning or franchising the outlets ourselves, which is beyond the scope of the project.

I have decided to cut my team, drastically cut costs, and see whether there are new opportunities for Paperight licensing to explore

As a result, I have decided to cut my team, drastically cut costs, and see whether there are new opportunities for Paperight licensing to explore during the last months of my fellowship. I’d prefer not to close the Paperight service, though it is an option. I’m also talking to potential acquirers, but an acquisition is unlikely.

For now, all discussion of Paperight’s model being flawed, reducing the team, and possible project closure is confidential and not for public consumption. We will certainly share our story in time, but right now we need to be able to craft the public story if we want to create a home for the Paperight service elsewhere and maintain the credibility of the concept of distributed print-on-demand.

Killer metrics

Our main metric is turnover from sales in dollars. We maintained our growing targets till October last year, but slipped dramatically since Nov. At the end of January, for the first time, we slipped below our cumulative ‘Mort’ figure, the minimum target for achieving self-sustainability. That’s a core reason I’m cutting the team and revisiting the core business model. I hope to find a way to keep the project going, though it may not be as an independent company (Paperight Pty Ltd) or as the service we know today.

We also track outlet and publisher registrations, top-ups (credit balances that outlets maintain in order to be able to buy books), and various PR metrics (newsletter opens/clicks, Facebook engagement, Twitter followers, website visits), but we only aim to increase these generally. Sales revenue is the key driver of decision-making.

What next for the team

Right now our team consists of:

  • Myself as CEO and CTO
  • 7 full-time employees (COO, content manager, designer, financial manager, curator/researcher, marketing manager, outlets manager)
  • Software development outsourced to Realm Digital.

During March and April we’ll reduce that by 6 people and keep only our COO, with financial management done on a part-time freelance basis by our current financial manager, Dezre, who will be employed by my other company Electric Book Works.

This is a big blow. But we’ll figure it out. I’m glad we’ve reached this point while we still have a funding runway to work with.

The #textbookrevolution and tough times

February 2014 saw the launch of the #textbookrevolution. We donned our Paperight #textbookrevolution t-shirts and made our way to Stellenbosch University. Once there the team split up: Arthur and Dez stayed at Jetline Stellenbosch to assist in store, Oscar and Yazeed trekked around campus to put up posters, and Philippa, Nick, Marie and I spent our time handing out coasters and getting students to sign the #textbookrevolution petition. Students loved our More Money For Beer campaign slogan, and were very receptive to the idea of Paperight. Mostly though, they bemoaned the high costs of textbooks and the lack of availability of alternatives.

We had the same experience later in the month on UCT campus. Again, we handed out coasters, chatted to students and explained what drives up the price of books. While students were enthusiastic, we soon realised that there were two key gaps that we had not been able to fill. The first was a content gap. We knew that we’d have this, and we’d structured our campaign around it, but the result was that while we had a lot of queries, we were not able to leverage publishers to make this content available (the same problem we’d been experiencing for months).

Additionally, and perhaps more worryingly, we realised that service in copy shops was not what we had assumed it would be. While the majority of registered outlets were very enthusiastic about the Paperight service, and had topped up their accounts, there was often only one person in the outlet who knew how to use the site, despite multiple training sessions with other outlet employees. If this person was not around to field customer orders, or if the customer encountered an employee who did not know of, or who had forgotten about Paperight, the customer was being turned away. More and more frequently we were receiving calls from customers who were going to outlets only to be told that these did not offer the service.

At this point Arthur and I started actively looking into potential pivots. We considered merging Paperight with other companies working in the educational sector, and to this end, valuated Paperight’s assets.

We were struggling to maintain enthusiasm as a team for the #textbookrevolution, and working on publisher follow-ups, reformatting, and uploads seemed futile given an imminent pivot.

Things became very difficult here. We were struggling to maintain enthusiasm as a team for the #textbookrevolution, and working on publisher follow-ups, reformatting, and uploads seemed futile given an imminent pivot. Yet, at the same time, we hadn’t decided on a pivot, so we couldn’t realign our priorities. The result was that we started to flounder a bit. While we continued on, the morale in the office dropped.

Publisher registrations

  • Cambridge Scholars Publishing Limited (12/2/2014)
  • Methodist Church of South Africa (25/2/2014)

The #textbookrevolution and hints of a pivot ahead

In our shift to focus on universities, we created and launched our #textbookrevolution campaign. This meant creating detailed messaging and plans: one liners, elevator pitches, detailed back stories, a manifesto, a petition, outlet advertising posters and marketing briefs, novelty coasters, and videos; campaign website (http://textbookrevolution.co.za); doing lots of PR work (emailing journalists and stakeholders personally); and organising a Twitter debate on the high price of textbooks. This was the main focus of Nov, Dec and Feb.

Much of this was written up elsewhere:

On the technical side, we finalised much better automation of book preparation prep (mainly tools to use online PDF layout tool DocRaptor to create better-looking books). And in finances, completed our audit with a clean bill of health.


I went to Johannesburg for pitching meetings with publishers (Pearson, Van Schaik, UNISA Press), UNISA, and PostNet, and our outlets manager Yazeed attended the ActivateSA event in Joburg, a conference of young leaders, to talk about Paperight and the #textbookrevolution.

Speaking out

I’ve had a bit to say, too:

  • 22 Jan 2014: A post by me on Medium, “Not Yet for Profit”, arguing that well-funded, as-yet-unprofitable startups represent an whole new industry, much of it in social impact, and that’s a good thing.
  • 24 Jan 2014: Interview on Paperight’s story with AFKInsider, a US website on African business.

Mainly I’ve been telling the #textbookrevolution story over and over again in meetings (with publishers, university administrators and journalists). E.g. interviews during Jan and Feb on SAFM, Rhodes Music Radio, UJfm (University of Joburg) and Jozi Today.

The focus of the #textbookrevolution campaign is to (a) highlight the fact that 70% of the cost of a textbook is the supply chain (printing, shipping, warehousing, wastage and retail), and that (b) print-on-demand on university campuses could save students and South Africa as much as a billion rand a year. See our blog post for the detail, and the #textbookrevolution site for the manifesto, video, petition and supporters.

Joining our thinking

SHAWCO (UCT’s acclaimed social-welfare organisation) and Boundless (open textbooks) are official supporters of the #textbookrevolution. See all the supporters here.

We’ve also had ongoing discussions about closer collaboration with RISO (copier manufacturer), Mega Digital (SA’s biggest short-run book printer) and Loot (online retailer).

We’ve counted 21 media mentions that we know about, of which the highlights are:

Big wins

We had a great response from students at Stellenbosch and UCT where we collected over 1000 signatures on our #textbookrevolution petition. In addition to the paper petition, students have left great comments on our online petition.

we’ve long underestimated the importance of putting people on the ground talking to potential customers

Students are highly sensitised to the issue of high textbook prices. Also, we probably reached more students in the 20 hours we spent on campuses than we would have in months online. A big lesson was that we’ve long underestimated the importance of putting people on the ground talking to potential customers (even if we don’t have the books they need yet).

We’ve also had big losses. More about that in this separate post.

Our favourite apps

Highly recommended programs

  • Thunderbird: open-source, free mail client. Install at least these addons:
    • Quicktext (for inserting quick templates of text and HTML)
    • Nostalgy (for quickly filing mail and jumping between folders)
    • A spellchecker (and always have spell-checking activated to run before you send email)
  • Google Chrome for web browsing, testing, and great extensions.
  • Mozilla Firefox for web browsing, website testing, and its awesome array of useful addons.
  • Safari for web browsing and website testing
  • Skype for instant messaging and phone calls
  • LibreOffice for text documents and spreadsheets (LibreOffice.org)
  • Notepad++ for quick text files and simple code edits (on Mac, try TextWrangler or Sublime)
  • Adobe Reader for opening PDFs
  • AVG antivirus (the free edition)
  • Irfanview for quickly cropping and resizing pictures
  • Filezilla for getting files on and off remote servers via FTP
  • Trello, a web-based project management program
  • Sage Pastel My Business Online, a multi-user accounting application
  • Youtube, for video sharing online
  • Vimeo, for video sharing online
  • WordPress, an open sourced blogging tool
  • OpenOffice, an open source office software suite
  • Base, an online CRM management program
  • Quicktext, widget for Thunderbird
  • Trovebox, for online storage of information
  • Bitly, an online URL shortener
  • Textwrangler, a text editor for Mac
  • Irfanview, an image editor
  • CamStudio, for creating screencast videos
  • Any Video Converter, file size converting

Highly recommended software

  • Dropbox, either for your own files or for syncing withthe company shared files (be sure to read up about how Dropbox works, especially before deleting any files, or syncing with the company share).
  • HeidiSQL for viewing MySQL databases
  • EpubReader, as a Firefox addon, for reading DRM-free epubs
  • Kindle for PC for reading Kindle ebooks on your computer
  • 7-Zip for extracting and compressing files (especially ones the Windows built-in unzipper can’t handle, like .tar)
  • PDFCreator for printing to PDF
  • Evolus Pencil for creating screen wireframes for user interfaces or even things like quick poster or flyer design drafts
  • VideoLAN (aka VLC) media player, for those occasions when Windows Media Player won’t play your music or video
  • Sigil, if you ever have reason to edit or look inside epub files.
  • Github, for building software online
  • EasyFile-employer, for your emp501 returns