Tag Archives: open business

Onwards and upwards

Though our speculated pivot meeting had been set for the end of April, following the close of the #textbookrevolution campaign, by the start of March we’d already made significant decisions about what was going to happen.

One thing was clear though: the team would be downsized. This was where the value of openness came to the fore

While we were still ultimately deciding on the actual pivot we would make with Paperight, we had several options on the table. One thing was clear though: the team would be downsized. This was where the value of openness came to the fore, as the team could see this coming, and understood, and supported the necessity of this move. The result was that, while morale was perhaps not at it’s highest, there was no resentment among team members. We decided that in moving on it was important to wrap up the first chapter of Paperight. To this end we each began writing up our individual histories (an endeavour that lead to the creation of this site). I coordinated the team in the creation of a consolidated wrap-up list to prioritise tasks to be completed before leaving.

Despite our various wrap-up tasks and activities, we were still in the final phase of the #textbookrevolution campaign. We hosted two #textbookrevolution Twitter debates along with Kelsey Wiens and Eve Grey. You can read more about how those went here.

Publisher registrations

  • Blood Moon Press (15/3/2014)
  • Gamal Lydian Marketing (17/3/2014)

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 anthology done, promising bulk sales, and a raft of coverage

We’ve been busy! On 31 May 2013 we finally completed the Paperight Young Writers Anthology, a collection of poetry, short stories, essays and illustrations from SA high school students in English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa and Sesotho. (Blog post from early June here. Strategically, this is a marketing effort and a door-opener for selling books to schools.

We’ve also been churning out a range of marketing materials for copy shops, a new help/how-to video, and improved software features on paperight.com (e.g. A5 books).

We also made our first completed bulk-sale to a school, the first of an important revenue generating approach.


In mid April, Tarryn and Oscar attended the London Book Fair and pitched to win the Fair’s Digital Minds Innovation Award, which boosted our credibility at the fair and resulted in lots of great local PR. The attention from this win also helped conclude our deal with O’Reilly.

In late April I headed to Joburg for meetings with potential partner organisations, and in late May I was off to Boston to gather with the rest of the Shuttleworth Foundation crew.

Spreading the word

Spreading with word about Paperight and the things that are important to us is a key part of my work.

On 30 May 2013 I wrote a post on open business, arguing that openness starts in a company’s DNA, and focusing on transparency, which allows and encourages sharing and shared learning, and leads to greater effectiveness.

On 21 May 2013 I was interviewed on Publishing Perspectives, and explained why a paper-based solution is still critical for access to books and sales for publishers in developing markets.

On 17 April 2013 I did an interview on innovation and the future and Paperight, and on 7 March 2013 I did an interview with CNBC Africa about Paperight.

On 18 March 2013 I wrote a post on ‘Good writing is a pinnacle skill’, arguing that the many skills that go into good writing are an excellent indicator that a person will be a great hire. This has been a key part of my recruitment strategy at Paperight, and has helped us build a great team.

On 8 March 2013 I wrote about Pratham Books data on open licensing and book sales.

Others on board

All this talk is helping get people behind our cause. Here are three particularly nice pieces:

We’ve seen loads of great PR about our winning at O’Reilly Tools of Change in New York in Feb and London Book Fair Innovation Award in April, our Young Writers Anthology, and general Paperight coverage:

  • 1 March 2013: Daily News, “Vision to spread books around SA”.
  • 2 March 2013, CNBC Africa, Eye on Western Cape, “Paperight wins publishing innovation competition“
  • 2 March 2013, Burger (Kaap Platterland) Saturday, “Kaapse drukdiens oorsee bekroon”.
  • 6 to 7 March 2013, coverage of our Anthology in community newspapers: Athlone News, Plainsman, Southern Mail, Table Talk, “High school writers’ competition”, Tygertalk (Goodwood & Parow), Tygertalk (Bellville & Durbanville), Vukani, Southern Suburbs Tatler, Atlantic Sun, The Capetowner, Constantiaberg Bulletin, False Bay Echo, Sentinel News. A follow up the next week, 14 March 2013 in Vukani, “Shuttleworth to launch Young Writers Anthology”.
  • 19 March 2013, bizcommunity, “Free guide to studying at Unisa“ and Helderberg Gazette (“Free book helps students to pass”) cover our UNISA students’ guide ‘Now What’.
  • 22 March 2013, more community papers cover the forthcoming anthology: Coastal Weekly, De Aar Echo, Northcliff & Melville Times, Stanger Weekly.
  • 27 March 2013, Bandwidth Blog, “Local startup wins innovation award in NYC“.

In terms of key publishers joining our thinking by working with us:

Our roadmap for the next 3 months

We’re going to:

  • Continue our direct sales approach (bulk sales and CSR sponsorships) to stay on track with revenue targets.
  • Release and promote (mainly through PR) the Paperight Young Writers Anthology, building on the relationships this is creating with schools to grow sales of study guides and past exam-paper packs.
  • Complete a comprehensive marketing plan with the pro-bono help of Zoom Advertising and a group of MBA students working on Paperight’s marketing plan as a course project.
  • Implement concerted promotional campaign for our past matric exam packs.
  • Finalise and promote pending partnerships with chains Minuteman Press and PostNet.