Tag Archives: unisa

Lessons learned from Now What?

now-what_together-we-pass-paperight_cover_low-res_20130228One of our better-sounding early marketing ideas was to break into the Unisa market – and thus get Unisa’s attention – by creating a book that would appeal to students struggling with Unisa’s bureaucracy and merciless stinginess. In early 2013, we teamed up with Together We Pass, a Unisa-specific study-aid service, to produce the book.

I wasn’t directly involved with the commissioning process of content, etc., but I did design the book and headed the marketing for it. Although the experience of designing the book was something I really needed to further my skills, and appreciated it as such, the editing and layout phases were both quite frustrating. This was chiefly because the content I had to work with was changed at inopportune times. The result was a product that, although I thought was useful and could potentially sell very well, I didn’t completely feel great about. In the end it didn’t sell fantastically, for a number of reasons:

  1. Together We Pass gave away the book for free to all of their subscribers, in other words, the few thousand people most likely to buy the book. Even though we thought we might potentially get exposure from this move, it was not a beneficial decision for Paperight in the slightest, especially as we took the bulk of production costs. A lesson we learned could be, in other words: never try to sell something that someone else is giving away for free.
  2. The cover and the messaging for the book weren’t as strong as they could have been, probably because we were trying to be nice to Unisa, in the hope that they would more readily partner with us. It probably should have been more provocative – in retrospect we did a lot of things with kid gloves when we really should have tried to grab people’s attention by any means necessary.

All in all, Now What? was an interesting experiment and an amazing learning experience, but a very frustrating selling experience. The book ate up way too much of my time that I should have been spending on marketing Paperight books to university students.

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.

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.


Printing challenges and the state of content come December 2012

The high cost of colour printing was a constant challenge for us, especially when it came to children’s books, which were the primary priority for an organisation like The Shine Centre. Additionally, The Shine Centre needed us to get the price of each book under R35.00, which was easy when it came to monochrome printing, but very difficult in the case of colour.

Throughout December I continued communication with OUP about the potential for making their African literature list available on Paperight (a project that Oscar spearheaded), as well as following up with other publishers. We also sent printed product samples to The Shine Centre, a literacy organisation which we really like, and wanted to find a way to work with. The high cost of colour printing was a constant challenge for us, especially when it came to children’s books, which were the primary priority for an organisation like The Shine Centre. Additionally, The Shine Centre needed us to get the price of each book under R35.00, which was easy when it came to monochrome printing, but very difficult in the case of colour. We’re still working on this in 2014, and are hopeful that machines like the RISO ComColour will make a difference in this space.

many outlets don’t put posters up even when you’ve sent them the marketing materials, and need to be constantly reminded and chased

I facilitated the first Random House Struik file transfer and upload, and we experimented with a targeted RHS marketing campaign in select outlets. We learnt from the latter that many outlets don’t put posters up even when you’ve sent them the marketing materials, and need to be constantly reminded and chased. Once they had all put up the posters in stores (which took several weeks), we did not see great sales numbers. What we found was that the most productive way to generate sales early on is through organised bulk sales and school sponsorship deals, and not necessarily via more passive advertising.

now-what_together-we-pass-paperight_cover_low-res_20130228Another of our proposed content creation projects was Now What?, a guide for students who were studying through UNISA. We teamed up with Together We Pass to produce the booklet, with the understanding that we would manage the project management and costs, and in turn they would advertise the booklet and help to distribute it to their affiliated UNISA students. For us, the project was about showing UNISA that Paperight could be a useful mechanism for UNISA students. We began by having a general hacking session to decide on the outline and general structure, and then I drew all of this together into a detailed brief and content outline.

At the end of 2012, given the launch of Paperight 1.0 and that the content catalogue had to be rebuilt almost from scratch, I did an analysis of the listed content that we had put on Paperight since May. This had also shifted from primarily Creative Commons licensed and public domain works (on Paperight 0.5), to include titles from a total of 36 publishers who had since registered. We continued to have a large base of CC-licensed and public domain material, but this has been supplemented by contemporary African and South African fiction, academic work, study-guides, and teachers resources.

The graph below roughly illustrates, based on year of publication, the composition of the Paperight catalogue in comparison to that of the database in February 2012. It illustrates that we grew our proportion of contemporary, licensed titles. The drop in public domain titles here, is a result of the fact that some of our earlier public domain texts have not yet been processed for upload on Paperight 1.0.

Since February we had nearly doubled our acquired content, and had increased the amount of documents that have been processed for automatic download tenfold. As of December 20th, there were 1146 processed documents listed on the site, with 771 documents awaiting processing.

As of December 20th, there were 1146 processed documents listed on the site, with 771 documents awaiting processing.

The following data visualisations provide an overview of the percentage of books per genre. The second and third charts show the composition of sub-genres within two of the primary genres of ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’.

These titles encompass a wide range of themes in the social sciences, both of an academic and general nature. These include books on politics (political parties and parliamentary politics), history, civil society and  mass media. There is a also a strong collection of African biographies and memoirs, African poetry and plays, African literary criticism and a broad collection of books on conservation and environmental issues. There is also an incredible collection of books on higher education, especially in Africa. Some of the books in our collection (especially books on African philosophy, the biographies and seminal works by past and contemporary African intellectuals) are not as easily available anywhere else in South Africa as they are on Paperight.  There are also books on cellphone culture in Africa,  African popular culture, books on gender and a wide-range of popular and literary fiction.

Publisher registrations

  • Parktown Publishers (10/12/2012)

Roadmap, Dec 2012 to Feb 2013

We’re going to be focusing on:

  • Marketing and PR: Promote the Young Writers Anthology into the new school year, secure ongoing media coverage from active PR (several leads already in place with major magazines), and run a few narrowly targeted promotion campaigns in partnership with copy shops and publishers
  • Software: Complete phase-2 development of paperight.com, including important improvements to UI based on user feedback and refined messaging, and more document automation to speed up the addition of new content
  • Revenue: A risky but important move coming in Jan: we’re going to start charging outlets a small service fee for most our content that used to be free. This will be to test potential self-sustainability revenue models and measure outlet expectations.
  • Outlet feedback loops: A key focus we’ve neglected is active outlet surveys, triaging and acting on the feedback. These surveys and action in response will be a major focus for the next three months.
  • Partner projects: We’ll publish a beta version of our Guide for UNISA students in partnership with Together We Pass; make the most of a promotional partnership with national reading campaign Nal’ibali.