Investor Kieran Hill on what makes a great publishing startup

Investor Kieran Hill on what makes a great publishing startup

Ideas are cheap - but turning one into a viable business proposition is expensive. So what separates a potential unicorn from a lame donkey? 

Kieran Hill is c.o.o. at venture captial firm Ascension Ventures. A multi-skilled digital media and tech professional, he has strong expertise in early-stage investing. Here he gives his take on what's currently exciting in the publishing scene, what's rubbish, and what it takes to make him bite.


What’s your impression of the publishing startup scene at the moment?

To be honest, we don't come across many startups operating in this space. There is plenty of innovation happening across content publishing more generally; BuzzFeed, Vice, Planet Ivy etc. are creating platforms with a mobile-first focus, with analytics iterating editors' thought processes based on immediate trends and events, and the advertising engine driving the distribution channels.

However, this is affecting the media publishers rather than the traditional book publishers. I remember statistics coming out in 2015 stating that ebooks would make up 50%+ of the US book market by 2016, but it seems like this is yet to really materialise. However, I do think the incumbents in the music industry got caught out by the post iTunes/pre Spotify malaise. I also think audio books and podcasts are fast becoming the preferred choice of consuming literature and academia. The publishing industry could be in a similar post-ebooks/pre-audio book place.

What good stuff have you seen?

I think Reedsy [winner of FutureBook BookTech Award in 2015] is the best startup I have seen in this space, although they're (in my eyes) not likely to disrupt the whole industry, more a digital solution for the process of self-publishing, collaboration and hiring (and simplifying the disjointed process).

Reedsy uses technology to create a marketplace for the supply chain to find each other, or for the author/publisher to find professionals for editing, designing, marketing and so on. By bringing freelancers to self-publishers (and vice versa), using a commission-based business model, it breaks the friction for getting started and incentivises everyone to maximise the upside of creating a 'winner'. However, I'm not an investor in the business and don't know its strategy over the next couple of years.

What bad stuff have you seen?

I wouldn't say I have seen any poor products in this space per se, it's more about the teams behind them and the execution of their distribution/customer acquisition strategy. Give me a great technical lead, a product guy/girl that knows the industry and the mechanics behind pulling all of the silos together, and a veteran of the industry that can lead the business development and distribution partnerships - and i'm here to listen. Anyone thinking they can tackle everything in one go, without focusing on a niche, dominating it and proving the model, is going to have a tough task.

What one book on innovation should everyone read?

The cliched answer is Zero to One by Peter Thiel (which is a must read), but I would say that Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is also essential. It breaks down the history of humankind in a way that will change the mindset of any entrepreneur trying understand how andwhy the human psyche of an individual and the masses evolves like it does.