As part of The Bookseller's How to Rise in Your Career series, Gauthier Van Malderen – who co-founded digital textbook subscription service Perlego with friend Matthew Davies in 2016 and was named one of 2020's Rising Stars – shares his top tips for launching your own start-up.
Can you explain in one or two paragraphs your career trajectory prior to launching Perlego?
I’ve always had a thing for entrepreneurship. When I was a kid, I started a business selling notebooks, and while I was at uni I ran a small business selling hoodies. I briefly dipped my toes into banking after I graduated, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being a cog in a much bigger machine, whereas I had always wanted to build the machine myself. So, using the cash I’d made from my previous businesses, I had enough to start Perlego and decided to take the plunge.
It's very important for me to build things that excite and challenge me. Entrepreneurship does both, while also providing a platform for creativity – whether that’s implementing new marketing strategies or new products.
How did you come up with the idea for Perlego?
The idea for Perlego was borne out of one of my biggest grudges whilst studying. I was constantly buying expensive textbooks and it was draining my student loan. I even bought an accounting book for over £200, just to read two chapters of the book and never use it again. We were already streaming music and movies, so when I looked at the industry I thought, 'well, why not textbooks?' – particularly as we never really want or need to own them, we just want to access them. I looked at companies like Spotify and Netflix and I thought a subscription service for digital textbooks could work really well.
That’s what Perlego is. A simple space where you can find all your core learning material for the price of a single book.
True entrepreneurs are the ones that identify a problem and provide a solution.
Can you talk about the process of taking the company from the idea stage to launching it? Were there any challenges along the way?
Once we had the initial idea, we spent a lot of time analysing the industry and the market dynamics. We noticed the four major publishers had all seen their revenue decline over the previous four years, mainly because students were downloading books illegally or they would buy books second hand. That’s a huge problem – both for students, for whom books are too expensive, and also for publishers, who weren’t finding efficient ways to get their content in front of students.
This really gave us confidence in our idea – a streaming service that helps prevent piracy, while providing affordability for the end user. The first version of Perlego was pretty ugly and didn’t look like much. But the most important thing was that we had started the process of executing our vision. We officially launched the company in September 2016 and it’s been growing and evolving ever since.
What has the response to Perlego been?
The first time we went to see a publisher they said: "Never! We don’t like this." Six months later we managed to persuade them to give us all their content. What we’re trying to do is be disruptive but also helpful to our partners by bringing the industry back to growth. That takes a lot of education for both the industry and consumers, so we’ve really focused on this to prove the concept.
Now, we’ve not only partnered with over 200 universities, but have more than 400,000 titles on the platform from over 3000 of the world's leading publishers including Pearson, Wiley and Bloomsbury. Perlego's mission was to make educational material more accessible and affordable. The growth we’ve seen over the past few years has started to make that a reality.
Have you had to adapt how your company works since Covid-19 struck? And if so, how?
Only about 1% of the education industry has been digitised, meaning very little of it is available online or remotely. When unis and libraries closed, we saw a huge surge in users pretty much over night. Our traffic has doubled, our engagement has tripled and users have spent more than 152,000 hours (17.2 years) reading on the platform since March alone.
We’ve also done some really big deals with the likes of Barclays to help students going back to uni this year. For education, the pandemic really highlighted just how important digital access was, and how limited the opportunities for students were. But it’s not just students driving demand, we’ve also seen people who were furloughed starting to use Perlego as well, as they use their time at home to increase their learning and to re-skill in new fields of study. Psychology is seeing a huge amount of uptake and coding is absolutely massive too.
Covid-19 has made physical collaboration more tricky as we all worked remotely, like much of the UK, but we found ways round this and have a number of new products in development that we’re really excited about.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to launch their own start-up?
- It’s really all about the people. Hiring great people, who share your vision and ambition to do something different is the biggest piece of advice I could give anyone. Starting a business is a challenge, so you need people who can help you celebrate the successes, as well as the failures.
- Know the problem you’re solving. A lot of people want to be an 'entrepreneur', and have visions of what this means. But true entrepreneurs are the ones that identify a problem and provide a solution. If you don’t have a problem to solve and rally people behind, everything about building and running a business is going to be difficult.