The latest in our series asking startups to share the challenges they face and lessons they learn as they grow catches up with Emmanuel Kolade, founder of Shulph, which was a finalist in the BookTech Company of the Year Award at the FutureBook Conference 2015.
I still remember being contacted by FutureBook to tell me Shulph had been nominated in the BookTech Company of the Year category last year. There was a rush of excitement, pride and validation weirdly fused with nervousness and panic from the realisation that I was going to get grilled "Dragons’ Den" style by a panel of industry and venture capital experts. I would also go head-to-head with some experienced industry veterans and even some already successful start ups. I had dared embark on a passion project that sought to impact how people read books without having any prior publishing industry experience. What was I thinking?
D-day arrived. I pitched for Shulph. We didn’t win the prize. We did, however, win many other things that are more important than trophy for the stage we are in our journey to bring Shulph to readers. Let me tell you about some of those wins.
Communicating with conviction
The expert panel shared a lot of valuable advice and perspective, but the single biggest message I took away from the day came from Eileen Burbidge who encouraged us to communicate with conviction. This stayed with me and started a fundamental shift in the way I looked at myself as a founder. It changed the way I spoke about Shulph’s proposition from one which looked for validation in my audience’s eyes to a tone that simply surfaces my innate belief in the potential of what we’re creating. The idea of communicating with conviction has helped me learn how to talk about Shulph at a level that channels the vision.
Some key relationships are being formed
Before BookTech, gaining access and introductions into the publishing industry was hard. Nearly impossible, even. Being a BookTech finalist and standing up and talking to a room full of industry executives has really helped open up some important networking channels with publishers and retailers. For someone with zero prior relationships in the industry, I found the event to be a great platform for reaching out and visibility. We have now formed some important key relationships with some of the most important publishers in the world. Some of them industry veterans who, in addition to partnering with us, are also advising on issues only inside wisdom can afford.
We’re gaining industry knowledge
We’ve been naive about certain aspects of our design. The first phase of our design focused on exploring and realising what readers (our users, our partners’ customers) need. While we had had a full understanding about the contexts under which our users would engage with our product through evidence and empathy - we had been naive and made certain assumptions that led to design decisions that ended up being suboptimal for potential publishing partners.
After BookTech, we’ve had many more conversations with publishing and retail contacts and partners - with a view to understanding their own enterprise and business challenges and how Shulph can help provide greater value. I am grateful to finally be in a position where these types of conversations are happening. Thanks to some of these relationships, we are now optimising those areas of the platform.
In the end, we build something that works not only for our users, but also our publishing and retail partners.
The industry is starting to embrace meaningful change
The idea of working with new entrants as well as the need for the industry to evolve is gaining currency. This is being helped by the fact that more people are realising that some of us are here to innovate with - not innovate at - the industry. The change is slow; too slow for the pace of any given start up - but it is the right change.
We continue to learn, and this has helped us take a more incremental approach to delivering our roadmap as we find publisher partners who are willing to experiment with us and be in a position to gain an early adopter edge through the multichannel opportunities Shulph can offer.
As a designer, I obviously love the thrill of throwing myself at issues I know absolutely nothing about, heading into a messy uncertainty, getting whacked in the face by the practical realities on ground. I enjoy this because it allows me to bring fresh new perspective to customer problems using tools and methods from my profession as a designer. In my experience, that’s how innovation happens because you emerge out of the other side with something different, unexpected, special and - all of a sudden - obvious.