In mid-June, the personalised children's book specialist Wonderbly signed a memorandum of understanding with one of China's biggest players, Phoenix Publishing and Media Group (PPMG). The deal, PPMG said at the time, would bring "innovative personalised reading and learning to the Chinese market and create individualised children’s books with authentic Chinese features for international readers".
The partnership will see the London-based e-commerce/publishing hybrid’s first truly concerted move into China. But, says, Wonderbly c.e.o. and co-founder Asi Sharabi, this is not its first dip into the Chinese market. He says: "Back in 2016, we translated our global bestseller, the Lost My Name book, to simplified Mandarin and did some extensive research with Chinese consumers, who demonstrated great enthusiasm for the product. We even did a small test with a Chinese [marketing company] and the responses to the book were super-positive. But the reality of entering the market as a cross-border e-commerce company meant we had to pause. China is different to all the dozens of markets we operate in as a direct-to-customer, print on demand (p.o.d.) business, and a new approach was necessary."
The firm approached two "incredibly smart and connected consultants" who helped to broker a deal: Yini Zhang and Max Johnson. Wonderbly talked to a few organisations, but PPMG had the greatest appeal. Sharabi says: "It is one of the largest publishing groups in China, with a budding e-commerce business, an extensive retail network, and connections to schools and nurseries, which we can hopefully tap into. PPMG is, as we are, extremely enthusiastic about it; it values our innovation and creativity and there has been strong chemistry between us to date."
All in the Name
Sharabi and his co-founders launched Wonderbly in 2012 as a lean start-up (the company was then called Lost My Name, after its first picture book). He and his team built an online engine to create a multi-page p.o.d. title based on the letters in a child’s name, with the creative and storytelling designed in-house and the books sold direct through its website. The ease of the interface and quality of the product quickly found an audience—in 2014, it shifted 133,000 units of Lost My Name in the UK, outselling the top traditionally-published picture book that year, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Superworm, by some 15,000 copies.
That success attracted more than $18m in venture capital funding, with investors including Google Ventures and the German game and toymaker Ravensburger. Sharabi and co-founder David Cadji-Newby also appeared on the popular BBC show "Dragons’ Den" in which people pitch their businesses to investors. They secured £100,000 and also gained a huge amount of publicity. That war chest enabled expansion, with the list now up to 16 personalised books, including My Golden Ticket, a customised version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory created in partnership with the Roald Dahl Estate (the growing range was part of the reason for the 2017 name change to its current amalgamation of "wonderful" and "impossibly"). There has been international expansion too, with the books now available in 11 languages; its titles have been sold, Wonderbly says, into 200 countries.
All in the name
In its last set of financial results (to the year ending 30th April 2018), Wonderbly said that 38% of its group’s £18.8m in revenue came from the US (its biggest single market), while 29% was generated from non-English-language titles. Its new China venture is very early days; for example, discussions are ongoing about how many of its 16 books will be part of its launch list. Sharabi says: "From the little we have experienced to date, I expect a very positive response from Chinese kids, parents and grandparents alike. The challenges I envisage will be around value proposition and communications. We need to work closely with Chinese consumers to have a deep understanding of their needs and how our products can meet those needs."
What of a potential culture clash—not just in the Chinese market itself, but in a "lean start-up" tech company partnering with a giant multinational that turns over the equivalent of $2bn a year? Sharabi is bullish on that front: "From the early days I could tell that Phoenix has an equally lean culture. Whenever I visit China, I’m always in awe at how much more advanced it is with tech and e-commerce. It’s the West that is catching up with China these days.
"WeChat is everything [Mark] Zuckerberg did not manage to turn Facebook into. Amazon Prime next-day delivery? How about the Chinese e-commerce companies that deliver within the hour?"
Little Wonders: Three titles that established Wonderbly’s reputation
01 The title that started Wonderbly’s journey was Lost My Name, with the story and design by co-founders David Cadji-Newby and Pedro Serapicos. A child wakes to discover they have lost their name, and they go on an adventure to reclaim it. The characters the child meets along the way change according to the letters in his or her name: in the English version for a child called Tom, for example, Troll, Ostrich and Mermaid help get the name back.
02 Launched in 2017, My Golden Ticket was Wonderbly’s initial venture with a third party, the Roald Dahl Estate (a first for the estate, too, as it had never before commissioned a non-Dahl-written book). The joint-Intellectual Property work is an "opening the gates" of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, with touches including a personalised Wonka bar and the Oompa-Loompas singing a song about the child. The title won the 2017 FutureBook Children’s Book of the Year Award.
03 One of Wonderbly’s most ambitious products is The Curious Case of the Magboggle, the first of its Mystery Kits series. Designed by Katy Balfour—who, prior to joining Wonderbly, created immersive experiences for London’s Punchdrunk Theatre—The Curious Case... is "experiential storytelling that blurs the line between fiction and reality". Through a series of letters, clues and treasure hunts, children are encouraged to investigate the origins of the mischievous Magboggle.