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Great stories + great tech = great business

Wonderbly – a London-based company that combines technology and creativity to publish personalised books on demand for children – started out firmly in the world of ecommerce. In the future, you could also buy its products on the high street, as CFO Ian Sutherland explains.
 

 

The idea for Wonderbly (initially called Lost My Name until mid 2017) came when co-founder and CEO Asi Sharabi was reading a tailored storybook to his daughter and thought the concept could be executed better. He joined forces with two other fathers and an uncle and the four set about creating their own book about a child who has lost their name and goes on a journey to find it. Customers could buy their own personalised book online, with the story being shaped by the particular child’s name. Once ordered, the book was printed on demand through third parties and delivered within four to seven days following purchase. The original book was launched in April 2013 and by the following November, sales had reached 10,000 copies a month. “We’ve sold well over 3m now,” Sutherland says. 


Wonderbly logo

About Wonderbly

Industry: Internet
Company size: 21-200 employees
HQ: London
Ownership: Privately held
Founded: 2012
Visit website 


Since 2013 more personalised books have followed, including The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home, a picture book personalised around a child’s address, and most recently My Golden Ticket, based on a child’s personalised trip to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory – a book that resulted from a partnership with the Roald Dahl Estate. Along the way the founders have appeared on TV series Dragon’s Den and the company has attracted several rounds of funding, including from Google Ventures and Ravensburger. In 2017 it entered the Tech Track 100 league table in the top spot, based on having the fastest-growing sales over the previous three years.

“We are an international business now,” Sutherland notes.

“The US is our biggest market. We have sold over a million books in the US alone and have been the top-selling picture book in pretty much every English-speaking market – plus Germany, France, Spain and Italy.” Other personalised book companies, mainly in the US, have existed longer than Wonderbly. “But they haven’t sold books in the volume we have been able to.”


Secrets of success

So why has Wonderbly been so successful? “It all comes down to a great product,” Sutherland says. “It was completely differentiated in the market. Nobody else had done anything like it before or since. So our success is about having a great product that resonates with customers and having the team to execute on that and grow it as quickly as possible.”

Wonderbly’s success is also built on great technology. “We’re generating personalised content in an ecommerce environment,” Sutherland says. “We have a website driven by a back-end of a rendering stack – to render creative assets into a printable digital asset in real time. They [the founders] built the technology to do that from the ground up at the very beginning, with the customer in mind – to make sure there was an easy way for the customer to come on the website, generate the book they want, be able to see that book, and then be able to purchase that book at the end of the ecommerce funnel. That’s what we call full-stack publishing. We use digital technology to be able to own everything in the customer journey. So we do all the technical development. We own all the creative assets and the entire customer journey – from coming through to the website to purchase the product through to having that product delivered by us, through one of our third-party print houses. We can control 100% of that experience.”

The Wonderbly team doesn’t take continued success for granted, however. “We are still looking at different ways to improve the print-on-demand aspect of what we do,” Sutherland says.

“There are lots of new technologies coming out in print-on-demand and we want to stay on top of those developments. We are trying to make sure we stay at the forefront of how quickly and effectively our print-on-demand digital product can be turned into a book. We are always looking at different ways of evolving technology.”


Not all initiatives are successful. In 2017, for example, Wonderbly tested a new digital product – the VoiceBook – which offered a way to show a child a digital picture book on an iPad and was activated by voice technology. “We stopped that project because we realised the technology wasn’t there and the proposition wasn’t right at this time,” Sutherland says. “We openly talk about that experience because we are in the mode of learning from our mistakes.”
 

Diversifying distribution

“Marketing efficiency has been the biggest challenge we have faced as a business,” Sutherland says. Initially Wonderbly focused on online marketing with adverts on sites such as Facebook. However, some more traditional buyers might not see that kind of marketing activity. As a result, Wonderbly is experimenting with establishing a more traditional retail presence. “It’s clear there are still lots of people who don’t know about us, but when they do find out, they love our product and want to buy it,” Sutherland says. “But reaching them – finding an efficient way to market to them – is a challenge. So getting ourselves into some retail environments is something we want to push. This is one of our medium to long-term goals – to diversify our distribution.”

In the run up to Christmas 2017, for example, Wonderbly was running a pop-up stand in the John Lewis store on Oxford Street. “We are testing a prototype way of entering retail,” Sutherland says. “We are going to learn a lot and can make it more efficient and potentially take it to other shops as well.” Customers can have the product explained to them in person and if they want to buy, they fill out an order form and choose the personalised elements they want in their book. They then pay at the John Lewis till and their order is placed.
 

How might publishing evolve?

The response of traditional publishers to the Wonderbly model – personalised content available through ecommerce – has evolved over time. Industry gossip suggests the idea wasn’t taken seriously initially. “But now we are being invited to speak at leading industry events about the future of publishing,” Sutherland says.

“So there’s definitely been a realisation that this is something to be taken seriously. Before, I think the perception of personalised books was that they weren’t creatively comparable to a standard children’s picture book. But we have changed that view and traditional publishers realise there is something there.”


The publishing industry is an interesting one, when thinking about the future impact of technology, because the physical book market has stabilised. “People still want physical products,” Sutherland says. “Where you are seeing most decline is in e-books and e-readers.” In the children’s market particularly, hard copy books have a strong appeal. “Parents don’t want to have their children using devices all the time, so having physical books is important to them,” Sutherland says. “We see ourselves as very much part of that – we see a continued evolution of the physical product.”

In particular, Sutherland expects the print-on-demand side of the business will become faster and more replicable in stores. “The size of machine we need to print our books at the moment wouldn’t fit into a book store, but within a few years – perhaps by 2020/22 – that sort of on-demand printing will become more prevalent in retail,” he says. “If you turn up at a Waterstones in the future you might see our Wonderbly machine sitting in the corner printing out books for people. That will definitely happen in our lifetime.”

As Sutherland notes, there are a few processes in additional to the printing that need to be capable of delivering in-store, such as binding the book. “That in itself is a bit labour intensive,” he says. “You have to put it [the book] all together and glue it.” However, he sees no reason why this couldn’t be automated in a way that would work in-store. “We are living in the age of robotics now, so why would robots not create books?” he asks. “They will already be doing it in mass-production factories in China. But I think we will see that come more into the consumer-facing environment in the next five years.”
 

UK has digital strength

Sutherland believes the UK is one of the world’s leading digital economies. “We are already doing a good job of becoming digital and there are lots of initiatives in place to help that ecosystem grow,” he says. For example, Wonderbly is a member of the Future Fifty programme for late-stage digital tech companies in the UK.

“So there’s definitely been a realisation that this is something to be taken seriously. Before, I think the perception of personalised books was that they weren’t creatively comparable to a standard children’s picture book. But we have changed that view and traditional publishers realise there is something there.”


The day will come, he thinks, when the UK produces some success story akin to that of Amazon, Google or Facebook. “There are businesses coming through in hot spaces like FinTech in London,” he says. “We will see some of these come to the fore in the next few years. Once we have got UK businesses to global scale once or twice, then we can become a digital economy powerhouse and replicate the success of Silicon Valley.”

Investment is available for the right businesses, Sutherland believes. “If we can create the environment where founders create great products and great digital businesses, then the money will keep flowing,” he says. “It’s about nurturing the tech space and taking the learning of what’s worked and what’s not worked. We need to get the learning from the hot clusters in places like Old Street in London going out to other parts of the county.”

Sutherland also sees scope for traditional sectors to embrace ecommerce – not necessarily through Amazon, but by selling more directly online. The fashion industry, with the likes of Asos, has shown how it can be done. “Businesses saw that fashion could become a thing embraced online through ecommerce,” Sutherland says. “The same could be said of any consumer business. So any business could use ecommerce in a more innovative way than just using third-party distribution companies like Amazon. You don’t necessarily want Amazon taking a cut and for your customers’ experience to be through an Amazon-like interface. There are much more effective ways to sell your product and we are a good example of that. We could sell on Amazon, but the experience for customers would be nothing like what you get on our website. You get to view the product and see the impact of what you are personalising on the digital product. The physical product is being created and you are rendering it in real time – and that’s there for you to see on our website.”

We asked: Away from Wonderbly, what disruptive tech has most impressed you…

Sutherland is an advocate of cloud-based accounting technology, having used one of the market leaders, Xero, for some years, but he thinks people often fail to appreciate fully the impact it can have on operational tasks. “People often miss what it allows you to do through computer learning, great user interfaces and seamless connection between the transaction and the accounting system,” he says. “There are many examples of operational efficiencies you can get.” He also refers to London FinTech business Receipt Bank, which enables a digital copy of a receipt to go straight into the accounting package. “It’s automating the accounts payable function,” he notes.

Cloud-based accounting is still in its relative infancy, with adoption levels fairly low. But Sutherland expects this to change for sound business reasons. “Computer software, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are going to make back office functions much more efficient,” he says. “If you are saving money on back office functions, you could be spending that money on generating new products instead.”

 

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