Justo, a former VP Worldwide of Sales Engineering and Product Management at a B2B company is hoping their technology at 24symbols allow users to read whatever they want, whenever they wanted and share it with their friends, offering a cloud-based reading system in the hope of creating a hub where publishers, authors and readers could all feel comfortable.
Hi Justo, How are you doing, great to have you on YHP?
Could you quickly give us some background information about yourself? Tell me about yourself growing up?
A pleasure. I am from Madrid, Spain, where I’ve lived most of my life except for a couple of times in the US (Ohio, California). My background is technical: I hold an MsC in Computer Science, and a PhD in Computer Science (that I achieved while working in corporate), but I slowly evolved to Product Management, Product Marketing, Sales Engineering and Management. My last role before starting 24symbols was VP Worldwide of Sales Engineering and Product Management at a B2B company.
I also enjoy teaching, which I’ve done since 1998, so I keep on doing that when I have time at MBA and Master’s degree levels, currently focused on Product Innovation and Strategy, Creativity and New Technologies for Management. I think I always learn more from the students than vice versa :D
I also like to help other startups, so I mentor at some startup schools and accelerators like Tetuan Valley and Startup Bootcamp.
Who was your inspiration growing up and why?
My parents. They taught me to study and work hard and to follow my dreams. They also struggled so they could give me a great education, but always taking into account my needs and desires.
But besides this, I don’t feel I’ve had an “inspiration”. I’ve tried to read as much as possible and about as many people and have tried to learn as much as possible from all of them. But then, I follow my path. That’s probably why I feel so interested on mentoring and its real usefulness!
How did you get into business? Were you exposed to entrepreneurship as a child?
Indeed. My parents had to survive through rough after-war Spain, and they were entrepreneurs since I can remember. While there were good and bad things, I always had this feeling that “I needed to do the same”. For many years I worked (as a “first employee”) at a startup company that went from 15 people to more than 100, and from a small office in Madrid to offices in Madrid, northern Spain, London and Palo Alto, CA. But I still needed to feel how being a founder was.
So I guess that’s how 24symbols started?
So what was the inspiration behind it? How did the idea come about?
The idea and vision behind 24symbols comes from one question and one insight:
- How could we provide most books in the world, available to everyone, with the fairest possible price, and by being a hub where publishers, authors and readers could all feel comfortable?
- If you look at other cultural and entertainment industries, you can see a clear trend that goes from pure ownership to consumption. Spotify in the music industry or Netflix in the movie industry are two clear examples, but there are many others.
Merging these two things, we realized that in this time of changes in the publishing industry, a subscription service for books is something readers would probably love, and publishers would see as an alternative channel and part of the solution to some of the challenges they were (and are) facing right now.
Of course, this is by no means an easy task to do (if it were, it would've been done before by a major player), but from our conversations with different stakeholders in the industry, it clearly made enough sense for us to decide to go for it.
So what’s the goal?
Our goal is to offer a cloud-based reading system with a very attractive business model. Read whatever you want, whenever you wanted and share it with your friends. This provides some very interesting reactions, as already stated by different companies and studies, not just us: readers spend more time reading online; discovery, a critical topic in the ebook business, is clearly helped by social reading and sharing; and, as you said, new e-reading capabilities attracts new readers to the online world.
You spoke earlier about working as a first employee in a startup, tell us more about that experience?
For many years before starting 24symbols I had been working at, Denodo a startup in Spain that got funding to internationalize and open business in Palo Alto, CA (the Silicon Valley). I lived there for a while, being responsible for the whole technology stack in the PA office (from debugging to presales, analyst relationships, or Product Marketing.) Right before going back to Spain I became responsible for the world wide sales engineering team and the product management area. Those were exciting times, seeing a company grow and becoming a ww leader in a specific product category.
Back to 24symbols, what was your biggest challenge starting it up?
I think we’re still in the “starting up” phase :) In our case, the biggest challenges are to get publishing content, and then how to monetize this. Regarding the first part, I believe we’re starting to find ways, as we are showing by adding more and more bestselling and high quality content in Spanish, and now starting to do it in English. The second part requires some additional time until we get a critical mass of happy users, from which some of them decide it makes sense for them to subscribe. The good news is that even at this stage we already have a small but growing number of them.
So how were you able to get traction at the start?
We’d love to say we had a pretty well defined strategy :D But the reality is that we did it but talking to people on social media tools like twitter or facebook. Creating a conversation with them and asking them “we plan to do this, do you like it?” And it worked! Though it takes many hours of work, of course. We released a closed beta version on April 2011, and our idea was to send around 5,000 invites. But we needed to increase it to over 10,000 as we had more than 20,000 requests on Facebook!
Raising money is always such a hot topic when starting a business, How have you been able to fund the business?
We were lucky to secure a seed capital funding on October 2010, and then a soft loan from the Ministry of Industry of Spain, in March 2011. This has enabled us to work full steam on the product and content acquisition. Now we’re in the process of growing and having a fuller presence.
What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
From a company standpoint, there are three main areas: (1) creating a high quality product, and, in order to have that, hire only impressive professionals that also love the idea of working on a publishing/IT company; (2) working hard on explaining our business model to publishers and create good relationships with them that, little by little, help close contracts that are good to both sides; (3) having constant conversations with our users and potential subscribers regarding the product, our books, literature in general... this helps bridge the gap between the “IT company” and the “literature and publishing company”, as we try to be both.
From a personal standpoint the most important thing is to realize that once it is your company, you need to do WHATEVER it takes to make it grow, even if that takes you out of your comfort zone. While that is challenging, it is also needed and generally rewarding. In my case, it was clear once I started full time on this that my technical background was good to have for product management, but since one of my partners would take care of it in a very expert manner, I could be much more useful in other areas (like content acquisition, public speaking, looking for investment, ...)
Would you say the business has changed from the first initial idea?
From a fundamental standpoint, no (or should I say, not yet :) ). Our business model is the same (freemium); our technology too (cloud reading, ...) But of course pivoting is inherent to any startup, and we’ve been adding/updating small pieces that altogether have helped the business so far. From realizing the key role editors have in our process (so we have two experts onboard helping us on that) to going to the HTML5 way to have a version that can be accessed by basically any mobile device (and now going back to developing native apps to reach the same user experience than what we achieved in our native iPad app).
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
Walking the walk :) I mean, the journey has been a continuous highlight. Of course there are some that are more outstanding than others: the day we had the idea; creating the company together; the day we released the closed beta and spent the whole night watching tweets of people congratulating us; the day we presented at London Book Fair with the ITV channel; the day we presented at the IDPF conference in New York in front of 900 people; when we released the iPad app; when we started to have bestselling titles and many new users started to come; ... there are so many and in such a short period of time that, honestly, I prefer to think of this as a big fat highlight :D
What can we be expecting from 24symbols in 2012?
Many things! We continue to work hard on having new publishers onboard, both in Spain, but also starting in the UK, where we are already closing our first deals. We are also working on our new apps for iPhone and Android while we add new cool features to the rest of our stack. We will be growing our team in the following weeks to encompass everything that we want to do. And of course, we are open to working on different partnerships that enable us to reach markets we cannot currently reach ourselves.
What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
1. Be ready to do whatever it takes for your company. As I mentioned earlier, don’t have preconceived views of what your role should be. And never take it as a “bad thing”. Confronting our comfort zone is hard, but also provides life-long learnings.
2. Have passion for your idea, but even more passion for execution. I don’t believe in “I love my idea” startups, because it means they won’t be able to pivot if required.
3. Know your ecosystem, but don’t try to become a “rock star”. I truly believe in networking, in learning from people of the industry, but I truly avoid this new trend of startup founders becoming “rock stars”. A startup founder is everything but that, and should be focused on what he/she needs to do to take his/her business to a new level.