I recently came across a startup which captured my attention because it was very different to everything else I've seen. When I first came across Litographs I knew I wanted to interview the founder and learn more. I'm glad I had the opportunity to, as this interview proves. It is great to hear about a startup dealing with a physical product and see what challenges that brings. Read the full interview below:
First of all can you give me a bit of background to yourself:
I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, where I studied Evolutionary Psychology. I went to work at a healthcare IT company in DC as a data analyst. I caught the tech entrepreneurship bug there and started teaching myself python in my spare time. I spent January – August 2012 in South America, participating in the Startup Chile program, and I’m now working on Litographs full-time in Cambridge, MA.
So what is Litographs?
Litographs is a new way of displaying, wearing, and appreciating literature. Today we create posters and t-shirts composed of all or most of the text from a growing library of classic books. Later this year we’ll be adding tote bags to the mix, as well as some new design styles.
The vision is to take advantage of new technology and changes in how we enjoy books to create products that help readers express themselves. We’ve found that there’s a real demand for physical, literary products even as books themselves become increasingly digital.
What was the inspiration behind it?
The form itself has been around for a number of years. Spineless Classics and Postertext are two great projects that inspired me to start Litographs. I thought that there was an opportunity to expand the form, and to bring more artistry and community to the creation process.
In 2011, I was teaching myself to code and getting interested in starting a side project. Litographs happened to be the perfect project for me – it challenged my programming skills, was a product I could start selling without devoting myself to it full-time, and I had a strong network of artist friends who were excited to work with me before we had any customers.
It seems like a capital intensive business, how did you originally raise the funds for this project?
Litographs is 100% bootstrapped. It took about $3,000 of my own savings to get the project off the ground, most of which went towards printing the first batch of posters. Within 2 months, we were profitable, and since then all of our growth has been funded by reinvesting our earnings into the business.
There were a few creative approaches we took to growing the business before we had meaningful revenue. The most successful was probably the way that we licensed artwork as we were starting out. Working with top-tier artists has always been a priority of mine, but before we had customers there was no way that we could afford to commission new designs. Since April 2012 we’ve released two new designs every week, which obviously would have stretched the budget if we were always contracting for new artwork.
Instead, we combed the web for existing literary designs in artists’ portfolios, and paid royalties on those designs. It was a hugely successful approach for all parties involved – we were able to grow our collection quickly with high quality designs, and the artists we worked with were able to see their work enjoyed and distributed all over the world. Not to mention that as we’ve grown, the royalties have become significant. Some of these early artists have earned royalties of over $1,000 in a single quarter.
I understand you have also put the project up on Kickstarter, do you think crowdsourcing funds is easier than raising a seed round from a private investor?
I think they serve very different purposes. We have never been interested in raising money from investors. It just doesn’t make sense for our business at the moment.
With the Kickstarter campaign, the problem we were trying to solve was one of predicting demand for our new line of t-shirts. Our t-shirts are printed all-over on both sides, which means that there are extremely large minimum order quantities at very high unit prices. There’s no way that we could have launched 6 designs at once without being very confident in the demand. After the Kickstarter, we knew exactly what proportion of designs and sizes to order. That market knowledge was far more valuable than the funds themselves. That seems to usually be the case with Kickstarter campaigns that essentially take pre-orders.
Litographs also gives back to communities through contributions to organizations which help promote literacy and education in developing countries. Can you tell me more about this?
We’ve worked closely with the International Book Bank since we launched in 2011. The IBB is an amazing organization, devoted to improving global literacy rates and providing books to communities in need abroad. With their help, we’ve donated over 10,000 books since we launched.
I’ve had the privilege to be more involved in IBB’s operations than most businesses with a mission. It has always been important to me to do more than just write a check every quarter. I’m always thinking about how Litographs can help promote literacy, beyond providing funds. To that end, I’m honored to be joining the IBB Board of Directors, and I also sit on the Board of Advisors for another amazing organization, Mother Tongue Books.
What have been the main challenges you have faced in starting Litographs?
We timed our Kickstarter campaign to coincide with the holiday season. The strategy paid off with explosive growth over November/December, but that also brought a set of challenges.
Up until that point, I was rolling and shipping posters myself out of my home office. I could handle 100 or so posters per week, but over the holidays we had some weeks where we were shipping 500+ posters. Given that the Kickstarter also required a ton of attention and customer service, there was just no way for us to continue fulfilling orders on our own. We needed to find a new solution quickly, during the busiest season of the year.
How have you overcome these challenges?
We were lucky to find an incredible network of local vendors and partners who have helped us manage our growth, along with providing logistical and manufacturing expertise and creativity.
My time spent in Chile has made me so appreciative of being able to hop in the car and meet in person with our partners. I’m 100% convinced that working locally should be a priority for new businesses, even if it means increasing your costs in the short term. It also feels great to know that we’re supporting our local community, and that they’re supporting us.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
I’m a big proponent of finding a product that can generate revenue quickly, especially if you’re working on starting your first business. Whatever I do after Litographs, I’ll have enough runway and flexibility to put off revenue if that’s what the project demands. But my instinct will always be to look for revenue in the early days – it makes the project more enjoyable, and paying customers are the best ones to learn from.
If you’re thinking of starting your first business and don’t have enough savings to last you and the business for months (and aren't in a position to raise funds), finding an early revenue stream is absolutely key.
Check out Litographs for yourself: http://www.litographs.com/