Q&A with Emma Stevenson and Rachael Yaeger, Co-founders of reads.delivery, a curated books disco
Emma Stevenson and Rachael Yaeger share with us their experience and insights of building a new business, [reads], as they are launching their platform.
Tell us a bit about yourselves?
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I have spent the past decade teaching grade school, homeschooling - working in special education and non-profit education programs. I am originally from Australia and moved to NYC in 2011 to work at charity: water. I then transitioned back into teaching and working with kids.
I spent last summer at a writing program in Paris and became enamored with writing children’s books — which i have been working on ever since. This Summer i transitioned over to work on [reads] full time with Rachael.
I love people and ideas. I am currently the founder of Human NYC which started in 2013 with technical partners Michael Ray and Sasha Kluchnik. Human NYC specializes in launching brands and working with technology.
Last year Human NYC launched a small “work” reading list: reads.nyc. Human NYC also hosts an annual creative conference, Likeminds
My background is in marketing and project management, i have worked with successful online subscription based brands like Harry’s (now valued at $75m) and last year helped on the launch of the online subscription based vitamin company, Care/of. I know the power of understanding technology and having design sensibility. I'm now hard at work on reads.delivery with Emma and growing our team.
What is reads.delivery?
We're building a platform and a conversation around books, starting with a monthly curated book subscription service.
We learned that we’re not so good at finding new books on our own. Or at expanding our own taste. And that’s what [reads] is meant to do. To give you that feeling of discovery and growth. Of stumbling across something you would have never thought to look for on your own. It’s why we love visiting new countries and meeting new people. Their stories are different than ours. We lend them our attention and they lend us their perspective.
Photography by Article one
Why did you start reads.delivery?
We mostly started it for ourselves, we thought if we’re swapping books all the time and spending hours searching for hidden gems, why not try share that magic on a bigger scale. We love reading and are constantly wanting to read things outside of our taste and interests. We have a special love for discovery and enjoy giving our friends and co-workers books we think will surprise them.
How did you start reads.delivery?
[reads] started from a conversation about opening a bookstore. We are both very visual, tangible people and wanted to have a nook where people could come and read and talk books with us. After realizing how unrealistic the brick and mortar costs were, and given Rachael’s digital and brand building background, Emma had the idea to launch [reads] online.
We’re not developers so [reads] started small and with local events in Chinatown, NYC. We partnered up with Sky Ting Yoga to do a meditation evening based around an author we wanted to highlight. We worked with artist Camilla Engstrom and photographer Ana Kras.
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We believe in doing things with integrity and starting small, doing what you can with what you have. We’re not afraid to ask for help, listen to advice, learn, grow and lean on people who are smarter than us. We’re trying to stay as true to ourselves and create a product we personally love first and foremost. We’re also bootstrapping and relying on good old word of mouth for gaining traction.
Rachael started Human NYC as an art gallery and small creative studio over four years ago with the intent of doing good work and good work speaking for itself, that has naturally carried over to the spirit of creating [reads]. David Bryne’s How Music Work’s book mentions that if you create enough you will inevitably continue to create the same types of successes for yourself.
How did you validate your idea?
We were lucky to talk through our initial idea with Greg Pass who is the chief entrepreneurial officer at Cornell Tech and is an active advisor to several startups and nonprofits. When we mentioned “ books as discovery” he encouraged us to go and really explore this idea, we’ve been doing that ever since and excited to finally turn that into reality.
We immediately sent out a Google Form to over 100 people and asked them about their reading and spending habits with books. We also keep up with our research daily. We disproved the myth that ebooks are killing the physical book and realized that the average American reads 12 books a year and so does our [reads] demographic. We also have been approached by people to collaborate which is a good sign to us of having a brand and product that people want to be associated and involved with.
How did you finance your project?
We took VC meetings very early on. We had said to ourselves, why not try and see what that avenue could be for us? We of course would like the resources to be able to invest in digital (ad words and ad buys) and offline marketing (public reading spaces and wheat pastings) and also we do want to make sure we nail our packaging and order fulfillment, all strong reasons to work with a VC partner.
Ultimately we decided to launch [reads] v.1 ourselves, and see what that would look like and not have an “exit strategy”. Meeting with VCs forced us to map our churn rates and the potential lifetime value of our customers. We launched a Kickstarter campaign a month later (video by our friends at Wash & Fold) in May 2017 and got funded a month later.
How are you marketing and promoting [reads] as you are preparing to launch?
We’re naturally content creators so we’re building a community on Instagram and by partnering with businesses that share our same fun and hardworking spirit. We host events with authors and do brands and have hosted a book swap, and we recently launched farsighted.articleoneeyewear.com with our pals at Article One, an online editorial, for people that need glasses by people that love books.
We partnered with Ilana Kohn on a “reading nook” night, and we’re starting to host literary dinners and read alouds. We also write on Medium as a way to open source what we’re learning and what we’re interested in currently.
We spoke at a “100sUnder100” event in Brooklyn recently about our progress and balancing shipping a product as proof of concept coupled with thoughtfulness and consideration, it was a nice opportunity to connect with other founders as well as designers and fellow readers!
We talk as much as we can about [reads] with people and are planning an LA event too and currently designing out our email newsletters so that we can share the links Emma sends to Rachael every week. We want to be conscientious of people’s time and so when we send out [reads] updated we want our communication to be meaningful. We’ll be putting an illustrative countdown up on social media closer to launch!
What has been your biggest challenge/failure as entrepreneurs?
One of our biggest challenges has been communication and setting realistic expectations with others and each other. As we create [reads] we are bootstrapping and putting the right pieces of our whole business together slowly. We learned from our Kickstarter campaign that we had already committed ourselves to things that we realistically couldn’t afford to pay for. It was a huge learning curve for us, we had to have hard conversations about money and learned that it’s better to over communicate.
We believe in hanging in there, by default successful businesses are the ones that stick it out. We expect more tough conversations to be had. One of our current failures / challenges is creating time--we want the team at Human NYC to be able to help us grow and launch [reads] as our development partners and they have pre-existing client work.
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That time struggle has forced us to carve out the space to work on [reads] with a team that genuinely cares and wants to see [reads] go live and into a successful business, even if that means weekend work.
Keeping the original intent and hopes for [reads] intact can be a failure if we’re not careful too. We constantly need to remind ourselves of the end goal of sharing our [reads] curation and experience with others. At the end of the day we’re humans that love books and some days we have to nudge each other to get back to that shared root. The management of daily tasks and long term goals can be struggle but we’re refining our workflow and relying heavily on a “divide and conquer” mentality.
What are your business goals for the first year?
We’re always scheming behind the scenes. We’ll be hosting events for most of 2017 like read alouds and literary dinners. We’re working with the Human NYC development team on a hackathon weekend and looking forward to launch our initial MVP site aiming for the end of October so that we can start to send people their [reads]! Once people can place orders and subscribe to [reads], we can communicate with and learn from them and then better our business in ways we can’t anticipate yet!
Our main goal right now is to launch and get the website up and running and if we have 10 subscribers then we will work really hard to give them the best [reads] experience possible.
Aside from that, one of our goals for this year is to keep researching—we’re trying to find our biggest fans. Our goal is to keep learning and growing, and getting smarter with our business model.
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What's your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Pick the right person to start a business with. You will go through so many ups and downs and struggle with the “are we sure we want to do this, is this really going to work” questions constantly, you need someone who is in the trenches with you working it out together.
When one of us is stressed/feeling crazy the other person is the grounding and balancing. You can rarely do everything by yourself so staying a gracious person is important to us, we want people to feel appreciated and for our business to have good vibes.
Try to stay humble, you don’t know everything. Stay excited. Be a pleasant person to be around. Make people want to work with you. Just keep moving.
Be flexible enough to let your idea evolve and possibly even take on a different shape to what you had originally planned.
What's your favourite quote?
“I think, as I've gotten older, I've been able to be more reckless with my choices, because practically speaking, you get less careful. Your choices become more instinctive, and you feel like if you make a mistake, it won't destroy you.”
— Willem Defoe
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