Welcome to our founder lessons series. This week we have an exclusive interview with Peter Hudson, Co-founder and CEO of Shelfie, an app that lets you take a shelfie of your books and get the ebooks either for free or at a deep discount.
Shelfie was created by Peter Hudson and Marius Muja. Muja and Hudson studied together at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Hudson originally built software for hydrologists. Marius has a Ph.D. in Computer Science. Together they solved the “big data” problem of turning paper books into digital books.
Peter reveals how Shelfie was launched, their biggest success factors, challenges they faced and his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Brief summary about Shelfie
Shelfie is a free app available on iOS and Android where you explore real bookshelves to dig up new reads, connect with readers and get ebook editions of your print books for free or at a deep discount.
Q: Why and how was Shelfie started?
The idea for Shelfie came during a debate between myself and Dan Allard. We were discussing whether or not D-Wave’s quantum computer could be used to disprove the phenomenon of human free will. Dan had just read Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science and remembered a section that would prove his point.
Shelfie was born out of the frustration that Dan couldn’t produce his trump-card citation. Peter and Dan realized there was a need for digital versions of all your paper books on your phone (or eReader). Along came the Shelfie app.
Q: What has been the biggest success factors?
Like Netflix, Shelfie is a content marketplace. Nobody would use Netflix if it didn’t have deals with studios to stream great movies. Similarly, Shelfie needs to forge deals with publishers to allow our users to get free or discounted ebooks.
Just like in the movie business, there are only a handful of big publishers (they are known as the “big five”). Last spring we signed deals with two of the big five: HarperCollins and Macmillan.
While we have deals with over 1000 publishing houses, it was the deals with HarperCollins and Macmillan that allowed us to offer a much higher percentage of the books people have on their shelves.
Q: What are the biggest challenges the team faced when you launched Shelfie?
I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but the hardest and slowest part of getting Shelfie off the ground was getting enough deals with publishers. Marc Andreessen says it well in his blog post: The Moby Dick Theory of Big Companies. Big companies are like Moby Dick and start-ups are like Captain Ahab, and “Moby Dick cared a lot more about what the other giant white whales were doing than those annoying little people in that flimsy boat.”
In essence, as a startup, it’s really hard and takes a lot longer to get big companies to play ball than you (or your investors) think. In our case it took over 2 years of hustling before we signed our first big publishers.
There is a silver lining in start-up business models that require partnerships with big companies: These deals are hard to get, so you can look at the time invested as an investment in a business model moat. But people will only look at it that way if you’re successful. If your start-up fails, they’ll say you wasted a ton of time and money pushing a wet noodle uphill.
Q: Which do you think is most important: the right market, the right product, or the right team?
You always need the right team, but what determines “right” depends on the market and the product. In B2B markets, the sales & marketing team need to be world class and the product needs to be good enough. In B2C markets the product needs to be world class, and marketing needs to be good enough.
Final words for those chasing the startup dream
If you’re an ivy league CS grad, your odds of being the founder of a unicorn are worse than going from highschool starting center to NBA all star.
Do a startup because your idea is so corrosive that if you don’t unleash it on the world it’ll eat away at you inside.