Many great businesses have started from ideas sparked in college. After all, the halls of higher learning afford students the opportunity to explore all the possibilities open to them, even as they pursue particular majors. Big name examples include Facebook and SnapChat, whose founders and CEOs Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel eventually dropped out of Harvard and Stanford universities, respectively, to run their companies. Dwayne Campbell, co-founder and CEO of BookFusion Limited, didn’t drop out of Howard University, where he majored in Chemical Engineering. In fact, he didn’t really do much with his initial idea until after graduation, when he was working and studying Computer Science in graduate school at Columbia University.
“As students, we were constantly sharing files with each other and received documents from professors which all had different formats, most of which required different software to read and access. It could be Adobe for .pdf, Word for .doc, and the list goes on. I wanted a platform that allowed me, my friends and others that had the same problem to be able to read any book regardless of the format, without requiring specialised software to be installed, and the ability to share ebooks with friends and family the way you would a physical book,” he explained. “The idea evolved as I continued to travel back and forth to Jamaica, observing the gaps in the global market and incorporating concepts based on my experience working and studying natural language processing in graduate school.”
This idea became a reality in January 2014, and BookFusion was finally made official in March 2015.
A Global Platform
BookFusion is an open, global ebook platform that provides a new and enhanced ebook reading experience. The application allows users to purchase/download, read, organise and share their ebooks across any device, from e-readers to PCs. The platform is home to more than 40,000 ebooks, in categories ranging from biographies and memoirs to cookbooks, crafts and hobbies, romance, self help, children’s literature and curriculum-based educational material.
The company is run by the husband and wife team of Dwayne and Kellye-Rae Campbell, who met while attending Manchester High School. Dwayne handles the technical and business sides of the operation, while Kellye-Rae, a lawyer, is the company’s COO and legal counsel.
Dwayne wasn’t always sure he wanted to be an entrepreneur, but he did always have ideas. He recalled having a notebook in which he had written about wanting to create a Caribbean version of PayPal. “I know I’ve always wanted to try to do a venture outside of the typical 9-5, but it’s not that I set out on doing that in the first place” he said. “I saw the opportunity, and with BookFusion, it just kept nagging at me, so I decided to pursue it full-time.”
BookFusion is actually the Campbells’ second business venture. In 2009, they opened Akira Teknlogies, an electronics store in Mandeville, where they sold cell phones, Blackberrys and laptops, offering an affordable alternative to traditional stores, where prices were tremendously marked up. The business folded in 2011 when the supermarket in which it operated was sold and they couldn’t find another suitable location with large volumes of foot traffic.
Making a Difference in Education
BookFusion’s first wave of activity is geared towards the local education sector. Last October, the company signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Minister of Education, Dr Ruel Reid, which allowed it to integrate the Ministry of Education’s Tablets in Schools Programme into its platform. So far, BookFusion has been able to digitise 70 texts under the Ministry of Education’s Doctor Bird and Blue Mahoe reading series for primary schools, and the Early Childhood and Literacy 1-2-3 series for basic schools. Students, teachers and parents across the island can now gain free access to the Ministry’s entire digital library on the BookFusion platform, both online and offline on any device—desktop, smartphone or tablet.
The next move is to add interactive elements to the relevant ebooks, which will engage the students and enable them to learn certain key topics faster. For instance, when learning pronunciation, students will be able to hear audio as they touch or click on the words.
“BookFusion solves a variety of problems for education ministries. If you look at the ministries of education throughout the Caribbean and in Africa and other regions, with their digital strategies, they have to provide content, but also distribute.
In previous programmes, they would have to recall all the tablets to a physical location in order to upload the content. Outside of that, they also had difficulties negotiating with publishers to get content to put on the tablets, since they had no secure way of distributing that content and restricting access. What we do is provide them with a platform that allows them to reduce operational costs. Now they can push content to all tablets from a central dashboard, and we allow them to negotiate much more reasonable prices with publishers.
For example, instead of having full licence for the book, they can negotiate using the book for a specified time, or just using particular chapters. What that does is reduce the spend that governments would have to make to pay for educational content for a year,” Dwayne explained.
The platform also provides a boon for authors and publishers in the Caribbean and other emerging markets. “If you look on Amazon, you will only see the physical books for sale most of the time. One of the reasons for this is because Amazon has such draconian terms. If an ebook sale occurs from the Caribbean, they take up to 70 per cent of the money and only 30 per cent goes back to the publisher,” Dwayne said. “Compared to our platform, we’re trying to give publishers and authors more control over their rights and their content, so we take only twenty-five per cent per ebook sold, regardless of where that sale occurs.”
The company’s current focus on educational books is also a key part of its revenue model. “When you look on the Caribbean region, the educational sector accounts for more than 70 per cent of the publishing industry. So we’re currently focused on onboarding those publishers so that we can build up a healthy revenue in order to allow us to support the other genres on our platform and have a much more balanced selection,” Dwayne said.
Is It Necessary?
Before BookFusion became a reality, Dwayne kept the idea close to his chest, and with good reason. Not even his mentor, one-time manager Claude Johnson—now a Site Reliability Engineer at the San Francisco-based Palantir Technologies—could really see the need for it. “At the time, the Kindle Cloud Reader wasn’t a reality yet. They came out with the Cloud Reader less than a year after I pitched the idea to him, and he reached out to me and said he could now see what I was thinking, that I was onto something,” Dwayne recalled. “He asked me to flesh out how the different components of the platform would interact. I wasn’t a programmer, and because I couldn’t afford developers at the time, I started to teach myself to programme. After about six months, I had a prototype where if you upload a PDF, it would be converted to images and displayed on the screen, and you could flip from page to page. It was basic.”
Claude then urged him to put it online to get feedback, but Dwayne wasn’t comfortable with sending it out into the world in its unfinished state. When he eventually acquiesced, there was enough feedback from users to help guide the development process in the end. He also started paying some attention to the business aspect of the project and looking at industry reports to help drive the planning for BookFusion’s operations.
Opening a Door
Dwayne still had a full-time day job as an Application Developer at Goldman Sachs in New York City, and worked on BookFusion in the evenings. He now had enough financial security to be able to hire help to develop the platform. It was still “pre-revenue” at the time, so he wasn’t looking for investment when he first met with FirstAngelsJA manager Sandra Glasgow in May 2015. “I was trying to meet with the Ministry of Education, but I was not getting through to them at all. So I ended up meeting Sandra through Gordon Swaby (founder and CEO of EduFocal Limited), and she facilitated an introduction to the Ministry’s Chief Education Officer,” he said.
Of course, having found out about FAJ, and making progress with the Ministry of Education, the Campbells started working with Sandra to pitch to the Angels. The first pitch was done in December 2015, and they pitched again in March 2016. “I believe BookFusion was attractive to the Angels because we were getting traction with the Ministry, and we were also signing publishers. They know that publishers are also looking for platforms to distribute their books, especially in the Caribbean region—not only local publishers like Carlong and UWI Press and others that target primary and secondary schools, but also international publishers from the UK as well,” he said.
The investment from FirstAngelsJA has helped the business to move forward. “I had no more personal resources, and they helped us complete key developments that have helped us to secure agreements with three UK publishers, which will soon be announced. Without the investment, we wouldn’t have been able to complete the developments in the timeline required. At the time, we didn’t have an iOS app, but we were able to put that out there as well,” Dwayne said.
“In addition to the money, we’re not well-connected people, so they helped us to reach into their network to make introductions so we could reach our milestones faster. Even before we got the investment, Sandra was kind enough to at least introduce us to the Ministry so they would at least listen to our pitch. That, to us, is very valuable, because at the end of the day, even if you have all the money in the world, but you can’t get in front of the right people, your business will eventually die,” he added.
BookFusion also now has a structured board that provides governance and helps with major decision-making. FAJ-nominated board members have supported the company beyond attending board meetings, putting Dwayne and Kellye-Rae in touch with potential clients and attending an overseas publishing conference in the UK at their own expense.
In addition to the upcoming announcement regarding the UK publishers, the company is also wrapping up an arrangement with Digicel, which has provided the sponsorship to make the ebooks interactive.
New Technologies, New Goals
The Campbells’ overarching vision for BookFusion is that it will be the premier, dominant ebook platform throughout the Caribbean region. To help ensure that this vision becomes a reality, they are working to differentiate it from any other similar platform by moving away from the typical “flat text representation” with the continual incorporation of interactive elements. They are currently working on including a feature to set and track reading goals, and adding natural language processing elements. Think Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. “Imagine you’re reading an ebook and you have a question. Usually, when you search for a term in a book or look up the indices, it’s because you have a question that you want answered, so what if you could just ask the ebook? Say you’re reading about mountains and you want to know what is the world’s tallest mountain. The ebook would immediately report that answer back to you,” Dwayne explained.
Angel investment and pitching for such investment are, for tech companies, common in the United States, where the Campbells first started and pitched BookFusion. It is how a large number of these companies manage to get off the ground. Pitching for investment is now becoming more mainstream for players in the Jamaican industry, with several competitions taking place annually. Campbell’s advice to his fellow entrepreneurs in the tech space is to not get caught up in the hype surrounding these competitions, but to make sure they have something worth pitching in the first place. “Focus on getting some revenue together, or agreements signed, so you can show that there is potential for the business and it can generate revenue,” he said.
He also addressed one of the biggest fears entrepreneurs have about seeking Angel investment: “I know before we took Angel investment, we had heard a lot of things like, ‘These guys will just take over your company,’ or ‘They’re going to steal your ideas.’ Ignore all of that. Nobody wants to steal your ideas. Angels are really there to help you grow your business. At the end of the day, they’re investing their time and money, and they only have your best interests in mind.”
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