Ready, steady, publish: How Notion Press built a team that overachieves its targets consistently
There were around 17.7 million credit card users in India at the end of 2011. But, Naveen Valsakumar wasn’t one of them. Valsakumar and his two friends borrowed roughly $67 (INR 3,000) from his then girlfriend to set up the domain for their newly-founded venture to help authors self-publish their books. That was all the investment that went into setting up Notion Press in the early stages.
So why did Valsakumar and his friends, Bhargava Adepalley and Jana Pillay, decide to carve a path in the publishing industry? They set out to publish a book only to realize they had to have a certain reader base to be taken seriously in the publishing world. “It was a chicken and egg situation, not just for new writers but even some established writers were facing trouble with getting their books published,” he says.
As Valsakumar recounts Notion Press’ journey, these are some of the important lessons we picked up as the company went on to establish itself as one of the pioneers in the self-publishing industry in India.
Go for a pivot if your original idea doesn’t work out!
The idea started with a simple goal: to set up a platform to help anybody without a publishing background to publish their books. As they were about 3-4 months into building the product, they realized people who wanted to publish their books needed hand-holding along the entire process.
This meant the trio had to go for a pivot very early on in their business in which they had to assist the customers through the entire stage of publishing (which, Notion calls the project mode) as opposed to letting their customers use a self-publishing tool to publish their books all by themselves (product mode). In the project mode, a customer had to spend anywhere between Rs 30,000-Rs 50,000 to publish a book and the total time to do so would be around 20-30 days.
Educate your customers, don’t market to them
When they set up their business, they had to spend a lot of time on the road just educating people on the basics of publishing. They conducted up to 200 workshops in the initial years. It wasn’t easy teaching people the laws around copyright and plagiarism to budding authors in the early days. Notion Press conducts fewer workshops now but they focus more on how to do it better rather than how to do it.
With a lot of awareness built on self-publishing in the last few years what with the success of the likes of Amish Tripathi, Inderjit Kaur and Adithya Iyer who took this route to get out their books, the co-founder and CEO of Notion Press feels the ecosystem is maturing now.
This has helped them to go back to their original plan of having a product (with minimal people-involvement) that would enable people to self-publish their books. Now, with the help of Notion Press’ self-publishing tool, people can publish their book within 24 hours (the basic plan is free) and start selling on e-commerce platforms such as Amazon and Flipkart.
“It is all about timing. You might think your product is great but the market needs to be ready for it,”
The launch of their self-publishing platform product in April 2019 has positively influenced the numbers for Notion Press: from publishing an average of 150 books per month prior to the product launch, the company is now publishing around 1,200 books. That’s one book every 36 minutes! Notion Press now boasts of managing half a million titles for authors and publishers.
Hire from among your friends or their friends
The team of three, which balanced all the functions of the startup on their shoulders for three years, began adding the second layer of leadership in 2015. Valsakumar says they did not really have any trouble spotting talent. The three co-founders tapped into their vast networks and hired mainly from among their school and college friends.
“We were lucky enough to spot talent from among our friends or their friends and fill the key positions,”
According to a CB Insights analysis of 101 startup postmortems, not having the right team is the third top reason for startups to fail.
Valsakumar says knowing everything about a friend both a boon and a bane for the same reason: that you know almost everything about the person. But, for Notion, it has definitely worked out to be an advantage. With a friend, he says, you can always go up to them and say: “Hey, this is what is happening… what do we do?”
One of Valsakumar’s colleagues wasn’t sure about switching jobs from a multinational corporation to a startup. When he couldn’t make up his mind, Valsakumar invited him to a book fair in Delhi. “I asked him to hang out as one of us for 3-4 days. He returned home after spending time with us at the book fair, sent a resignation letter to his company and simply told us he has quit his job,” says Valsakumar. “Hiring can happen this way too!”
Though this created a relatively comfortable working atmosphere for the team, Valsakumar says it took some efforts to align people from big corporate setups to the entrepreneurial mindset. “If you are part of a big setup, you are comparatively more comfortable and you tend to take so many things for granted. However, in a startup, though there is a lot of autonomy, there is also a lot of ambiguity. Things move faster and 60% of the work you do may not see the light of the day,” he says.
And, what did Notion Press do to bring all of them on the same page? The team used to meet informally every weekend. “In these meetings, each of us would try to understand how our colleagues in other departments function. We would try to solve hypothetical situations and brainstorm,” Valsakumar says.
This has been the major driver in bringing the team closer and shaping them to fit the startup mould. Though the frequency of these meetings has come down, the team still tries to have such weekend meetups at least once a month. The company, which is about 170-people strong, has a talent management programme that is now focusing on building cross-skills for its employees.
But that said, Valsakumar also says, “Whether it is an old acquaintance or somebody you’ve just met, what it boils down to is how transparent you are and how you manage your relationships with them.”
Build a killer tribe to build a killer company
The self-publishing house has been extremely conscious about creating its workplace culture from the beginning. Notion Press’ definition of culture is clear as well as distinct. These words are quite striking:
“We’re not a team, we’re not friends. We’re a tribe. We work together, hunt together, eat together and always look out for each other. When someone needs help we jump in – no questions asked.”
This tribe-like feeling among Notion Press’ employees is one of the main reasons for the team’s ability to push for ambitious goals and also, achieving them.
“We are more aggressive than our investors are. For instance, we had set a target of publishing 7,500 books by March 2020. We have already crossed the 9,000-mark. I know it sounds crazy but we are thinking if we can reach 15,000 in the next couple of months,” says Valsakumar. Though he ends that sentence with a laugh, you can sense the underlying seriousness in his tone.
It’s not all work and no play at Notion Press. The team is a self-professed set of party people and they do it in style. There is a minimum of two parties each month. “We have legendary parties. So much so that it has become part of our culture,” he says.
Be dynamic, audacious and enterprising but cautious too
Pursuing aggressive growth is the DNA of Notion Press. The company has hired people that would fit in such a culture.There have been a couple of instances of people leaving when they found out they would not be able to be a part of such a setup.
“If you’re not aggressive enough, you might feel out of place here. This is communicated very well when we screen candidates and onboard them.”
Valsakumar explains that if you set a comfortable target of X and achieve X+10, you don’t win a prize. However, if you set a target of 10X and achieve 6 or 7X, you win one. This pursuit of seemingly impossible numbers allows us to constantly pressure-test our product and processes and forces us to innovative/rebuild things from the ground up,” he says.
The other side of the coin of aggressiveness is making hasty decisions that obviously, cost you. Valsakumar isn’t shy of admitting as much. On the mistakes they’ve made, he says, “I’ll send you a book!” Recently, they launched self-publishing services in eight Indian languages but they did it in one go. “We took up more than we could chew. Now, we are able to focus on only two of those eight, besides English,” he confesses.
Innovate but keep profitability as your base
Valsakumar points out that Notion Press has been profitable from the first year. From a humble revenue of over $70,000 in 2012-2013 and a profit of nearly $5,500, the India-based self-publishing firm has grown organically and is all set to end the financial year of 2019-20 with a revenue of $10 million and profits of around half a million. Notion Press raised $1 million in seed funding from high-net worth individuals in 2016.
Notion Press allows a workplace conducive to voice your opinions. But, there are a certain set of base rules that apply to all, which opinions cannot override. One of these rules is profitability. “You have your independence but you are also accountable,” Valsakumar says.
Tapping into the world of publishers has been a major part of the reason for its fast growth in recent years. About four years ago, it tied up with a publisher to print-on-demand and distribute its titles, which took off in a big way. Now, it earns around 80-85% of its revenues from its partnerships with publishers. In fact, even its smaller competitors rely on Notion Press for printing and distribution services.
The company is all geared up for its next growth wave. It is experimenting with different content formats, developing more tools to make authors self-sufficient even as it is looking to hire people for business development, language specialization and content monetization.
And, Valsakumar is arming himself for this. He has made a list of 12 things he wants to learn this year. One of them is to work on at least one balance sheet all by himself. “Improving my financial literacy has always been on my to-do list. I procrastinated doing this until we were forced to do so about three years ago,” he says. This coincides with the time when they raised their seed funding.
Less reliance on external funding can help
Notion Press took the help of external funding to move from the ‘project mode’ to ‘product mode’, that is, from hand-holding customers to publish their books to moving to a phase where they could use a web-based tool to publish their own books.
“Most companies take the help of external funding for marketing. But, if you already have a marketable product and have achieved product market fit and you have nailed the process of acquiring your customers, then that’s the primary problem that any business should solve. Once you’ve done that, you can use external funding for innovation as opposed to doing it for acquiring customers from competitors or something similar,” explains Valsakumar.
Notion Press would raise external funding only for two things: raise market awareness and to build new stuff. Depending mainly on their revenues has given them peace of mind, says Valsakumar.
“When you raise external funding, you have to give timely exits. So, you sort of go into the timeline cycles as opposed to doing what would be the best in the long-term. There are very few entrepreneurs who actually nail that – managing funding cycles as well as focusing on the big picture. For us, less reliance on external funding is a sort of personal preference,” says Valsakumar.
Moreover, funding cycles go up and down based on economy and other factors and Notion Press says none of this affects it.
Trust your tribe completely
In his eight-year-long journey as a startup founder, there are three pieces of advice he has for other upcoming entrepreneurs. “Your time is the most valuable. There are always too many things to do but too little time. Your success depends on what and how much you prioritise something,” Valsakumar says.
The second point is about being effectively being able to communicate your vision to your team as a founder and the third is “to learn to hire people and trust them”. In another round of confessions, Valsakumar says, “I still struggle with the third point. A lot of entrepreneurs think they are super-human and want to do everything all by themselves.”
So, how is he working on this? “By working from home two days in a week. I’m planning to increase this to three soon,” he says. He has instructed his team not to call him for anything on those two days unless the house is on fire.
And, in case you’re wondering, he married his girlfriend from whom he borrowed money in the beginning. “I’m still repaying it. It’s a lifelong deal!” he says.
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