From Book Oven to PressBooks, Hugh McGuire Shares His Startup Story

by Ben Yoskovitz on March 10, 2011

Hugh McGuireHugh McGuire is a well known Montreal entrepreneur. In fact, he’s known all over the world. Hugh is the founder of LibriVox, the largest catalog of audio books from the public domain. It’s a great service and continues to grow. A few years ago, Hugh decided to take a crack at building a “for-profit” company called Book Oven. The goal was to build a platform for book publishing. He and his co-founder raised capital from Montreal Startup and went to work.

Like with most startups, things at Book Oven didn’t go as planned. Hugh shares a good part of that story in the interview below. Out of the ashes of Book Oven though, Hugh is now working on PressBooks. There’s some definite overlap in the mission of the two companies, but the approach Hugh is taking is radically different. And just to add a bit more complexity to things, between Book Oven and PressBooks, Hugh launched Iambik, an audio book publisher (taking from his experience at LibriVox). Iambik still operates.

Hugh’s story is a testament to perseverance, learning, pivoting and just how hard it is to build a successful startup. In some ways, this interview is a postmortem and startup launch story all in one. It’s certainly worth reading, Hugh shares a lot of painful lessons learned that will help other startup founders.

NextMontreal: What is PressBooks?

Hugh: PressBooks is a simple book production tool. It lets you and your team easily author and output books in multiple formats including: epub, Kindle, print-on-demand-ready PDF, HTML, and InDesign-ready XML. It’s built on top of WordPress and will be open source.

PressBooks is a reinvention and focusing of some of the ideas that went into, which we started building in late 2008 (!).

NextMontreal: Are you the only founder?

Hugh: Yes. When we started Book Oven, there were two founders: me and Stephanie Troeth. Steph left the company in late 2009, and I recently bought back her stake in the company, so I am the sole remaining founder.

NextMontreal: How did you get from Book Oven to PressBooks?

Hugh: We made lots of first-time start-up mistakes with Book Oven, and I hope PressBooks comes from learning some of those lessons. I’ll list those lessons below, but to answer your question directly: how did we get here? … Like this:

  • was getting no traction, and we were burning too much money. We cut back costs & staff, and focused on Bite Size Edits – a tool/game inside Book Oven that was generating really interesting usage patterns among a small group of users.
  • generated lots of interest, but we got no significant traction (though we still saw lots of great usage among a small group of users). Still, I didn’t feel confident trying to raise money on what we’d done. We ran out of money.
  • We had a SRED claim rejected, and so the company was pretty much finished.
  • I wrote an article for O’Reilly outlining, basically, what I would do if I could do it over. That sketched out PressBooks, and it got lots of postitive response.
  • Then our appeal to get our SREDs went through, and we were given a second chance to try to do things right, which is how we started building PressBooks.

Here are some mistakes we made with Book Oven, that we’ve tried to address with PressBooks.

  1. Building from Scratch. We decided to build Book Oven from scratch, on Django/Python. We ended up building all sorts of things that existing open source platforms, particularly WordPress, already do well: profiles, user registration, subdomains etc. Worse though, the core features for a book production tool – text in, editing, text out – were, I felt, inferior on compared with the experience I had with WordPress. So finally I decided to scrap everything we built at Book Oven, but take what we learned, and rebuild a new tool on WordPress. And the result is PressBooks.
  2. Lack of Clarity of Focus. We had such grand visions for Book Oven, and we planned to build it all, without having a clear sense of what was most important. Were we a work-based social network for people who make books? A self-publishing tool? An easy way to get books into the digital marketplace? A mass-collaboration game? We tried to be all these things, and we did a bad job at all of them. At the time we thought we “didn’t have enough resources,” but really the problem was that I was not focused or clear about what we were building. Further, we had what we thought was a “neat little idea” in Bite-Size Edits (a collaborative proofreading tool) which just confused users about what we were doing, and in fact ended up, as all software projects end up, being much more complex and time-consuming than we expected.

    With PressBooks, the focus is clear: make book production simple.

  3. The Pitch to Our Users. We called Book Oven an “Online collaborative space to make books.” We really thought that collaboration would be the selling point, and that we would build a new community around collaborating on the making of books. It turns out that while collaboration is important in book production, it’s not the key pain point, and didn’t excite users.

    The real pain point for most people in the book business right now – publishers and self-publishers alike – is that the workflow for getting a book into multiple formats is broken.

    PressBooks tries to solve that pain in the simplest way possible.

NextMontreal: And what about Iambik audiobooks? What’s the status there?

Hugh: Yes, Iambik audiobooks.

We ran out of money with Book Oven in April 2010, and were basically ready to shut the doors. In the mean time, I’d been planning for years to explore the commercial possibilities of my experience as founder of LibriVox – the open source audiobook-making community. That’s what Iambik Audiobooks is – an adaptation of the LibriVox model for commercial audiobooks.

So when we ran out of money with Book Oven, I jumped right into a new project, starting – we were getting lots of great feedback …

And then our Book Oven SRED appeal succeeded, and suddenly we had some money in the bank again.

I talked to my investors (Montreal Startup), and we agreed that I would do both the projects, and see where it all went.

I’m still struggling a bit with having two start-ups on the go. I don’t recommend that to anyone!

The problem is, they are both very promising.

NextMontreal: Why is PressBooks important? What’s the opportunity you’re focused on?

Hugh: Book production is broken right now, because it’s still focused on creating a print book, and then somehow generating an ebook. So ebooks are still an afterthought in production processes. But even more important, in the long run, is that those producing books aren’t yet even thinking about the web – which I’m certain will be the ultimate place that books will live.

So, the pitch is: PressBooks makes it easy to produce books in multiple formats simultaneously.

But there’s a kind of beautiful and beneficial Trojan Horse built into the PressBooks approach: it futureproofs a publishing endeavor by giving the ability (if one so chooses) to publish a book on the web as well.

NextMontreal: What’s the competition like?

Hugh: I guess there are big enterprise tools to handle book-production workflows, but no one really likes them, and big publishing houses are still sending PDFs to ebook conversion houses and getting their ebooks produced that way. It’s nuts, really.

There are a bunch of people starting to try to fix this problem, from different angles. Some of the other people taking a crack at this problem in various ways, include:

NextMontreal: Do you see PressBooks becoming your full-time project?

Hugh: Ha. Ask me in three months.

NextMontreal: So what’s the status of PressBooks right now? When will it launch? How will you fund it?

Hugh: We have a working alpha right now – but it’s still got a few problems. I expect we’ll have those worked out well enough to open PressBooks up in the next month or so (with caveats about software dev shedules).

As for funding: I’m so excited about PressBooks, I’m not even worrying about funding it right now. We have a little bit more gas in our tank, and when we need money, we’ll find it somewhere, I am sure.

NextMontreal: Evan Prodromou recently talked about turning Montreal into an Open Source Startup Hub – what do you think about that? What do you think about the challenges of monetizing an open source business?

Hugh: I think it’s a great idea, and the best way to achieve it is to start having some really successful open source start-ups in Montreal. That’s going to be my focus.

And I’ll do whatever I can to help out if there is a wider initiative.

NextMontreal: What’s the revenue model for PressBooks?

Hugh: Part of what we need to do in the next few months is settle on the best paths to create the most value in the universe. There are many directions we could go, because if we succeed in what we are trying to do, we are doing a few things of great value:

  • we’re making book production more efficient
  • we’re making it easier for anyone – a small publisher, a self-publisher or whatever – to publish a book
  • we’re bringing books onto the web as a by-product of an efficient and easy book production process

These are all very important things, so figuring out how to position ourselves to deliver the most value will be our focus, and from that
we’ll look at places where we might start generating revenues: Do we offer a basic SaS platform for free, with upgrades to access different tools? Do we take a slice of the pint-on-demand sales? Do we provide custom installs for bigger clients? There is a long list of etceteras.

Of course the basic software will be open source, but the point of PressBooks is that most people making books shouldn’t have to think
about the technicalities of generating a good .epub file – let alone installing something like PressBooks.

NextMontreal: Given the ups and downs you’ve faced with Book Oven and other projects, what’s the #1 thing you’ve learned about startups?

Hugh: The only thing that matters is Product-Market Fit.

And I’d define Product-Market Fit as: “building a product that your users love so much, they will tell other people about it.”

If you don’t make something that your users want to tell other people about, then you will not have a successful start-up. And everything else – fund-raising and marketing and meet-ups and democamps and good visual design and Twitter followers and TechCrunch or NYTimes mentions – don’t matter one bit.

The only thing that matters is making something that your users love.

Photo courtesy of C.C. Chapman.