It was a bad habit.
One tap on Amazon and — bang! — there it was on my Kindle or my doormat the next day. I’d fleetingly read a review or even just a blurb and my subconscious key words, curiosities, or aspirations had been piqued and slapped me ‘round the face, and before I’d considered a sensible swipe-by, it was too late.
I’d become a heavy user, buying non-fiction books at quite a clip. But the problem was not so much the cost — at most I was spending £20 a month — which I saw as a solid investment in potentially two to three life-changing reads. The problem was that I couldn’t get past page 100 (or 25%) of almost any of the books I’d bought.
The Japanese actually have a word for this: Tsundoku. It refers to the constant act of buying books but never reading them. Specifically, it is letting books pile up in one’s room so much that the owner never gets a chance to read all of them.
I had a serious bout of tsundoku. In fact, it felt terminal.
But were the books that bad? No. It was me, not them. I just couldn’t build the momentum you sometimes need with non-fiction to beat that tricky quarter milestone without being sucked back into the nirvana of book browsing and delivery. I was just about able to get through two books every six months, and most of those were power reads on long journeys about real-life adventurers whose stories carried me through.
Now, I’m sure you can agree that not being able to finish a good book is up there with some of the world’s biggest problems. It was a problem in need of a solution. So when several years and a lot of unread books later I bumped into another version of myself with the same problem, we decided to do something about it.
Two Bens go to Bali and start a book club…
His name was also Ben. He’s a genuine lifehacker (5am Clubs, multiple startups, all over Snapchat). We met amongst the bamboo, MacBooks, and monkeys at Tribewanted Bali and soon realized that we shared the same colossal Kindle curse of unfinished quality reads.
Ben quickly proposed that we pick a book and a date within a month and commit to reading it, and celebrate our successful completion with a book-inspired cocktail and debate.
Knowing that I was going to have to talk about it, I devoured Zero to One by Peter Thiel and, a few weeks later, a dozen of us gathered around the candlelight of one of Ubud’s finest cafes where we shared a feisty conversation about “the age of the startup” and “owning your niche,” and, even better, a Zero to One-themed cocktail: a mojito with a chili edge. Rebel Book Club was born. Returning to London, Ben and I committed to doing this every month — one book, one meetup, one cocktail — and we decided to invite people to join us.
The first product
We tested the idea pretty quickly and thought it had enough legs to charge a monthly £15 subscription fee, which covers:
- 1 non-fiction book
- 1 inspiring meetup
- 1 custom cocktail inspired by the book, served at the meetup by our friends at Mix & Muddle
We launched in May 2015 and had 24 paying members, a number of whom I now consider good friends! We drank rum cocktails on the roof of Virgin HQ in London to talk about Happiness by Design by Paul Dolan. Rebel Book Club had begun!
A year later we had 104 paying members and enough leverage to reach out to some bigger authors and actually get a response.
A few emails later, I ended up meeting Ryan for a coffee while he was over in London, and he kindly joined our meetup via Skype from the US for a private Q&A after we read his book in August 2016.
In truth, we didn’t have the bandwidth to invest heaps of time into the project. We kept the formula simple, and while it was small, we continued to grow month over month via word of mouth with zero money spent on marketing. (To this day, we’ve spent very little on marketing — less than £1,000 over four years — just focusing on word of mouth to sustain and grow.) After running a couple of workshops at festivals on “how to get maximum value from badass books,” we were asked to talk at a TEDx event.
Things were starting to feel pretty legit.
Our usual distribution channel was via Amazon vouchers, giving members the freedom to redeem Kindle or paperback versions of our monthly book. But we were drawn to distributing physical books a few times, partly because we had enough scale to negotiate wholesale prices directly with publishers, and partly because we thought a physical book turning up in a branded envelope could take the member experience to the next level. We learned quickly that physical distribution, for us, was too time consuming and added a pile of customer service challenges if the book didn’t arrive as intended. Part of me still thinks that one day we may revert back to this method and get it right, but for now, we decided to leave it to Bezos and the professionals over at Amazon.
Up and to the right
Ben and I were both working hard on other businesses and Albert was just what we needed. He was already a popular member within RBC and stepped up to head up all things related to member happiness. Ultimately, he kept things running behind the scenes and, in true side-hustle fashion, also managed to work full-time, play a key role within a charity, and churn out ultra marathons all over the world. The guy is a beast and we will always be grateful for his support. On a good month, we’d meet twice as a team, once for breakfast around the corner from Albert’s office and again on the last Tuesday of each month at our meetup. We were getting stronger, but things were still a little reactive rather than proactive and last-minute by nature. In hindsight, we probably missed some opportunities to double down and grow faster, but we always managed to keep things on track by keeping the basics consistent.
We got asked to speak for TEDx again and Dojo blogged about us out of the blue, which supercharged applications that month.
In January 2018, we had 159 paying members and £2,385 in monthly recurring revenue. In May of this year, we celebrated our third birthday with our usual recipe of forward-thinking conversation and cocktails (plus some cake).
In the second half of 2018, we doubled our membership after I worked remotely for six months and focused on improving the membership experience.
As of today, we have exactly 570 paying members and £10,500 in MRR. We are growing steadily but our churn rate is a little higher than we’d like, and our insights suggest this is predominantly down to people not always being able to make the meetups.
Challenge #1 is figuring out how to give members enough value for their £15 investment that they feel delighted with our service, even if they can’t make the meetup.
We’ve conquered 50 books across a diverse set of themes, created 50 amazing custom cocktails, and read over five million pages so far. We’re running RBC in Oxford, Bristol, Barcelona, and Berlin. Challenge #2 is how to we scale things beyond London. There is no reason why we can’t have hundreds or thousands more people reading the same book at the same time across different cities and countries.
Challenge #3 is maintaining a position as the market leader in this space as we grow. There have been a few imitations and there will no doubt be more. How do we hold on to what makes us special now? What are we holding on to now that we should drop? What else can we do better as a brand?
For now, we’ve started a fundraiser to put a team together and grow our membership to 10,000 over three years.
New learnings from a tried-and-true model
Being cash-flow positive from day one is critical. It wasn’t much but it meant we didn’t have to worry about putting in our own money. We didn’t pay ourselves anything for the first two years but it’s never really felt like a job.
Keeping the model simple, light, and fun has also been key. It’s all about the books and the community (and the cocktails). That’s the foundation we start from for each meetup as we figure out how to build something new and unique each month.
Complimentary book recommendations 🙂
We’re all about the books!
It’s hard to choose but the three that have stuck with me are:
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge
- The 100-Year Life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott
- And a good one for startups: This Is Marketing by Seth Godin
If you'd like to learn more about what we read at RBC, here is our full library.
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