Working with Startups: Five Tips for Publishers

In Guest Contributors & Editorial by Guest Contributor

By Travis Alber

Startups are a hot topic in the publishing industry. As publishers overhaul products and pricing to better navigate the changing digital landscape, there’s a lot of chatter going on about how connecting with startups can drive publishing innovation. Panels at conferences, webinars, and publishing blogs everywhere are extolling the virtues of hitching a ride with experts in new technology.

Yet, despite this heightened interest by publishers, there isn’t a lot of partnering going on. There are a few reasons for this, the most obvious being the perception that working with a startup is too hard. This is a shame. There’s a lot to be gained for publishers. At its most basic level, partnering with a startup keeps publishers from having to do their own R&D, yet gives them access to cutting-edge, forward-thinking technology. Publishers can usually even get access to the people who had the vision and built the product, even brainstorm collaborative projects together.

The pain point in this equation revolves around publisher uncertainty: fuzzy concerns that startups are too risky, or specific fears that a startup might compromise IP, waste time, or disappear entirely. It’s possible these things might happen, but the benefits of working with a startup exist along a spectrum of successes. A lot of that success depends on kicking things off with the appropriate expectations. So, publishers, here’s a list of suggestions on how to work successfully with startups.

1. Focus on Metrics — Learn Something

What can you learn? Obviously there’s potential value in studying how readers interact with your content. Or how to make your process more efficient. Startups are fairly good at giving you some information, especially about what users are doing, albeit within the range of their Terms of Service. The publisher is lucky in this regard: you don’t need to hire technical talent and build a complex back end to learn something. You just have to partner up.

2. Keep it Simple

Partnering with a startup needs to be simple. Hopefully you have a little wiggle room to experiment in your organization without a 50 page legal document. Worried about risk? Limit your risk by limiting the content and access you’re giving a startup.

Simple also means using the product the startup has built. Don’t tweak too much. Use it, learn something, and maybe there’s a way to improve on the relationship in the future, at which point you can outline what features you’d like to see.

3. Partner on a Project-By-Project Basis

A project doesn’t need to be huge to learn something. In fact, the initial run shouldn’t require any large-scale integration. Pick three titles or five authors and experiment. As long as there’s not too much setup work on your end, it shouldn’t be too invasive.

4. Set a Three-Month Timeframe

Publishers and startups have a different sense of time. As a publisher, you’ve probably taken a year to deliver a single product. But startups usually build their entire business in under 9 months (that cutting-edge expectation requires speed). Moreover, unless it’s extremely well-funded, a startup will wait to approach you until a limited version of the product is ready to go. In short, when a startup approaches you, they’re usually ready Right Now. Often they can launch your project in a matter of weeks, and they’re hungry to do so. Making a quick decision and launching something within a few months is the best way to make something happen.

This difference in timing means that checking in every few months to “see how things are going” doesn’t get you anywhere. Nor does asking who else a startup is working with. It’s about being focused and launching something quickly. Why? For a startup, it comes down to validation. Validation is really important, especially if a startup is burning cash every month while they try to build up customers. If startups don’t get interest from customers, they pivot — they tweak their service. If you’d like to use a technology, sooner rather than later is really important. If no one signs up, the startup is going to continue to change either the business model or the product until a few customers bite. Partners (aka publishers) are a startup’s stepping stone to users, investment, press, and proof they’re on the right track, and they need to do that now.

5. Negotiate

For a startup, setting the price of a service is always a little educated guesswork. If the pricing is completely wrong, tell the founders. Explain why the price is too high, and what you’d be willing to pay. This is different than just being cheap. Asking for free services from a struggling startup is ridiculous — obviously they need some cash flow to stay in business (and if you wanted to work with them in the first place, you must see some value in what they offer). Announcing the partnership will be paramount for the startup, so leverage that a little, but be fair in terms of payment.

If you’re a publisher, you can get a lot of technical mileage out of partnering with a startup. If things work out, you can later build on those same projects. Keeping few guidelines in mind will make a huge difference: look for experiences you can learn from, keep it simple and small, move forward quickly, and be upfront about your pricing expectations. Finally, don’t forget to enjoy the thrill of innovating with your own content!

Travis Alber is a NY-based entrepreneur focused on publishing innovation; her latest startup, ReadSocial, offers publishers a way to add paragraph-level discussions and reading groups inside their ebooks. Although she’s based in NYC, she has been working for 15 years on both coasts on a number of web, e-book and mobile-related projects. She recently contributed to Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto: A Collection of Essays from the Bleeding Edge of Publishing (O’Reilly). For publishing and startup news, follow Travis at @screenkapture.

DISCUSS: Publishers, What’s Been Your Experience Working with Startups?

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.