Wonderbly have built an audience of over 1.7 million people on Facebook and sold 3 million books worldwide. They did it all from scratch with virtually no connections in the publishing industry. We discuss, with co-founder Asi Sharabi, how their team developed the idea for their first book, how they’ve scaled, and what they’ve learned on their journey to becoming a household name.
Based in Hackney, London, Wonderbly has rocketed quickly as a well-known startup selling ‘impossibly personalized and wildly imaginative’ children’s books. Previously 'Lost My Name' (which is also the title of their first product), Wonderbly has recently undergone an exciting rebrand.
“We began as a product rather than a company. It was a side project between friends that took off in many wonderful ways. We started to understand the impact we were having based on the amazing feedback from our customers, and realised what we had was so much more than a book. That’s when we knew it was time to break away from calling our company after the first product that started it all. We expanded our portfolio to include more innovative books and consequently wanted to change our name.”
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Launching a rebrand is always nerve-wracking, out of fear that you might lose some of the loyalty that you gained with the original brand, but Wonderbly has a devoted following. Changing their name to Wonderbly will allow them to grow with a larger portfolio of products, rather than be limited by the (admittedly impressive) legacy of their first book.
A kitchen table idea
As a uniquely personal and imaginative business, Wonderbly has an equally interesting backstory. Founded by ‘three dads and an uncle’, as with most great ideas, it began with Asi’s dissatisfaction towards the products already available on the market.
“Lost My Name was born as a labour of love, as a side-project between friends. Five years ago I received a book with my daughter’s name in it, and the joy I felt at seeing my daughter’s name in a book lasted approximately two seconds. I realised how completely underwhelmed I was with everything about this book.
“Before that, I had been completely unaware of the category of personalized books, but they’ve been on the market for 40 years. They had been treated as a novelty item or a commercial gimmick, and they were never written by good authors or illustrated by great artists. They weren’t treated as a technology playground, unlike how our team thinks about them.”
Having the prerequisite vision and the drive, Asi enlisted several people he knew to form the original Wonderbly team.
“I called a couple of good friends who are now business partners. Tal is a technologist and operator, David is my co-founder and writer, and later we found Pedro. We started off at my kitchen table, thinking we could do something much better than the book I had received.
“We came up with the idea of having a book that is genuinely personalized, rather than slapping a child’s name on it. Every name tells a story, and every story is as unique and wonderful as every child. As soon as we had a really good idea of what the product would look like, we knew we were on to something. We felt so genuinely excited by it.
“From that moment, we embarked on this self-funded, self-published pet project. I call it a startup rather than a creative business because it was obvious to us from day one that this was what we were. Apart from the creative challenge of making a personalized book that doesn’t suck, there is quite a complex operational challenge that comes with a print-on-demand business. This made us a startup.”
Making the business a reality
Wonderbly has previously published a blog post on why being called a ‘personalized book publisher’ doesn’t really do them justice. Their own fantastic definition is:
“We are pioneering a new, thoroughly postmodern literary genre, rejecting certainty, embracing contingency, and jettisoning the traditional, fixed notions of authorship in favour of a plurality of voices, meanings and narrative outcomes.”
That means instead of naming a primary author of a publication who has ‘written’ the work, both the maker and the reader co-create their own book. They refer to this as metafiction, which also means the reader can influence the outcome of the work.
When purchasing a Wonderbly book, there are a significant number of variables customers can change, beginning with their name, but also including their gender, interests, location and favourite foods. Various combinations result in different narratives for each story, or the ‘impossible personalization’ that Wonderbly is famous for.
The operations behind this publishing feat are understandably complex, earning Wonderbly their classification as ‘full-stack startup’.
“From day one, we knew we had come up with a juicy and complicated business, operational and marketing challenge. We worked on it for nearly 18 months between full-time jobs, family and all the rest, then we put it out there. In the end, people absolutely loved it.
“We sold about 20,000 books in 2013 over the holiday season, which gave us a very positive sign that we were on to something. That figure went up to 300,000 the next year, then to over a million, and we’re still going.
“We didn’t know how big our idea would get when we sat around my kitchen table. The first 20,000 books we sold with zero marketing budget through word-of-mouth and some great PR, using some of the best bloggers out there.
“Once our idea proved to be quite successful we dropped everything and quit our jobs. Since then, we’ve been busy building our company.”
And that was just the beginning. Creating personalized books to the extent that Wonderbly makes them requires some pretty sophisticated code and back-end systems, and careful management of customer data.
“Every book we make is co-created by our customers so we need to capture their data. It’s only when you use our engine to create a book that we can print anything. We can’t make your book if you don’t first make it for yourself.
“We sell directly to our customers with an ecommerce solution. We also have a back-end interface with a printing provider to actually print the book, bind it and ship it. And of course we support the product in case anything goes wrong.”
Appealing to adults and children
The Wonderbly brand is powerfully and memorably communicated through recognizable colour schemes, copy, fonts and images. Quirky and humorous, Wonderbly appeals to both parents and children alike, as the best children’s fiction always does.
“For someone who doesn’t know anything about us, the unique and remarkable illustration style in our books makes us stand out. The eye fixates on visuals at first, and then people slowly understand just how sophisticated and deeply personal these books are. They can see how much care and craftsmanship has gone into them. When people appreciate the full breadth of our products, this creates a deeper relationship with our customers.”
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The sheer effort that has gone into their designs is breathtaking, in not only their printed books but also across social media and their website. It’s this strong visual character that makes Wonderbly such a memorable brand, and is made possible by their design team.
“We make ourselves stand out by staying true to the brand, thanks to our excellent design team. Aesthetics are an important part of it all, since we are a design company at the end of the day. To achieve success in your own designs, make sure you employ talented people who can make sure that each touchpoint corresponds meaningfully to its social media channel, and also stays true to the integrity of the brand.”
In 2014, Wonderbly gained funding from UK television’s Dragon’s Den, which showcases ideas from new entrepreneurs in front of a panel of investors. The company has now scaled to a large organization with around 100 employees. Asi shares three key factors that have played the biggest role in their success so far.
“You must have a product that people like that resonates with them. Having a strong emotional payoff is second to none and execution is everything. Then, even after making the best product on the market, you still have to work very hard to grow a business. You’ll have an easier ride than if you’d made just another product, which is not differentiated much from anything else in the market, or lacking a clear emotional payoff. In that case, you’d need to spend more money on marketing and advertising to generate interest, and you’ll have a harder time scaling your business.
“Secondly, you need marketing. Any practice, methodology or channel that you use is the way to progress with the right balance of art and science. There are so many clichés about advertising being the tax you pay if your product isn’t exciting enough, but think about how much money Apple pays advertising the iPhone. Even with a fantastic product, you still need to do some marketing to take it to scale. Very few products are so strong that they don’t need marketing.
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“Thirdly, choose the people you work with wisely, from the ones you hire to your co-founder. People are absolutely everything. Without the right people you wouldn’t be able to produce the best product or execute the most exciting marketing. Whatever operational complexity you have, you can only scale it with the right talent.
“To summarize: build the best product, do great marketing, and hire the best people that money can buy.”
That’s quite a tall order, but the genuine passion of Asi and his co-founders shows through in the Wonderbly brand. Only a tightly orchestrated team could pull off what they have so far, and this uncommon level of effort and commitment speaks for itself.
Their unique business model
No company can succeed without a viable business model, which is the way that your company plans to deliver value. In Wonderbly’s case, they have followed in the footsteps of a small handful of other startups by bringing the entire supply chain in-house.
“Our business model is what we call full-stack or vertically integrated. We see ourselves in an emerging family of startups that includes the likes of Warby Parker, Everlane or even Dollar Shave Club.
“Startups like ours take a product or a category that was historically very fragmented, with many parts that didn’t necessarily communicate with each other. The designers, creators, producers, makers and retailer were all different organizations. So, these startups, including Wonderbly, took their product and internalized the whole supply chain and customer journey. They owned the product, the Intellectual Property, and have a direct relationship with the customer.
“Our strong business model was not just internalizing or owning the customer journey, but also the fact that we are a zero inventory business with no stock or warehouses. We are 100% print-on-demand which helped us to scale very quickly. While you need a good business model or operational model, it still comes down to the strong product resonating with people.”
While many startups worry about growth, for others like Wonderbly, scaling comes with its own operational challenges. You might be selling lots of product, but that’s no good if you can’t keep up with demand. At best, your customers will be kept waiting for their order.
At worst, you might ship an inferior product or provide an inferior service, resulting in a negative impression of your brand. The key is to scale sustainably whilst gaining enough momentum needed for long-term growth, all of which Wonderbly has so far achieved.
In another exciting development, they’ve partnered with the Roald Dahl estate to produce a new personalized children’s book, portraying Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Wonderbly have cracked the secret to appealing to large numbers of parents eager to build their children’s confidence with magical books, and they’ve also drawn significant attention from tech capital Silicon Valley.
“We’re still not profitable as a business, so we’re raising money. In fact, we’ve recently closed a round of Series B funding. We’re a startup with a lot of promise, but also a lot of things to validate, especially with the scale we want to operate in. We have a scaleable business model, but we’re still at the beginning of the road with tons of challenges ahead.
“Funding can accelerate your growth but it should be there to take you to the point where you’re profitable, not sought for its own sake. Every business model is different in that it informs the type of funding you might be looking for, while at the same time dictating what will be available to you. There’s no magic formula here, except try to make more money than you spend!”
Combining creativity with technology
We tend to see the creative industries and technology industry as distinct fields, but Wonderbly shows that they can and should be fused together. Exciting results can occur when this happens.
“Every creative business is different and that’s what is unique about us. In my opinion, we have the best designers, storytellers, illustrators and creative coders who are all totally obsessed with creating the best personalized books in the world. Our books spark children’s imaginations, amazing them as well as their parents.
“Social media plays a big role in that we’ve always had a really healthy amount of word-of-mouth. We’ve always had a direct relationship with our customers, facilitated by either paid or organic social media. Social media has allowed us to scale quickly and build these close relationships.”
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Part of Wonderbly’s success has come from knowing their audience. That audience is also themselves: parents, grandparents, or anyone who knows a child whose development they sincerely care about.
“Wonderbly products are aimed at everyone with a child in their life. It can be your child, extended family or one in your social circle. Our customers will be in the market once or twice a year, maybe on a birthday or at Christmas, to buy a unique and beautifully executed gift for a child.
“We’re very interested in what we call the nurturers, who are mainly parents and grandparents that care deeply about child development. They want to leave a legacy through the personal impact that they have on their child.
“Our super fans are people who really believe in what we’re trying to do and will buy our books again and again. We want to help children understand or believe that every story they can imagine could be their story, and that they can do anything. This resonates with most parents, but some even more so.”
Taking care of business
With such an inspired and engaged customer base, Wonderbly still has to overcome its fair share of challenges, just like any other startup or business.
“Every month there’s a new challenge. As you grow and scale, each phase, product and chapter in your journey brings a different challenge to overcome.
“There are scaling pains as a result of scaling too fast, and sometimes creative or operational challenges. Building a business is a bloody difficult thing and it’s not for the faint-hearted.
“The challenges come from the scale of your ambition. Be prepared to be completely consumed with it, because if you don’t give 150% of yourself you won’t be able to build a global startup or business. If you’re looking to create something big that makes a dent on the universe, be prepared to work really hard for it.”
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Part of meeting any challenge is staying true to your values, which help you chart your course in the often storm-tossed seas of running a startup. Everyone on the team must live and breathe the same values, because they form your company culture.
“The values expressed in our very first book, Lost My Name, were courage, curiosity and kindness, and we decided to incorporate these into our company culture. One of the things we’re trying to demonstrate is that with a little courage, curiosity and kindness anything is possible, including finding the lost name.
“We’re always putting these values across in everything we do, internally and externally. We constantly think about our products and how we interact with each other.”
Having strong values and sticking to them is the force behind building a good business. So have courage, curiosity and kindness.
Wonderbly’s fascinating story shows that with a great product, engaging marketing, sustainable business model and strong values, magical things can happen. It’s anyone’s guess where they will take us next.