An interview with Steven Kim, founder of edify.me which provides very well written summaries of business and personal improvement books. I think his summary of the Lean Startup is by far the best and most useful, I profiled it last year in “E-Book Summary for Lean Startup”
Founder Story: Steven Kim of edify.me
I’m the founder of edify.me, which summarizes non-fiction books, particularly on the subjects of business and personal improvement. The typical business book is 250 pages and takes about 4-5 hours to read. edify.me summaries are about 50-60 pages and take about 1 hour to read. The summaries roughly follow the pareto principle and try to compress 80% of a book’s knowledge in about 20-25% of the reading time.
I left my job in January of this year to pursue edify.me full time. Prior to that, I was a private equity investor for 12 years. I was a principal at a middle-market private equity firm that invested in small-to-medium-sized private businesses, usually with revenues between $10 million and $100 million. Investing gave me the opportunity to see many kinds of businesses in a wide range of industries, including consumer, media, manufacturing, energy and medical. I reviewed over 1,000 businesses, met with around 400 management teams, and invested in about 20 companies, observing how they performed over the years. Being a private investor allows tremendous access to information: discussions with CEOs, senior executives as well as access to strategic plans, detailed financial reports and operating metrics. Seeing a business up close provides a great perspective on what works and what doesn’t.
The last firm I worked for invested in branded consumer businesses, including apparel, cosmetics, furniture and other lifestyle products. Because I’ve always loved technology, I became the firm’s e-commerce expert, helping our businesses build e-commerce websites and grow marketing channels such as email, SEO, PPC, social media and content marketing. Working in e-commerce also gave me a chance to develop related skills in graphic design, coding, web analytics, blogging and copywriting – all skills that ended up being useful on my entrepreneurial journey. Over time, I realized I enjoy building business more than investing.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about what led you to found your company, what was the problem that motivated you?
I’ve always found business and personal improvement books profoundly helpful in my life and career. Books on business strategy, leadership and marketing helped me as an investor. Books on psychology, habits, willpower and organization have dramatically improved my health, productivity and happiness. Startup and marketing books have been tremendously valuable for my entrepreneurial journey.
But there are two key problems with learning from books which I am try to solve:
- There are too many great books, too little time. Many of us have a long list of books we want to read, but can’t find the 4-5 hours that each book requires. Most people I talk to read 1-2 books a year, but wish they could read 10-20.
- Many books have great ideas but are poorly written or are padded with filler.
- After reading a book, I had no easy way to review the information at a later time when it would inevitably start to fade from memory. Despite making highlights and extensive notes, I always found it cumbersome to review a book and therefore never did.
I tried using existing book summary products, but I found them too brief and superficial. They’re good enough for “cocktail party conversation” but completely inadequate if you’re seeking real learning. So that is why I created my own solution: in-depth summaries that cover 80% of the knowledge in a book in 20-25% of the reading time. The summaries are written as clearly and concisely as possible, which not only saves time, but also makes comprehension and turning ideas into action easier. Last, the summaries are neatly organized chapter-by-chapter with headings, subheadings, bullet points and lists to facilitate reviewing knowledge at a later time.
Q: How did you get started?
It took me forever to get started, and I wish I had started earlier. I had the idea for in-depth book summaries probably about 6 years ago, but did nothing about it, partly because I really enjoyed my job as an investor, and partly because I’m incredibly risk averse. I also have a wife and three kids to support, which naturally makes me more risk adverse.
About two years ago, I decided to test the idea by writing a couple summaries and self-publishing them on Amazon. This was my “MVP,” so to speak. Some of my friends found them helpful and asked me to write more. At the same time, my summary for “The Lean Startup” which I had published on Amazon became the best-selling, highest ranked summary of that book and began generating some meaningful revenue. When a few of my other summaries like “The Willpower Instinct” and “The Checklist Manifesto” also started doing well on Amazon, I knew I was onto something and I left my job at the beginning of this year to pursue edify.me full time, but only after I felt the value proposition was mostly proven.
Q: Can you give me a brief overview of where the company is today?
Right now I have 11 summaries completed, and they are published on Amazon, iBooks and Barnes & Noble. The business is bootstrapped, and I plan to continue writing and marketing the summaries until I have enough revenue to start hiring people and scaling up.
Q: Who is your target reader? Who do you visualize as getting the most value of an edify.me book?
I think anyone who reads business and non-fiction books can benefit from edify.me books summaries. Initially, I am targeting two categories: business (including leadership, entrepreneurship, strategy, marketing, etc.) and personal improvement (productivity, psychology, habits, willpower, etc.). There are two main reasons why people might read my summaries:
- To get most of the knowledge of a book while saving 3-5 hours of time.
- To review and refresh knowledge after having read the book.
The second benefit is how I personally use my own summaries. I often hear from customers that not only does the summary refresh knowledge that had faded from memory but also reveals important points that were missed upon the first read, and deepens understanding by putting ideas in a highly organized, structured form (e.g. bullet points and numbered lists) that make it easier to turn ideas into action.
Q: What are the two or three things that you have been able to accomplish that you take the most pride in or satisfaction from?
Not giving up.
The first summary I wrote took me about 6 months to write, and it was a painfully long process. That’s obviously not a scalable production model. But over time, I’ve made many improvements in my summary production process to make it scalable. Everyone says doing a startup is hard, but honestly I was unprepared for the level of difficulty. I’ve done a lot of challenging things in my life, but this is by far the hardest, and there have been many times when I’ve wanted to give up. But, I also take comfort in that doing something insanely hard means that it’s less likely that other people will be able to copy me which gives me a competitive advantage.
Also, it feels great to build something that people find valuable. My summaries consistently get 4-5 star ratings on Amazon and I constantly hear feedback from customers that my summaries are amazing and sometimes life-changing resources. I know that this sounds self-promotional (which it is). But knowledge from books has absolutely been life-changing for me and it feels great to be able to make that knowledge more accessible to others.
Q: What has been the biggest surprise? What was one key assumption you made, perhaps even unconsciously, that has caused the most grief?
Having a great product is only half the battle. The other half is marketing, sales and distribution. This is pretty common knowledge now in the startup community, and the main idea of the book Traction, by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares. But I had to learn the lesson the hard way. In the Amazon store, the best products don’t necessarily win, and many of my summaries did very poorly until I started to marketing. Nothing is worse than building a great product, and then having no one buy it. I think that goes for any marketplace, not just Amazon, but also for the Apple and Android app stores, course sites like Udemy, or crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. In the Amazon market place in particular, book sales usually either rise to the top or sink to the bottom; there’s very little middle ground.
Q: What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plan? How has your plan changed in response?
Initially, I was selling only in the Amazon store, and getting great traction both in domestic and international sales. Then Amazon made the decision to ban all book summaries in international store because some unscrupulous people were publishing “summaries” that were masquerading as the original book and deceiving customers. Amazon decided that it didn’t want to spend the effort to police international stores, so they just implemented a blanket ban. The decision took away 40% of my revenue overnight, which as you can imagine, was insanely frustrating. In response, I accelerated plans to launch in iBooks and Barnes & Noble which eventually made up the lost revenue. I also focused more efforts to build my email list so I have a direct relationship with my customers. The incident was a good reminder about the dangers of depending on a single sales or distribution channel.
Q: Any other remarks or suggestions for entrepreneurs?
- Give yourself as long a runway as possible. Everything takes longer to build, to scale, to market. You will run into problems along the way. I once spoke to guy who completely designed and built his dream house from scratch. He joked, “The way to estimate the cost of building a house is to get 3 estimates from contractors and add them all together.” I think the same thing applies to building a business. Estimate the time and cost of building your business and multiply it by 3 and you should be in the rough ballpark.
- Get good at juggling and prioritization. The hardest thing is managing a to-do list of 500 items, while being able to tackle only 1-2 meaningful items per day. You have to ruthlessly prioritize and figure out which handful of items have the greatest impact on the business, and ignore everything else. Most ideas go on my “someday / maybe” to-do list.
- Perfectionism is the enemy. This has been the hardest thing for me because I’m a perfectionist, and I struggle with this every day. I tend to spend way too much time on the details instead of just getting stuff done. You have to get comfortable doing things that are “good enough” and not perfect. Seth Godin says “Good enough means: Good. Enough.” Another relevant quote from Patton: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” In a startup, perfectionism hinders progress and is a massive liability.
- Think long and hard about your business model and market before you begin. Startups are hard enough, and ideally you want to start with the deck stacked in your favor. Here are 3 questions to ask yourself as you begin:
- Does my business idea already exist? If not, the odds are tremendously stacked against you. You need a really compelling good reason why you’re the first person to ever come up with a great business that doesn’t yet exist.
- How will I differentiate myself against the competition in a meaningful way? If your idea is good, you’re going to face competition, now or in the future. I’ve seen lots of startups launch that are just small improvements over existing products and services. In Zero to One, Peter Thiel states that your product should be 10x better than the competition. I don’t think that’s a hard rule, but I do think that your product should be at least 2-3x better. Without that kind of advantage, it’s an uphill battle.
- What will my business model look like? You don’t need to decide this right away, but some business models are much harder to execute or require significantly more capital than others. High-margin businesses and low-capital intensity businesses are always easier than the opposite.
- Seek out new ideas with an open mind. Your business stands a better chance if you are constantly incorporating ideas from the outside. This can come from reading articles or books, talking to others (friends, entrepreneurs, advisors), researching the competition, studying other successful businesses, etc. Keep an open mind. Instead of thinking, “This doesn’t apply to my business,” think “How can I apply this to my business?” When people give you an opinion or idea, chances are you will probably have already thought of it but don’t cut them off – let them talk, be receptive and positive, and use the time to ask questions, dig deeper and re-shape your existing ideas.
Steven Kim is a featured attendee at our Mountain View Breakfast on Fri-Oct-28 at 9am at Red Rock Coffee. He will discuss how he applied lessons from Cal Newport’s best-selling book, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in A Distracted World,” to double his work productivity while bootstrapping his startup, edify.me. Topics will include: two types of deep work (bimodal vs. rhythmic deep work), the pros and cons of each, and which is better suited for bootstrappers; tips to improve deep work habits to maximize productivity; tools to manage work environment and Internet distractions. A summary of Deep Work is also available from edify.me. See “Fri-Oct-28 Deep Work for Bootstrappers: How to Double Your Productivity” for a copy of Steve’s handout from his briefing the breakfast.
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