“‘You really can respect your customers and succeed in business.’ He then, equally passionately shared the joy that comes from providing jobs for employees, putting food on their tables, and showing them that you care.”
The May 2016 issue of MinistryTech featured Kris Austin, co-founder of Draft2Digital.
In this article series, we’ve defined a Christian entrepreneur as: a person, driven to glorify God in all he does, and ruled by the Word of God, who starts a new venture and is willing to risk a loss in order to achieve the success of the venture. Each month I’ve been introducing you to specific Christian startups and entrepreneurs, some of which may be helpful to your church, ministry, business, or family, but my main intent is to encourage and inspire you to be entrepreneurial in your ministry and career.
This month I’d like to introduce you to Kris Austin. Kris is co-founder and CEO of Draft2Digital, an online business that helps authors get their books published. The company announced their service on the last day of 2012. Today, less than three and a half years later, they have helped more than 20 thousand authors publish more than 80 thousand books which have sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. They have grown from Kris as the only employee at the beginning of 2013 to 15 full time employees today. The business is focused on treating their customers well and has been profitable enough to be entirely self-funded, and has been able to provide support to the owners’ churches and a variety of ministries. That doesn’t mean that the journey has been lacking in “sanctifying opportunities”.
Four College Buddies
Kris graduated from Oklahoma Christian University in 2004 with a degree in Computer Science. Over the years, he kept in touch with many of his college friends, including fellow CS grads Toby Nance and Sean Sanders [is this the right Sean?], and English major Aaron Pogue.
Each enjoyed success in their diverse career paths, but Aaron ran into a roadblock in achieving his dream of publishing his first novel and turned to his computer buddies for help. The major publishing houses had turned down his book, and when he turned to the opportunity to self-publish through the eBook markets, he found the existing tools hard to use and frustrating to navigate.
Toby quickly developed a script to quickly and easily take a manuscript, like Aaron’s, and turn it into a distribution-ready eBook file. As they talked about it with their friends, they started to get a vision for a service to do the same for all the other aspiring, but frustrated, authors out there. In March 2012, they formed the Draft2Digital business, but it wasn’t until Kris quit his job in August of that year to become employee #1, that they really started making traction on the web-based system that they would launch at the end of that year. The rest, as they say, is history. (By the way, Aaron’s fantasy novel became a bestseller and he has followed it up with six other fantasy and sci-fi novels, with several projects currently in the works.)
I recently asked Kris to share his experiences launching Draft2Digital with my Christian Entrepreneurs group at Oklahoma Christian. He started by sharing the four things that he said that every entrepreneur needs to know.
Kris shared that every startup need to know your industry. Kris and his programming buddies didn’t know the book publishing industry when they started, but they needed to learn quickly. The traditional industry had worked the same way for over a century, dominated by a small number of publishers (the “Big 5”) who controlled which books reached the shelves in bookstores. Then, in 2007, Amazon introduced the Kindle and disrupted the industry. Several other eBook publishing platforms followed Amazon’s lead including Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Google. These moves opened the publishing world for authors to credibly self-publish, but there are technical issues and distribution issues that make it complex for authors.
Kris said that it’s critical to also know your customer. For Draft2Digital, the customer they sell their service to is the author. Authors just want to write. They don’t want to be in the publishing business. They don’t want to be layout designers or marketers or distribution negotiators, and yet self-publishing requires all of these activities. Before Draft2Digital launched, others had already pioneered the author assistance space, which leads into the third “know” – know your competition. Kris and company recognized that their primary existing competitor had certain admirable traits and strengths, but that it wasn’t fully meeting the needs of authors. That understanding allowed Draft2Digital to focus on the specific author-centric activities and attributes that would set them apart for their target market.
Finally, Kris emphasized that you need to know your plan. As a self-funded startup, the company fully leveraged the Lean Startup methodology, launching their MVP (minimal viable product) at the end of 2012 and then iterating rapidly based on real customer engagement. They knew what set them apart, so they kept their product simple, not confusing customers with too much information and too many options. They also played to their strengths. As Kris said, “we’re programmers” – so they used software to automate and simplify whenever possible.
Two Darks and Two Lights
In his talk, Kris also shared what he called “the dark side of publishing,” “the light side of publishing,” “the dark side of business,” and “the light side of business.” (Kris joked that it is obvious that science fiction is his favorite genre.) Space is limited in this article, so I can’t recount all of these experiences here, but a couple of “sanctifying experiences” are worth sharing.
One thing that Kris and team learned with their MVP offer is how quickly sin can creep in. The day they launched, scammers started automatically generating books violating the copyrights of others and taking advantage of the Draft2Digital platform to get them published. Kris and team had to find a way to identify these and shut them down.
The next challenge was with erotica. Kris quickly learned that more than half of the revenues in the publishing industry come from “romance” novels and other forms of erotica. The company had to develop a system to automatically detect and categorize different genres of content to be able to appropriate handle each kind. Software freed them from having to read this and other dangerous content themselves.
On the light side, Kris talked about the impact on others. He praised God for first helping authors realize their dreams, and then helping them make a living. Draft2Digital has been able to provide some authors with six-figures in royalty payments. He particularly emphasized the joy that comes from showing authors the respect that they deserve. “You really can respect your customers and succeed in business.” He then, equally passionately shared the joy that comes from providing jobs for employees, putting food on their tables, and showing them that you care.
It sounds like Draft2Digital is living out the Golden Rule. Jesus said “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). I hope that some of the lessons that Kris shared can be a blessing to you as you consider how to act as a Christian entrepreneur wherever God has placed you.