Nathan Bashaw

@nbashaw

A New Focus for Hardbound: Books.

We’re creating 5-minute, illustrated stories based on the most fascinating books in business, history, and science.

TL;DR

  • We love books. You love books. But let’s be honest: books are a huge commitment of time and energy.
  • When you have a spare five minutes, it’s far easier to check Twitter (or, your dopamine lottery of choice) than it is to crack open a book. But when you’re done, you often feel kind of empty inside. (At least I do.)
  • With Hardbound, you can read a fun, illustrated story based on a great non-fiction book in just 5 minutes—long enough to learn something and feel great about it, but short enough to fit in your day.
  • These aren’t exactly “summaries.” In our opinion, book summaries tend to be dry and boring. They try to cram everything into a short space, which gives you a lot of facts but zero feeling. Our goal is to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
  • Part of how we do this is good old-fashioned storytelling. We put a lot of love into everything we publish. But, if you’re not familiar with Hardbound, our unique “tap story” format is really the secret sauce. You can try an example here.
  • We pick books based on how good we think they are, and how much impact they make on the culture. Every story we publish is based on a book we would recommend buying.
  • We hope by giving people a viable alternative to social media, we can make the world a little more curious, loving, and brave. We hope people use it to become the best, smartest versions of themselves.

That’s the gist of it! If you want, download our new app and kick the tires. You can also get notified whenever we release a new story (currently 1–2 per week) by typing in your email below.

Want to know the backstory of how we decided to work on this?

Keep reading…

Six months ago, when we launched the first version of Hardbound, we only had a couple months of cash left in the bank. It was clearly a “do or die” moment. I’ll never forget how nervous I felt walking into the office early that morning to meet Joe. I could hardly eat anything.

If you could go back in time and tell me what would happen in the next six months, I don’t think I would have believed you:

  • Somewhere around a quarter of a million people read our stories, tapping through over 14 million pages.
  • Our stories get an unheard-of 67% completion rate on average. That’s around five minutes of undivided attention.
  • We were #1 on Product Hunt — and runner-up for “App of the year”
  • Fast Company named us one of the top 10 apps of 2016
  • Apple featured us as one of the “best new apps,” and said that our stories are “so well designed we didn’t want to stop.”

Not bad! It was at least enough to help us solve that cash problem 🤑

A Hardbound story about our experience in Techstars

Now, the bad news.

There were three huge problems with our model:

Problem #1 — Unscalable story creation.

Until recently, the process went something like this: every week, I set my hair on fire trying to research, write, and design a good story. Don’t get me wrong — I love making Hardbound stories—but it’s hard! And I can’t do it by myself.

Looking back, I think this was the perfect stepping stone towards building a proper story team — but clearly it was just a stepping stone :)

Problem #2 — Unclear value proposition.

Lots of people called Hardbound “hard to explain.” This is not a good sign. Our data clearly showed that the people who managed to get into it really loved it, but we knew that many people tended to churn out early because they didn’t see enough value in our content. Some people were down to read random stuff by random people they’ve never heard of in a unique format—but most weren’t.

Problem #3 — Lackluster distribution strategy

Because people love our format, we were able to generate a decent amount of buzz. (Apple featured us, we got written up in TechCrunch, Fast Company, Mashable, etc.)

But that stuff comes and goes. Without a clear, easy-to-explain value proposition, word of mouth growth was somewhat limited. Our stories got pretty good viral growth online, but conversion into our app was minimal. We needed to give people a better reason to download.

So, we decided to fix it.

The first step was to apply to Techstars. We knew we had to make a change, and we could think of no better place to do it. I am so happy we got in, because as I said in my previous post, the experience here has been amazing. They have really created a special environment.

It’s like X-Men, where we’re all here because there we have some “weird magic” that we don’t fully understand yet, and can’t fully control. And they teach us how to wield our powers for good.

The moral equivalent of the Techstars Boulder office

After dozens of mentor meetings, hundreds of Hardbound user interviews, and a couple nights of painful soul-searching, we finally settled on an answer that felt right: books.

Not only does a focus on books feel right from a business perspective (more on that shortly), but it was something the team is deeply passionate about. It harkens back to the original inspiration for the company, when I left my job nearly 2 years ago to start experimenting in this space. Truthfully, the goal of Hardbound is not to make a bunch of money. Cash is just a means to achieving our vision, which is to create a smarter, better world by using technology to create more engaging reading experiences.

If we’re just another shitty clickbait company, or another boring social app that leaves you feeling empty when you’re done, what’s the point? The whole reason we wanted to start the company is that we thought it was possible to build something more fulfilling!

But it’s not just our hearts that this new focus satisfies—we think it’ll also be much better for our metrics. Here’s why:

Solution #1 — Scalable story creation

One of the first things we did this year was to shut down pretty much everything so we could rebuild it from scratch. It sucked, but it was also liberating. We killed The Nightcap, because although some people really loved it, we knew it would be better to focus on evergreen content than try and compete in the noisy news space. We killed our super-expensive SMS list, and hired a designer instead.

With that out of the way, we had the resources to build a proper story team and move beyond me setting my hair on fire every week. We’ve been working together as a team for the past several weeks and it’s honestly been awesome. I’ll write another post detailing our process for creating stories, and our learnings, but now I know exactly how we could scale the team to create 10x the content that we are today.

But we might not even need to do that! Because our new focus (books) is a natural fit for a marketplace. From our conversations with authors and publishers, it’s clear that there is a willingness and ability to pay for great content that helps sell book copies. From our early data, we’re extremely confident we will help sell a lot of books. So now we have a natural market of people who would be willing to create Hardbound stories themselves, or at least pay for the creation of Hardbound stories.

One idea we had is to create a marketplace where businesses who want Hardbound stories created could hire writers and designers to build one for them.

If any of this sounds interesting to you (to create Hardbound stories in exchange for money, or to hire us to create a Hardbound story for you, or to create a Hardbound story for yourself) sign up for the marketplace beta here!

A scene from our origin story, in which a VC confidently makes a suggestion. VCs: I still love you, and all of your suggestions! Just giving you shit :)

Side note about user-generated content:

One idea that VCs love to suggest is that we should build a simple tool for users to create their own Hardbound stories in 30 seconds from inside the app.

Of course, they have a point—it would be awesome if we could get great content for free! And to be clear, we do plan on opening up the platform when the time is right.

But to focus on casual, 30-second user-generated content would fundamentally change the purpose of the app from storytelling to communication. And since quality writing / design are acquired skills that most people do not have, and I can’t think of a good reason why people would want to do casual communication in this format, I’m extremely skeptical that it would work.

Plus, there’s this: I’m bored of social apps.

There are enough of those, in my opinion. What the world lacks is special, high-quality, interactive storytelling — stuff that makes you smarter without boring you. Not another vanity-indulging waste of time.

So we’re not going to allow ourselves to be distracted by trying to cargo cult the tactics that worked for social apps. That’s not to say that we’re always and forever going to create all the content on Hardbound. Quite the opposite! Our goal is to empower motivated creators and build a sustainable revenue model for them.

Solution #2 — Clear value proposition

This is what I’m most excited about with our new focus. All of our traction so far (which, let’s be honest, is not that bad!) has been the result of our old value proposition (which, let’s be honest, is not great).

We’re going from “stories about random, interesting things in a cool visual format, created by someone you’ve never heard of” to “learn the gist of the most interesting & important non-fiction books in a cool visual format”.

Much easier to explain, right?

Eventually we definitely plan on returning to original content. When we’re further along the growth curve, we’ll start commission “Hardbound originals” using a model kind of like Netflix’s (but way cheaper). But the strategy of creating stories based on bestselling non-fiction books is a pretty great initial wedge, because it allows us to “aggregate” content that there’s already a lot of market demand for, while transforming it into an easier format. Of course, we don’t replace books — 0ur stories are more substitutes for social media than full books — but we think the audience for most books is 100x smaller than it could be, simply because of all the friction involved in the process of purchasing, reading, and sharing.

Solution #3 — Awesome distribution strategy

Before, the only people who had an incentive to share our content was us. We were incredibly lucky to get the amount of buzz and press we did, and I think most of the credit goes to the format. The content, if anything, held back growth.

Now, we’re aligning ourselves with the interests of authors and publishers. We released stories based on two books (“I Contain Multitudes” and “The Righteous Mind”) and the authors of both books retweeted our stories within 24 hours.

This was an exciting moment for us!

We’re starting to get access to books before they launch (stay tuned for our adaptation of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s upcoming book 😉) and believe if we play our cards right, we can become a part of the book launch. News outlets can embed our stories in the articles they write about new books, and get their readers to engage 5–10x longer.

Also, historically, 4 out of our top 5 stories were based on books. They tend to be our most-shared content.

It makes sense, if you think about it: books are great.

In Conclusion…

We’ve been hard at work on this for some time now, and as always our number one motivation is to make you feel amazing through stories, and build a great, sustainable business in the process.

If you like what we’re working on, it would help a ton if you could share this post, or tell friends about our app. 🙏🏼

Thanks so much to Joe, Will, Molly, and Erik — I am so proud of what we’re building together and couldn’t imagine doing it without you. Our collaboration has honestly been the most fun and productive of my entire working life, and we’re just getting started.

Also, a huge thank you to all the investors who have partnered with us to bring Hardbound to life: Brad, Dan, Jason, Greg, Hiten, Matt, Peter, John, Justin, Ben, Christina, Anthony, Natty, and Julie — every day I am thankful for you and reminded how lucky we are to be working with you.

Onward! We’re just getting started 😄

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