This is a follow up story for Rebel Book Club. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published about 2 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
Hello. I’m Ben Keene, co-founder of Rebel Book Club.
Rebel Book Club helps people accelerate their reading habits, learning, and connections. Every month we read 1 x non-fiction book, learn together and make positive changes in our own and others’ lives. Since 2015 we’ve read 65 books as a club, and have held monthly meets in 6 cities.
Since COVID the club has gone 100% digital and we’ve seen a lot of engagement, especially March - June this year.
Our subscription revenue is holding up at around £10,000 MRR.
2020 has been interesting and challenging with membership churn rates increasing (people are missing the in-person meets) and new subscription numbers slowing (non-essential budgets tightening). But for those that have spent time with us during this period, we seem to make a positive impact and we’ve got lots of exciting projects and new features dropping in the coming months.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
At the end of 2019, we’d reached 800 active subscribing members and just raised our first crowdfund of £140,000 for 12% equity in the business.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to build something big or extraordinary. Start small, keep it simple, enjoy the journey, and share what you’re trying to do.
Membership grew nicely in January and February as we started testing social ads and adding more content around our monthly themes and books with our newly recruited, talented lean team. We reached 1000 subscribing members on March 1st and were about to roll out several new RBC cities when lockdown happened.
We quickly switched our meets online, making sure they mirrored our in-person events as much as possible with a live ‘stage’ with hosts, authors, and theme experts + chat roulette style networking (one-to-one video chats with other members), break out sessions by city or topic and ‘cocktails from your cupboard’ so members could mix something simple and fun at home!
We used Hopin.to as a platform for the events which has worked well (once you get used to moving guests on and off the ‘stage’) and engagement was high, especially March to June.
During the lockdown, we even ran a daily ‘Rebel Book Pub’, a 6 pm video chat space for members to hang out in.
We offered members the opportunity to switch to our cheaper ‘remote’ membership - which was quite a big admin task but was appreciated. About 35% of our members chose this option over the following 3 months.
During the lockdown, we also generated some positive PR in the Evening Standard, BBC 5 Live, BBC News, iNews, & Time Magazine. The demand for reading had gone up, although it felt like fiction was the big trend as people escaped their 24/7 homelife beyond Netflix.
As great as the online engagement, deeper dives into the themes and books, and community support was, however, we also lost about 10% of our membership in March/April. Those that connected with us explained that they were simply cutting all non-essential subscriptions.
The challenge for us was clear: could we make an RBC membership essential?
By the end of June, our conversion and churn had got back to parity and things were looking positive as we invested in a better CRM and membership management tool kit. But as lockdown eased and the summer began, people understandably spent more time outside and a general ‘zoom fatigue’ (not necessarily from our events), combined with the beginning of the recession led to a new wave in membership cancellations. We’ve received lots of lovely notes from long-term members saying how much ‘they love RBC’ but miss the in-person meets or were ‘struggling to focus on reading with everything going’.
Early September and we’re seeing a little ground being regained and our new onboarding tests signposting what’s happening over the coming months is bring in new members with the ‘back to school/autumn season’ vibe. But I don’t see this as completely the downward turn, especially with furlough ending and the recession imminent. We’re currently building out a refreshed growth plan that will bring an exciting new membership experience - especially around making connections with others in the community.
With an electric bit of PR last week in the Standard Newspaper: ‘Inside the Coolest Book Club on Instagram’ we’re seeing some momentum return!
Three projects that have developed beyond our core membership experience in this period that is exciting:
We joined the Facebook Community Accelerator which has been positive in terms of building a network of like-minded ambitious community leaders, extra funding, coaching, and support (+ led to the article with the Standard :).
Galvanised by reading Invisible Women we looked into our own (club and community) reading biases and wrote a report: How We Choose What We Read
We made a podcast series with a unique brand and several awesome RBC authors - launching this Autumn
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
The upside of running a small startup/community is that you can pivot quickly. We were able to do this during lockdown for a couple of days and it potentially saved us.
We’ve worked harder than ever and yet lost more members than we’ve gained. So having a small, flexible, committed team helped when I was finding it hard (after several years of organic growth).
So many great interactions at our online meets with experts, authors, and members that we may otherwise have missed as a collective community if we were still doing our local city meets. The quality of our club learning as increased!
How many people are fans, supporters even when they stop spending money with you? This can be frustrating but you have to trust that they will return at the right time or bring more people back.
That our community is awesome, and now global - connected with so many great people this year and now with members joining from around the world the insights and learnings get even stronger.
That cocktail mixing can still happen at a digital book club!
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
Our first ‘Broadcast Meet’ end of September - a kind of live lounge TV show format, let’s see what happens!
Special Podcast Series with a unique brand launching October.
The first version of a reading + action tracker for our members.
Refreshed Membership Offering.
Too far away!
Have you read any good books in the last year?
The top 3 most impactful books we’ve read at RBC this year have been
Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas
“An intense, first-hand tour of the horror of the real world of fashion followed by a much more hopeful journey meeting the innovative and passionate leaders of the future of the industry. Engaged our members and galvanized lots of action. Dana was wonderful on our first podcast episode too.”
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
“Invisible Women shows us how, in a world largely built for and by men, we are systematically ignoring half the population. It exposes the gender data gap a gap in our knowledge that is at the root of perpetual, systemic discrimination against women, and that has created a pervasive but invisible bias with a profound effect on women’s lives.”
Rise Up by Stormzy
“Rise Up gives you the inside scoop of Stormzy’s journey to stardom from the streets of Croydon to headlining Glastonbury. It showed me the level of dedication and raw emotion that goes into passion projects like an album and how to build a movement around a disruptor brand like #Merky.” Tom, RBC member
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
It’s heavy out there. Use this moment to be creative, explore ideas, and immerse yourself in potential customers’ worlds to better understand them. Don’t put pressure on yourself to build something big or extraordinary. Start small, keep it simple, enjoy the journey, and share what you’re trying to do.
The UK is an amazing place to test ideas and start a small business. The barriers are low, it’s cheap and there are a lot of support networks. In terms of demand, there’s an increasing willingness to support small businesses. But we are heading into a recession, so we need to create smart solutions - including bringing joy to the challenges all kinds of people are facing.
Many small businesses now need financial, strategic, and emotional support that they didn’t a few months ago. So loan providers, mentorship, and expert guidance are all in demand.
The short answer to should I start something: if you’re motivated, yes! The longer answer is: it depends on your circumstances like time, finances, and health - and what you’re trying to start.
Those who have been made redundant or furloughed have time to explore new projects and ideas. The hiatus is a chance to try – as low risk as possible – something you’ve been putting off or that has slid into view as the world has changed.
Where can we go to learn more?
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