Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello. We’re Ben Keene and Ben Saul-Garner.
We met on a startup programme that one of us was leading in Bali in 2015. Discovering we both had a lot of similar non-fiction titles on our kindles, often no further than 20% read, we decided to do something about it. This was the beginning of Rebel Book Club.
51 books, 570 subscribing members and £10,000 in MRR later and we’ve not only solved our own bad reading habits but helped a lot more people dive into different topics and share their thoughts with each other.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
It was a bad habit. Buying books and not finishing them...
One tap on Amazon, and bang, there it was on my kindle or my doormat the next day. I’d fleetingly read a review or even just a crunching blurb and my key words, curiosities or aspirations had slapped me round the face and before I’d considered a sensible swipe-by it was too late.
I’d become a heavy user. Buying non-fiction books at quite a click. But the problem was not so much the cost — at the most I was spending £20 a month — which I saw as a solid investment in potentially 2–3 life-changing reads. The problem was I couldn’t get past page 100 (or 25%) of almost all of the books I’d bought.
The Japanese even have a word for this:
“Tsundoku, the constant act of buying books, but never reading them.Specifically, it is letting books pile up in one’s room so much that the owner never gets a chance to read all of them.”
I had a serious bout of Tsundoku. In fact, it felt terminal.
But were the books that bad?
No. It was me, not them. I just couldn’t build the momentum you sometimes need with non-fiction to beat that tricky quarter milestone without being sucked back into the nirvana of book browsing and delivery. I was just about getting through two books every six months and most of those were power reads on long-journeys about real-life adventurers whose peril-driven stories carried me through.
Now I’m sure you can agree that not being able to finish a good book is up there with most of the world’s biggest problems. So, several years and a lot of unread books later, I bumped into another version of myself and we decided to do something about it.
Two Ben’s go to Bali and start a book club…
His name was also Ben. He’s a genuine lifehacker (5am clubs, multiple startups, all over SnapChat). We met amongst the bamboo, macbooks and monkeys at Tribewanted Bali and soon realised we shared the same colossal Kindle curse of unfinished quality reads.
Quickly Ben proposed we pick a book and a date within a month and commit to reading it and celebrate with a book inspired cocktail and debate.
Knowing that I was going to have to talk about it I devoured Zero to One by Peter Thiel and a few weeks later a dozen of us gathered around the candle-light of one of Ubud’s finest cafe’s — The Onion Collective (Temple of Chill)— where we enjoyed a feisty conversation about ‘the age of the startup’, ‘owning your niche’ and even better, a ‘Zero to One’ themed cocktail: a mojito with a chilli edge.
Rebel Book Club was born.
Returning to London Ben and I committed to doing this every month — one book, one meetup, one cocktail — and we decided to invite people to join us.
Take us through the process of designing the book club.
We tested the idea pretty quickly by making a simple landing page (Strikingly) and application form (Typeform) and thought it had enough legs to charge a monthly £15 subscription fee which covers:
- x 1 non-fiction book
- x 1 inspiring meetup
- x 1 custom cocktail inspired by the book, served at the meetup by our friends at Mix & Muddle
We launched in May 2015 and had 24 paying members - a number of whom I consider good friends now - by posting the invitation on our own social media channels. We drank rum cocktails on the roof of Virgin HQ in London to talk about ‘Happiness by Design’ by Paul Dolan. Rebel Book Club had begun!
Describe the process of launching the business.
A year later we had 104 paying members and enough leverage to reach out to some bigger authors… and actually get a response.
A few emails later, I ended up meeting Ryan for a coffee whilst he was over in London and he kindly joined our meet via Skype from The States for a private Q&A after we read his book in August 16'.
In truth, we didn’t have the bandwidth to invest heaps of time into the project but we kept the formula simple and whilst it was small, we continued to grow month on month via word of mouth with zero marketing spend. After running a couple of workshops at festivals on ‘how to get maximum value from badass books’ we were asked to talk at a TEDx event.
Things were starting to feel pretty legit.
Our usual distribution channel was via Amazon vouchers giving members the freedom to redeem Kindle or Paperback versions of our monthly book but we were drawn to distributing physical books a few times — partly because we had enough scale to negotiate wholesale prices directly with publishers and partly because we thought a physical book turning up in a branded envelope could take the member experience to the next level.
We learnt quickly that physical distribution for us was increasingly time consuming and added a heap of customer service challenges if the book didn’t arrive as intended. Part of me still thinks one day we may revert back to this method and get it right but for now we decided to leave it to Bezos and the pro’s.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Ben and I were both working hard on other businesses and Albert was just what we needed, he was already a popular member within RBC and stepped up to head up all things related to member happiness.
Ultimately, he kept things running behind the scenes and in true side hustle fashion was also managing to work full time, play a key role within a charity and churn out ultra marathons all over the world — the guy is a beast and we will always be grateful for his support. On a good month, we’d meet twice as a team — once for breakfast round the corner from
Alberts office and again on the last Tuesday of each month at our meetup. We were getting stronger but things were still a little reactive rather than proactive and last minute by nature. In hindsight, we probably missed some opportunities to double down and grow faster but we always managed to keep things on track by keeping the basics consistent.
We got asked to speak for TEDx again and Dojo blogged about us out of the blue which supercharged applications that month.
In January 2018 we had 159 paying members, so £2,385 monthly recurring revenue.
In May, we celebrated our third birthday with our usual recipe of forward-thinking conversation and cocktails, plus some cake, obviously.
In the second half of 2018 we doubled our membership when I worked remotely for 6 months and focused on improving the membership experience.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
As of today, we have exactly 570 paying members, so £10,500 MRR. We are growing steadily but our churn rate is a little higher than we’d like and our insights suggest this is predominantly down to people not always being able to make the meetups.
So, challenge #1 is how do we give members enough value and ROI on their £15 that they are delighted with our service even if they can’t make the meetup?
We’ve conquered 50 books across a diverse set of themes, created 50 amazing custom cocktails and collectively read over 5 million pages so far. We’re running RBC in Oxford, Bristol, Barcelona and Berlin.
Challenge #2 is how do we scale things beyond London? There is no reason why we can’t have hundreds or thousands more people reading the same book at the same time across different cities and even countries.
Challenge #3 is how do we remain the market leader in this space as we grow? There have been a few imitations and there will no doubt be more. How do we keep what makes us special now? What else can we do better as a brand?
We’re about to do our first raise to put a team together and grow our membership to 10,000 over 3 years.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Being cash-flow positive from day 1. It wasn’t much but it meant we didn’t have to worry about putting in our own money. We didn’t pay ourselves anything for the first two years but it’s never really felt like a job.
Keeping the model simple, light and fun. It’s all about the books and the community (and the cocktails). That’s what we focus on and each month explore something new.
We’ve spent very little on marketing (less than £1000 over 4 years), just focusing on word of mouth to sustain and grow.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Strikingly for website.
- Typeform for applications
- Gocardless for payments.
- MailChimp for membership communications.
- Monday for tracking jobs.
- Facebook and Whatsapp for group chats.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
All about the books!
Hard to choose but the three that have stuck with me are:
- Why I’m No longer talking to white people
- The 100 Year Life
- And a good one for startups: This Is Marketing by Seth Godin
Here is our full library.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Make sure you’re clear about why you’re starting it and your expectations. Is it to make lots of money quickly and exit? Is it to solve a big problem in the world? Is it a lifestyle business?
Don’t put too much pressure on the idea too early. Lower your expectations and get into an experimental mindset, expect things to change.
Test your riskiest assumption straight away. Prioritise the thing that if it doesn’t work, the idea won’t take off, ie will people pay for a book a club membership?
Market research means nothing unless you can prove the trend. Don’t worry about what others are doing. Focus on finding your first few customers and learn from therm.
Don’t spend money (or very little) until you can see it working. Try and launch lean, no point spending on ads until you know it works (we still haven’t).
Have fun. Even if your work is very serious, if you’re having more fun that others you’ll attract people - customers, partners, collaborators.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
If we raise the funds, yes!
Check out the pitch and plan.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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