Acorn Independent Press: Leila Dewji and Ali Dewji

The publishing entrepreneurs on helping new authors break into the market and the value of a business mentor

Name:Leila Dewji and Ali Dewji
Age:27 and 25
Company:Acorn Independent Press Ltd
Staff numbers:2 full time + freelancers
Company description:Independent publishers
Tell us what your business does

Self-publishing is a new model for authors to get their work published the way they want, paying for expert editorial, design and production services as well as sales and marketing. Acorn produce beautiful books and e-books which they put into international wholesale and distribution channels to reach readers all over the world both online and in bookshops. 

Where did the idea for your business come from?

We worked at leading publishing companies and saw both how difficult it is for new authors to break in to the market and the opportunities offered by the technological developments in the publishing industry – particularly the expansion of the e-book market.

How did you know there was a market for it? What’s your USP (unique selling point)?

I (Leila) previously worked at a literary agency where I saw first-hand how many talented writers failed to get publishing contracts, even where there was a healthy market for their book. We wanted to create a professional platform for these authors to reach their readers. The self-published books I was sent at the literary agency were of very poor production quality and I knew that authors would be interested in a high-end self-publishing service.

Our USP is our marketing services, which are key to a successful publication. Our self-publishing packages include a two- hour one-on-one marketing meeting, followed by telephone and e-mail support. In this meeting we devise individual, clear and detailed marketing and promotional plans utilising as many different forms of media as possible.

What were you doing before starting up?

Previously I worked at Orion Books, before being head-hunted by a literary agency, Sheil Land Associates, where I developed many authors and lead one of the first literary agency e-book programs in the UK. Ali worked at publishing company, EMAP, where he worked with global brands to devise, run and manage effective targeted campaigns across all manner of print and online media.

Have you always wanted to run your own business?

We come from an entrepreneurial family and had always wanted to start-up our own company. We knew it was going to be hard work but we love the autonomy, flexibility and independence that comes with being your own boss.

What planning did you do before you started up? What advice did you seek?

We thoroughly researched the market to see what our competitors were doing and what their customers were saying about them by conducting online surveys and a focus group. Devising a detailed business plan took many months of meticulous research and forecasting. We took our business plan to a local Business Link advisor and our accountants who both gave valuable input on the financial aspects of our business plan.

We also gained a place on the Society of Young Publishers Mentorship scheme, which paired us up with a leading industry figure, Geoff Duffield, sales and marketing director at Macmillan. His advice has been invaluable and I would recommend getting an industry-specific mentor to any budding entrepreneur.

How did you raise the money?

Having explored the finance options available to new start-up businesses, we decided not to get any external investors as we were uncomfortable with the idea of relinquishing any equity or getting ourselves in a great amount of debt. We were also fortunate enough to secure a contract for our most expensive product prior to launching through our existing contacts. This gave us a healthy cash injection and relieved the pressure of finding finance.

How did you find suppliers?

Having worked in the industry, we had developed some contacts and set up meetings with the best printers in the UK.

What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

Finding new customers is the biggest challenge for any new business. We only had a small marketing budget and had to think very carefully about how to get our message out. We embraced all the free social media we could and learnt so much in the process. We also realised the value of a well-designed website with great SEO and decided to spend the majority of our budget on getting the best user and search engine friendly website we could.

Where is your business based?

We are currently working from home, with a base in town for meetings. It is difficult to switch off and stop working in the evenings and at weekends but we do try to stick to normal working hours.

How have you promoted your business?

We have promoted our business on Facebook, Twitter, our blog and our website. We also have sent press releases out to trade and consumer publications. Twitter has been the best tool for us by far – it is absolutely perfect for niche marketing and you can be sure your marketing efforts aren’t wasted on people who have no interest in your product.

How much do you charge? How did you decide this?

Our premium product is £2000 and our most economical print self-publishing package is £800. Before setting our prices we compiled data on what our competitors were charging and the features of their products. Although we did not want to solely compete on price, we wanted to offer exceptional value. We wanted to be upfront and packaged our products in such a way that there were no hidden extras.

What has your growth been like?

The company incorporated in September but, as we were still working, we have only just started trading. Initial reactions to our company have been very positive and we’ve achieved our forecast to date.

What’s the impact on your home life been like?

It is stressful to start-up a business – the hours are long and there is always so much to do. We both had to make sacrifices, particularly in our personal life, however, it’s important to keep the goal in sight and remember why we are doing this.

What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up?

When you work in a big company, there is always someone to ask. However, when you are starting your own business there is so much that you don’t know and have to learn very quickly. Although we knew our industry well, we had to get up to speed on other aspects of business, such as: how to launch and manage a successful website and how to estimate financial forecasts.

What was your first big breakthrough?

Our first big breakthrough was our pre-launch contract. Cashing that cheque was a cause for celebration and enabled us to get set-up without having to take on a loan.

What would you do differently? ie what have you learnt?

In retrospect, I would have left my previous job and started Acorn earlier. However, it’s easy to have confidence in hindsight and we really wanted to make sure we carried out a lot of research before we started.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

Research – make sure you know every aspect of your market. Have a good look at your competitors and think what you can offer that they cannot. After researching – be brave and take the plunge. Also, be very wary about giving away equity.

Where do you want to be in five years’ time? Do you have an exit plan?

In five years’ time, we hope to be the UK market-leader and have expanded to have offices in other English-speaking countries. This company is a big part of our life and we are not looking to sell, however if it does become successful we may consider offers in the future.

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