How to disrupt an entire industry

Dan Kieran started Unbound in 2011, bringing crowdfunding to publishing and shaking up an entire sector. Here's how you can do it.

by Dan Kieran
Last Updated: 23 Oct 2017

Author and travel writer Dan Kieran spent ten years writing books (including a Sunday Times bestseller) until a combination of the crash of 2008 and the dominance of Amazon led to a drastic cut in his earnings. Convinced that publishing could be re-shaped to better serve authors and readers, he launched Unbound with two friends in 2011. Unbound has since raised more than £4.5m from over 135,000 people in 178 different countries to create a diverse range of books by authors such as Nikesh Shukla, Katy Brand, Jonathan Coe and Raymond Briggs.

Here are Kieran's tips for disrupting an entire industry.

1. Sector expertise

Top of the list is sector expertise. Yes, you can revolutionise an industry you know nothing about but understanding what you are up against gives you an edge. It helps you to see opportunities as well as things to correct. Publishers sell books to shops, not readers, making them B2B even though they think of themselves as B2C. So, there was obvious potential for us to build a D2C platform. Being authors and readers ourselves, we also understood both our customer groups intimately and the problems that needed to be solved.

2. Don't let the next financial quarter dictate your vision

When it comes to the vision for your business, you are up against competitors who are trying to innovate while in the straightjacket of delivering the status quo. This limits their vision (if they have one at all). If they are listed on the stock market, so much the better for you. Name the CEO prepared to risk this year’s bonus by following a vision that will take five to ten years to come good? They are very unlikely to embrace a truly radical vision if it undermines their existing model. My 12-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter have never heard of Blockbuster for a reason. Blockbuster thought Netflix had no chance until it turned out Netflix had already redefined how we watch TV. 

3. Keep what works, remove what doesn't

Traditional publishing is full of smart people with expertise and this makes the books they publish better than self-published books. This is not me chucking a metaphorical grenade at the self-publishing community - it’s my experience as an author. Every one of the 12 books I published was improved by experts who made it far better than anything I could produce on my own. So Unbound spends as much time (if not more time) than a traditional publisher on the quality of what we produce and selecting the books we put on our platform. But there are plenty of things traditional publishers waste time and money on. We’ve identified those things and we don't do them.

4. Be different

Founders of disruptive companies are not doing it in the hope of one day becoming overweight white men on yachts they can’t sail surrounded by models who are only with them because they are rich, which was the image and trajectory of ‘successful’ entrepreneurs I grew up with. You are not running a woollen mill in the 18th century. Making your employees suffer will not make you more successful. So be bold and try and change the world. After all, companies are more capable of delivering positive change than governments.

5. Reflect the world you live in

In the digital age, it’s easier than ever to be out of touch. If you are running a disruptive company, you are likely to be two if not three decades younger than the CEOs of the companies you are trying to replace. This means you’ll spot the ‘out of touch’ trap your competitors are stuck in before they do. The one publishing can’t seem to get out of is diversity. It’s ridiculous really - like something from the 1950s. Everyone in publishing knows it. Everyone in publishing is ashamed of it. And it's not just the predominantly white, middle and upper-class employees. It's the embarrassingly white, middle and upper-class list of authors, too. 70% of Unbound staff are under 40. We hire people who are brilliant at what they do, whatever their background. One of them doesn’t even have a degree (that would be me). The idea that you need ‘initiatives’ in a company to ‘address’ this kind of thing is utterly baffling. One of our best-selling books of this year, The Good Immigrant, an award-winning anthology of essays written by authors with BAME backgrounds about what it’s like to live in a country that doesn’t seem to want you, has sold 50,000 copies. You’ll be glad to hear it has made the authors (and us) lots of money. JK Rowling pledged £5,000 to make that happen, by the way.

6. Don't quit

This is the most important one. Never. Ever. Quit. Ever. There are a lot of people out there with a vested interest in telling you you are wrong. You are only wrong if you quit. Evolve, yes. Pivot, if you must. Pivot again if you must, and ignore the laughter of others who haven’t had the courage to do what you do. Trust yourself. Believe in your vision and the team you have built around you. And don't give up.

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