Today my guest is Robert L. Angus from Octavia Book Bindery and we are going to talk about the challenges of running a niche business, killing it in online marketing, and wearing many hats.
So, tell us your business story – how did you start your business and how long have you been running it?
I’ve got a few irons in the fire, primarily, Octavia Book Bindery, Theophania Publishing, and Premium Independent Entertainment, which is a podcasting network, and we are in the midst of setting up a luxury custom games company called Octavia Games. We also have other smaller projects on the go, such as letterpress printing, website design, and hosting, and we offer social media marketing for our clients as well as for our own projects.
I’m going to give a bit of my business history, and I hope that it’s not too long of a story. I’ve never been good at telling short ones.
When I was in my 20s, I was a young father, a high school dropout, and paying my bills by working untrained labor temp jobs after my job as an office manager ended. As an office manager in an inbound calling center for 900 numbers – you know, chat lines, sex lines, psychic lines — I had hands-on training in running a business, managing people, tracking advertising, and running ads in papers and magazines for our investors. At the same time, I was also earning money as an illustrator, taking an apprenticeship as a jewelry designer, writing short stories and poetry, and running weekly spoken word slams at a Jamaican pub.
The company that I was working for came under new management, a group of people who would brag about their organized crime connections, and the culture of the business changed almost immediately. I discovered that the new owners were embezzling funds from the investors, stealing thousands of dollars of ad revenue every month. The new owners attempted to have me sign a back-dated, phony contract to become a part owner of the company, which included a substantial raise and promotion, a golden parachute, and a signing bonus. It was too good to be true. I looked the contract over and put two and two together, realizing that they were trying to make me the patsy for the investment scam they’d been pulling for the past year or so. I told them that I’d have to think about it, took the contract home, and sent copies to my in-laws and to my parents back home, with a letter that said if anything happened to me, this was the evidence of whom to investigate. I quit the next day, and they asked me for the contract back. I said no, that I’d keep it on hand in case they tried to pin their theft on me. It was an eye-opening experience but also showed me that I had more than enough intelligence to start my own business, that I had the integrity and the experience for it, and that I had enough street smarts and resourcefulness to make a go of it.
The next few months were brutal – I couldn’t find a job to save my life. I worked for several temp agencies to make ends meet, doing everything from picking garbage on the side of the highway, to janitorial work at the YMCA.
I decided to go back to school and applied for an education grant from the government. I finished my high school classes, and the following year, applied to Mount Royal College’s Bissett School for Business and entered their program for a Bachelor of Arts in Small Business and Entrepreneurship. They called it the “Mini-MBA”, and suggested that we would become “Start-up Specialists”. I think that it went much further than that. The program itself was legendary, and my mentors and professors were incredible. I wish that everyone had an opportunity like the education that this program gave me.
The summer following my first year I found myself terribly depressed, broke, and jobless. Here I was, an A+ Student with a 3.9 GPA, and I was left hanging with no idea what to do about making ends meet. I didn’t want to go back to temp jobs. I had no money, and the rent was due. I sat down and started making a list of all of my intellectual assets and resources – what skills and access did I have that I could fall back on to make quick money? The result was that I took some of the essays and articles that I had written, rewrote them and cleaned them up, and then sold them on eBay for $5.00 each. By the end of the week, I had made my rent. By the end of the summer, I had published 14 books, and by the end of the year, it was paying all of our bills.
Fast-forward a couple of years and I was opening up my first bookstore, we had purchased a house in an upscale neighborhood with good schools for my kids, and the company had grown to over a hundred books, self-published and sold on eBay. But, the company hit a brick wall, and everything that could have gone wrong, did. I had to drop out of college, my wife and I separated, the eBay company, which had turned into a power-selling dynamo got shut down, and I found myself homeless, broke, and my kids were being sent away to their grandparents. The only things left for me at the time were the bookstore, the publishing house — albeit with no distribution channels — and the small side business that we started in the basement of our house, manufacturing luxury leather journals, guestbooks, and photo albums for retail clients. All of this was moved into an office building basement, and in the back corner, a cot and a bucket. Rough times, but I made a go of it on my own.
That same year, my friend who owned a book bindery, one of the oldest in the city, had decided to retire. He was in his 80s and his sons and grandkids had no interest in taking over. Since he had spent some time working with me, he offered to sell me his business. I accepted, and we agreed on a price. Within a couple of months, he got bored with retirement and had difficulty keeping himself busy, so he came back to work, offering to write off the money I owed him against the rental of a workbench and tools. We changed the name from Calgary Book Bindery to Octavia Book Bindery, and he apprenticed me for four years doing all of the things that he knew how to do. Funny thing is, I learned how to run the business, manage clients, and price work, but I had already been building luxury books for the retail market, so the two complimented each other. It wasn’t after too long that I had moved into a decent little apartment and was re-establishing my life again.
Shortly after this, Amazon started up its online publishing platform, Createspace, and I moved all of my books from the publishing house there, changing the name and redesigning everything from the ground up. We named it Theophania, and have since grown it to over 2000 titles, and manage a collection with several authors, illustrators, editors, and lunatics.
Premium Independent Entertainment came out of the publishing end of things, when we – when I say we, I mean my team and I — decided that it was time to start recording audiobooks and podcasts. Tons of trial and error later, we have turned it into a sound studio, and have recorded tons of brilliant programs – all of it for practice. When we tested my publishing and marketing model, we reached #22 in Management and Marketing Podcasts in two weeks and had over 10,000 listeners. We now use this model as part of our marketing strategy for launching new products, and through all of the experience we’ve gathered from our other endeavors, have been designing a new production model based on creating genres relevant to our sponsors and products for industry-specific groups – so unless you are in one of our niche markets, you will never have heard of any of our shows, which is entirely okay by me. Where shows aiming for large public audiences may be considered successful by reaching tens of thousands of followers, ours are tightly marketed to such specialized groups as to be considered successful if it reaches tens or hundreds. It’s not how many people subscribe, in this case, it’s WHO subscribes. It’s not about selling quantity, it’s about selling quality. The sponsors are industry specific and are paying to reach that niche market.
The studio is ultimately a creative space. Under one roof we have the book bindery, the publishing house, a sound studio, a games design studio, two bookstores, and a podcast network that we are building up as we go. Every single day is exciting. The team we have here is brilliant, and we are looking toward the future with amazement.
Why *this* business? It’s not a typical choice to start a book bindery…any family history related to this? What did you do before?
I’m notoriously garrulous, so I’ve sort of answered this already in my epic CV back there, but I can say that I was always involved in creative endeavors. The bindery grew out of the publishing house, which has since sprouted other projects. They started with Publishing at their center.
What is your ‘why’ in business in general?
I’m unemployable. In anyone else’s business, I’d be called lazy, a dreamer – any normal employer would get pissed that I spend so much time researching, studying, learning, and playing with ideas.
They’ve got it wrong, though, I’m building as I go – once I have my head around something, it takes less than a week to develop and launch, and the income is built on our publishing model – each project earns money forever, paying out royalties every single month, like clockwork.
We only need to publish it once, we set up the marketing model for it, cheaply and automatically monetized through other distribution methods, and in all cases, manufactured, packaged, and shipped by our suppliers. In most cases, they take the whole process over from there, all we have to do is create a product, hit the “Go go go” button, and then cash the cheques when they arrive. The rest of the game is to repeat the process several thousand times. I look at everything like I look at the book publishing model. Hell, if I could find a manufacturer who could custom manufacture individual tester bottles of toiletries and cosmetics, who already have the resources for pint-sized manufacture, with massive marketing, distribution, and shipping – I would hit that “Go go go” button a thousand times – they’d do all of the work, and send us a cheque every month. I’d be the next Vidal Sassoon.
Media is like that, easily distributable. My entire model can be stated in two words, “Create, Monetize”. That’s it. Always be creating. Monetize everything. Business should always be this simple. People tend to make it too difficult. People overthink things, and I just do them, and quickly.
What was your biggest challenge when you started?
Back then I had no cash, no cash flow, no resources, and no idea where to start, but a million ideas jamming up my head. Today, all of these problems are solved, except that I still have millions of ideas jamming up my head. I also have issues managing and scheduling things. I’m getting better at that – my team is forcing me to. And they’re making sure that I am starting to take care of myself. I’m a bit of a workaholic, and I tend to overinvest in bootstrapping ideas. I used to have expensive habits, and have been working on learning how to stop spending money, and instead learn to enjoy backyard barbecues and plonk.
Do you work from home or have an office? How do you manage your time and make sure you don’t waste it? I find one of my biggest challenges in business is making sure I stay on track…any life hacks you can share?
The studio takes up half of a small building just off of the downtown area of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Between the two bookstores, the sound studio, the design studio, and the bindery, we take up around 2100 square feet. All of it is ground-floor retail on a side street. It doesn’t get tons of foot traffic, and it keeps its status as a “hidden gem” that way. It is a commercial space, though, I used to work from home when it was just the publishing house and the book bindery.
When I work from home, I have a desk that I can transform into a writing desk, glass-topped light table, or drafting table. My house is very tiny, only about 550 square feet. It was a house built around the first world war, so it’s a century old, but it has a huge yard and is a short walk away from the downtown core of the city, a 40-minute walk to the studio following a river pathway through the parks. It’s large enough for my daughter and me to keep off of each other’s feet, but I tend to think of home as a shower and a bed, and a place to relax, so even though the only thing I want to do when I get home is to nap, have a glass of wine, and watch a movie, I instead end up writing, drawing, publishing, editing, or really anything other than sleep. I’m a bit of an insomniac.
I also suffer from a weird kind of ADD—not real ADD but brought on by having too many irons in the fire, too many projects on the go, and too many fires to put out. But I also have a million ideas and have to get them out of my head, or I get terribly depressed, thinking that I’m just spinning my wheels. Prioritization is definitely a skill that I’ve had to learn, learning which projects to put on the back burner for later. Every day I look at what needs to be done, we have a queue and a schedule at the bindery, showing us what has been done, what is in process, and what needs to be finished. Every day we get new orders from clients, and we need to manage their expectations because things in the non-digital world of fine bookbinding can’t just be pushed button like it is with the publishing side of the company.
We keep the master list in a big fancy book (set of books) that has all of the client orders in them, in the order in which they were taken, by date. From there, we add the names and jobs to a list on a clipboard, which refers back to the master list. Every week we make note of what we are prioritizing this week on a gigantic calendar in the lunch room and keep track of deadlines if there are any.
We keep a shopping list on a clipboard, that includes everything from toilet paper and beer to supplies that we need to order for the bindery such as leather and colors of acrylic paint for the design studio. Why isn’t it computerized? I can’t. If it’s not in front of me, I can’t organize it mentally. Too many people try to work with some scheduled workflow that keeps track of everything by the alarm clock and reminder emails, but I believe that’s only making people less capable, and too reliant on the structure. My life is semi-organized chaos, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Do you still remember how you made your first sale? Do you have people doing sales and marketing for you now or do you do sales yourself? You know, lots of entrepreneurs are afraid to sell, put themselves out there, we are all afraid of being judged… Did you also feel like that and if so, what helped you overcome it?
Sales. Sigh – how do I explain this so that people don’t get all tied up in knots? I have established my business model in such a way that it’s not necessary to push the idea of “SELLING”. I think “SELLING” gets a bad rap because people don’t understand it. People think it means pushing people to buy something that they don’t want, or need, for too much money. People think that profit is money that is unearned like it’s a bonus or something. I look at it differently. I believe selling is about building relationships, making friends, and giving people what they want. The more people that you help get what they want, the more money you will earn. And profit is earned by adding value. Service is value. Quality is value. A good customer relationship is valuable. People – especially creative people – tend to undervalue their work, their education, their expertise, their ideas, their workmanship, and ultimately, their product or service. I say, double your money and halve your work. Quality takes up the other half.
And marketing is all about making it easy for people to find you. Branding is kind of an ego thing – if you do a great job, let excellence be your brand. The rest is just glitz and glamour. It’s nice to have, but it’s not important if people are telling their friends, families, and communities about the quality of work that you do. If you go above and beyond, making people’s day, and blowing their minds with quality and service, they will do your marketing for you.
Dealing with people’s concerns, what the books erroneously call, “Objections” is a matter of finding out what your client’s needs are, and then fulfilling them. If I know that a different company offers the service that they need, then I will play middleman and arrange it for the client. I will do it at a profit, and I will make sure that it’s done properly. The value adds here is in filling their needs, my needs, and another company’s needs. Win, win, win. No problem. And I’ll get a dedicated, loyal client out of it every single time who will evangelize my work to everyone they know.
I operate on one principle, and one principle only, “Always Be Closing … ABC.” Similarly, in my creative life, it’s “Always Be Creating … ABC.” Remember what I said earlier, two words, “Create, Monetize”. Every sale is assumed. If SEO and online marketing are doing their job, then people WILL call, email, or stop in to inquire. The website has answered all of their questions, and we have made it very informative and filled with examples of what kind of work we offer. They know that it will be expensive, and it will take a long time. We are not Kinkos. We don’t do overnight. We don’t do cheap. So, when they call, we assume that they already know that it’s expensive – and that the nearest competitor is 1000 kilometers away, or not as high a quality as we offer. They also know that our reputation is based on quality, luxury, craftsmanship, and customization. So, we also know that, if they are worried about price, they wouldn’t walk through our door. If they were worried about time, they also know what to expect. So, we know that they want our services, and they are willing to pay high prices for the highest quality and caliber. They are hiring world class artisans, it goes with the territory. You can’t have it quickly, it doesn’t work that way.
The bookbindery has a Website, a Facebook Page that we have linked to the website, an Instagram page, and links on free service sites like Yellow Pages, Yelp, Google Maps, and tons of free online directories. We also actively post on user groups and forums, with backlinks to the site. But more important than any of this is that when people call, we answer or we call them back. Follow-through is just a matter of communication and customer service. When they email, we answer as soon as we can. We are polite, we treat them with friendliness, and we build relationships with all of our clients. They become our friends, and they tell everyone they know about what we’ve done for them. Our Facebook posts reflect this comradery, and this is posted directly to the front page of our site. Hundreds of people follow the site itself, and I was surprised today to discover that very few of my actual friends and acquaintances on Facebook even followed the page – so it was all clients who followed it. Some people even go to the actual website every day, because they don’t use Facebook.
The Publishing house has a website, although its only purpose is to give somewhere for people to find us if they want to order a book, and also to give some idea of the volume of books we have available. The catalog is available as a PDF download, delivered via email link. We don’t use these emails for any real purpose, except to prove that it’s a real person downloading the file, and not a bot. With over 2000 books on Amazon, we put our advertising copy right into the description of the books, telling people who we are, what we do, and how they can order a catalog. The site gets hundreds of hits each day, and one or two catalog orders each week, but all of this is automated to send them back to Amazon to buy there – we don’t usually need to deal with customers directly Since the books themselves are also distributed to online booksellers and Amazon affiliates, each of our books has thousands of online sellers actively marketing our books for us, all we need to do it to create, publish, and then hit the “Go go go” button. They do all the rest. There are even people who are using automated systems to sell many of our titles directly on eBay. We’re happy to watch their success because each of their sales adds to our profits through royalties – kind of a turnaround from the days when we had to hustle selling those same books on eBay to make the rent.
How do you go about marketing such a niche business? Do you rely mostly on the word of mouth, Google Ads, or do you do social media or email marketing? Which method have you found most effective?
At the bindery, we let our clients contact us, and have no end of work. Email marketing is too easily ignored, and I find that people are overwhelmed by the amount of junk mail, spam, and phishing scams. We do use our email for client contact, alongside the telephone. I get a kick out of teasing SEO firms who send us their email spam – if their services worked, I would be finding them if I needed their business in the first place, through SEO. Just goes to show you, if you are selling a product, but not using it, then it’s likely not very good.
If you could move back in time and change one thing about how you run your business in the past, what would it be?
The thing is, as a workaholic who loves my work, it’s always been about the process. I think that I’ve always trained myself to believe that anything was possible and that what you think affects how you act, and goalsetting has always been fundamental in my life.
My personal life, though, has always suffered. I am terrible at maintaining social relationships. I wish I had more time for my friends and family, and I wish that I had managed my relationships with my exes better. Breakups weren’t related to my work, though I am sure that was a factor, in truth, I wasn’t brought up to value relationships enough. I think that, if I could go back and change anything, it would have been to learn how to appreciate the people in my life, make time for them, and reach out to them more often. I’ve been working at this recently, and have sought professional help when it comes to balancing out my emotional life, but had I been better at it years ago, I think things would have felt a lot more successful, a lot less stressful, and I’d have been a lot more grounded.
My recommendation to everyone is to work hard but keep time for friends and family. Email them, call them, be involved in their lives – Facebook and Social Media are not enough – and spend quality time with your kids and spouses. Passion may be what drives your work, but you must learn how to be passionate about the people in your life, too. It sucks being successful and lonely. It’s awesome to celebrate your victories with those who want to see you succeed.
What is your biggest goal in business for 2018?
Growth is always a thing around this studio, and every single project we finish is another brick that adds to the foundation that we’ve already built. The first book that I ever published is still earning me money, nearly two decades later. The first advertisement is still bringing me, clients, nearly two decades later. It is always growing, it is always being added to, and every year gets better and better and better.
Last year, I learned how to delegate responsibility to other people, to give them the tools that they need to succeed, and not to dump too much onto them. Building this team is an ongoing process, and I am happy to say that we will continue doing that.
This year, I am hoping to take care of my personal finances, stabilize my income against my spending habits, and put systems in place that will help me reach my personal goals. Particularly, I plan to get my debts paid off, make time to visit my family and get some of those pesky “rountoits” off of my list.