Although serial entrepreneur Rufus Griscom has a background in books—including writing reviews for PW—he had no intention of getting into the book business when he launched his newest venture, Heleo, in 2015. The plan, Griscom said, was to help nonfiction authors, particularly business book authors, take advantage of various digital platforms to broaden their brands by delivering their ideas in different formats to consumers, which in turn would create new revenue streams.
As part of the startup process, Griscom said he surveyed authors about what their biggest “pain points” were. So, after trying a number of business models, he settled on an approach that addresses authors’ biggest frustrations—namely, generating sales in the first few weeks books are available.
“We didn’t intend to deliver physical books,” Griscom said—but, in response to his research, he started the Next Big Idea Club with books as a fundamental part of the offering. Though he still sees the NBIC’s primary function as providing people with greater access to renowned thinkers, the company now offers two books per quarter as part of its overall package. Customers can either choose two hardcovers or two e-books. The books are selected by Susan Cain, Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant, and Daniel Pink, whom Griscom called cofounders of NBIC. In addition to the books, members receive access to exclusive video insights, reading guides, and author interviews breaking down the key concepts of each featured book. To facilitate interaction, each author of a featured title does two live q&a’s on Facebook and Zoom plus one live event.
“Our goal is to encourage as much interaction between the authors and the members as possible,” Griscom said. He considers this approach helpful in building long-term ties between authors and their readers.
The hardcover option costs $20.75 per month and e-book is $16.58 per month. A third option, Express Membership ($8.25 per month), allows subscribers to forgo the books while still receiving access to the video insights, reading guides, member forums, and author interviews. About one-third of the NBIC’s 8,000 subscribers have chosen that option, according to Griscom. “We really see this as a new type of publishing, with our core mission being to provide members access to authors no matter the format,” he said.
But books have certainly helped the club gain traction. One of its March selections was Loonshot by Safi Bahcall, which hit the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list the week it was sent to NBIC subscribers (the company’s book orders are fulfilled by 800-CEO-READ).
Since NBIC’s launch, its selection process has evolved. Originally, only two books per quarter were chosen, but now there are six “finalists,” from which the four judges choose the two selections. The broadened offering gives members the opportunity to buy books that aren’t part of the quarterly packages. Between its launch in early 2018 and the end of 2019, the NBIC, Griscom said, will feature about 40 books.
Griscom and his team (there are eight employees) are considering moving into categories beyond business books and are working on NBIC’s first original title. Although he wouldn’t discuss details, Griscom said the “short-form” book will likely run 50–100 pages (his research shows most business book readers read 50–100 pages of each title). The new book will be available exclusively to club members, and more original works are likely to become part of the NBIC mix.
Griscom said publishers were initially cool to his idea—until he started placing orders for several thousand copies of their books. Now, he said, he is receiving “lots of pitches.” Another sign of publisher support is that Penguin Random House parent company Bertelsmann is one of seven companies that just invested $1.2 million in Heleo’s latest round of financing. Other investors include the New York Times Company and Axel Springer, owner of Business Insider, which NBIC members receive a free one-year subscription to upon joining.
Griscom is counting on membership growth coming from authors reaching out to their personal mailing lists to alert them that their newest books are part of NBIC, as well as from existing NBIC members forming their own clubs. Griscom started Heleo shortly after he sold Babble to Disney. Having experience in the startup world, he is confident in his concept. Heleo turned cash flow positive recently and broke $1 million in revenue for 2018. He projects revenue of $3 million for 2019 and $8 million by 2020.
“The real product,” Griscom said of the NBIC, “is less about what gets mailed in a box and more about the community we’re building around life-changing ideas.”