Director, eTextbook Solutions
Follett Higher Ed
eTextbooks have the potential to reduce college costs ... and produce entrepreneurial successes. Bryce Johnson and Follett believe their success lies on the distribution side of the emerging business.
Why did you launch CafeScribe.com?
I was an MBA student, and I was used to accessing information on a computer. So I was annoyed with heavy textbooks and their high prices. Why spend $4,000 to $5,000 over four years for books that you probably won't keep? I believed eTextbooks would be an excellent application of my prior development experience. I was also stimulated by the notion of building a collaborative component involving note-sharing into each book.
Where and when was that?
In 2004 in Salt Lake City I incorporated Fourteen40, a Utah 'C' corporation. I was the sole shareholder initially. I recruited two additional co-founders in 2005, one of whom was Maura O'Neill, soon to become a professor of entrepreneurship and new venture finance at University of California, Berkeley. We were both MBA students in the Berkeley-Columbia joint MBA program.
What was the company's success trajectory over its first three years?
I needed content from publishers. That brought me into contact with McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Thompson/Cengage and others. Then I got us involved in pilot projects with Stanford University, Berkeley, Brigham Young, NYU and a few other schools. By the end of year three we weren't yet profitable. But we had secured $800,000 in 'angel money' and $1 million in venture financing. By the end of three years we employed nine people in two countries. Six of those people are still with the company.
How and when did Follett come to own your creation?
Our firm was an early player in an uncrowded field. So we were noticed as we moved around the publishing industry. A deal with Google began to materialize, but that company's scope was broader than higher education. Rumors of those talks apparently traveled. Two senior executives at Follett Higher Ed expressed interest, and I proposed a license deal for our technology in twenty of their bookstores. Follett's established academic contacts helped produce success for CafeScribe in a number of ways. Fourteen months later in March 2008, after conducting negotiations while doing business together, Follett acquired Fourteen40 and CafeScribe.
What's the plan for the next three years?
Grow. Grow. Grow. Follett Higher Ed touches approximately 4 million U.S. students through its private-labelled e-commerce system at 850 college stores. CafeScribe is being integrated into it now. I play a key role as a product strategist, which brings me into contact with campus presidents and provosts to determine their acacdemic needs. I also liason with learning management companies like Blackboard and Desire2Learn on integration standards.
Your own college career is peppered with some interesting twists and turns. Please discuss.
As an undergrad at Brigham Young University I left to spend two years in Chile as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Away from mom and dad, functioning in Spanish as a second language, I enjoyed working with my mind and hands for the benefit of other people.
What entrepreneurial successes did you enjoy during two college summers?
I sold pest control door-to-door in Visalia, California. A friend had told me he earned $25,000 the previous summer. Once I believed him I went straight for an interview. My first summer I earned $35,000. My second summer I earned $40,000. I know people who earned as much as $100,000 in one summer.
What key roles did college play in your business success?
My MBA studies and credentials were essential. They taught me what doors to approach and how to open them. They familiarized me with business plans, convertible debt and business forecasting. It helped that I was enrolled in an MBA program that involved two prestigious schools - Berkeley and Columbia. The contacts among classmates were extremely productive. Being a regular bi-coastal traveler was also helpful. I knew so many people in so many U.S. cities, there was always a sofa for me to sleep on.
How might a savvy college enhance its appeal to business achievers?
Push some of the graduate business courses into the undergraduate experience. Teach undergraduates how venture financing is acquired. Involve undergraduates in business plan evaluation. Provide undergraduates with classroom exposure to deal-makers.
Where would you like to be five years from now?
Follett asked me the same question. I want to be somewhere that stimulates my mind. I want to be involved in something that keeps me fully engaged and challenged.
More interviews from Entrepreneur Week