Entrepreneurially-inclined readers take note - I've got a fantastic interview for you today with the Founder, President, and CEO of Open Air Publishing, Jon Feldman.
Open Air Publishing is a publisher of interactive books that feature high-quality video, slideshows, intuitive navigation, interactive features, and traditional text. It is currently focused on how-to books, all of which are 100% original, developed in-house, and feature subject matter experts. Its books are available for the iPad and iPhone.
For any gamblers on the site with a knack for playing black jack, check out Blackjack Domination, Open Air's interactive guide to learning the strategies guaranteed to help you dominate the tables the next time you're in Vegas. We'll be running an interview with one of the book's authors, Derek Sutta, later this month.
Read on to learn about Jon's background and education (which includes an MBA from Wharton), his interesting work experience (including a stint at College Humor), and what led him to found Open Air Publishing.
TheKing: Tell us a bit about your background. Specifically, I see that you've spent your career focusing on digital content and e-commerce, what drove you to pursue a career in this field? Did your college education play a role?
Jon Feldman: I grew up in Canada, and starting making comedy short films in 7th grade (such as this rather embarrassing Back to the Future parody). So I always knew that I wanted to be on the business side of the entertainment industry, though I originally thought that meant working in film or TV.
I studied commerce at McGill University, and got my first taste of entrepreneurship there, when a friend and I began organizing and selling out events with rather high cover charges.
I then moved to NYC to work at Comedy Central, for the SVP of Corporate Strategy. Our group handled the South Park store and all the licensed merch for this and other shows, and I took on the role of running the store. So I learned e-commerce and digital media on the job. While I got a great academic and entrepreneurial foundation at McGill--nothing in universities in the late 90s could prepare you for this field.
TheKing: You've had a pretty prolific career in the space, working for a dynamic set of companies in a diverse set of roles, including e-commerce at MTV, business development at CollegeHumor, and digital content and e-commerce consulting at Booz & Company. What drove you down this career path? Any tips for readers who are looking to break into these sorts of roles?
Jon Feldman: Go into a field that you love and know best. For me, coming out of college in 2001 it may not have been unusual to love South Park and The Daily Show, but I found a way to turn that love into the beginning of my career. With the exception of being a management consultant, I've always worked for consumer entertainment brands whose content I love, and I think this is critical for success--especially in startup mode, you don't have time or resources for thorough research, so you need to be able to trust your instincts.
TheKing: A bit off topic, but I know I spent a ton of time on CollegeHumor when I was in undergrad, any fun stories from your time there that you can share?
Jon Feldman: One night after work five years ago, we made this video in our office. It was the first "lip dub" and went viral, with three million views and lots of outstanding copycats from others.
Also, for some reason we liked to pile as many of us as possible into elevators. We got it stuck in every building we had an office in (this was pre-IAC building), and also got stuck at least once in a Korea-town karaoke place's elevator.
TheKing: At what point did you decide to pursue an MBA? What drove your decision? Was there a specific goal you had in mind that B-School could help you achieve?
Jon Feldman: While I was at MTV Networks, I was exposed to a lot of the bus dev and corp dev people and became close with a few. It seemed like a path I'd want to follow, and that a b-school education would be particularly useful for both specific skills (like modeling, strategy, negotiations) and for general exposure to new ways of analyzing situations, and to people from all kinds of backgrounds. There was a big opportunity cost, but I figure in the long run that'll more than even out, and it was an incredible opportunity to spend two years at Wharton. I highly recommend it to anyone.
TheKing: You founded your company, Open Air Publishing (http://openairpub.com/) in May 2011. Tell us a bit about the business, what products you offer, and how you differentiate yourself from your competitors.
Jon Feldman: We're a publisher of interactive books for grown-ups (high-quality video, slideshows, intuitive navigation). Right now, we're focused on how-to books (such as how to make fancy cocktails or use your DSLR camera) that are all 100% original, built for iPad and now iPhone, and feature top experts in each field: For instance, a Pulitzer finalist White House photojournalist for our photography book, and the founders of PDT and Little Branch, who are award-winning mixologists, for Speakeasy Cocktails.
At our core, we're a content company that has mad respect for technology. But, what makes us different from traditional publishers?
- They are slow, and we are fast. They have bloat and drag; we are lean and scrappy.
- Their digital offerings are print books, usually without interactivity/video, and when they do it, it's added as an afterthought. Meanwhile, we design interactivity/video as the book is being made, with complete author involvement. This makes our books intuitive, punchy, and basically, awesome.
- While they force books made for paper onto limited formats like KF8, ePub, and iBooks, we use the best technology available. Right now, that's as iPad and iPhone apps.
- Much of what they do is to protect their pre-existing product (hard/softcover books shipped to bookstores), while we have the freedom to do pricing and marketing as we please. This means jam-packed video books with hours of footage for just $9.99.
TheKing: How did the idea for your company come to you? Did your past experience drive it? Was it a collaborative effort with your co-founders? Or did it simply come to you in a dream?
Jon Feldman: I see the transition of books from print to digital much like during the late-40s transition of radio to television. TV started as leading radio shows read by a talking head, but the content that ultimately won on TV was created specifically for the TV. That's what I set out to make, but for books.
TheKing: What is your revenue model?
Jon Feldman: We sell great books directly to customers--nothing fancy. We're always looking for creative ways to bring in more revenue, but at the end of the day, customers have to buy what we're making.
TheKing: When e-book authors come to you with an idea, what is the process for selecting whether or not to publish their book? How much of a role does Open Air Publishing play in the process of creating the e-books? Is it a collaborative effort with the authors or does Open Air only provide the platform with which to create and publish an e-book?
Jon Feldman: We source our ideas internally and then go find the authors, video talent, and other expert consultants. We haven't made a book based on an author or agent cold-pitching us. So, we play a massive role in the process of creating the book, from idea to final publish to ongoing marketing.
Any text-only author could self publish on many platforms out there, and that might be sufficient for most forms of fiction. But for nonfiction, we're the only one that creates the interactivity and videos and guides the author through the new way of writing for the interactive (i.e., non-linear) format--these are things that most authors and content experts would not be able to do on their own.
TheKing: Did you always think of yourself as an entrepreneur? Or did this come about through happenstance? What pushed you to leave the corporate world and dive into a new enterprise?
Jon Feldman: Yeah, I always have been doing my own thing, since college and promoting events at McGill. Even my corporate jobs--again, with the exception of consulting--have been entrepreneurial teams within larger media conglomerates. At MTV, we had to be scrappy to get e-commerce off the ground and get exposure for the business through the on-air and online channels. At CollegeHumor, we were staunchly independent within IAC and I helped grow the team from around 20 to 60 in the time I was there.
TheKing: Any advice for WSO readers who find themselves working a corporate job by day, and dreaming entrepreneurial dreams at night? Any tips you wish you knew before you took the dive?
Jon Feldman: I started Open Air Publishing while I was a management consultant. I got placed on an engagement in NYC to avoid travel, and I put my limited free time to maximum use. For example, I filmed all the video content for Speakeasy Cocktails over both days of a weekend. Other friends started companies while at b-school and opportunity cost was low.
So, find something you love to do and use your nights and weekends to tinker. Set deadlines for your side project to hit milestones, and keep them. This is the best way to option in to your potential startup while still collecting your day pay.
TheKing: Anything else you'd like to add before we finish?
Jon Feldman: I think that your readers will love our most recent book, Blackjack Domination, which teaches you how to count cards and beat Vegas. It was written by two pro players (one who's in PE, the other was a consultant and just graduated from Wharton). It also has a foreword by and tips from Jeff Ma, the MIT card counter who was the inspiration for the main character of the book Bringing Down the House and the film "21."
I hope everyone enjoyed the interview. I highly recommend that everyone checks out Open Air Publishing's website along with some of their books. If anyone has any noteworthy follow-up questions, leave them in the comments and I'll see if I can get some replies once we've hit a critical mass.