Rachel Wood, founder of Rare Birds Book Club
"I realised over time that my lack of experience was also a huge strength", Rachel Wood tells BQ about her experience of creating Rare Birds Book Club. Over a year in and shortlisted as One to Watch for the 2019 Stylist Retail Awards, the company is going from strength to strength.
Tell us about your business, what does it do?
Rare Birds Book Club is an online book club and book subscription service that’s passionate about reading for fun.
Each month members have the option to choose from a curated shortlist of two fiction books – we send out a secret synopsis of each and then members choose one or both to read. Books come beautifully wrapped and with an introduction as to why we think it’s worth their time.
At the end of the month, the whole community meets back at the website for our online book club, where I give an in-depth review and guide the discussion, before turning it over to members to rate and review what they’ve read that month.
What did you do before you started this business?
I finished a Masters in Creative Writing at Edinburgh University then put those writing skills to good use at a digital marketing agency working as a copywriter. I spent two years in-house before going freelance for another six years.
What inspired you to start up?
I built what I couldn’t find. I’ve always been a voracious reader and friends would often come to me looking for recommendations of books they’d actually enjoy. There is so much choice out there when it comes to fiction, and it’s really difficult to know what’s worth your time and what isn’t. Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads often provide confusion rather than clarity, and when every book jacket says the book is amazing, where do you even begin?
I started thinking about how I could make the process feel a little more current for me and my friends, and the idea just snowballed from there.
How would you describe your business to your grandma?
My grandma is actually a subscriber so I can answer this question with authority. I told her the postman would deliver a beautifully wrapped book every month and instead of meeting in person to discuss it, we’d do it from the computer.
Where do you get advice, support or help?
I’m lucky in that I already had a network to help and support me when I started, and the longer the business is around the more people I’ve been able to add to that circle. Because I worked in marketing already and had lots of entrepreneurial friends, I knew people who could help with everything from helping me find the right accountant to figuring out how to build such a bespoke website.
Finance is one of the most common barriers to starting up. How did you access the finance you needed?
One of the advantages of a subscription-based business model is that you don’t need a huge whack of cash to get started. I treated it like an experiment; I used some savings to build the website and get the business going.
In the first year, I kept my job as a full-time freelance and juggled Rare Birds alongside it, gradually adjusting the balance until I was in a position to let that freelance income go. In some ways that was stressful – you’re literally trying to do two jobs at once – but in others, it was the best possible thing. I didn’t need to worry about Rare Birds generating an income for me at first, and the money I was making could be put straight back into the business.
Subscriptions also eliminate a lot of challenges when you’re just starting out. Customers are paying upfront for a three, six or 12-month subscription, making planning easy, as you always know what your numbers will be on any given month, and also making managing cash flow a lot easier.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
One that sticks out in my mind is Stylist Live, which is a weekend-long festival run each year by Stylist Magazine. Last year they shortlisted us as One to Watch in 2019 at the Stylist Retail Awards, which was a huge boost. I love Stylist and we were sitting shoulder to shoulder with a lot of other really well-established and well-respected brands. At the time we had just celebrated our one year anniversary, and things were really starting to take off – that moment just encapsulates that feeling of, wow, this is actually working!
How do you differentiate your business from others?
A book subscription isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but I do think there are several things that really separate us from our competitors.
The first is the element of choice. All the books are a surprise in advance, and we do that to push readers out of their comfort zone and offer up lots of variety. We narrow it down to two great options and then give a streamlined synopsis of both so readers can choose what they’re most interested in reading.
The other thing that sets us apart is our focus on the actual experience of reading. We want our members to love the books we’re sending and get the most out of the experience, so we do things like wrap the books and provide our own introduction so you can’t judge a book by its cover, then come back together with the online book club.
There’s something really fun and special about being able to talk about a book you’ve loved with others who feel the same, and we provide the enjoyment of a book club in a much more flexible way. It doesn’t matter if you live out in the countryside or just have a busy and unpredictable schedule. The online book club means you can participate in your own time on your own terms, something our members really value.
What’s it like to be your own boss?
Fun, mostly! It’s wonderful to be able to set your own course, but it can be lonely, too – you have to make big decisions on your own, and when things don’t go to plan there’s no one to tell you not to cry over spilt milk.
Where do you see your business in 5 years time?
Doing what we’re doing now but on an even bigger scale.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
You learn by doing, so just start. I was worried I didn’t have the right experience to be successful, but what I realised over time was that my lack of experience was also a huge strength. Lack of experience translated into a fresh perspective that my competitors didn’t have and allowed me to take risks because I didn’t realise there was any other way of doing things!
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