There's no company sign or logo out front. No indication of any kind that this quiet stretch of Pritchard's Road in East London includes the headquarters of a global publishing sensation. A squat, two-story former factory sits adorned in elaborate graffiti. A fox lunges across half the façade. A mouth on the front door gapes.
But the images are coincidental clues about the building's prized tenant. Like the fox, the startup Lost My Name, operates in full sprint mode. Since launching two years ago, it has sold more than 600,000 books in 136 countries, largely through word-of-mouth recommendations.
Depending how you look at it, the Lost My Name team has either created one artful book or 53,849. The Little Boy/Girl Who Lost His/Her Name, the top-selling picture book in the U.K. last year, is personalized for each recipient. The child's name doesn't simply get mentioned a few times—an easy enough publishing gimmick. Rather, the story itself changes; different characters appear for each name. In fulfilling orders for 53,849 children's names so far, the company has created that many stories—and books.
The technology required for that degree of customization and print-on-demand capability is significant. "There are tens of thousands of lines of code behind every book we deliver," co-founder Asi Sharabi tells me on a recent visit to the Lost My Name offices. "Everything we do is on software."
In other words, what appears at first glance to be the producer of a charming book is also a tech startup. Last month, Google Ventures led a $9 million series A round that includes The Chernin Group, Greycroft, Allen & Co., and former SunGard CEO Chris Conde.
Lost My Name is Google Ventures' third investment as part of a $125 million commitment in the U.K. and Europe. "We don't look at them as a book publishing company," says Avid Larizadeh Duggan, a London-based general partner at Google Ventures. "It's a platform for the best personalized content for children's entertainment on multiple platforms. They're redefining a category."
The concept took root three years ago when one of Sharabi's daughters received a personalized book as a gift. She was delighted to discover her name on a few pages. "It was a warm and fuzzy feeling that lasted one and a half seconds," Sharabi says. "Because you realize everyone gets the same exact book."
It got him thinking about the potential for true personalization, which would work like an elaborate magic trick. "There was something there," he says.
Sharabi, a marketing executive at the time, reached out to Tal Oron, a friend working in technology, and David Cadji-Newby, a former BBC comedy writer and ad writer. They were intrigued as well. "David cracked the over-arching idea," says Sharabi. "It wasn't about having the child's name in the story, but making the child's name the story." Cadji-Newby wrote the text. Pedro Serapicos, an artist in Portugal whom the trio discovered over several months and the fourth co-founder, provided the whimsical illustrations.
The book opens with a girl (or boy) waking to discover her name missing from the bedroom door. Off she goes on a courageous journey, where she finds it, one letter at a time, thanks to various animals and characters she encounters. A chameleon gives her a C, an aardvark an A, and so on.
Personalized book doesn't really do the experience justice. Personalized narrative is more like it. But that, too, sounds deceptively simple.
Sharabi and his co-founders' concept presented an elaborate puzzle. They started out by visiting the U.K. census, where they learned that more than 14,000 different names are given to babies in a given year. They identified the 150 names that represent 70% of all baby names. Next, they had to figure out how to create books for short and long names and how to avoid duplicating characters. "If your name is David, you don't want to see dragon in the story twice," says Sharabi.
They created multiple characters for oft-repeated letters. Each encounter is four pages and reveals quirky, endearing personalities. A lonely lion. An indecisive zebra. An existential Yeti. "Each meeting is a mini-narrative that has to work in any order it may appear in the story," Sharabi says.
The big reveal is when a child discovers at the end that the letters add up to her name. "It's magical," says Google Ventures' Duggan, who ordered one for her husband's 4-year-old godson.
The reaction to The Little Boy/Girl Who Lost His/Her Name catapulted a pet project by three dads and an uncle into a startup in April 2013. Word spread among parents and bloggers, including Brooklyn-based Cool Mom Picks. Often, people bought a book for their child and a second as a gift. Oron's software automated the entire process, from helping a customer create, preview and order a book, to sending the on-demand order to the nearest printing partner. The business model eliminates inventory, reduces shipping, and shortens delivery times.
No wonder that the startup nabbed the best equity deal in the history of Dragons' Den (BBC’s Shark Tank) last summer. And that later, during holiday season, there were days when the platform processed more than 11,000 books a day.
At the company's London offices in the one-time industrial neighborhood of Hackney (think Williamsburg), the team is aggressively building out a global platform (six languages and counting). "We launched in Italy today," says Sharabi, sipping coffee outside a tree house-inspired conference room.
He's tall, slender, and soft-spoken, with a twinkle of mischief, much like one of the book's characters. "The ambition is not dissimilar to Pixar," he says. "But we want to take it in a meaningful way." So there are limits to brand-building. Such as ebooks ("Never.") And lunchboxes and other low-hanging licensing deals. "Merchandise is a dirty word," he says. "I’m a parent. I feel under attack from Disney. It's not the intention at our company to over-commercialize."
The margins on a $30 on-demand book are such that the company can say no to unappealing revenue opportunities, he says. Also, as the array of pencil sketches on an office wall suggest, a second book is in the works, due out in September. Projects on other platforms are underway but under wraps.
To test the new personalization concept, a story about a child's place in the universe, Lost My Name sent dozens of parents drafts along with a GoPro camera to gather reading-time footage. "We treat the book like software," Sharabi says. The team tweaks the text and illustrations endlessly before publication but also after it appears if a better idea emerges. The story keeps changing and improving.
"The quiet bedtime bonding moment between parent and child—that's what we want to make and support," Sharabi says. "Part of me is proud we're innovating on the oldest form in the world, the physical book."