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Hugh McGuire, a fellow Montrealer, shares his views on the state of newspapers and the rise of new media technology, of which he is an advocate. Learn how this entrepreneur has managed to balanced both passion and opportunity to make way for his many startups, including The Book Oven (see also The Book Oven Blog), Librivox, Earideas, and Datalibre.




Allentrepreneur: Welcome to Allentrepreneur Hugh and thanks for taking the time to talk. You’ve got quite a start-up resume to your name.,, and your latest one, The Book Oven, which has me particularly curious since I’m a book junkie. Could you give us an introduction?


Hugh: The book business is going through massive changes, there are cutbacks all over the place in publishing houses, bricks and mortar booksellers are in trouble, and there’s angst everywhere about how digital and ebooks will upset business models that have been entrenched for 100 years. But books are still a $50 billion business, and there are passionate readers and writers all over the world. The book business looks a lot like the music business did 10 years ago, with these huge companies knowing things are going to change, but having great trouble adjusting.


One really exciting thing is new technologies that make publishing a book cheap and easy: print-on-demand and ebooks. In some sense these technologies can take the publisher out of the picture – in the same way that musicians can now make and distribute their music online, writers now have the same abilities.


But making a book is an arduous and collaborative process. Book Oven will help bridge the gap between writing, and publishing a finished product.


Allentrepreneur: What started you down the path of entrepreneurship and what are the qualities that helped you along succeed along the way?


Hugh: I’ve always been passionate about making a difference in the world, trying new things and finding ways to make people’s lives better. I’ve never been particularly interested in technology as-such, but instead the ways that technologies could be used, the kinds of things people could do with them. And particularly interested in how technology can help people do things that are deeply important to them. So I guess I’ve looked at certain kinds of problems that I’d like to see solved in the world, and thought about how I could contribute to solving them.


As for success, I think if you believe passionately in what you are doing, and you can articulate that passion clearly, then if your ideas are any good, people will want to join you. With LibriVox, for instance, I had this simple, crazy idea: “To make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet,” and enough people thought that was a valuable goal that we’ve become the most prolific audiobook publisher in the world. All driven by a simple idea, and thousands of people’s passions.


Allentrepreneur: is fascinating. You started this project 4 years ago with 13 contributors on your first day. Today, you have over 1,000 completed works in 18 different languages and about 1,600 contributors. It seems to me that podcasts haven’t reached their full potential. What other domain could benefit from a podcasting community?


Hugh: Actually, LibriVox started 3 and a half years ago (August 2005), and we’ve now completed 2,064 works in 29 languages, with 2,700 contributors.


“Podcasting” is a bad term, I think, because it confuses people. Audio (or maybe radio, or recording) might be better. All podcasting is, is sound recordings available on the web. So to answer your question: I think anytime ideas are spoken out loud, podcasting can be useful. I’d like to see all universities podcast all their lectures, as well as interviews with professors doing interesting research; I’d like to see a massive oral history project, to archive not just the stories of the generation that will soon be gone, but to record their voices as well. I think non-profits should be podcasting to engage better with their constituents, and politicians should podcast to talk about their policies. Any kind of news media outlet, or magazine should do at least one podcast to talk about their most interesting stories. We should be interviewing more writers and artists and musicians, and thinkers and economists, and scientists, and policy-makers, and… the list could go on and on. Anything anyone says out loud that is really interesting, or really challenging, or really valuable ought to be podcast.


Allentrepreneur: In your “defining what you are for (just like porn)” post, you argue that news providers, whether they are newspapers or blogs, win not by the dispensing of information but by the selection of it. That’s why blogs win. You happen to write for the popular Huffington Post, a “blog” that is at the forefront of a digital revolution that has caused quite a stir recently. Namely, the demise of newspapers as we know it. Would you care to share your opinion on the matter?


Hugh: Well it would take me a while to share all my opinions on that. The point I was making with that post is that newspapers and generally institutions that deal with knowledge and media have gotten stuck thinking about themselves as “providers of newspapers” or “publishers of books” or “buildings where students come to learn about things.” But these definitions of what these institutions “do” grew out of particular technological and environmental constraints. So what all these institutions need to do is consider the real value they bring to society, not how they bring it, and then figure out how changing technology will help them do that better.


So I’m arguing that these kinds of institutions should try to figure out “what they are for” and not “what they do,” and if they get that right, then it will be easier to navigate their course as technology changes. By focusing on what they are for and not what they do they can continue to be relevant. I read recently about Nintendo: it was founded in 1889 (!) as a playing card company. But they realized that what the are for is proving fun to people, not making card games, or board games, or video games for that matter. They are not constrained by the particular technology they are using at any one time to deliver their true value (fun), they use technology to as a means to deliver fun.


So for media and knowledge institutions, figure out what you are for and decide how you can best continue to serve that purpose, given all the technologies at your fingertips now, and in the future.


Allentrepreneur: One of the more fascinating start-up out there is actively reversing the process and leading a revolution all its own. Blurb takes digital content (the user’s) and gives it the power to publish his very own book. So first newspapers and now publishers. What new opportunity do you see coming out of this?


Hugh: I see lots of opportunity. Part of why the book business looks as it does is because the technology for making and distributing books was expensive. With offset printing you had to do a print run of 500 or 1,000 at least to make a book at any kind of reasonable price. To sell books you had to ship them to bookstores, who had to shelve them, and someone had to be at the till to make the transaction to the reader.


Now, you’ve got print-on-demand technology that means you can print a on-off copy of a book and sell it for roughly the same price as a mass-produced book that you would buy in a store; people can order your book online, and have it shipped to them directly. You can make an ebook that you can distribute essentially for free over the web. You have Amazon and other online bookstores.


So these changes in technology mean that the business will necessarily change. We are in early days of this change – it’s happening already, but more on the writing side, and less on the reading. I expect that will change as publishing cuts cost and writers find new ways to distribute their work.


So I’m certain we are on the verge of an explosion in independent book publishing and writing. Book Oven hopes to help that explosion along.


Allentrepreneur: In a previous interview, I inquired about whether one should follow his passion vs. his opportunities. It strikes me that you’ve successfully merged both. You’re a writer and a web-developer, and the nature of your start-ups are a perfect amalgam of both. Is this something that came by accident or did you firmly set out to follow this route?


Hugh: In some ways I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to come along to match my passions. I have three particular interests: books, new media technology, and mass collaboration. I don’t know if this will work for everyone, but it seems to me that by following my passion and my curiosity, a wonderful opportunity revealed itself to me. So in some sense it was an accident, but in another it feels like this was the inevitable path, given my passions.


Allentrepreneur: How about some suggested reading, business or otherwise?


Hugh: I don’t really read business books, but anyone interested in mass collaboration should read Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks.” I’m reading War and Peace right now, on the Stanza ereader on my ipod, and it’s great. I’m loving it.


Whatever resolutions you may have made this year, this discussion with Leo Babauta of Zen Habits fame will have you on your feet, ready to seize the day. In this timeless piece, learn how small steps pave the way to success; how embracing simplicity, of mind or otherwise, will bring you more, not less; and how entrepreneurs can use the six key principles of The Power of Less to help their cause.


Allentrepreneur: Welcome Leo! To be perfectly frank, I don’t even know where to begin. Your blog, Zen Habits, is part of Technorati‘s top 100 blogs, you’re the author of best-selling book The Power of Less, you have six kids and you live in Guam. And that’s just for starters. I’d like to go back in time a bit. As a former journalist and freelance writer for 18 years, what was Leo Babauta like before starting down the path to Zen and simplicity?

Leo: Journalism is a stressful job, working in a daily newspaper and trying to meet deadlines every day. I handled it just fine, but I was a constant multi-tasker, tried to take on too much, worked long hours, became overweight and unhealthy, and didn’t have time for my family. It wasn’t a happy life. When I realized that I was missing too many of my kids’ soccer games and school events, and that these were moments with them that I’d never get back, I knew I needed to make some changes, which is why I’ve simplified my life and learned to focus on what’s really important.

Allentrepreneur: Starting in 2005, you took a chance and walked down a path of simplicity and never looked back. Amongst many things, you quit smoking, wrote a book, eliminated debt and tripled your income. Talk to us about the importance of making that first blind jump and living up to our full potential. 

Leo: It doesn’t have to be a blind jump, and it doesn’t have to be setting out to live to our full potential. It can just be something as simple as making a small but positive change in habits, such as eating a little healthier, waking early to have quiet time for yourself or for exercise, clearing away some of the clutter in your life.

These little changes don’t seem like much but they really make a positive difference in your life, and over time little changes really add up to a lot. So instead of making a blind leap, just take a small step. Then another, and another. It’s not so overwhelming that way, and it’s much more sustainable.

Allentrepreneur: Surely there were many times along the way when you thought you wouldn’t make it. What got you through? 
Leo: I’ve learned the corny but very powerful method of positive thinking. If you tell yourself you can do it, it makes a huge difference. It’s also important to do things you’re really excited about — that makes it much easier. If something seems hard and pure drudgery, you won’t really want to do it. But if it’s something that excites you, motivation is easy.
Finally, remember to enjoy the journey. People get so focused on the goal that they don’t realize what they’re doing right now is already enjoyable. Training for a marathon isn’t just about crossing the finish line. Every mile in training is fun if you keep yourself in the moment.
Allentrepreneur: Zen Habits has a following of more than 80, 000 subscribers. Others, like Steve Pavlina and Tim Ferriss, also enjoy a strong readership. All of you advocate a road to happiness forged in simplicity and creativity. What do you think this says about our times? 
Leo: That there are a lot of people looking for this message of simplicity and finding our passion, because of the overwhelming nature of today’s world. It’s complicated, chaotic, stressful, and so people are looking for alternatives. Simplicity is that alternative, but what they don’t realize is that simplicity isn’t that difficult … you can start simplifying today, and to do so, keep things simple: start small, and do one thing at a time.
Allentrepreneur: There are a lot of blogs on productivity and simplicity out there. Why do you think you’ve been so successful where many others have failed? 
Leo: When I first started, there actually weren’t a lot of blogs that combined productivity and simplicity. There were a lot of productivity blogs, but they focused on using technology to do more, to multi-task and fill every minute with productivity. I took a very different approach, and I think it resonated with a lot of people.
Allentrepreneur: Here’s something that is on a lot of minds: Discovering what you love to do and try to make a living of it. That’s where a lot of start-ups start up from.  What specific principles from the Power of Less can an aspiring entrepreneur hope to learn and use? 
Leo: Each of the six key principles in The Power of Less can be used by an entrepreneur looking to make a living doing what he loves:
1. Set limits. Start by limiting what you’re trying to do — instead of having your startup do everything, focus on doing one thing that no one else is doing well, and do it exceptionally well. You can’t take on the dominant players in the industry by trying to beat them at what they already do well. So beat everybody at what they aren’t doing well now.
2. Choose the essential. What are the essential tasks that need to be done to start the business? Focus on those, almost exclusively. What are the essential features that your product or service needs to start? Focus on getting those done, and add other things later if needed.
3. Simplify. Once you’ve identified the essential, eliminate as much of the non-essential as possible. This might take time, but continually revisit this to make sure you’re really focusing on the essential. It’ll make your use of time much more effective.
4. Focus. Learn to focus on one task and project at a time to make the most of your time.
5. Create habits. As a startup, you want to create effective habits because you have fewer resources than bigger companies and need to make the most of what you have. Use the effective habit change principles in The Power of Less to create new habits. 
6. Start small. Don’t try to take on everything at once. Start small and expand later.
Allentrepreneur: You recently wrote a fun post titled Google Features I’d Like To See. I’d like to duplicate the idea and have you tell us what New Start-ups (tech or otherwise) You would Like To See. 
Leo: Startups that empower people. If there’s something that people want but currently have no way of making the government or big corporations do it, then there’s a need for empowerment, a way for people to do it themselves. For example, if people need better healthcare solutions, there should be a network in place for people to organize themselves and create those better healthcare solutions themselves, rather than relying on the government. Same thing when it comes to creating better energy solutions (so we’re not so reliant on cars or fossil fuels), helping take care of the poor.
The same applies to the world of tech: if people don’t like being locked into DRM and ancient copyright systems, they need to create their own systems and get widespread adoption of it, rather than trying to beat the corporations and get the government to change laws. A startup that empowered people in this way would be brilliant. These are just a few suggestions, but you get the general idea — empower people to make the changes they want to see in the world themselves.
Allentrepreneur: How do you keep yourself motivated ? 
Leo: I do what excites me, and stay in the moment. It’s easy to get discouraged if you look at how much more you have to do, or think about how frustrating things have been in the recent past. But if you just look at what you’re doing right now, and enjoy it, that frustration goes away. And when you do look back every now and then, you’ll see how far you’ve come by taking it one step at a time.
Allentrepreneur: And finally, what’s the weather like out in Guam? 
Leo: Right now it’s a bit rainy — perfect for staying in and spending time with family. Usually it’s sunny and pretty humid, which is why I do my running in the early morning before it gets too hot. Guam is a nice place to live if you like having a simple life.

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