Harvard Common Press Invests in Food Startups and Builds A New Business Model Along The Way
Bruce Shaw knows his market. The longtime president and publisher of Harvard Common Press (HCP) has nurtured a carefully curated list focused on parenting and cooking. The house published such category staples as The Nursing Mother's Companion by Kathleen Huggins, now in its 30th year and with over 1 million copies in print, and Smoke & Spice by Cheryl and Bill Jamison, another million copy plus seller with a forthcoming 20th anniversary edition. Not one to let success breed complacency, however, after more than 30 years of building a vibrant backlist, Shaw partnered with associate publisher Adam Salomone and made a bold move by investing in food technology startups.
Salomone joined the company in 2007 as an intern just as Shaw was beginning to explore new ways to grow his business. With a fresh perspective honed outside traditional publishing and an understanding of how to best utilize digital channels, Salomone quickly progressed in the small company. Together Shaw and Salomone engaged in an ongoing conversation about digital and online publishing and how it would impact the company. Shaw says he had always wanted to start a travel website based on the press' "Best Places to Stay" guidebooks (published in partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt under their Mariner imprint), and the team began to explore this possibility, meeting with investors and entrepreneurs and, along the way, building a network of contacts. "We were interested in travel," says Shaw, "but the conversation always came back to food."
In 2009, they met David Feller, whose online entrepreneurial successes included working with Half.com, eBay, and StumbleUpon, and who was then working to launch Yummly, a site for foodies to access recipes based on ingredients and taste preferences. Understanding that online access to free recipes would have a profound impact on the world of cookbook publishing [see sidebar on page 14], Shaw and Salomone invested in Yummly. Soon, says Shaw, "we had this growing network of entrepreneurs who wanted to talk with us. We heard from other food entrepreneurs working in food tech about how digital platforms and internet tech apply to the food space to build new products, apps, etc. As that ramped up, the travel stuff went off to the side."
As the company moved toward further investment in the world of food startups, they began to reshape the publishing side of things, leaning toward working with a more flexible staff and freelancers. Shaw says: "We looked around the room and decided to focus on the things we do really well. We have a core set of cookbooks and authors. We can build those brands with books that really matter and focus more heavily on things that really work." HCP currently publishes 6-8 new cookbooks a year, down from a previous tally of 12-14 new books annually. "Book publishing is our platform," say Salomone and Shaw, but "our brains are in the food world."
The scaled back publishing program left them with unused space in their Boston office building (Salomone works from an office in San Francisco), which they decided to turn into a coworking space for food startups. "We spent six to nine months talking to entrepreneurs in Boston and building out the space for sub-tenants," says Shaw. In September of 2013 they launched with Culture, an independent magazine "devoted to the love of cheese" (their slogan is "The Word on Cheese"), followed in October by Bakepedia, an online resource for all things baking, and NoshOnIt, a free daily cooking newsletter which provides recipes and cooking tips culled from chefs and bloggers.
"It's a vertically-oriented co-working space," says Shaw of the newly-configured office, called the Food Loft. "The idea is to share and trade resources." They hosted a launch party and then started a food tech meet-up group. They are working to build and expand this nascent Boston community. "We also want to partner with other accelerators and incubators and workspaces and share with them." In terms of growth, says Salomone, "we've just brought on a dedicated community manager for the space, who will help us onboard new food companies and grow the brand over time. It has great implications for filling up the space early in the new year."
The Harvard Common Press of today is something of a hybrid, says Shaw. "I think we're two businesses with a wonderful symbiotic relationship between them." Salomone adds that they do work to create separate identities for the two businesses, with separate social media profiles and so forth. Where they meet, he says, is around entrepreneurship in the food space. Shaw elaborates: "Where they come together it can be very powerful."
As a cookbook publisher that has transformed itself into an investment company, the two feel they have much to teach the companies with which they partner. "We publish cookbooks but take our knowledge of the food world and advise these companies in very interesting ways. We rub shoulders with tech entrepreneurs, so we become smarter about advising those companies we are bringing into our investment portfolio."
The publisher/investor model that Harvard Common Press has built over the last several years is unique, according to Shaw, who says: "What we're doing is very unusual. We are without a doubt the only publisher doing this." Asked if the model is replicable, he thinks that, for the right sort of publisher, HCP could indeed be a model. "I would say there are other publishing verticals where you could do what we're doing. This is an opportunity I see for small publishers who are really focused on one or two verticals."
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