Eileen Gittins was inspired to start Blurb struggling to find a way to publish a small batch of books. She had taken portraits of 40 people with whom she had started companies and was looking for a way to present the photographs in a bound format. But she couldn't find any printers to handle such as small job. That's when she started to think about ways printers could profitably produce one book at a time. “Can we make money on a single copy?” she asked herself. In 2006, Gittins launched Blurb, a self-publishing platform that lets anyone go online and create a beautiful, artistic, and professional-looking book.
Blurb challenges the publishing industry’s current business model, which is to make money on high sales volume. But Gittins was driven by her passion for art and the belief that everyone who wants to create a book should be able to do so. She has not only achieved her vision to provide a platform for low- to mid-volume publishing, but is proving that the model can be profitable: Gittins expects Blurb's revenue to hit $90 million this year. I recently sat down with Gittins to talk about how creativity and passion fuel her success as an entrepreneur.
You say you are an artist first and businessperson second. How has your artist self contributed to the success of the business?
It’s all about creativity. If you can be creative in one discipline of your life, you can use it in other disciplines. Photography taught me to see objects and observe them from different angles. It taught me to be observant and look at the edges of things, not just the obvious middle. As a result, I have become a better critical thinker and creative problem-solver in my business. When I'm looking through the viewfinder of a camera, I am consciously composing the image and looking beyond the obvious. I am asking myself, why am I taking this frame? What is it about this picture that is important? Why does this matter? Is this the best representation of what I am trying to communicate visually? It’s the same in business. For any challenge, ask "Why?" Then ask it again and again. Then you get down to the real problem or the real opportunity.
Why do you think even the most passionate artists struggle to be financially successful? Why are few able to be great entrepreneurs?
Because their measure of success is limited in some weird cultural way. Literally, we have this lexicon of “the starving artist.” Somehow, you need to be emotionally and financially starved for the true majesty of your artistry to shine through. Artists feel that making money is giving over your creativity to “the man,” the machine, the corporation, or whatever. That is a myth. One measure of success has to be having opportunities to do things you are passionate about. Anything short of that will limit your upward ability and how great you can be.
Your company mission is to “Help people actualize their dreams.” For your customers, that means creating their own books. How do you help your employees actualize their dreams?
Every 90 days, we do a new orientation day. Every employee has the honor and obligation to talk about who we are and who they are. One of the things we talked about today was the opportunity for creatives to serve other creatives. We hire people who are motivated by their passions. If you're passionate, you will understand our customers. We want our employees to make their own books and give us their feedback. We host book bashes. The bonus is that they get free copies of the books they just made. We eat our own dog food in that way. Also, we have a culture that encourages it. At Blurb University, we asked people to bring a recent book that they have made and share it. Talk about an icebreaker--you learn things about your colleagues that you never would have known. Then, you are off and running with a collaborative, community-based culture without having to force it.
Why do you think people want to create books? How does this add significance to their lives?
Fundamentally, there are three reasons someone would want to create a book. First, they are bursting with work they have produced and want to capture it in one place. They are elevating the work they are doing by putting it into something cohesive and whole: a container called a book. Second, they are creating something they think the world needs to see. And, by the way, when they put it out there, they hope they will change the world, but also get some monetary reward. Finally, people are making books that represent their personal brands. Companies are also doing it to share who they are in a sophisticated and attractive presentation.
What do you consider your top talent and how do you use it at Blurb?
I am creative; it goes back to the artist part. The way that I use that is to look for the beauty in everything. I also challenge everyone to see the most beauty in everything.
What is your definition of success?
Giving voice to millions of people around the world who could never could have realized their passion so beautifully. If you do that, the rest follows. Financial rewards follow, then opportunity follows. In the arc of all the many things you can do with your life, finding personal meaning is the most gratifying. My personal meaning is giving everyone else’s meaning a stage.