Shortly after a startup called ComiXology unveiled its digital comics app, a board member received an email with an Excel file revealing all purchases made on the app. After a day of digital forensics revealed the sender was in his 20s in Seattle, CEO David Steinberger opted for a soft approach. “Hey, can you help me figure out how you got this?” he asked. “Oh, that was easy,” said the culprit. “I just hacked your app.”
“So we hired him,” laughs Steinberger. “He still works for us.”
These days, Amazon, which acquired ComiXology three years ago, might not appreciate such antics. But the anecdote illustrates a business ethos that Steinberger and co-founder John Roberts have tried to maintain since the founding of their company a decade ago: have heart, build karma, and work together to find solutions.
“We have taken care, culturally speaking, to define what is important to us, and how we behave and interact with our customers,” says Steinberger. “When you’re 10 people in a room and everyone can hear conversations, they get a founder’s mindset. When it increases to 50-60 people, we have to [formally] define what it means to work for ComiXology and how to think about ourselves. Today, the company has over 100 employees in offices in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.
The task of maintaining the individuality and values that propelled its initial success became more difficult when ComiXology became part of an Amazon-sized conglomerate in 2014. Three years later, Steinberger, which continues as CEO of ComiXology and also leads the digital comics business on Amazon’s site. The Kindle e-book platform has not only developed the shared corporate values of the two companies, but creatively integrates Amazon’s assets to refine ComiXology’s business.
Life at Amazon
While ComiXology’s focus on employee development and customer experience aligns well with Amazon’s leadership principles, Steinberger places particular emphasis on empathy in the context of problem solving. “Go beyond everyone you work with, put yourself in the shoes of retailers, publishers and customers, understand their perspectives and have fun being a fan,” he says.
This approach survived a test at the start of the merger, when iPhone and iPad users railed against ComiXology for canceling their ability to purchase comics through the iOS app, in order to circumvent Apple’s transaction dollars cut.
“It was the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” Steinberger says of ComiXology’s attempts to regain customer trust after the switch. “We’ve spent the first eight months with Amazon making it as easy as possible to go from buying on the ComiXology website to playing it on the app. But there’s no doubt that it adds a click or two. We tried to respond with understanding, recognizing when it’s harder for customers and how to make it easier for them.”
Intertwining with Amazon not only allowed Kindle and ComiXology apps to share comic book titles, but also led to ComiXology streamlining its internal communications, infrastructure, and analytics through processes built by its parent company.
“We’re very integrated compared to some subsidiaries, so it’s important for us to balance the Amazon way, because we exist and manage parts of Kindle, while keeping the spirit of ComiXology in place,” says Steinberger. . “It took us a while to get used to a very writing-centric culture. [At Amazon,] there are no PowerPoint presentations. When you present an idea, it is in narrative form. It helps me think ahead about questions people might ask and creates more critical thinking, which helps you make better decisions. »
“Amazon is very data-driven,” he adds, “where startup ComiXology did more gut stuff. We’ve become a lot more data-driven and less gut-driven over time. »
This synergy has given rise to fruitful initiatives. Last year, the company launched the hugely successful ComiXology Unlimited, a monthly subscription service, similar in concept to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, which offers access to some 10,000 comics. This year, it started publishing original comics and added Marvel titles and a recommendations menu. The goal is to attract new subscribers, increase reading frequency and introduce existing readers to other genres, and it works: recent figures from ComiXology revealed new customers accounting for 60% of free trials, and ComiXology Unlimited increases customer reading frequency by 58% and encourages 74% of subscribers to try new genres.
Behind the service, quite a powerful technology is at work. “We dialed in machine learning to help with the comics it recommends,” says Steinberger. “We see a future where text recognition could be extremely useful. Even recognizing people in drawings could be super cool.
Win the digital comics category
Ten years ago, a Julliard-trained Steinberger traded a rocky singing career for an MBA from New York University. This culminated in him winning an NYU business plan competition – and $50,000 in start-up capital – with an idea for an online comic book fan community and digital draw list (individual pre-orders) of upcoming comics to help users plan their purchases. He, Roberts, and a third co-founder (Peter Jaffe, who left after buying Amazon) spent the next 18 months finding time outside of their day jobs to create that first app. As its technology grew more sophisticated, the company expanded over the next few years to offer web-based tools for comic book retailers to enhance their online presence and apps to make it easier to read and watch. buying digital comics on all platforms.
Despite having pre-existing players, ComiXology managed to overtake half a dozen competitors thanks to a combination of factors:
Support retailers. ComiXology debuted as an online service that helped comic book fans manage their in-store subscriptions with their local store. In 2009, it began selling digital comics, focusing on discounted single issues and directing readers to local retailers selling current titles. Soon after, he began offering incentives to local comic book stores offering ComiXology digital retailer storefronts on their websites, giving brick-and-mortar stores a way to make money from digital comic book sales. When the company began selling new single issues the same day the print issues were released, it was offering these digital comics for the same price as print.
Retailers and publishers warmed to the idea after discovering that the existence of these digital comics did not lead to lower retail purchases. And when ComiXology struck an exclusive deal with DC Comics in mid-2010, its competitive advantage was solidified. Today, the company sells day-and-date digital titles and says it continues not to cannibalize print sales because readers often buy the same titles in both formats, or some digitally and from others in printed form.
As the digital comic book business took off, “competitors came in saying the new comics should be 99 cents. They thought they were Steve Jobs or something,” Steinberger says. “All the other companies were like, ‘We’re going to disrupt comics.’ We were creating a secure system in which ComiXology connected print publishers, retailers and consumers.”
Guided view. ComiXology’s exclusive Guided View technology, which allows users to read one panel at a time on small screens, has become its secret sauce. “When we launched, we were the only ones doing something like Guided View, which provided a better and easier experience [than competitors]explains Steinberger. “There was an inherent respect for storytelling and the art form that I felt was lacking in panel cutting on iPhone-sized images, and I wanted something better. I wanted the feeling , the timing and beats of a comic book where bubbles would work on a small device. That’s what Guided View did from an attitude perspective, and that’s part of why we were successful.
Steinberger came up with the idea, creating a rudimentary demo via slides in Apple’s Keynote presentation app, and hired an iOS developer to turn it into reality. “A lot of people tried to copy it, but there’s a lot of subtle animation stuff to make it feel really good that people don’t seem to understand,” he says.
Respect the art form. Steinberger thinks another less quantifiable but critical ingredient to ComiXology’s success was his ability to excite others into his vision – a skill he developed in his former music career. “Singing an art song is like telling a story,” says Steinberger, who recently resumed singing lessons and performs occasionally at a Brooklyn church. “It taught me to be prepared to talk about something, to tell a story, to be concise, to have a point of view. Connecting with an audience is about introducing the company, raising funds, conveying company values to our people, and building people’s enthusiasm and alignment. It takes the ability to communicate and inspire and I totally connect that to performance.
Find new audiences
ComiXology’s future goals are to find organic ways to reach a wider variety of potential readers by leveraging other Amazon divisions. For example, the company recently released trading cards of star comic book creators curated by director Kevin Smith, who hosts the geeking talk show on Amazon subsidiary IMDB. He also engaged in a giveaway promotion with Amazon-owned Fabric.com at this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego.
“We’ve heard that cosplayers buy comics just to research costumes,” says Steinberger. “We wanted to connect them to the stories. We hired a VP of Strategy who is also a cosplayer to look at communities that seem like they should read comics.
There are no plans yet for Amazon Studios to officially leverage ComiXology for potential shows, in the same way that other comic book publishers, such as IDW, have created in-house production development arms. But Steinberger still sees untapped markets, given the comics industry’s explosion of singular, alternative, and niche titles, and a rise in female readership.
“People looking back will give this era, from the 2000s to today, a name for what this era of comics will be called,” he says. “We are on the verge of a huge diversity explosion.”