Founder Story - Offscreen Magazine
January 2015


 Originally Published in  Offscreen Magazine, Issue 10

Originally Published in Offscreen Magazine, Issue 10

As the founders of a company all about reading, it’s unsurprising that the three of us are book lovers, yet from slightly different angles: our CEO Eric grew up in a house literally stacked full of books; Andrew, our CTO, was already a voracious reader in primary school before discovering the internet and technology; and I have always loved books as printed, designed objects — I hand-built books, typeset pages, and designed type at the Rhode Island School of Design.

In the transition to digital and its scattered ebook ecosystem, we all had a sense that a lot had been lost in the world of books — design, discoverability, and community. Yet, we loved the experience with products like Spotify and Netflix, and thought that applying the same subscription model to books would be truly game-changing. While excited by the idea, the likelihood that we would ever get it off the ground in 2012 was slim to none. Industry experts said it couldn't be done and many large publishers publicly stated that it wasn’t for them.

In that kind of environment, we knew we couldn’t simply tweak the model by five or ten degrees. We needed to attack from a point of complete differentiation and specialization. Oyster was envisioned as an all-in-one experience with reading and discovery in the same place. Unlike many products on the market, we had to execute on two fronts simultaneously: building a beautiful, intuitive app that people would want to read on, while concurrently working with publishers, convincing them to include their books on Oyster.

Coming from different backgrounds, we each brought a different skill to the table — all equally critical in envisioning and building Oyster as a sustainable business and beautiful product experience. We set out to build Oyster as a company with its feet in technology and its head in the business of books. Getting started on the product and engineering side, our first hire was an obvious one: a world-class iOS engineer. On the publisher side, our first step was to take meetings with everyone and anyone in the publishing and author community to garner every bit of perspective, opinion, and history on ebook subscriptions. The unique challenge we faced as a subscription business was that from day one we had to work with external partners and content creators.

Our second employee was Matt Shatz, the former Head of Global content for Nokia and VP of Digital at Random House. We based Oyster’s operations in New York because it is the center of the publishing world and gives us unparalleled access to the books community, independent imprints, and authors. Coming from San Francisco myself, I found the city to be a breath of fresh air from the all-encompassing nature of the technology universe in the Bay Area.

When we launched in September 2013, we were the first company to ever sign an unlimited subscription deal with one of the five biggest publishers and build a beautiful mobile-first product that reimagined the ebook experience.

Our focus remains on helping people find great books they otherwise might never encounter, and by doing that we drive a ton of new readers to our over half a million titles. In fact, over 80% of all books read on Oyster are found through discovery features, such recommendations, editorial, related titles, or social. On the design side, we’ve invested heavily in building a differentiated reader product, focusing energy on speed, typography, and seamlessness between platforms. Our readers seem to love it — today over 75 pages are read on Oyster every second. This enthusiasm has motivated initially skeptical publishers to believe in what we're doing, and as a result, we have now signed over 1,600 publishers representing over 275,000 authors.

Of course, fair compensation of authors was important to us from the beginning. In general, when an author's book is read on Oyster, we pay the publisher, who in turn pays the author. This directly ties success on Oyster with payments to the author, which are paid for their book in-full — not paid per-page or time or anything like that. We’ve learned from the companies that have come before us in this model (Spotify, Netflix) and made sure to set up a business that works *with* publishers and content creators, not in opposition.

Right now we’re focused on expanding upon our goal of being the absolute best place to find your next book to read. Building our team and rallying it around a single mission has been one of the most exciting and energizing experiences of our lives. Eric, Andrew, and I have very complementary personalities and skills, and working alongside them has helped me improve as a collaborator, leader, and thinker. More than anything I believe that you have to surround yourself with people that you admire and are motivated toward the same goals. This doesn’t mean every moment should be like a house party with your best friends, it means there is a shared purpose and intensity to do the best work of your lives together.

Thanks for reading.




🙇 Willem Van Lancker
🗽 New York City

📚 Co-founder of Oyster
🔍 (acquired by Google)


🏄 @vanlancker