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Booktopia - a story of disruption and success

It has been almost half a century since American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler made business and governments sit up and think with his bestseller Future Shock. Described variously as illuminating, provoking and frightening, his take on economics, technology and social change discussed the rise of new business, the emerging global civilisation and overwhelming, rapid change.

Toffler also made some startling predictions. In 1970, his suggestion that in the future, fewer jobs would require employees to be physically present in an office, was outrageous. When he wrote that homes would one day resemble electronic cottages and allow a better work-life balance, it strained the imagination of the corporate world.

Toffler also predicted that instead of thinking in terms of a career, the “citizen of the superindustrial society will think in terms of serial careers”. “Not infrequently the new job involves not merely a new employer, a new location and a new set of work associates, but whole new way of life,” he wrote. The past half-century has proven Toffler right on many of his predictions that were so shocking in the 1970s, yet the workplace of the 21st century shares similar fears for the future – the rapid pace of change, technology and work-life balance.

Today though, change is accepted as inevitable, and there is little room for future shock as recruitment companies are armed with information to track trends in the future workplace for the benefit of both individuals and organisations.

It is with this in mind, The Brief has spoken to three leaders, outside the sector, who are not only facing disruption, but revelling in it.

To say Tony Nash started his online book empire Booktopia with a modest budget would be quite the understatement.

Yet with just $10, the man who never used to be much of a reader, managed to build a $130 million a year business defying those who decried that books and bookstores would die off as the digital world expanded.

Whether it is the very tactile act of turning the pages of a book or the nostalgic call of a less digital era, Nash has become the epitome of digital disruption as the CEO of the company which launched in 2004.

Nash, who spent more than a decade working in recruitment started his first business on the internet, IT recruitment company Best People International in the mid-90s, likens the synergy of matching the right person with the right job, to a reader and their next book.

“We had been running an internet marketing consultancy and one of our projects was to send more web traffic to the Angus & Robertson website,” Nash said in an exclusive interview with The Brief.

“Booktopia started as a side project using the same company that managed the Angus & Robertson website and fulfilled their orders to start our own bookstore.

“The company that managed Booktopia’s website and fulfilled our orders did so for 80 other bookstores’ websites. They advised us that the only websites that had been successful were off the back of a traditional bookstore and the internet only ones had little success.

“We didn’t plan to start an empire but after about two years, sales were $2 million so we decided to build our own site and do our own fulfillment and parted ways with the company that got us started.”

For the next few years, Nash and his team worked in both businesses, continuing to run their internet marketing consultancy driving traffic to their clients’ websites while managing their own online bookstore.

“The market for physical books is growing,” Nash explained. “People want something which isn’t digital. Or we hear, ‘I spend so much time on the screen I just want to get away from all of that’ and the physical book is proving to still hold its centuries-old connection with the public.

“People love the exquisite feeling of holding a book, turning the pages and nestling into your favourite reading spot.”

Interestingly, Nash has never been a big reader and even now, as he makes books accessible to millions around Australia, he still prefers audio books saying they pleasantly fill in his 45 minute drive to and from work.

Booktopia has consistently grown at around 30 per cent annually reporting 2009 revenue of $9 million. A decade later, revenue is now $130 million annually, shipping 5.6 million products in the 2019 financial year and that number continues to grow, already up a further 20% for the first quarter of FY20.

“I get asked what I think of our competition and who the biggest threat is,” Nash said. “But I don’t even think about the competition; our focus is on our customers and the books they want to buy.

“All Australians from a newborn to a 102-year-old who can’t read any more, everyone is a potential Booktopia customer. Our books cover all categories for all ages. We have physical, digital and audio books on offer.

“The book industry has been around for 570 years and I reckon it will be around for a fair while more.”

Booktopia uses Australia Post to deliver its shipments to customers because “they do everything we need” and, Nash says, Booktopia is its seventh largest client for parcel delivery.

Nash has been able to use his experience in recruitment to build a solid and loyal employee base with many of the team moving in to more senior roles and responsibilities over the years.

“I had a lot of transferable skills from recruitment to what I am doing now,” he added.

“I love the idea of furthering people’s careers and my time in recruitment taught me people want to be of more value to themselves, their families and the companies they work for, so it is important to us that we keep offering those career paths to our staff.

“When it comes to employing people, I prefer experience and attitude over age because I think age is irrelevant. A lot of tech companies like ours have lots of millennials and young people working for them. We have a healthy mix of people from all ages, backgrounds, education and cultures.

“I do think it is important to think, not outside of the box, but outside the cube. You have to think three-dimensionally. That is the approach we take to everything we do in business and it is paying off.”

Booktopia also gives back to the community with its philanthropic initiatives, having donated more than $800,000 to literacy-based projects across Australia such as book industry awards, readers conferences, indigenous literacy, writer’s festivals and helping with library fundraising.

Read Damian Hackett’s story here Reader Sarah Hosking’s story here

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