March 29th, 2016

Accidental Publishers

Five Simple Steps Library
Five Simple Steps Library

11 years ago Mark wrote a series of blog posts on Typography which proved to be extremely popular. He wrote further posts about grid systems, typesetting, designing with colour and more. Then 10 years ago in 2006, he left his job at the BBC and went freelance. He decided to write a book. After a year, he got busy with client work and needed help, and took on his first member of staff Benn Pearson - Mark Boulton Design was born. Another year later in 2008 with his book well underway, Mark's brother, Nick Boulton joined to typeset and design Mark's book and Robert Mills came on board as our first Project/Studio Manager.

On the 2nd Feb 2009, Designing for the Web was published as an eBook and Five Simple Steps the imprint was born. The printed book went on sale in April 2009.

With lots of fulfilment and customer service to keep up with plus the client work of course, I decided not to go back to my old job at the BBC after my maternity leave and joined Mark and the team in May 2009. Tim Millwood also joined us at the same time. A while later, we hired Dan Jukes.

The following year, we published 2 more book Practical Guides by Donna Spencer and Brian Suda as well as Hardboiled Web Design by Andy Clarke - we had somehow become a little publishing company! Five Simple Steps became a separate business that we ran alongside Mark Boulton Design. We went on to publish The Icon Handbook by Jon Hicks, Practical Guides by Robert Mills, Dan Zambonini and Breandan Knowlton and collaborated on a printed version of 24 Ways - a collaboration with Drew McLellan, Brian Suda, Owen Gregory and the team. In 2013, needing a smaller format that could be turned around more quickly, we announced our new series of Pocket Guides and published 16 further titles by more fantastic authors: Andrew Travers, Geri Coady, Rachel Andrew, Chris Murphy, Joe Leech, Tim Brown, Anna Debenham and Val Head to name a few.

Over time, our team changed but everyone who worked with us at Mark Boulton Design had a hand in Five Simple Steps: Sarah Morris, Alex Morris, Nathan Ford, Colin Kersley, Zach Inglis, Nicola Jones, Jo Brewer, Jan Collyer and not forgetting Rosie Walters who spent a summer packing books for us! We also had the pleasure of working with some brilliant freelance editors, not least of all Owen Gregory but also Chris Mills, Simon Mackie, Bill Harper, Amy Thibodeau and Emily Robertson. Other industry figures, publications and conference organisers became trusted advisors, supporters and promoters of Five Simple Steps. People like: Carolyn Wood, Simon Collison, Dan Donald, Gavin Elliott, Richard Rutter, Andy Budd, Jeremy Keith, Dan Oliver, Oliver Lindberg, Marc Thiele, Vitaly Friedman, Ethan Marcotte, Sarah Parmenter , Jeffrey Zeldman and Jason Santa Maria and how could we forget our number one customer Stu Robson?! Even our ‘competitors’ - A Book Apart, Smashing Magazine and Rosenfeld Media were advocates!

Together as a team, we did the big obvious jobs like taking an authors words, typesetting them and combining them with commissioned illustrations to create a beautiful book; designing and building a website that seamlessly worked with fulfilment and shipping services; creating lovely merchandise that customers would appreciate and collect at conferences and last but not least, tirelessly answering customer service enquiries and sending replacement books to hundreds and hundreds of customers. No job was too small though - whether it be packing books and taking sacks to the Post Office before we had a fulfilment service, to organising customs forms for importing books to the US, manning stalls at conferences, paying royalties or editing website content. The list goes on. It was a lot of hard work and for the most part we enjoyed it.

In 2014, Mark Boulton Design was acquired by Monotype and Five Simple Steps wasn't part of the deal. We had to make the tough decision to walk away from our little publishing empire and passed the reins to Craig Lockwood and Amie Lockwood. Sadly, 2 years later, Craig and Amie have announced today that they are closing the doors for good. I know they have put a lot of hard work into giving it a go and I’m really gutted that they couldn’t make it work. It’s very sad to see its demise. I wish all the remaining authors and team well. My parting wish is that something good for the web community rises from the ashes of this great little thing that we all did together.

So, in the spirit of all things 5, here are my top 5 lessons I have learnt from nurturing and growing a brand and running a business like Five Simple Steps (and then walking away from it):

  1. You can’t buy trust you have to earn it. I believe that the basis of a good business are good professional relationships. When we started publishing other people’s books we had to deliver and show we could be trusted. As our reputation grew, people wanted to write for us of course but we still had to have effective working relationships to be able to deliver a quality product - we had to build rapport and foster partnerships in order to get the best outcome.
  2. Be open not closed. Part of earning trust is being open and transparent but it’s more than that. It’s being honest about making mistakes, talking about your processes and asking for help when you’re struggling. We couldn’t ask for help when we faced the decision on whether to close the business two years ago or sell it on, because we were under NDA. Not being able to be honest with our authors and team was one of the hardest things to go through and didn’t necessarily result in the best outcome.
  3. Give things away. We used to give a lot of books away. We also used to give a lot of content and merchandise away. If people like what you have to say, or like the thing you give them, they will tell others about you. It’s not rocket science but it really works! Initially when we were first faced with closing Five Simple Steps, I really wished for an authors co-operative to be set up. Maybe the biggest thing we could have given away was a self publishing community but it seemed impossible to set up in the time frame we had available.
  4. The success (or failure) of a brand like Five Simple Steps isn’t down to one person. Five Simple Steps wasn’t a success just because of Mark’s founding blog posts or because I was behind the scenes turning all the cogs and keeping things oiled and running smoothly. It wasn’t because Nick had a great relationship with our printer and handled the production process so well or because Colin typeset all our eBooks like a demon or even because Jo handled the launch of a book with such an attention to detail that nothing was forgotten. The success was down to the whole team and the combination and chemistry of a group of individuals working together towards something.
  5. If you create a community you have to tend it. What we didn’t realise all those years ago when we accidentally became a publishing company was that we had built a community around us. All the people who had worked at Mark Boulton Design, our freelancers, our customers and our partners were all our advocates. You have to keep that alive. You have to keep tending those relationships. People like feeling part of something and want to play a part in it doing well. You can’t hide. You can’t keep it to yourself. You have to let them in.

I am truly glad that I played a part in Five Simple Steps for so long. I am also very thankful to all the good people I met and worked with along the way. I'm thankful to the web community for keeping the brand alive and supporting the new team after we had to step aside. I loved what we did.

R.I.P. Five Simple Steps.

Previously : Whose Job is User Research?
Recently : Joining the dots between customer segments and personas