I started the Scottish Bee Company a few years before the pandemic began. It was still in its infancy - a startup that (like every other business) relied on a stable and consistent market and had to find its way through an ever changing market without it. John MacPherson, the owner of and founder of Bright Red Publishing, a company that provides educational material and study guides across Scotland, relies mainly on a stable and consistent education system as well as a strong financial market.
John began Bright Red in 2008 - right as the financial crisis hit, and he was immediately hit with huge challenges overnight and immediately changing the trajectory of his new company. It was only a few years later that the Scottish Government had a huge upheaval of the school examining boards which meant a large percentage of his products (study guides etc) became useless, and once again he had to change the company’s direction. Since then, with the pandemic and a continued move to digital content and changes to how we consume data, it is fair to say John has not had an easy ride.
Despite this, Bright Red is now a multi award winning independent publishing
Company that continues to thrive. In our podcast, John shares his journey, his attitude and a little about the importance of tenacity. Enjoy!
Suzie Millar 0:18
Hi, everybody, and welcome to this week's episode of Think Outside your hive. Today's guest is John McPherson from Bright Red publishing. They are a children's educational book publishing company based in Edinburgh. And I've known John for quite a few years as my cousin used to work for him. The thing I really enjoy is they're just so open and honest, they are such a niche product, that they're producing education books, or pass papers or education books to help people to get through their qualifications at school in Scotland. So very niche, they have a huge amount of energy, because they just all they really want is for kids to be able to pass their exams. And it genuinely does give them a buzz to know that their products are helping people to do that, because they're so passionate about education. They first started their company in 2008. Right at the time of the financial crash. And what I think you'll like about John's discussion is kind of how he's navigated. The past however many years with pandemics, educational changes, moving from on books to online, and the financial crash etc. Enjoy!
Thanks so much, John, for coming along on my podcast. I know, you sort of said, Oh, I don't know if people are going to be interested in publishing. But I think it's fascinating, your job, your your business. And I just wanted people to know a little bit more about it. So how did bright red come about in the very, very beginning?
John MacPherson 1:55
Well, I, I work in quite a niche part of publishing. So it's educational publishing, and I completely fell into it by accident. I was with another publishing company for five years. And in the five years, I was there changed hands three times. And we made an approach to try and buy the company at the time, because we put so much work into it that we thought you know, we'd rather take this on and what build on what we've done. But the powers that be didn't let us buy it. So we decided at that point, well, we really want to be in control of our destiny, we're going to have to go in there, do this for ourselves. So we did, we decided that we were going to start up a new company, and that was going to be became bravely publishing and that was 2008 - 13 years ago.
Suzie Millar 2:34
And so 2008 Obviously, that was not that great of a time for the financial markets or anything like that. Did you start just before the crash?
John MacPherson 2:43
It's quite interesting from a business point of view, because all of our plans were based on, you know, quite a lot of growth and 10 years prior to that, you know, quite buoyant markets, quite good budgets, quite good personal income, and all of these kinds of things. And then, while we were in the middle of starting up, we got the bank funding entity, version seven, entity version, and eight. That was when the bells started to ring for JP Morgan, all that sort of stuff. So by mid 2008, great recession. I don't remember it being that great. But it made our startup life very difficult, very difficult. And everything that we planned went out the window pretty much straightaway,
Suzie Millar 3:20
Did education change that much during that time?
John MacPherson 3:26
Councils were changing their budgets, how people were feeling about spending their own money was changing, and quite a lot of job losses were happening at the time. Quite a lot of pensions went flying out the window and quite a lot of bigger companies that we would have been clients of/suppliers had borrowed a lot of money to get to where they were their estate and kept that borrowing going to keep growing. And suddenly the bank was turning around and calling them in. So they were saying as well, we can't supply to you these terms anymore. So everything changed quite quickly. It was real. We just threw our original business plan which we spent 12 months writing out the window. And by that time, of course, we given our notice, we then put our own money into the business. We had put our careers our lives online felt like at the time, so it was quite... Yeah, it was quite scary.
Suzie Millar 4:17
And so when you say education publishing, what does that mean? What do you do?
John MacPherson 4:22
It means quite a lot of things these days. Back then it was a lot of print - printed material. So we would publish study guides and things like that, revision books and full colour stuff for students. We had our own plan for a list of books that would support students through their National Qualifications, senior level stuff, and which was always a fairly good market for us. We went to attend to the SQ to publish their past papers and publication within a year, and despite everything else, we've managed to win that that tender and we had that for four years trading time with them. So that was quite a challenge to get the business off the ground, because what it meant was such a big bit of business that we focus so much on that, that we couldn't really grow our own business side of it. So that was quite challenging for me. There are a whole lot of parameters these days, educational publishing is quite mixed. I mean, especially post lockdown, it's quite blended. There's a lot of online learning and things like that. So it's changing quite a lot.
Suzie Millar 5:22
And how do you adapt to that? Because obviously, if I can imagine that, obviously, if you do print stuff, you can sell a book. What does that mean, though? What would your sales come from? What do you sell?
John MacPherson 5:33
Well, it's a real mix. These days, we sell study guides, we sell course books, we sell revision cards. And that's sort of the print side of things. And what we've done over the last sort of seven or eight years ago, we were entered partnership with Edinburgh University to produce a digital resource that backed up all of our books. So we have got a digital presence, which is very popular, with hundreds of 1000s of registered people on there. And they come and go every year, as they do international finds that hires that advance hires. So we have got a digital footprint in that sense. But what we're trying to do now is offer more access to eBooks, more access to digital copies more access to digital subscriptions for our content. So we're aware that our content is very much our our biggest possession, and it's how we let people access that because a lot of people feel that, you know, it's online, it should be three. And it's trying to get around that and put a paywall somewhere that says, Well, we're a small business, we'd love to give you it for free. But it's not possible for us to keep being a business and doing that. So we need to put something in there to get some revenue, but it's real, it will be more than more of a mix.
Suzie Millar 6:35
And who are your actual customers then because obviously, I'm guessing, although the 15 year old 16 year olds are using it, they're not the people that are finding it, is it the teachers or...
John MacPherson 6:46
Many 15 or 16 year olds that give up their pocket money. Although I think if you can get into teachers - our stuff is written by the best teachers around so they recognise colleagues that have written stuff, and they'll use it in class to support their teaching. And in particular, nice subjects, they'll use those kinds of books a lot, because there isn't anything else for them. Generally, bigger companies don't really bother so much with the likes of national faith engineering science, or, you know, higher Spanish for these are the kinds of subjects that we will publish into, because we're small, and we can make those kind of decisions. So teachers push the ball. And so departments at schools, and then beyond that you've got parents, and parents buying up for the for the children, supporting them through their course or getting ready for the exam, basically, revision.
Suzie Millar 7:36
And so you just touched it a little bit there, I wanted to go back to about the content that actually gets written for them. You said it, it's written by teachers, how do you how do you find people to write the content in the first place? Like, do you have a set lot of people that work for you already? Or do you find that from elsewhere,
John MacPherson 7:54
They don't really work for us. So these these are sort of freelance writers that have careers normally in teaching. So they might be set or markers, or they might just be at the front of their field and their subject, you know? I go to loads of trade schools, I should say conferences, I go to lots of school events and I meet a lot of people generally. And you just build up the contacts, you know, the right people to ask and the right people to talk to and very occasionally, some people will approach us and say, you know, I've created this, you know, resource, would you be interested in another country, but generally, we would have a plan of what we want to publish for based on what's happening. And over the last sort of 18 months, we've published a lot less because of the, you know, changes in lack of exams, that kind of thing. So we put quite a lot of stuff around the business on board. And in the years ahead, you know, the STV, it's set to be revised, disbanded, I'm not entirely sure exactly what's going to happen. I don't think they're entirely sure exactly what. So we'll be keeping an eye on that. See what we what we need to do.
Suzie Millar 8:56
And do you do... Is it just in Scotland?
John MacPherson 8:59
Yes, we do sell some books abroad. But generally, it's only if they're taking scores.
Suzie Millar 9:05
So obviously, you had the crash that happened in 2008. What were you thinking you were going to do? And what did you do?
John MacPherson 9:12
Well, two things changed. The amount of the amount of publishing that we were going to do into certain subject areas was going to change quite a lot based on overseeing budgets being spent. So that was one thing that we had to revise the plan that we had for the kind of publications we were going to get out there. But the second thing was we won unexpectedly, the past paper template. So rather than doing X amount of our own titles, we were having to do half that and all the past papers has 70 or 80 books each year, you know, a big project that took up half a year and most of our time, so we needed to revise our plans completely around that to to give us the time and space to do it. It was quite a big challenge for the business. The business was at full stretch, you know, running very, very busy for quite a few years.
Suzie Millar 9:58
Was that part of your original plan? Or was that a reaction to what was happening at the time?
John MacPherson 10:10
I mean, all of the all of the copyright material comes from the SQ it's their past papers. It was such a big project that we felt that we were the team that delivered that project for about 10 years at that point. But the other place, well, our previous employer, so we didn't feel like we thought Bright Red was too new to really be in with a shot. We had the team that could do it, but would they put their faith in such a new company? And as it turned out, they did. And for the four years that we ran it, it ran spectacularly well, all of the titles come out on time, or did very well. The unfortunate thing about that contract was during the time we were doing that, SQ he decided that as well as selling books as past papers, they also wanted to be all of them to online for free. Within about a year or two, there was millions of papers been diluted. And we noticed this real hit the market. And amongst everything else, we were noticing quite a big drop off, and then the big sales, but the project, I mean expense, it just was the revenue was really fallen off. So you know, we're talking about trying to project the head on the kind of growth of where we thought we'd be falling quite a lot. Sure. And we still had a lot of cost to make that happen. So we did it for four years to the point where it was clear that the past paper project as it was in terms of books, was never going to be the same as it had been five years before it was just there's too much free stuff out there.
Suzie Millar 11:33
I just think it's so interesting that you've had like the crash in 2008. And then that kind of gradual, really sort of realisation that print well is changing to being very much online, and how do you actually make sure that your content gets paid for?
John MacPherson 11:56
The crash was in 2008. And then by the time we come out of the past paper contract that was 2012. I'm sure we had about 20, or 30 of our own books at that point, were a limited number of our own titles. But there was an entire curriculum change came along in 2013/14.
Suzie Millar 12:15
What was it called the Curriculum for Excellence?
John MacPherson 12:17
Everything that we published to the point of 2012 13 was about to become obsolete. So we had a period of about a year or two where we had to go back to scratch, no pass papers, none of our own titles and start again, a 2018. So that was I mean, from 2008 to 2016/17. It was it was an incredible journey of just sort of hanging on constantly putting things out which were then getting changed or dropping off or disappearing, and trying to keep up.
Suzie Millar 12:46
And how did you how did you end up keeping up with it? In the end? Is it just what is it about you cuz obviously got your business partner as well? Are you just both super determined, or you stubborn or ultra resilient?
John MacPherson 13:00
I mean, I think we put so much into that point, you know, from the point where we started with sunk all of our own money, and all of our sort of what's where to look for, like career, everything we had into this thing. We were at that point we were pot committed, there was no way out that we could get out of that that would be okay. Right up until maybe 2016 17. There was nearly 10 years before we were in a position where you could have said, well, we could be walk away from this if we had to need it. Yeah, we're too banged up. And at that point, so yeah, I mean, necessity made us very determined, but I think yeah, we are, we naturally must be very detailed to people because I am and I do still talk about the fact that plenty of people I'm sure would have said, that's enough. Yeah, that's enough now, and let's not. And it's quite interesting, though, because there was further curriculum change in 2016 17, which we then had to start with 2017, at the named pandemic came along. But interestingly, when the pandemic came along, although the business was older and more mature, it was still very scary. For a good few weeks, a couple of months. But Alan and I, we felt like we'd been through it before, at least once or twice. So we've never been through a pandemic, but we knew the things that we need to, you know, we knew the right things to do. We knew who we needed to speak to. And we were able to have those conversations as kind of feeling like, you know, much more mature business owners who could pilot away through this, rather than thinking, Ah, what do we do? How do we do? There's no way it can work. Hang on. It wasn't like, it felt a bit more like okay, well, let's see what we can do them still scary, but a bit more applied work.
Suzie Millar 14:40
Yeah. And I guess you start to laterally think, don't you when you've been exposed to sort of shock several times throughout your business life, you're able to kind of find a way around things and which once you've been able to see that you've done that before, then you become a lot more confident that you can do it again, I guess.
John MacPherson 14:57
So I mean, one of the first things that we did when the pandemic came along was go to all of our new project, you know, the writers and things and say really sorry, but have to pause this, because there's no possible way we can keep sinking money into such an uncertain situation. And pretty much all of them, they're all brilliant, largely teachers, and he said, You know what, we are going to get paid for this. Regardless, we're gonna have to work hard, we're gonna have to, you know, but we, our jobs are guaranteed you guys on a business you've got to do you got to do, and they were fine about it. But there's gonna be 10 years ago, I've been very moved to go to people that are convinced to work on the table and see, we need to pause this and feel really bad about it was Yeah, more recently, I felt like, well, this is what we have to do. And I'm sure it will understand and they did understand.
Suzie Millar 15:42
Yeah, and you had a bit more confidence to be able to, to actually have that conversation in the first place. Rather than worrying about 10, sleepless nights, I'm sure you probably did have sleepless nights.
John MacPherson 15:51
There were a few. As well as that I guess the business been that that all domain that we were able to read out a bit bit. Because at the start, you don't have that luxury, I think at the beginning, you need to push, you can't stop until the momentum is over.
Suzie Millar 16:14
What's changed since the pandemic then because obviously, there haven't been exams.
John MacPherson 16:17
Yeah, there haven't been shops, schools have been out. And so there's been a lot of demand directly for our stuff from parents. And school sales have dropped off a fair bit trade sales, you know, when shops have been closed on entirely, Amazon's gone up, direct sales have gone up. But we've managed to re-start our paused projects. And we we did the little bits and pieces that we could really move to fill out from our office and landlord was wanting to refurbish anyway. So we just took the right decisions to come out. And it's worked really quite well. It's only in the last sort of few months, since August, roughly that we've started cooking again. And it's definitely it's changing. There's a lot of blended learning on offer. There's a lot of people looking for online materials and digital content, because the way people are, there's been a shift, definitely a pivot and how people access information.
Suzie Millar 17:18
What has been the shift, and what we are people like accessing information now?
John MacPherson 17:24
People work digitally far more, so requests for digital content, and digital access to our books, digital subscriptions for access to parts of our books. I would say a real less interest in the hardcopy of the hard copies of the books have still, you know, been in demand, especially direct home sales, you know, their parents still want the weekend things are far more requests for digital copies from parents, but also from teachers. Because teachers are saying, well, I'm trying to deliver this this way and have certain pupils with whom it's easier for me to share stuff.
Suzie Millar 17:57
But what I find interesting about that is obviously everybody started working from home, but kids have been digital for five years.
John MacPherson 18:06
I think educational publishing has been using digital technology since the 90s, with CD ROMs and things like that. But you could ask the same question about why people weren't working before we what was this madness that was causing people to drive for two hours to come to an office all day when they can technology's been there to do at home for years and years. It was just one of those things.
Suzie Millar 18:30
Yeah. And I guess actually, the pandemic, what wasn't happening is that teachers were having to deliver their classes digitally. So that has changed. Yeah,
John MacPherson 18:40
Yes. I mean, certainly. And I think in terms of contingency, if teachers are planning ahead, and maybe into next year, there'll be less, but what happens if you can't deliver your class? And you're saying, well, I'll get a digital copy of that. So put something fall back on. So there's that kind of, it might not be the same kind of sale, but as far more interest in having it available if needed.
Suzie Millar 18:58
Okay. And where do you see it going now. So where's the next step?
John MacPherson 19:03
Well, for us, we publish traditional sort of titles, but we want to pick up on the stuff that's been delayed, and we'll get that out. So it's really important, I think that we fulfil those projects. So that would be sort of business as usual. But we spend quite a lot of time this year really look at how we maximise ebook sales through Amazon, and how we get teachers to engage with subscribing to digital copies, which they can use in class or parents do the same. And it's really just sort of trying to make use of this, like, you know, 75 titles in our list, you know, we really need to make sure it's far more accessible. You know, it's far more available. So that's the that's what we're trying to do so. So we didn't put vizier that actually that is really looking forward to January because I think that kind of mix in the business is essential. And then to next year, it'll be next year will tell us whether we can do it or not. And whether it's that demand is there.
Suzie Millar 19:58
So interesting, isn't it? because that's something that we've definitely noticed in the past couple of years is just this complete shift to things like Amazon, you know, and that actually, you can start selling through Amazon. But everyone thinks, Oh, you just put you just put your stuff on Amazon. That's all you do. And that's how you sell it. And it's so far from how you sell it, because there's so many technical things that you've got to learn about for Amazon. And, you know, do you want to fulfil by Amazon? Or do you want to fulfil by yourself, and these are the storage fees that you've got to pay. And then and it's actually quite technical. Now in terms of search engine optimization, it's got its own search engine optimization. So that's a whole nother thing that you've got to learn? Are you find a way?
I think delivering on anything at the moment is naturally held up. There's a pandemic, which is dislocated everything, including shipping. So getting stuff back from overseas is really tricky. So there's a huge demand for UK printers. Now, we've always used UK printers, but we've never had to compete with every other printer in Milan, to use them. And it makes, it makes for quite big challenges. Whereas, you know, going back to digital, you know, when you can get digital technology, right? You can deliver that thing so much more quickly, if you can stand it, and you can make meaningful sales of it through Amazon or whatever. But the technology is, you know, it's something that we we, we know, Alan I are digital, you know, we're not digital natives in that sense. You know, I grew up with spectrums, and Commodore and things like that. But you know, any of these things, so we put that kind of thing out. So we're very busy configuring your list, ebooks and moving forward to get a name online and stuff. So that would make a big difference because it gives you that quicker route to market doesn't she see the shopping habit is going to Amazon.
Because I was thinking, because your books that I've seen are very interactive and that you you're not just reading text and Kindles not that great for that is it? So that's, that's really interesting.
John MacPherson 22:54
Yes, there's a certain set of a certain type of file that Amazon will take that will capture our books and let people view them on Kindles and things that we've had good oh, that route. But that's not technology or skills that we have in our business. So we're in the middle of doing that right now.
Suzie Millar 23:11
Oh, that's brilliant. That's great. Wow, you're very adaptive to all the changes that are happening in the world.
John MacPherson 23:17
But I feel we're very late with SME, we should have probably done it years ago. But again, until we actually had time to stop and take stock and see what's changed, what do we need to do? That's when you make the decision.
Suzie Millar 23:31
That's what you kind of been seeing, isn't it with the pandemic is that everybody was so forced to stop that most people are pivoted and you know, sometimes reactionary, and sometimes because you've just had that, that opportunity to slow down and think about which direction you really want to go in next. A few questions that I always ask are, who is in your hive. It can be fictional, could be someone real, could be people that are around you on a day to day basis, but people that kind of keep you going keep you inspired?
John MacPherson 23:58
I mean, I'm not a hive person. I'm more of a lone pigeon, to be honest with you, but much will be. I'll be well, I'll be there today today roaming the road. Yeah, we'd be a bit more down those lows. But yeah, it'd be immediately in the family. I think my business partner and my colleagues at work, you know, these are the people that keep me going and make it all worthwhile. Mentally, although I am, I am always inspired by any kind of big stuff around like ingedients or tenacity, it doesn't have to be successful. They don't have to one through the end or anything like that. But when I see stories of people that will just keep going in things. I always get to me always be like that really inspires me to there was a guy that ran every Munro in Scotland. No good reason for doing it. He just wanted to see if he can do it. So anyone that really will bat alone against the odds and not really give up. They tend to inspire me more than an innovative as well, people that can really innovate inspire me quite a lot to see stories about what humankind is able to do, but that doesn't involve polluting the planet anymore.
Suzie Millar 25:13
How do you re pollinate. Repollination is about giving back or re energising - that can be yourself or to the planet or anything really, it's your interpretation.
John MacPherson 25:23
I think, from a business point of view, certainly, like every politician is very much I think what we do has its own worth, when we were able to go into schools and see students and pupils, you know. I realised that whenever we publish a book, every single book that's used is helping someone get on or do well, or there's no badness in what we do. In that sense, there's only a game to be hired by the people that engage with our stuff. So I feel like we can have, we can spread the love a little bit in that way, by helping people educate themselves at that. So that's quite important. Then actually I do quite a lot of mentoring. So I mentor like new publishers for the SIP and I mentor, or I did mentor until the pandemic, for Breakthrough Dundee. So personally, I try and focus on bringing people on. So whether we have placements in the office, or people that come in contact with us to try and help people as much as you can to get them on, especially if they're interested in being helped. And you know, they need to be but have a leg up for their support, quit into that sort of stuff.
Suzie Millar 26:32
That's great. I love that. It's just so nice, isn't it when you can feel like you're at the stage of your career where you can start to get back to people.
John MacPherson 26:46
Yeah, yeah, it does. I mean, there was, there were people when I was in the teens that were very good to me. In my 20s, were very good to me. So it's kind of like, it's good to sort of give some back in that sense as well. And also, like, when I was at school, I was quite a reluctant learner to say the least. So you know, I recognise the value of it for me. So you know, that I, you know, the right direction, the right team.
Suzie Millar 27:08
So important, it's so important. I don't think people realise just how important. It's just you randomly happen to come across a teacher, that is just that influential person for you, for the rest of us. And the other way it can happen as well, where they aren't quite so good
John MacPherson 27:26
Yeah, it can put people off subjects for a long time. Largely a lot of the teachers I've met have been brilliant, and some of them have been, you know, in subjects that I'd be interested in, brilliant for me. But a lot of the people that write our books, certainly, or that I meet in the schools, you know, they're just such teachers who've been through a really hard time. Right at the front line. And, you know, pretty much every teacher I've met in schools, wherever they're the main thing that they want, is for their students to do well, you know, really what they rent it for the very difficult circumstances to try and work through it. They really just want the students to do well. And there's no other better way of doing this. So why let a computer decide, you know, and just yet, I think we should trust them or listen to them.
Suzie Millar 28:21
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Okay, what has been your biggest mistake or failure, or some like to call it learning experience?
John MacPherson 28:30
There's too many. But here's the thing about mistakes for me, especially in business, or maybe even in life. At the time, it wasn't a mistake. At the time, it felt like the right thing to do. Like we were planned in bright red before the crash in 2008 2009. We made the decisions if you put me back there. Again, with no hindsight, I would do exactly the same again. Yes, that's the right thing to do at the time, with hindsight, or be go back, say no, that was money. But hindsight... it's useless. It's not gonna help you make better decisions. And really, because you made the decision that was right at the time, and if it was, it was the wrong decisions. It turns out what you learn. And that's all you can do. So I'm not I'm not big on... I try not to flog myself and I try to forgive myself for mistakes or, you know, things I got wrong and stuff without because actually at the time, that felt like the right thing to do, probably otherwise I wouldn't have done it.
Suzie Millar 29:29
Yeah. You know, do you think that's become easier for you throughout the course of the business?
I think I and most people make better decisions when they're under less pressure. So when you're under pressure and you're having to think and really project forward, your instincts are probably the only way to go. You can't stand still you got to keep moving. Yeah. So I think that that that issue becomes less as things go on, you know, at this point in my life I can make better decisions.
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