Lost My Name produces personalised picture books that takes young children on a journey in which they are the central character. Co-founder and chief executive Asi Sharabi tells Toni Sekinah where the idea for the book came from and what other customisable products he and his team will create in the future.
Imagine being a fearless adventurer, traversing through magical lands on a quest to collect clues in order to piece together your own identity.
Imagine this story being captured for posterity in a beautifully illustrated storybook with a protagonist that even looks a little bit like you.
That is exactly what Asi Sharabi and his three co-founders allow youngsters to feel with the first book created by their tech publishing company, Lost My Name.
Say I buy a book for my goddaughter Sky. In her book, which is written in English, a young girl – with brown skin and an Afro puff – has lost her name and travels through magical lands to find it. Along the way she meets a squid, a knight and yeti. The creatures gift her the first letters of their names so that she can put together her own. And so hundreds of thousands of children and parents were enchanted.
It was the biggest selling picture book of 2014 in the UK, shifting 132,000 copies. In September 2013, a few months after launching in public beta, sales were at about 200 a month. They jumped to 1,500 in two days when Not On The High Street featured the book in its newsletter, a jump of 750%.
Investors have been equally enamoured. When Sharabi and his co-founders Tal Oron, David Cadji-Newby and Pedro Serapicos appeared on BBC’s Dragon’s Den, dragon investor Piers Linney loved the concept so much that he invested £100,000 in return for a 4% stake in the company. This gave Lost My Name a valuation of £2.5m, the highest in the show’s history.
To date they have raised over $10m from what Sharabi calls “some of the best funds in the world” including Forward Partners, Google Ventures, Greycroft Partners, The Chernin Group and Project A Ventures.
In 2015 the Lost My Name team released a second book – The incredible intergalactic journey home. It takes the child on a journey through outer space with a robot best friend lost in space, light years away from home.
Again it is personalised with the child making his or her way through the universe to the solar system, planet Earth, back to their continent, country, county, street and home. The book – presently available in the UK and US – hones in on the child’s exact address.
In total, the LMN team has sold over 1.5m copies, which cost around £20, in 169 countries around the world.
This series of adventures for Sharabi and his team began when he received a personalised book for his daughter, and was less than impressed.
“I saw the book and that warm and fuzzy feeling of seeing my daughter’s name in a book lasted exactly two seconds,” he says.
He called on friends, creative technologist Oron and writer Cadji-Newby to help him develop something better.
Sharabi says: “We sat around my kitchen table and we started as a self-funded, self-published side project.”
The problem for Sharabi was that personalised books “sucked” and he wanted to create one that was actually good.
Once they had decided to create stories based on the letters in a child’s name, they made a prototype.
“We picked Andrew as a name. We wrote a whole book for Andrew, illustrated the whole book for Andrew and that was our MVP,” he says.
To scale up and be able to create books for every single name for children aged five and under, Oron downloaded, from the UK census, of all the names that were given to babies in the past five years.
When they saw that there were 14,000 names, the enormity of the task hit the team. Sharabi remembers saying: “Holy crap. How are we actually going to be able to fulfil and be able to create a book for every name?”
So they started to crunch the data and looked at the average length of a name, the longest name, the shortest name, the distribution of different letters within the names and more specifically the most popular letters that occur in names.
It was important for the LMN team not to repeat any of the creatures, even if a name had the same letter more than once. For example, if a book were to be created for a child named David, the first D could be gifted by a dinosaur and the final D by a donkey.
Sharabi was clear from the start that Lost My Name was a technology startup side project instead of a publishing side project.
“With all the operational implications of running a print-on-demand business, from day one, even just as a creative side project, it had a lot of technical operation and commercial implications that we had to walk through,” he says.
Lost My Name is a full stack vertically integrated business says Sharabi, with the majority of the software having been built in-house. The creative technology aspect relates to the creation of the assets for every letter story and a database with hundreds of memorable structures.
“We wrote software, that based on your postcode input, will give you the most iconic landmarks in your city or country,” says Sharabi. There is also integration with a third-party geodata provider so in the last few pages of the intergalactic book, there is an aerial view of the child’s neighbourhood, street and even their home.
The technology the team created also allows the buyer to see a preview of the book before they order it. Sharabi says: “That means a very, very complex rendering engine that takes your inputs and, sends your query to the database, and effectively creates a book and gives you a full preview on the fly.”
The books can be printed in US English, German, Spanish, French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish and Danish.
Once ordered the digital, print-ready file is sent to one of the 15 print partners around the world that closest to the customer. It is printed with 24 to 36 hours depending on the print queue and sent out with most customers receiving their book within a week with free shipping.
With 30 tech people in the 75-strong team, it is unsurprising that Lost My Name is trying to push the envelope in terms of what it will create in the future, with Sharabi looking beyond the printed word.
Sharabi says: We’re trying to come up with something that has never been done before. Our personal and commercial aspirations go beyond books. It is something we are experimenting with now and it is very much in R&D.”
*This article was originally published in April 2016 on TechCityinsider.
**Lost My Name rebranded as Wonderbly in July 2017.