Marketing problem

I have a marketing problem. My company’s product is perfect for an audience of university students (a math textbook that explains concepts clearly, concisely, and affordably), but students can’t recognize the value of the product.

My current readers are of a different audience: the adult technical crowd. These readers have often already taken calculus and mechanics courses in their university days, and can instantly recognize that all the material they learned in class is covered in the book. They’re not alarmed by the short format—in fact they like it because they wouldn’t have the time to go through a mainstream textbook.

The problem

How can we convince first-year university students to buy the book instead of the calculus and mechanics textbooks chosen by their professors?

The trust problem. Who the hell am-I to be teaching these advanced subjects? Isn’t the mainstream textbook written by a professor guaranteed to be better. Professors often have full-hair loss and I have only partial hair-loss so surely professors are much smarter than me?

In all humbleness, I can say that most of my explanations are better than the ones in mainstream textbooks because (1) I’ve experimentally tested each of them with students during 13+ years of private tutoring, (2) the fact that I’m not old is actually a feature—the conversational coverage of the material leads to better engagement.

While good, these points are difficult to get across in marketing copy. Too much explanation is required, tutoring experience, alternate explanations, trial-and-error, explaining of connections between topics, etc. Also I can’t tell you the tone of the writing is different (less formal, more chill), you must see it for yourself.

Already bought the book aspect. Placing myself in the student’s shoes, I will feel like an idiot if I accept that a \$30 book can teach me everything I need to know about mechanics and calculus, but I already bought \$300-worth of textbooks. Since I don’t like to think I’m an idiot, I prefer not to believe the short book is of sufficient quality.

The study guide image problem. By its small size (5.5″x8.5″x400pp) the book resembles study guides like Shaum’s outlines and Cliff’s notes. These are not complete books, but short guides with summaries that complement a regular textbook.

Exam prep book image problem. The “learn quickly, pass the exam” rhetoric in my marketing message is usually associated with exam-prep books, like those for the SAT and GMAT. Instead of complete books focussed on understanding, these books focus on practice problems and rote learning for speed. They are the anti-thesis of what I’m trying to do. How can I convey to my potential readers that I’m not out to exam-prep them, but to teach them to understand the concepts for real. The ability to pass exams with flying colours is just a useful side effect of understanding the material well.

I must find a solution by the end of this summer so I can make a killing when school starts in September. My runway is running out. Do or die—sell or perish, that’s Darwin’s law of natural selection for startups.

Call for proposals

If you can help me solve this problem this summer (2014), I’ll be very grateful, so grateful that I’d be willing to setup a profit-sharing scheme for the sales of Sept-Dec 2014. Get in touch if you think you can help me.

Filing taxes for self-employed business income in Québec

When you run your own business as a sole proprietorship, you must fill in two special tax forms when submitting you income tax return. The Canada Revenue Agency’s form T2125 and Revenu Qubebec’s form tp-80.

The best place to start are the excellent PDF guides offered by the CRA and Revenu Québec: Canada GuideQuebec Guide.

Gross income = Sales – Cost of goods sold

Where cost of goods includes: Opening inventory (raw materials, goods in process, finished goods),  Net purchases (not including the cost of merchandise for personal use), Subcontracting costs, Direct labour costs, and Other costs.

Next, you can add up all the Expenses relating to your business activities:

  • Advertising 
  • Meal and entertainment expenses (1.25%-2% of sales). 
  • Bad debts 
  • Insurance premiums 
  • Interest 
  • Business taxes and licences 
  • Office expenses. (Not including home-office expenses below)
  • Supplies
  • Legal fees
  • Management and administration fees 
  • Rent 
  • Maintenance and repairs 
  • Salaries or wages, benefits and employer contributions. 
  • Property taxes
  • Travel expenses, other than motor-vehicle expenses 
  • Telephone, electricity, heating and water 
  • Fuel and oil 
  • Delivery, freight and messenger services 
  • Motor-vehicle expenses, excluding capital cost allowance. 
  • Deduction respecting incorporeal capital property 
  • Capital cost allowance. 
  • Terminal loss.
  • Other expenses

Additionally, if you work from home, you can claim Home office expenses:

  • Heating
  • Electricity
  • Insurance
  • Maintenance costs
  • Mortgage interest
  • Property taxes
  • Other expenses (e.g. rent)

You’re allowed to claim some percentage $r, 0 \leq r < 1$ of all these amounts proportional ratio of your home that you use for business purpose. Usually $r=0.5$, but it could be more or less depending on how many rooms you use and whether you meet with customers at home.


I’m visiting Amsterdam and I saw this young lady on the ferry who was reading a small book. The young lady was stunningly beautiful but ferries being public transport and all I wasn’t about to chat her up. The tiny book continued to intrigue me though, so I mustered the courage to go talk to her. “This is about the business after all—not a pick up line,” I said to myself.

She turned out to be the nicest girl ever and explained to me this book format is called DWARSLEZER, which roughly translates to cross-reader. She even wrote it down for me—because let’s face it, Dutch is a pretty incomprehensible language for anyone non-Dutch.

It seems the first publisher to use this format is Jongbloed who called it the “dwarsligger” meaning “cross-beam” or “cross-bar”. Other publishers (AW Bruna Uitgevers, Dutch Media en Nieuw Amsterdam) have released books in this format and there might  be some legal action going on.

This format is a great idea because it halves the overall size of “the object you carry” or equivalently we can say it doubles the size of the page you read. Also the book she was reading was 500pp-long but no thicker than 1.5cm, so the “bible paper” helps to make the format compact.

Watch out for a dwarslezer edition of the No bullshit guide to math and physics coming soon!

The economics of writing books people want

I just saw this article on priceonomics about profits from books(via HN). It hits some facts right on the nail, gets others wrong, and finally misses the main point. Let me quote here the best parts (with comments) and give you my interpretation of what print-on-demand and ebooks will bring about.

With publishing houses only offering a royalty rate of between 6-15%.

Let’s say more like 2%–5% because this is from the *profits*, not a percentage of the sale price.

Email marketing was critical.

You got that right!

Self-publishing is arguably a wonderful innovation. It is historically unprecedented, providing the means for millions of people around the world to bypass the elitism of the publishing establishment […] In terms of access to a worldwide marketplace, it is fantastically democratic. In terms of access to financial success, it is far from it.

The OP misunderestimates the power of a democratic marketplace. There is a process of natural selection for book products. It used to act on a time scale of years and decades in the old days, but with the ease that information spreads now, I predict increased competition on the marketplace and unprecedented advances in book quality. As authors start to earn money from writing books, better books will be written. Also, the higher margins of self-publishing (think 50%) make solo authors and mini-publishers much more competitive that the old dinosaurs.

It is my hope that if books become better, more youth will escape their brain being crushed like a jujube by fast-moving pixels activities and learn to think bigger thoughts—hopefully constructive ones. Could an increase in interest in books bring about a new golden age of reason?

That would definitely be nice; enough with the consumerism, warring, and financial schemes. Let’s have another renaissance or something…

Opportunity costs

Recently, after conversations with friends who work in industry, I’ve been questioning my “career strategy” of pursuing a textbook publishing startup. Generally speaking, the employability of a new graduate is at its peak at graduation. Industry accepts young CS graduates and tells them “Here is 70k, write this code for us” and after a few years they could be pulling in 130+k, which is prof-level income. Regardless of one’s future goals in life a little injection of cash for a person in their thirties sounds like a good thing to have. In general working is a good career move.

Using the language of economics there are opportunity costs of doing the startup thing. First there is the short term financial losses of not having a San Francisco software developer salary right now. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I may be sabotaging my career options should I ever decide to go to industry. Recruiters will ask “what did you do for the past two years?” So doing the startup thing (i.e. not doing the corporate thing) has multiple opportunities costs.

Though such thoughts do turn around in my head, I remained and remain undeterred. I just realized why—this is the inspiration for this post. There are opportunity costs with the corporate career too. This knowledge that I have fresh in my mind after teaching undergraduate math and physics for the last ten years will soon be forgotten. Certainly after two years in industry, I would not remember half the things I can recall off the top of my head right now.

So this is why, now I know, I subconsciously chose this path. We godda do this now and we’ll code later, si besoin.

Aside: I just previewed the latest linear algebra draft and it looks awesome! I’ve been slogging through the corrections during the past couple of weeks (actually months!) and I was feeling low on energy, but now that I see how close we are to the finished product I’m getting all enthusiastic again.