I was on a plane heading to Vancouver for work with no entertainment i.e. no book, no working movie screen…nothing to occupy my distracted mind. I asked for a coffee and began jotting down ideas on the napkin it came with. “An app that has something to do with books” – that’s the first thing that came to my mind for some reason, and I stuck with it.
Lesson: sometimes the best ideas that come to you are unintentional – when you’re in a relaxed and creative state.
The idea for a book exchange app came easily to me because 1) I love to read, 2) I’m still close to my university as an alumni and have established-relationships with other institutions and 3) a lot of what I do is based on inspiring students. But in the back of my mind, there was some doubt that this could work – after all, it wasn’t revolutionary tech, it was simple and something you would think is already in use. Once I landed and reached my hotel, I did some research, called a few friends still in school and to my surprise – people were still using Facebook groups, sites like Kijiji, and other platforms. Having graduated 4 years ago, there still wasn’t a “go-to” marketplace for students to exchange books.
Lesson: just because a process exists (which it likely will), doens’t mean you can’t come up with an idea to make it better. In this case, I found that most students were still relying on these Facebook groups to make exchanges happen. They would put their books on the floor, table, bed, take a picture, upload it to the group, and wait for direct messages to pop in from interested buyers. As you can imagine, this process is fragmented, and not effective. However, students went to these groups because they had 10K+ members – and it was the only available marketplace that was dedicated for university textbook exchanges.
I called up two of my good friends Elie & Tony Ajaltouni (who are now my co-founders) and pitched them the idea. They both have 10+ years of software development experience working for a Fortune 100 Multinational and consulting on the development of many software products including mobile apps, chat-bots, and web platforms. They loved the idea, so we met at Second Cup in April of 2017, drafted a contractual agreement (to make it official), and got to work.
For almost a year and a half, we worked on the app virtually. Elie & Tony were in Montreal and I was in Toronto – and every week or so we would get together on weekends for a call. It’s pretty crazy to look back on how we were able to do that without physically meeting up, but we had to be resourceful and work with what we had.
Lesson: the only way to really succeed in business is to partner with people who fill your weaknesses. I had the self-awareness to know what I’m good and suck at – and it was a matter of finding the right partners who not only filled the gaps, but had the drive to see the vision through i.e. really believing in what you’re doing. Finding partners who are on the same page as you, who you can trust, and who have the necessary skills to make this dream a reality are essential factors in succeeding as an early-stage startup.
The biggest challenge for me as a non-technical co-founder was patience. Developing the ability to focus on the top priorities, while still thinking ahead and planning for what’s next. Being self-funded and doing this using our spare time, meant that we really needed to be mindful about where we deploy our time, effort, and resources. So, after testing the concept with a few beta users, we agreed on the core features that we wanted to display and get the app to market ASAP. Our core features for V1 of the app included i) search for a book by title or author, ii) upload a book by scanning the bar-code, iii) browse for books in your local area, and iv) chat with users to make an exchange happen. After launching the app, the feature that people enjoyed the most (based on feedback) was the scanning feature – which allows users to upload a book in less than 15 seconds.
Lesson: there’s always going to be the battle of wanting things to be perfect before going to market, but time is of the essence – it’s better to have a product you’re reasonably happy with and put it out there for people to try/use. Once you can validate the idea and collect feedback, you’ll be able to spend the right time working on the right things to make the product better (without having to assume what users want/need).
Once we got the app to market, the love was real. We received lots of positive feedback on how clean the design was and how simple it was to use – nothing flashy, just got the job done and really addressed a pain-point that was still present. In just a month of launching, we were able to hit the top 100 charts for free apps under the “books” category (coming in at #32) and amassed over 1,000 users. We also got covered by the Toronto Guardian and the961.com which provided good media exposure.
Lesson: you’ll never know unless you try. Several people shut down the idea in the beginning; “books are a dying business”, “there are many platforms like it”, “cracking the student marketplace hasn’t been done before”, etc. We didn’t listen – we just took into account the constructive feedback we received from people who meant well and moved forward. Sometimes, that’s all you can need – belief in what you’re doing and putting in the work until you see it through.
This isn’t to say that we’ve fully figured it out or cracked the code yet, in fact we’re still in the midst of figuring out how to grow traction. This “chicken and egg problem” is prevalent in almost all tech startups – especially with apps/platforms. It’s essentially the challenge of getting to 1m users – one that every platform you’re using now went through. Consider the following:
Kickstarter got its 1m backer in about 30 months, Airbnb reached 1m users after 30 months of launching, Tumnlr hit 1m blogs in 27 months, it took Twitter 24 months to reach 1m users after launching, Spotify hit 1m users 5 months after launch, and Facebook reached 1m users in 10 months. You get the point, it takes a while to gain traction and this doesn’t happen over night.
With BookBack, our challenge right now is getting users on the platform and uploading books so that we can create a marketplace to drive real value. This is a similar issue LinkedIn experienced in the beginning – figuring out why people weren’t joining fast enough. What they discovered was that people didn’t want to join a not-social-enough social network. No one wants that feeling of standing alone in an empty bar. So, LinkedIn needed a way to give potential users some social proof, or evidence that it wasn’t a lonely place. To address this, LinkedIn allowed people to upload their address book and see who else they know who is there. That feature allowed a spike in adoption.
Lesson: Reid Hoffman (co-founder of LinkedIn) said it best “starting a company is like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down. With all the velocity, time pressure, and mortality that implies – and the prospect of making something that can fly before you hit the ground.”
That’s the most exciting part about doing this – is moving forward with the punches, pivoting along the way, and not forgetting to have some fun. I envision a lot more for BookBack – where it can serve as a marketplace for more than just books – for class notes, student residents, university loans, etc. Making anything student-related easy to access – saving you time and money.
But for now, I have to be patient and get there one step at a time.
To learn more, visit: bookback.co