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Sunday, April 17, 2011

NOTtheBookstore.com - end of an era

The first venture I created that actually brought in revenue was a website called NOTtheBookstore.com. I started it in 2007. Last week, I made the decision to stop working on it and focus on other ventures.

I learned a lot from it:

Outsourcing tasks that don't make sense for me to do
 I learned to use elance.com, and hired someone offshore to do data entry work that would've taken me hours. That experience taught me how to manage someone offshore, and helped me to think which tasks I should be focusing on and what tasks I should outsource. (Thanks to the book 4-hour Workweek for this concept).

Working with a site you didn't program is hard
I hired someone to program an upgrade to the website for the first time, adding the ability to pull data from Amazon to calculate just how much you'd save over the campus bookstore. But there were all these tweaks I wanted to do, and looking through all that code was daunting. I'm actually pretty proud of myself that I was able to make the tweaks I needed to, because I'm someone who's never heard of object oriented whatchamacallit before. It's because of this experience that I starting learning Wordpress and I'm going to start any new website I create with Wordpress so I have control over features.

Marketing and promotion
I've never needed to market or promote anything before in my life. I started with Facebook ads (back then, they were DIRT cheap) and on a whim contacted the Xavier Marketing Club. That started off a great 2 year relationship, in which I still keep in touch with 1-2 of them. I also realized that a college campus might be a great sales and promotion channel that companies aren't leveraging. You have a bunch of people, similar age, interests, all tightly packed in a small area. Really encourages word of mouth and viralness!

Continous improvement
After a couple of semesters of relative success, I stopped marketing at Xavier to focus on the bigger University of Cincinnati. Part of this was an experiment to see if it was self sustaining. It wasn't, as sales dropped a good amount. I learned that you need to constantly be in touch and looking to improve your business. Also, a good company with a low barrier to entry needs to reinvent itself all the time. I think NOTtheBookStore needed to be reinvented to add more and more value to the site.

Scale up
I tried to scale the success at XU to the University of Cincinnati, which had 5X the number of students. I went through the same process, worked with their marketing club, promoted with fliers and advertising in the school newspaper. But UC just never took off. I have a couple of theories: 1. A larger campus means a longer build up part of the curve before it tips. 2. On a larger campus, there's a lot more choices and a lot more noise, so your message gets diluted. Or maybe it just needed more time. I don't think I cracked the nut on this one, if anyone has thoughts I'd love to hear them!

All in all, a great experience. It gave me a glimpse of what things could be like. And it made me a real entrepreneur.

If anyone has more insights or advice as to more I can take away from this experience, please comment!

P.S. Here's a copy of the email I sent out to my student list:

Hello NOTtheBookStore fans and friends!

About 5 years ago, I was in year 3 of what turned out to be a 6 year stint in the Xavier University MBA program. I lamented to a friend about the cost of textbooks, and she told me she bought them on Amazon. “But how do you know what books you need for your classes?” I asked her. She told me to find it on the bookstore website.

In a different setting, one of my friends was talking to me about the Amazon affiliate program. Basically, if someone clicks on your Amazon link and buys something, you get a percentage of the sale as commission. At this point, the proverbial light bulb went off in my head: Why not help students save money on textbooks by showing them how much cheaper it was on Amazon?

NOTtheBookStore was born.  The name and logo came to me as I was trying to fall asleep one night. I woke up, fired up my computer, and created the first logo: A BS with a slash through it. How funny and rebellious!

What the first NOTtheBookStore.com site looked like:

Over the next 5 years, NOTtheBookstore.com would evolve from a website that looked like an amateur programmed it (because I was an amateur) into something a little less amateur looking but professionally programmed. Along the way, I formed a relationship with the Xavier Marketing Club. They were an enthusiastic bunch, and I wasn’t sure who was enjoying it more: them for having something to work on that was very relevant to them, or me for working with great students and getting all the great publicity! Book sales shot up from about 50 in Spring of 2008 to over 400 in Fall of 2008 after the Marketing Club did its thing. I know for a fact that at least 2-3 people got great resume builders from the experience, and I’m really happy that NOTtheBookstore.com was able to provide that.

NOTtheBookStore.com was my first business venture. Overall, at best I think the venture broke even from a profit standpoint. But all the stuff I learned and all of the people I got to work with was priceless. That’s why I’m not really that sad to make the announcement right now that I’m closing down NOTtheBookstore.com as we know it. I will leave the site up with our story and to continue to show people how to save money on textbooks, but won’t be adding more books for future semesters.

It was truly fun while it lasted. There were many students who sent me emails or told me in person how great it was that someone was trying to help them out. One of the things I was deathly afraid of was giving the wrong book information on the site. One day I got an email from someone to tell me that the book was wrong for his class, and I was ready to respond with an apology. But his email went on to tell me what the right book was, and ended with “thanks for doing this and helping us save money!” It goes to show that if you’re sincere in trying to help people, they will not only be forgiving but will help you back.

Thank you all so much for using NOTtheBookStore.com and being part of this wonderful experience! I now have a company called Wild Ting Enterprises, in which I hope to start more of these types of ventures (www.wildting.com). I also have a blog called the Corporatepreneur (www.corporatepreneur.com). Please feel free to drop me a line and I wish you all the best!

Dale Ting

P.S. I also want to give a shout out to the University of Cincinnati American Marketing Association. They were wonderful as well, as we tried to expand NOTtheBookStore.com to UC for a couple of quarters.


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