“If only I’d thought of this a year ago!” was what Tim Hurley (pictured) was thinking when he registered the domain name, Schoolbookexchange.ie, as an online marketplace for second-hand academic books. It was September 2000 and the bull-run of the internet years had come to an abrupt end. A year or even six months earlier and Hurley could have had named his price and investors would have been queuing up.
“I know a guy who wrote an idea for a business literally on the back of an envelope and got 120 grand back in the late Nineties,” recalls Hurley, adding: “It did concern me; I knew that I had missed the boat in terms of getting funding.”
As one of ten children, Waterford-born Hurley was used to mounds of school books lying around and being recirculated from year to year. When he became a father himself – he now has three children under 10 – he realised things had changed since his childhood.
“When my eldest had finished junior infants, we got the book list for senior infants. They came to IR£85. At the same time, all the books that he’d finished with were sitting there and not being used. It just struck me that in every house there are probably books available that other people need but there’s no mechanism to pass them on.”
While most people would simply have said ‘now there’s a good idea for a start-up’ and moved on, Hurley decided to do something about it. Having registered the web address, he started to develop the idea in earnest while continuing to work in his full-time sales job with a digital printing business. Three and a half years later, a lot has been achieved.
A transactional website has been developed to buy and sell the growing number of primary, secondary and third level books listed on the site – which currently number 8,000 – and there are some 1,800 registered members. What’s more, a sponsor has come on board in the form of EBS building society, which has recently allowed Hurley to manage the venture on a full-time basis.
All this has been achieved against the odds. He is particularly scathing about the lack of support from State agencies in the initial stages. “You wouldn’t believe it. I went to the Department of Education, the Department of the Environment, Enterprise Ireland and the Enterprise Boards over the course of a year and a half and every one of them, even the head of internet services at one of these major Government bodies, told me there was no need for this service. Tell that to the families that are spending a lot of money on school books every year.”
It might be imagined that Hurley spends his days in his home office huddled behind his computer, monitoring traffic on the site and answering customer queries by email or phone. The truth could not be more different. Most of his time he spends travelling around the country, talking to parents, schools and teachers, evangelising for his website. He had stands at the recent INTO and ASTI teachers’ conferences. In fact, when he was interviewed for this article by phone, he was in the middle of a three-day visit to the southwest.
Hurley sticks at it mainly because he believes there is demand for the service. Last year over €80m was spent on academic textbooks in Ireland, a figure that’s growing by about 10pc annually. Hurley calculates that every year an average of €146 per child is spent on schoolbooks – books that could be bought for half price or less on his website. Not only that, parents can then re-sell the same books online at the end of each year for a similar amount. The upshot is that the €146 can be slashed to only €10-15 per year, including the commission paid to the site. He further calculates that the average family with two schoolgoers could save €230 per year on books.
While parents obviously love the idea, Hurley’s venture has not been greeted enthusiastically in every quarter. He acknowledges that he is seen as a “thorn of the side” of the traditional book-publishing industry that stands to lose most if his business is a success.
Mindful of the possible backlash from publishers, Hurley is careful not to stray into their territory. “Some people say to me: ‘Would you not try to offer a total solution and put links on your website to people like Folens or CJ Fallons?’ I say: ‘No, I want to be there as an alternative’. Before, parents had no choice but to write cheques for new school books. This gives them an alternative so I want to remain separate from the new-book publishers.”
In developing his business, Hurley is also hoping to overturn some well worn industry traditions, one of which is that the vast majority of school books are sold in the month of August. Hurley is hoping to extend this period further back into the summer by encouraging those with books to list them on the site before the academic year closes. In this way, there will be a large store of books ready for purchase once the new book-lists are issued in early summer.
Putting a book up for sale on the site is straightforward. Firstly, the owner enters the ISBN number – the unique international book ID number – for each book. Some 4,000 different titles have been pre-programmed on the site so that as soon as the number is entered the title comes up. The owner then confirms the title is the correct one, states the number of books being offered, adds a brief quality comment and then, finally, the desired price.
When a buyer selects a book, the names of all the sellers of that particular title come up on screen. The buyer adds the book to their shopping cart along with any others they select. Once a book is added to a shopping cart, it is removed from the database to ensure it cannot be ‘bought’ twice.
Another section of the site allows schools to trade books with each other in bulk, so offering an end to the situation – “scandalous” in Hurley’s view – where schools dump skiploads of books. These are the ones supplied by the Department of Education to the estimated 20pc of children from disadvantaged backgrounds through the Department’s Book Rental Scheme. “When you think that 1.6 million books are being provided through this scheme, the cost of those books is enormous. If schools could trade books at the end of the year, it would save the Government a lot of money,” he points out.
When the site first went live, Hurley charged nothing for the service. He was content to merely prove the concept could work. Now that it is his livelihood, he must make it pay, or else, as he puts it, he’ll be “sending out the CV come December”. From next week, therefore, those buying books on the site will be charged €1 commission per purchase. Once this money is paid online, an email is automatically generated which goes to the buyer and the seller with each other’s contact details. The two parties take it from there.
Hurley acknowledges the support of a number of individuals and organisations that have backed the venture. One is EBS, with whom he signed a ten-year sponsorship agreement last September. Although no specific figure has been agreed, the building society is covering a lot of the operational costs on a month-to-month basis. On the technical side, Hurley pays tribute to the work of Fergal O’Hanlon, a lecturer in software engineer at the Waterford Institute of Technology, who has invested “thousands of hours” developing the site free of charge.
Hurley is nothing if not ambitious for his web venture. In the short term – ie, by the end of the summer – he hopes to take a modest 1pc market share, which would generate revenue of between €60k and €90k. He expects the business to break even by 2007. In five years’ time, his target is that of the approximate ten million academic books being used every day, 10pc of these – or one million books – will be traded on his website.
“I want to try and get this service to become as much a part of the whole schoolgoing experience as buying a new pair of shoes or a uniform. If people could get into the habit of using this service, it could generate vast savings across the whole country.”
By Brian Skelly