John Snow, Age 22
Bachelor of Arts, Manship School of Mass Communication, LSU Class of 2007
Masters of Business Administration, Flores School of Business, LSU Class of 2010
Conrad Sulzer, Age 24
Bachelor of Arts, History, LSU Class of 2008
Starting a business is not an easy task to perform. After you have poured all of your money into product development, then running a business with virtually no budget is even tougher. Here is our story of how we were able to develop and sell a successful business.
Conrad Sulzer, my partner in this endeavor, decided in 2005 that he had enough of paying ridiculously high amounts for textbooks. Most students are aware of the rising issue of textbook prices and constant “new” editions, and Conrad decided it was time for someone to fight back. He went to work with a software developer with the intention of building a website script that would give control back to the students. The business model was based on this well-known process: a student receives around 25% of a book’s value when they sell it back to the bookstore, with the bookstore turning around to sell that same book to another student for 100% of its value. However, if students were connected to one another, they could increase their return on selling used books as well as save money when purchasing books. A student could sell their book for 60% of its value and the purchasing student could save 40%, making it a mutually beneficial situation.
I was brought on as co-owner in the latter stages of the website’s development to handle the marketing/advertising side of the business. When the site went live in spring of 2006, we enjoyed a great and busy semester. Thanks to two stories that ran in our local paper and business publication, we recorded around 500 registered members of the site and about 500 books listed on the marketplace.
At our highest point in terms of volume (the early part of 2006), we had enough money to run a couple of ads in the LSU student newspaper and to make a bundle of fliers. Although we were receiving 9% of each transaction to help support our operating costs, it turned out to not be enough to support the hosting of the site in combination with the marketing plans we wanted to implement. We ended up resorting to basic door-to-door marketing and public relations efforts.
At the end of 2006 and in early 2007, we began to realize that our current model of operations would not be enough to sustain both the website costs and the costs of doing business. It was at that time when Conrad and I observed the incoming LSU Student Government administration’s platform and made a decision that completely altered our business focus. One of the stated initiatives of this particular SGA was to develop and implement an online textbook exchange. We started to think, “Why not just sell our company to LSU?” It was a win-win scenario; we would retain the rights to our proprietary software, and the LSU/SGA budget and staff could give the website the backing it desperately needed.
So, we began discussions and negotiations with LSU’s administrators and its SGA. After several months of “gaming the system,” we were finally able to reach a deal. Colorado Robertson, the incoming LSU Student Government President, was able to help make one final push with the assistance of outgoing SGA Vice-President Josh King and get the process completed within all the various departments of LSU. In the end, LSU purchased our website (UniversityTiger.com) and a license to our textbook exchange software. We have now shifted our focus from trying to implement localized textbook exchanges at various universities to starting our new business, UniversityTextbookSolutions.com, which focuses on licensing our software to universities and individuals interested in setting up a textbook exchange to help students.
Through three years of responding to a noticeable lack of alternatives in the textbook marketplace, starting a successful business, watching our money run dry, and then starting another successful business, we have been able to observe and learn much about how a marketplace is truly defined and how to operate within what that marketplace.
Our advice: focus on the ends, not the means. For us, it was, and still is, about saving students money. By becoming a developer and licenser of software, we are now able to reach thousands more than we would have as purely operations managers. Being able to adapt and be creative as a business owner is much more critical than to ride a sinking ship into the ground. Our survival was based upon shifting focus: we knew we didn’t have the funding to sustain our original business, but we also knew that we had a great asset in the software we had developed and that it could be sold. Thanks to LSU and its administration we are now able to set our sights on not just a town or individual school, but the United States and beyond.