Thirty-year-old Jonathan Robinson, founder of Birmingham-based Freetextbooks.com, has always liked looking for and finding ways to make money. But his entrepreneurial nature didn’t lead him to major in business when he attended Samford University after high school. Instead, the Tuscaloosa native studied biology.
Even so, his natural tendencies kept him busy making money between classes, studying and courting his wife-to-be, Meredith. He developed a thriving eBay business while at Samford and sold items to fellow students. “I’d track down a supplier of polo shirts in China that would sell them to me for $10, and then I’d turn around and sell them for $25, ” Robinson says. “I tease my wife that she only dated me because I was the only one at school who had enough money to take her out on nice dates.”
As a freshman, Robinson noticed the high price of textbooks at the bookstore and wondered if he could get a lower price for himself and his friends. “Textbooks typically are just way too expensive at the bookstore, ” Robinson says. “I figured there had to be a better way.”
Following graduation, Robinson worked at the Alabama Eye Bank, harvesting corneas. As a sideline he continued his own business, including textbook sales. His textbook enterprise became so successful and time-consuming that, a year later, in 2009, Robinson left his steady job and devoted himself fully to his venture Freetextbooks.com. “It didn’t take me long to realize I could make a lot more money working for myself, ” he says.
At first, his fledgling business was primarily Internet-based, and Robinson operated it out of his Homewood apartment. But then, in 2011, Robinson shifted Freetextbooks.com to the representative business model — recruiting students to sell and distribute used textbooks to other students for a commission. He also hired his first employee, to help recruit student representatives, and established an office at Innovation Depot, the well-respected small business incubator in Birmingham. “The student representatives made all the difference in the growth of the business, because they already had trusted relationships and were a local resource, ” Robinson says.
Freetextbooks.com currently has about 350 student representatives, on 30 campuses, from Texas to South Carolina. The mix includes private schools like Samford University and Birmingham-Southern College and SEC powerhouses, such as the University of Alabama and Auburn University.
Some schools, including University of Alabama at Birmingham and University of Alabama in Huntsville, are missing from the lineup. “People ask us ‘Why not UAB or UAH?’ but that’s because we look for schools with a large on-campus community with groups, such as Greek organizations and athletic clubs, ” Robinson says. “We are relationship-based, and operating in an on-campus community is where we are most effective. Students at commuter schools don’t tend to have large social networks.”
Robinson’s company is on the lookout for good new representatives at schools it currently represents. But the company has an even greater interest in establishing a presence at new schools with a strong on-campus community. “It’s a great way for students who have a strong social network and enjoy providing a helpful service to make extra money while attending school, ” he says, pointing potential applicants to his company’s website.
Typically Freetextbooks.com enters a school with one student representative who focuses on a small segment of the student population he or she knows —fraternities or engineering majors, for example. As time passes and interest increases, depending on the size of the school, the company’s presence may increase to 15 or 20 student reps, each serving different school populations. Student representatives typically interact with 100 to 120 students in their social network for book sales, rentals and buybacks. “So much of it spreads by word of mouth, ” Robinson says. “When students find out there’s a way to get textbooks fast for a lot less than at the bookstore, it’s an easy sell.”
While the student representative model may sound a bit like successful person-to-person selling company Mary Kay, it has some essential differences from many of them, Robinson points out. There are no district representatives with pink Cadillacs. “It’s not a pyramid scheme. Students only receive commissions on the books they sell, ” he says.
But there is room for advancement with the company. Recent college graduates may apply for salaried and commissioned campus manager positions with Freetextbooks.com if they are interested in recruiting and building campus teams, as well as leading marketing for the company at a campus.
Freetextbooks.com orders are typically filled through free two-day shipping or overnight for $10. The used textbooks may be purchased or rented. Purchased books kept in good condition can be sold back to the company. Frequent buyers, students who refer or use social media to recommend Freetextbooks.com, and those who use the company’s iPhone app earn dollars toward discounts and free textbooks under the company’s loyalty program.
Student representatives assist the process by getting the word out among their network, helping their fellow students order books, rounding up buy-back books, accepting returns and answering student questions. “The customer service our representatives provide is key, ” Robinson says.
Freetextbooks.com buys used textbooks in good condition from universities across the country. Then Amazon’s fulfillment program stores and ships the books. The prices are similar to other offers on the Internet, but Freetextbooks.com books are shipped faster, Robinson says. “Students want and need to get their books quickly.”
Following a sales growth track of 50 percent per year from 2009 to 2013, Freetextbooks.com more than doubled in size last year, Robinson says. He believes his company will again double this year and has added four new full-time employees for a total of seven at Innovation Depot.
A recent stint at the Techstars business development program in Austin revved up Robinson’s expansion plans for the company. “Our new hires are a direct result of the program, ” he says. “We want to double down and create a much bigger business.”
Freetextbooks.com was one of 11 companies selected from 1, 500 applicants for Techstars. The nationally acclaimed business acceleration program provided mentoring and business development consultation to the selected companies, in addition to an infusion of seed money and an investment loan. Robinson temporarily relocated to Texas for the program.
“One of the biggest positives was getting the chance to work with businesses from many other cities across the country, ” Robinson says. “It was a big confidence builder and validates what you are doing, because it lets you know that you are right up there with companies from larger cities and states.”
In addition to expanding his business, Robinson has expansion plans for his family. He and his wife were expecting their first child at the time of the interview.
While his wife is not on the payroll of Freetextbooks.com, Robinson gives her a lot of credit for his success. “All your ideas, musings, dreams and fears are filtered by your wife, ” he says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for her.”
Kathy Hagood and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Hagood is based in Homewood and Meripol in Birmingham.
text by kathy hagood • photo by art meripol