How SlugBooks.com Is Creating A College Movement Of Affordable Access To Books

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One of the very expensive aspects of today’s college education are the pricey textbooks. Most of the books students need aren’t widely available and that book monopoly means high prices and high demand for college bookstores. David Miller, CEO of SlugBooks.com encountered this very scenario as a student at UC Santa Cruz and decided to take action. Started in 2008, SlugBooks.com has grown to give college students access to more affordable textbook options to buy and rent from anywhere in the country.

I caught up with David to ask him about SlugBooks.com, how it works and how he turned his college frustration into a passion project that now helps students all across the country.

David Miller headshot

David Miller, CEO SlugBooks.com

What gave you the idea to create SlugBooks and how did you transform that idea into a business?

As a sophomore in college, I became a member of the textbook Co-op in Santa Cruz. My experience at the Co-op definitely provided inspiration and motivation to try helping students in a new, more sustainable way several years later, when the SlugBooks.com comparison site launched. For the first two years that the SlugBooks website was running, the business felt more like a hobby cause. The Co-op’s sole mission was always to save college students as much money as their business model could afford, and it turned out that an aggregator/affiliate model was even more effective at fulfilling this simple goal.

What has been your biggest challenge in getting started and how have you overcome it?

Marketing. College students are far and away the most over-marketed demographic. Everywhere they look is an advertisement, and they end up becoming immune to most of it. Because we were always bootstrapped, the biggest challenge was always iterating quickly through different innovative marketing tactics. We simply didn’t have the budget to compete with dollar for dollar with well-funded companies in the textbook space. We solved the marketing problem in the early days by building hyper-organized street teams enabled us to reach our initial scale at many campuses on a limited budget; we optimized our teams by focusing on hiring students with theater experience, as well as students who had a strong pull to help others – and streamlined much of the hiring/training/scheduling with a custom online HR system. The fact that we started an internet-only service with 100% off-line marketing provided for some fun irony.

Did you already have experience in the app or tech world before you set up the website and affiliate program, or was this totally new?

I was totally new to the tech world, though my own experience as a student shopping for textbooks was all that was really necessary to ideate through the initial product. While I didn’t have much experience coding, I did know to use Microsoft Paint, which is where the first site design was mocked up. I also used Google to find our first developer. It sounds stupid and simple, but if you know how to use Google, you have all of the knowledge you need to start a business.

What’s next for you? Will you stay with SlugBooks or are you looking into other ideas for startup?

SlugBooks is currently solving a major problem for college students in an extremely efficient way. Virtually all students who use the site will find that at least one of their books for the upcoming semester is significantly cheaper through online sources. While we’re satisfied with the growth to date, there is still plenty of work to be done. As long as high textbook prices are gouging students, we’ll be looking to help. There are still far too many students in the world who pay inflated textbook prices, or skip purchasing them altogether.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs who want to start their own business?

Don’t think of “starting a business” as starting a business. Solve a problem that you are passionate about fixing instead. Maybe one day your problem solving will be a business. As long as you’re solving that problem for more and more people every day, the other pieces will fall into place. Obviously revenue and user metrics are necessary as time goes by, but when you’re starting, keep it simple. It’s okay if it’s just a hobby when you start. If you run your business as a hobby for the first months (or years!), and you’re still enjoying it, great! Keep going.

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