The online library, now forays into Coimbatore A lonely Amrutash Misra with head full of “Netflix-for-books” library embarked on his startup iloveread.in, an online library, in October 2009. He was so overcome by the idea that he literally stayed put in his office in the initial days. Amrutash recalls, “Prof. Ganesh at the C-TIDES incubation cell at Department of Management Studies (DoMS), IIT Madras was kind enough to give me a 75 sq. ft. office room with an air-conditioner, internet and electricity.” What gladdened Amrutash was that “DoMS did a really big favour to us by leaving us alone. They didn’t interfere. They didn’t ask for reviews. They didn’t ask for presentations. So we were pretty much free to make our own mistakes. I love Prof. Ganesh for that: he really gave us space, literally and metaphorically.” The online library is now expanding into Coimbatore at the end of two years on a franchisee model.
iloveread.in’s model of online library has found an impressive number of customers, who are called members of the library. Starting with a landing page initially before launch, Amrutash started collecting email ids. Once the website was ready, he mailed people on the list. The first customer signed up within 15 minutes on a paid subscription. The second one signed up after 30 minutes. “This one I went on to marry,” Amrutash says with a bit of excitement. This is a rare case of a match happening. But still he was the lonely warrior donning multiple hats in the startup. Only when Sahil Gore, cofounder and CTO, joined him in August 2010 did the pressure ease on Amrutash.
Sahil reminiscences: “When we started pre-launch work, we had a very small budget for the website, and everybody was working after office hours and on weekends. And the team was spread out over three cities. Although location doesn't matter so much in coding, you do save time (or rather reduce unproductive hours) by working out of the same place”.
How the library works
When the member logs in to the website, it gives an option to choose books the he or she wants to read and the queue can hold 9 books. The first two or three books (depending upon the subscription plan) are delivered at the member’s doorstep. There is no time limit for returning the books, although monthly, three-monthly, six-monthly and yearly subscription plans are available.
The redesigned website now incorporates features such as sandbox search on authors, books, ISBN, gives recommendations, allows you to like books, has a genre-wise listing, and also lists Tamil books. What excites members is that they can suggest the book they want to read, to the library. The book is procured and issued to the member who requested for the book.
iloveread.in is actively looking for franchisees in other cities. Sahil who undertook the website revamp explains: “Last year, we undertook a revamp of the UI and some major changes in the back-end. We also added multi-city support, and can now take a new franchise to market in less than 48 hours (provided their data is available)”.
Amrutash ruefully states, “hiring has been the single biggest challenge. I feel I can write a book on how-not-to-hire”. This has been a key challenge for startups in general. Although the library managed private funding in October 2010, a year after its launch, finding the right people was not happening.
The library had a franchisee in Hyderabad and had to close it down. Amrutash understands the issues better now. He feels, “The lessons we learnt from that were pretty simple – evaluate the people and not the b-plan. When evaluating the people, ignore what they say, just listen to what they do.”On the technology side, cross-browser compatibility of website design remains the focus area, as still users browse using Internet Explorer 6.0. Sahil adds, “I think the biggest challenge was completing the paperwork and integration of the payment gateway”.
After two years
The online library has now completed two years. It’s surely a milestone in the life of a startup. Luckily, Amrutash came across Anitha and Mohan from Jiff Services, Coimbatore. As they were planning to launch a library apart from running their own business, meeting Amrutash proved to be fruitful. The iloveread.in franchisee is now opening in Coimbatore on 23 December 2011. Of Anitha and Mohan, Amrutash says, “They love to read. We have the same business ethics, and we understand business in similar ways.”
The experience through two years has been wonderful for this library with a personal touch. Personal interaction and warmth plays a big role in customer retention. Amrutash fondly recalls the times when members have offered snacks and hot beverage to iloveread.in staff when books were delivered during rains. He is very happy to have members of the library who are very well read. He tells of them, “They have amazing English and impeccable manners. Many of them are (were) at very senior positions in their organizations. It’s been such a pleasure to learn from each of them about books, about communication and about life in general.” Going an extra mile, some of them have even helped the library when they were short-staffed. “They’ve sat through when we did consumer tests with them”, Amrutash says with a touch of pride.
iloveread.in doesn’t stop with library and lending. It has an active storytelling program for schools and encourages students to read. It helps set up libraries in schools. Movie rentals are also done through the same network after iloveread.in tied up with TicTac, a popular film video/DVD lending business in Chennai.
Amrutash feels that “online libraries are a new and growing market.” He goes on to add, “In fact, we encourage new libraries to spring up. We talk to them, we give them advice and we help them if they want us to help them.” This business generates cash from day one to sustain operations and has an enormous scope given that there is boom in Indian readership and publishing in general. iloveread.inprojects a 10% month-on-month growth. The convenience of home delivery is bound to find new customers who either have little time to go to a library or older people who cannot step out of home for some reason. Talking of the future, Amrutash says, “A few things are in the pipeline – vernacular books; a new recommendation algorithm; a lot more books; more cities.”
The business is set on an exciting path after two years and we wish the team of Amrutash and Sahil all the very best.
Also read about Amrutash's Guest Column - Chief Optimism Officer on YourStory for more insightful articles on entrepreneurship and starting up.
—Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, chief evangelist