This hyperlocal startup is turning neighbourhood women into librarians, entrepreneurs

While Töölö' is giving many women the opportunity to become micro-entrepreneurs, children are getting access to books, storytelling sessions, author interactions, and much more.
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When there is hyperlocal grocery, ecommerce, logistics, and mobility—why not a hyperlocal library?

In fact, it would be like hitting the bull’s eye if it has the dual advantage of creating women micro-entrepreneurs, right?

Our story starts in 2019 in the US, when Sheetal Shah found herself spending a copious amount of time at local public libraries during a holiday with her two young children. 

“The libraries enthralled us so much that I wanted to entwine the worlds of reading and community building among children in India, too,” she tells HerStory. Once back, Sheetal took the first step towards encouraging young readers by launching a dedicated library for her neighbourhood children at her home in Bengaluru. 

“When I started the first library in my apartment complex, I also got my son involved in it as he loves books, and he was happy to share them with others,” says Sheetal, describing how the idea caught on.

A Töölö library with a young member.

To begin with, the books were free to borrow, and Sheetal used simple library software. “I ran the free model for three to four months to test the waters and gauge demand,” she says. She titled the venture Töölö, meaning ‘neighbourhoods’ in Finnish, before introducing an MVP website of curated books and a paid model to borrow books in July 2019. 

“I operated the library for six to eight months, and this is when I could understand the customer needs, expectations, and operational challenges,” she adds. 

In August 2020, Archana Nandakumar—one of Sheetal’s neighbours and an early Töölö member—who would often host storytelling sessions for Töölö’s young members, joined the firm as a Co-founder and CTO. Archana handles product and technology, along with community building for users. Chandni Ramnane, another early Töölö member, joined as the third Co-founder three months back. She looks after operations and preschool alliances. 

After bootstrapping with Rs 10 lakh, Sheetal and Archana worked towards developing the platform and building the framework for physical libraries and scaling them through women micro-entrepreneurs. 

These entrepreneurs bought pre-loved books by the kilo from vendors across India, curated them, and got them professionally laminated. 

At present, Töölö powers 21 libraries, with 15 of them run by Töölö ambassadors in Bengaluru and six in metros and cities, including Delhi-NCR, Pune, and others. 

On average, each of these physical libraries has 12-15 children as members. And Töölö's digital library, launched in 2021, has close to 1,500 registered members.

Enabling women entrepreneurs 

In 2020, Sheetal onboarded the first Töölö ambassador in Delhi. 

The Töölö ambassador is a woman entrepreneur who joins the firm as a franchisee and can make use of the cloud library, and benefits from a stock of books to run her mini library enterprise in her home. 

Sheetal says, “Töölö’s product for women micro-entrepreneurs enables them to set up, operate, and grow their cloud libraries. We provide them with a library platform, a curated set of 500 books, branding materials, growth marketing tools, storytelling sessions, and other value-added services to make it a holistic reading experience for their young members.” 

Moreover, the startup provides ambassadors weekly training in driving subscribers’ numbers, marketing strategies, and growth marketing tools and technology. 

Töölö charges ambassadors Rs 60,000 to own a franchise. In turn, they receive 80% of the revenue from their library, and the remaining 20% goes to the startup.

“A typical library will start to earn within the first year when we have about 100 users in the library. On average, with each user paying a membership fee of Rs 449 per month, an entrepreneur can earn up to Rs 35,000 to Rs 40,000 per month. Of course, it also depends on the efforts ambassadors put into their marketing, operations, etc.,” says Sheetal. 

A Töölö library set-up.

Bengaluru-based Farisa Sheikh is a mother of two and a Töölö ambassador. While on a break from her career, Farisa was looking for flexible options to return to work when she came across Töölö's concept. 

“I was looking for something where I could work from home, but without compromising on my family time. Being an entrepreneur and running my own business from the comfort of my home seemed exciting and doable,” says Farisa, who also loved the idea of spreading the joy of reading to children in her society. 

She has a curated library set up in her home, open to children in her society every day of the week. 

“I invite kids to come and spend time looking at the different kinds of books. I encourage them if they want to sit here and read. If I'm going out, I ensure to inform them beforehand,” she says. 

Another Töölö ambassador, Noida-based Mira Swarup, was intrigued by Töölö as she felt it would give her nine-year-old daughter a peek into entrepreneurship. 

She says, “When Töölö came along, it seemed like a lovely idea, and the base for me was, can we start something that my daughter could take interest in? Could this become her exposure to entrepreneurship?” 

As Töölö ambassadors, Mira and her daughter have a full set-up library in their home in a gated society in Noida, open twice a week for two hours for the neighbourhood children. Moreover, Mira’s daughter participates in book deliveries and client acquisition strategy discussions.

Building the next-gen libraries 

On encouraging reading among kids, Sheetal says, "A lot of parents come to me saying, 'what is the point of reading fiction?’ That's where we are wrong. Any reading is good reading—be it a recipe book or a comic book. The message we need to give as parents is to be open to reading. And, of course, we manoeuvre and nudge them towards better and better content.”

Today, on Töölö’s cloud library platform, children have access to a large and varied selection of books, in regional languages as well as English, peer recommendations, storytelling sessions, author interactions, and more. Members can also order books online and get them delivered at home and picked up once they were done reading them.

Sheetal and her team have an ambitious vision to build 1,000 Töölö libraries in the next few years. 

“One thousand is a small number as far as India is concerned. But, by the end of this year, we're looking to raise capital to take this forward. Our immediate goal is to build 50-60 libraries by the end of this year,” she says. 

Töölö is also looking to partner with preschools. 

“Where pre-schoolers are concerned, there is no library, and there are few books in many preschools. It is at that age group that we need to instil the love of reading and show them that it is fun. We want to enable preschools with ready-made book kits. We are also looking at how our ambassadors can cater to their neighbourhood preschools by servicing this online cloud library,” concludes Sheetal.

Edited by Suman Singh

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