UAE-Based Bookends Wants To Make It Easy For You To Buy And Sell Secondhand Books Online
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Decluttering expert Marie Kondo recommends letting go of books that no longer has value, and as an avid reader who actually doesn’t mind giving my books a “new home,” I have often found that it’s often difficult to find simple avenues to do just that. But now, there’s hope: a new startup, Bookends, homegrown in the UAE, offers a digital platform to buy and sell secondhand books, with shipping and delivery available all over the UAE. Founded by Somia Anwar and Grace Karim, the duo’s love for nourishing their kids’ reading habits ignited the motivation to launch a platform for affordable used books in the UAE. “As moms, we have always encouraged our kids to read more,” Karim says. “New books are expensive, and kids outgrow them very quickly. They need new books that cost a lot of money, and we struggle with shelf space.” It’s to tackle this issue that Anwar and Karim started to think of ways they could refresh each other’s book collections in inexpensive ways, and after countless talks over coffee, the friends-turned-business partners set out to build a used bookstore. Though the brick-and-mortar store did garner a positive response in the beginning, the logistics aspect didn’t quite work out, and that business didn’t pan out.
But Karim, who is a teacher of Arabic in several schools in the UAE, and Anwar, a Visiting Instructor at the American University of Sharjah, didn’t give up on the idea they had in the first place- their entrepreneurial minds were still at work on that. Maybe this is because both of them have run businesses before- Karim had previously owned an online shopping mall in Lebanon, while Anwar managed an apparel firm in the UAE. And so, a few years later, the pair made it to a Startup Weekend event staged at the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa) in 2019, which was focused on building businesses in the digital content and publishing industries. After going through a crash course in business model creation, programming, designing and market validation, the three days Anwar and Karim spent there culminated in a pitching session competition that resulted in the two women winning third place in the contest with a prize of AED25,000. Equipped with both capital and fresh knowledge, the co-founders decide to digitize the idea they had, and that resulted in the venture they now call Bookends. “We started by going back to basics and talking to all the stakeholders: avid readers, children, adults,” Karim remembers. “With limited competition in the market, we felt that there was an opportunity available to us. Our design philosophy focused on simplicity, ease of use, and value for money. With that in mind, we created a business model, policy and procedures, and a product offering.”
Within the first week of the startup’s soft launch, Bookends had more than 500 books on its platform. Since then, besides fielding inquiries for sending books in, the co-founders have been seeing requests for specific books coming in on a daily basis. Initially, the biggest challenge they faced was in market awareness, and turning potential consumers into actual customers. The co-founders resolved it by advertising within communities and via social media. “When people want to buy a book, people will immediately go to a bookstore. We aim to get people to check our website before they try to buy a brand-new book,” states Karim. Their next main challenge was navigating the COVID-19 crisis as a new startup. First off, the team implemented preventative measures to ensure the safety of customers, “We put in a complete process for sanitizing the pre-loved books, so they are safe for us to handle, and safe for our customers to read.” Originally, the Bookends team had aimed to build a community of book lovers through different events, as well as partner with coffee shops that will be a drop-off/pickup location for customers and sellers. Though this hasn’t been possible with the pandemic, Anwar and Karim are hoping to revisit these ideas further down the line.
But despite such hurdles it threw in the startup’s way, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t deterred Bookends’ growth. “We were hesitant at first, but to our surprise, we saw a huge demand for our products,” Anwar reveals. “As everyone went online and most places [were] on lockdown initially, there was a huge demand for books. People wanted less screen time, and more reading time. People wanted an escape from on-screen tasks and activities. Parents wanted to buy books to get their kids off the screen. With everything closed and minimal social events, many adults were interested in reading more. We received testimonials from customers who were grateful that Bookends have revived their passion for reading and made books affordable.” The co-founders are also pleased about Bookends being a venture that champions sustainability. “We are proud to do our little part to save our planet,” Karim says. “The carbon footprint of an average book is 7.5 kgs. Landfills are composed of 26% paper, and the publishing industry uses 11% of the fresh water. Every book that is resold creates a positive impact on the environment.”
As an online marketplace, Karim notes that Bookends has a pretty low-asset business model, which has given them steady and profitable growth so far. “We are stocking books for the seller, and in fact, we don’t pay the seller unless the book gets sold. Our main costs are in storage, logistics, and of course, the platform.” Bookends is simple enough to use: sellers can contact the Bookends team via WhatsApp, where they will be given a form to fill out and price books as they see fit, with a minimum of 50% markdown on the original retail price as advised. Sellers are charged an average of AED5 service fee per book and can either drop off the books at the startup’s headquarters in Sharjah, or arrange a pick-up with one of the company’s couriers for a fee of AED20 (up to 5kgs)- Bookends partners with third-party couriers for deliveries across UAE, from Sharjah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman and Ras Al Khaimah. Once the book is sold, it can either be used as credit to buy books on the platform or receive cash.
Anwar reveals that Bookends has sold about 15,000 books to date, serving over 2,500 customers, with its database currently consisting of about 300 sellers. “Most of these are mothers and book readers who would like to refresh their bookshelves by selling their pre-loved books through us, and buy books sold by others on our platform,” notes Anwar. The partners hope to gain more customers and encourage reading and recycling. “Our clients are just individuals who loves reading, mothers who want to offer more variety of books to their kids, and even students looking for a bargain.” In terms of support, the startup has received AED25,000 from the #SavetheSmallGuys campaign by the Bank of Sharjah, which it used to make use of a bigger storage facility as well as offer more books on its digital platform. The company also received a US$10,000 equity-free grant from Sheraa and CE-Ventures, as part of the Startup Solidarity Fund, which Anwar and Karim utilized to build a custom-built software for a book and seller management system.
In the coming months, the duo says they’re focused on increasing Bookends’ inventory to maintain a stock of 10,000 books at any given time. The platform currently has books in eight different languages, and so, they are looking to add more variety, while also considering expansion plans to neighboring countries. “Bookends aim to be the largest secondhand books marketplace in the region, with more than 50,000 books,” Anwar declares. “We want to be people’s first choice when they consider buying any kind of books in the UAE.”
Grace Karim and Somia Anwar, co-founders, Bookends share their advice for entrepreneurs
1. Just go for it “Never wait for the right time to come, just do it. As entrepreneurs ,we are always waiting for the best and most convenient time to start a new business. We will never find that perfect scenario to start. You just go for it, and things will start to fall in place.”
2. Trust your instincts “Don’t rely on anyone but yourself. You know your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) better than anyone, so if you want to get the job done, do it yourself.”
3. Identify the crucial matters “Focus on your core, and outsource other tasks. Spend your time wisely doing things that matter most. Don’t hesitate to hire help.”
4. Learn from mistakes “Be open to criticism, and adjust as you go along. Use the feedback to improve your product.”
5. Success takes time “Building a business takes time, be patient. You can’t expect things to start booming from day one, you need to invest money and time.”