Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Interview with Jonathan Simkin, SwoopThat
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
As the school year kicks off for college students, one of the big tasks of the year is buying books for their courses. One startup, SwoopThat (www.swoopthat.com)--started by a recent college grad Jonathan Simkin--has made it much easier to buy books for student, by pulling up books based on a student's schedule. We spoke with Jonathan about the advantages of SwoopThat over existing sites.
Jonathan Simkin: What makes us unique from other sites, is we're here to help students save time, in addition to money, when they buy books. Every price comparison out there, whether that's Google Products, Bizrate, or other sites, can find books, but you can only do it one at a time. You've got to find each one, and research them online. That takes a while to do, probably a couple of hours per student. What our site does, instead, is it integrates directly with a student course schedule, so you can just enter your course, and it automated the process of buying all of your books simultaneously. That results in huge savings--up to 75 percent--in price, and you can also do it all in about ten minutes, because we've integrated directly with your course schedule, and filtered through the entire web simultaneously.
It seems like all that course information would be difficult to pull, how do you do that?
Jonathan Simkin: It is pretty challenging, which is why we're one of the only ones able to do that. The data was only made available very recently. In 2008, the Federal government passed an act which said that school have to show the course and required books for those courses. The act only came into effect in 2010, at which point we built a system to try to find out that information for as many schools as possible. It's only been available for a very short amount of time, and we've been one of the early adopters in terms of getting that course data and making it available to students.
How did you come up with the web site?
Jonathan Simkin: We're all recent graduates. I graduated in May of 2010. The two main programmers also graduated in May of 2010 from Harvey Mudd College, and the fourth person on our team recently graduated from UCSD law school. We all shared the same frustration, which is buying textbooks just sucks. It's extremely expensive, and if you want to save money, it can become extremely time consuming. The whole purpose of this came out of our own frustration with bookstores, and our goal was to make buying textbooks a quick and easy process, that would also result in big savings--so that people could focus on things they really cared about.
Had you thought you'd be an entrepreneur when you were in college?
Jonathan Simkin: I was actually in high school when I decided I'd either start a company when I graduated, or go into patent law. I chose Harvey Mudd because they have a general engineering degree. I knew I wanted to do something tech related, and by doing a general engineering degree I knew I'd get exposure to computer engineering, mechanical engineering, materials, systems, the whole lot. This opportunity sort of just presented itself, because I knew every student hated buying books and there was no easy way to od it. So, we focused on the website and made it actually happen.
You've got a good set of advisors, how did you manage that right out of school?
Jonathan Simkin: One of the things I did after graudating, is I joined CONNECT, which is like the entrepreneurial center and hub in San Diego, which is run in conjunction with UCSD and other schools here. They've got a program called Springboard, which helps really young companies get set up with mentors, and guides you through the startup process. They act as mentors and help companies grow. I met a lot of them through there, and as I've been meeting people I find well qualified and talented, I've tried to bring them on board.
Back to the service itself-- you've got lots of competition in the space, how are you going to get above that noise?
Jonathan Simkin: Certainly, it is extremely competitive. What's unique about our competitors, such as Amazon.com, Half.com, Chegg, Bookrenter, and so on, is they're also our partners. They're all listed on our website. The reason we don't necessarily view them as competitors, is students can go to us first, then go to a Bookrenter or Chegg afterwards. Students who might use Bookrenter might be stealing sales from Chegg, but we're actually open, and just direct students to one of the other. We view them as partners because we want to have students come to us first, find the best deal, and go from there. A more direct competitor might be Bigwords, however, we differentiate from in our ability to search by course. That's completely unique to us, and separates us from every other ISBN search engine out there. Students don't like to waste that time, and because we are integrating directly with courses, it saves them hours of time and hundreds of dollars each year.
Finally, what's the next big thing for you?
Jonathan Simkin: We're doing a lot of work with buybacks and textbook exchanges. One thing we just launched, is an exchange platform for students to find and sell textbooks to each other. That reduces the costs more. We don't earn money form that, but it's really about getting more student involvement through our website, and helping them to save as much as possible. We've even launched a complete, custom branding platform within our site, so that any student organization can create a virtual bookstore, and use that as a fundraiser for the organization. Anytime a student buys a book or product, the club or organization is able to raise some money from that purchase.
Thanks, and good luck!