In South Korea, an unlikely type of startup has been slowly cementing its place in the peer economy: book sharing.
Korea Exposé met Chang Woong, founder and CEO of “Bookshelf, the Social Library, (Bookoob in English)” to find out how he created what may be the world’s first sustainable book sharing platform.
Chang is meticulous, reserved, and frank. His credentials are impressive: He founded what became Yes 24, Korea’s biggest online bookstore, developed the online store of book giant Kyobo, and created a personal online bookstore called ISBN Shop. As a pioneer of the South Korean book retail market, Chang shares with us his vision for books, society, and the sharing economy.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Korea Exposé: How did the idea for a book sharing platform come about?
After more than a decade in online book retail, I realized that I had no idea what had happened to all the books I helped sell. I was getting requests for out-of-print books on my website, but I knew that copies must be sitting untouched on someone’s bookshelf. As a book lover, I was running out of space for my books as well, so I decided to create a business model that could meet all these needs.
How does Bookoob work?
First, we allow users to store up to 200 books with us for 30,000 won a year. These stored books then become our “shared library,” the contents of which we deliver to each user for just the delivery fee. Anyone can borrow up to 25 books for two months for 7,000 won (roughly $6). We also have non-storing users who don’t pay a membership fee but just borrow books.
We’ve grown from just 2,000 books in 2012 to about 100,000 in 2018. How much is that — 5,000 percent?
Has growth been steady?
For us, yes. Keep in mind that meaningful growth rates and metrics differ for each startup. Every startup should decide, “Do we want to take over the world, or do we want to have a sustainable business that fulfills a certain function?”
The former is practically impossible to achieve with pure business revenue, so requires the sale of projected earnings — selling the future — to investors. “We’ll have this much revenue by 2021.”
Massive investments create pressure for explosive growth, which often leads to holes in both business models and labor practices. People forget that trust takes a long time to build. Just look at Amazon’s dismal stock prices in its first 15 years!
How did you achieve this steady growth?
I ran a free trial for three years. In 2015, I figured that I had gathered enough books to begin charging for storage and delivery services.
The sharing economy runs on trust, and sharing books requires even more layers of trust. I had to prove to users that their books would be stored and read safely, that they would have no trouble with book delivery, and that they could find the books they wanted to read.
When I announced that we would become a paid service, more than 90 percent of users stayed. I knew then that the model worked, and that it was just a matter of scalability.
How did you handle the financial pressure?
I committed my life to the business, coming in at 7 a.m. and leaving at around midnight every day. Hiring someone is a huge responsibility, legally and ethically. If you’re in no position to guarantee fair compensation, either make people co-owners or don’t even think of hiring.
I was able to run the business in its initial stages through investments from various sources, like D3 Jubilee and Strong Ventures. Investors in South Korea are often too cautious, but what they don’t realize is that for any startup, a sum of small investments from multiple sources is incredibly helpful. That goes for us as well.
Once the business model proved successful, I hired two employees to help with logistics and marketing. I’m confident that we’ll reach 150,000 books in the near future.
What explains your popularity?
We know who our users are and we serve them well, and hassle-free. People also tend to store books with us that mean something to them, so our entire collection is like a gathering of personally-curated miniature bookshelves. Our non-storing users are often people who can’t make the time to go to a public library.
Why the name “Social Library?”
Public libraries are run by the government, but access is often determined by money. Korea has about 1,000 public libraries, and half are located in the Seoul metropolitan region. Libraries outside this area are bound to be smaller, both in size and resources.
We all lead lives of trading time for money, but too many struggle to get by, day in, day out. People say libraries are free, but it takes time to get to one. It takes even more time to get to a particular library where they have the books you need.
If access to knowledge is limited by space and class, it’s not truly equal. We address that inequality directly by getting the entire nation to build a collectively owned library. For 7,000 won, you can access practically any book you want to read.
Why should citizens drive this project?
It’s unrealistic to demand perfect social safety nets from the government. If everyone in the country gets together and contributes what they can in different sectors, these nets can be created across many fields. We choose to fill that role for books: never again should access to them be limited by your financial situation.
Why books? Is the internet not enough?
I know we live in an age of free information via the internet, but that just isn’t enough. Online outlets churn out quick, less nuanced information daily, and you can see the effects of this mode of information consumption around the world.
The world is in disarray, partly because readily available information is often simplistic and polarized. Well-written books provide higher quality information, which I believe everyone should be able to access.
What does “sharing economy” mean to you?
The bigger significance of the sharing economy is that it offers us a chance to disrupt and reassemble the structures that determine quality of life. I want to provide equal access to books for people across the planet, and am developing a new platform that can do so.
[Laughs] “I think the spirit of equal access to knowledge is ingrained in our alphabet. How wondrous is it that a monarch [King Sejong] would develop an alphabet just to provide his people with the opportunity to learn? We can keep that spirit going, I’m sure.”
Cover image: Bookoob’s growing treasure trove of shared books (Ho Kyeong Jang/Korea Exposé)