Like most students, Philippe Ducrest felt a pang of regret when he swapped £150 for a stack of university text books last September. Unlike most students, however, the Swiss-born management student at the University of Edinburgh decided to do something about it. "Students only use their textbooks for one semester, or one year," he tells The Gateway, "but don't have any way to sell them. Every first year student buys the same book year after year, so it made no sense not to have a system or a platform to allow students to connect and sell the books."
When Philippe brought the idea to his friend Ali Eslami, who is studying for a PhD in Artificial Intelligence and who had the technical knowhow to help Philippe get his scheme off the ground, BookAdopter was born. The website was launched in February and initially gave students at Edinburgh the chance to buy and sell their books, with zero cost or effort. They've since rolled it out to St Andrews, King's College London and UCL and will soon have a presence in all of The Gateway's universities.
"It's pretty simple," says Philippe on the bookselling process. "You just select your university, add the title of your book, select the condition it's in and set your price. We have a cool feature which allows you to compare your price with the book's price on Amazon, to find out how much it's worth new or used, so even the buyer gets the best deal." As well as undercutting the likes of eBay and Amazon on price, BookAdopter also removes almost all the effort usually involved with selling books. "When you think about it," Philippe suggests, "the people who are looking for your book might be your neighbours. The idea of shipping books doesn't makes sense when you can meet a student in front of the library, or in the cafe next to the university and exchange the books for no extra cost."
BookAdopter is a not-for-profit organisation and at the moment, the focus is on keeping the site clean and ad-free. The team are also aware of the environmental implications of what they're doing and have calculated that for every 16 books they facilitate the sale of, one tree will be saved. But while philanthropy is important to Philippe, and he's happy to help his fellow students ("if we make it big enough, it's going to be possible for a student to spend virtually no money on textbooks throughout their degree!"), one of the main motivators is the opportunity to learn about business. "The most interesting challenge," he says, "is understanding how to make a website work. How do you market it correctly?"
Philippe was left unfulfilled by some consulting work he did for another not-for-profit organisation. "At the end of the project," he explains, "you just quit the company you were working for. I found this aspect of consulting disappointing." Perhaps learning from his experience, Philippe hopes that BookAdopter will turn into more than just a side project. In a year's time, he hopes to have listings for 10,000 books. In the future, they hope to be in every university in Britain - and then the world even. The future potential for advertising is clear. With a system built to be very specific about the kind of books people are buying or selling, BookAdopter can offer advertisers a well-defined customer base. Does Philippe think he and Ali can make careers from the organisation? "If we got an investor and can afford to spend time on it then yes, why not?"
The immediate task for Philippe, who will stay in Edinburgh to study for a master's in management next year, is to raise awareness. He's enlisted Wil Whiting, who is managing the brand in London universities, and seven university brand ambassadors scattered across the UK to help to do so (the team are currently on the lookout for more ambassadors in universities). For an organisation that's existed for less than six months, BookAdopter has the feel of a well-oiled machine, run by professionally-minded people. Look out for the name.