The Extensive Guide to Starting a Textbook Side Hustle in College

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In college, my girlfriend and I inherited a textbook business from a friend. We bought and sold textbooks on campus for 55 weeks and made $4,909. We not only made more than every person working an on-campus job, but we learned about the ins and outs of running a part-time business.

There are a million and one ways to save money, but sometimes it just helps to make more than your $9/hr job pays. That’s where a side business comes in. You don’t need to be 35 with a business administration degree to start; you can be 19 and a music major, 23 and unemployed, or 48 and happily employed with a family.

This post provides the inter-workings of our textbook business – called Bikes & Books (we wanted to sell vintage bikes, but never got around to it).

I’ll highlight how we marketed ourselves on campus, how we kept organized, hacks to make operations run smoothly, and how you can transfer all of this knowledge to start your own side hustle.

Marketing

Since we started late in our college tenure – the 2nd term of our junior year – we didn’t have much time to debate marketing. We went to a small college of 3,000 people and used the small population to our benefit, putting up posters around campus and using the dorm email lists provided to students.

For the posters, we created 3 or 4 versions that were right to the point and tried to catch a passerby’s eye with a headline like: “Get More Money for Your Textbooks” or “Tired of the Bookstore’s Prices?” since we knew that the majority of our customers would be disgruntled bookstore customers.

We made sure the poster had rip-off tabs with our names, email, and phone number available so the customers wouldn’t forget about us after a long day around campus.

Email was a much easier marketing channel, but unfortunately only lasted a little while. All students had access to an email list of their respective dorms. We used our two email lists, and then talked some friends into sending emails on our behalf from their dorms. It felt a bit spammy, but it paid huge dividends and most of our customers originally heard of us because of email.

Eventually, the dean of students got word of this and politely threatened to shut us down if we continued soliciting with the help of the school’s email. We politely agreed.

After getting our initial round of marketing, we made our first $300 the 3rd week of the term.

How We Stayed Organized

We used our own money to initially pay customers, and after the first year found that opening a joint checking account to keep up with finances was the best idea. We always had loose cash around and were owing one another, so this made that situation much easier.

We opened a free college checking account at the local big bank in town that was a 1 minute walk from our apartment complex. It cost us nothing, provided a debit card for USPS purchases and ATM withdrawals, and took away a lot of the hassle of day-to-day business activities.

To sell our textbooks, we created an Amazon account and linked the joint checking account. When we would sell a book on Amazon, the funds would go back into the checking account we paid people out of. It worked perfectly.

To keep track of expenses, we kept a spreadsheet that allowed us to track the money we paid to customers (listed as payments), and the money we brought in through Amazon sales (revenue).

The most important step was setting up a shared Gmail address so that our respective inboxes wouldn’t be overflowed with extra emails from customers and Amazon sales. Gmail works great for handling large amounts of incoming mail and contacts.

The Buying & Selling Process

85% of our money was made through Amazon. We both had previous experience with Amazon, and found that the size of their marketplace blew away competitors like half.com.

In our print ad, we asked for the customer to send us the ISBN (international standard book number) so we could look up the exact edition they owned since there are so many variations of textbooks listed on Amazon.

When a customer would email us with textbooks we would go right over to Amazon and type in the ISBN of the textbook and up would pop the price of the book, how many were available, and any other information we needed.

After some testing, we found that offering 33% of the Amazon price worked best for us. It made us enough where we didn’t resent the work, and it still was enough to offer the customer at a price that almost always beat the bookstore (our main goal, and only competitor).

We found 33% to be accurate because we had to take on the risk that the textbook might not sell when we bought it from a customer. But over 2 years, we sold around 90% of the textbooks we bought.

Once we agreed on a price with the customer, we would meet them in a public place on-campus and exchange money for the textbook(s). It was kind of shady sometimes, but it always turned out fine. We would then immediately post the book on Amazon at, or near, the lowest price in the marketplace.

A majority of the books sold within 48 hours.

Shipping

The buyer on Amazon paid $3.99 for shipping, or $6.99 for expedited. Amazon then took 10-15% commission, which was worth it since they were providing us a huge amount of buyers.

We shipped the books through the local USPS. After testing multiple shipping methods, we figured out that the USPS flat rates were the best deal. We would pay $4.80 for a normal size book, or $9.85 for a larger book. The price seems steep, but we lost a couple of books in non-USPS sponsored packing, so the extra $5 was worth the security.

After the book arrived at its destination, the funds were transferred to our account a few days later, and then we could send them to our checking account to buy more books from other students.

Here’s how an average sale broke down.

Child Development textbook listed on Amazon: $44.99

Paid to customer: $15

Sold for: $44.99

Amazon’s commission: $5.35

Received from Amazon: $39.89

Shipping
: $5.64

Profit: $19.25

That was how we made over $4,600 in under 55 weeks of work. We tried some other variations of the business that brought in another $300, but the process listed about was our cash cow for our junior and senior years.

6 Tips to Run a Side Hustle

- Try everything and be willing to fail multiple times. This was the first time either of us had run a business and a majority of the time we spent throwing around ideas that never saw the light of day. Realize you’re going to make mistakes. That’s normal. Just learn from them and improve. We spent way too much money on shipping for year 1, but learned of new shipping options and spent 25% less on shipping in year 2.

- Stay organized from the get-go. Corinne is to thank for this. She started the spreadsheet and we quickly realized that not only did having everything organized make it easier to run the business, but it allowed us more time to think of new ideas to implement. Opening the joint checking account was the best thing we did because it did away with the stress of sharing money.

- Keep notes to track your progress. We kept detailed notes from the start. This allowed us to see exactly how much we were making in real time. Here’s how our sales compared from year 1 to year 2. In 2009 we were around for 3 terms, compared to just 2 terms in 2008, but no one had books in the fall so it was slow and didn’t affect the numbers much.

- Your good customers are the best marketing tool you have. Everyone loves complaining about the bookstore’s prices so we figured people would probably tell their friends about our business if we gave them a good price and treated them nice. We asked customers to tell their friends and implemented a referal system our second year to promote this. We gave $5 to the referrer for every $30 worth of books their friends brought to us. We even tried gift cards for a while to see if that promoted people spreading our name to others. Be nicer to your customers than you would to your mom, and they’ll help you out along the way.

- Don’t try to be perfect. If you wait to long to launch because you want every detail sorted out beforehand, you’ll never launch. We quickly learned that the condition of the books didn’t matter as long as it wasn’t destroyed. We learned people really had no idea how much textbooks were costing them at the bookstore. We learned that the people who work at the USPS can be really lame sometimes, but you have to be nice to them so they don’t throw your book away. You’ll learn the tricks of the trade later on, but get started now and work out the kinks later.

- Try and test new ideas. I had the genius idea to buy textbooks for people. That way we didn’t have to use our own money. We would just be a personal shopper. It worked out okay, but we ended up spending almost $1,300 of our own money to only make $1,700 – netting us just $400. Mixed with the amount of time it took – it wasn’t worth it. No sweat. We dropped the idea and moved on. We also tried expanding to another college down the street – sold one book to a teacher and that was it. No biggy. We tried renting books to people. No go.

Failure happens in business. Find the stuff that works and make sure your failures are not catastrophic. The referral system was one of these ideas that worked and it brought us hundreds of dollars in revenue.

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It was a lot of work, but running this business taught me more about the real world than most of my college courses. It was also a lot of fun. My parents gloated to their friends, we were featured in the school newspaper, and we made some nice cash for doing something we enjoyed.

If you go to a big university, there’s no reason you couldn’t make over $10,000 with the amount of textbooks and people floating around campus.

But maybe you don’t want to sell textbooks. How can you use the tips above to start your own side hustle? What problem can you fix for others? It doesn’t have to be a career, but there are opportunities to be found. The worst thing to do is underestimate your skills, so get out there and see what the marketplace has it store for you today.

Photo: yumyumbubblegu

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1 Comment

  1. Amazing blog! Do you have any helpful hints for aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely overwhelmed .. Any ideas? Thank you!

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