Q&A: Barry Crow, Green Metropolis

What's your background and how did you come up with the idea for the site?

I'm originally from Newcastle and worked for British Airways as an IT developer. I moved to London for my job and went from a 4 bedroom house to a one bedroom flat. I'm an avid reader and had loads of paperbacks. If people have space, their books go under the bed or on the shelf. I had no space and had to de-clutter everything. So I started giving them away to charity shops.

I went through pretty much the same process; I would buy a new book every month, read it and then drop it off in a charity shop.  But I could never find books there I wanted to buy. If I had just finished a James Patterson, then I would want to read another one. But if the charity shop didn't have it I would have to go to Waterstones and buy a new one.

After a while I just thought: this is crazy; there must be a better way to do this. That was the beginnings of the idea but I didn't look at it properly until I lost my job.

So, what happened then?

Well, when I lost my job I retreated back to Newcastle. So, in effect, I had to de-clutter twice. I hadn't been enjoying the job tremendously and I often worked very late. So I wasn't in a rush to get back into a job and I started thinking about the book swapping site again.

I had a few months to look for work and because I was from an IT background I thought it would pass some time. I found that I really enjoyed it; I sketched out how a simple book exchange would work and envisioned it as something for me and my friends to use.  Gradually, as nothing was happening job-wise, I put more and more time into the site.

I wanted something that I could use like an online book club; never thinking it could be a viable business. But, later on I realised that I, and probably others, might not just want to swap my 100 books for a different 100, I would want to get some money for them.

Where did the funding come from and how did the site grow?

Initially, I funded it through my redundancy package and then, as I was spending more time with it, I started investing more of my own money. Through the course of about six months to a year, was when I began to think there was potential in it. But I had never sat down and thought about how much it was going to cost.

My friends told their friends and it started to grow through word of mouth. We've never done any advertising. Gradually, more than just me and my friends wanted to use it.

We started putting in small amounts of funding initially, but then as it was growing we thought it seemed a shame to say, go ¾ of the way, and not do the last part. But if I had sketched it out properly with costs at the beginning, I probably wouldn't have gone through with it.

How many people use the site?

We have about 100,000 members.

We started with 1,000 books in stock which were mostly mine, and a few of my friends. We have about a million second-hand books in stock now. Some members still buy books brand new, because they have to have it, but within a week they've read it and will post it on the site

Every book on the site costs £3.75, how did you decide on pricing and what is your revenue model?

I wanted to bring in a set pricing for people. We went for £3.75 because that's about roughly half the price of your average paperback. All books cost £3.75 to buy of which the seller receives £3.

We take 70p for our commission and from the beginning, I wanted to have a donation sent to the Woodland Trust. So every time someone buys a book, five pence goes to the Woodland Trust.

I wanted to have both the charitable aspect and enough payment in place to tempt the seller into using the site, rather than just dropping it in the bin.

The difference wasn't enough to cover our costs and for the first few years we fell short massively but gradually we broke even. Moreover, our cost base is pretty static so if we double in size for example, our costs won't rise too much.

How did The Woodland Trust and Macmillan come on board and what is your deal with them?

We had the Woodland Trust on board from the beginning. It has been beneficial because although we haven't done any advertising, we found that the Trust promote partners to their own members. So a lot of Woodland Trust members have come to us.

Similarly, we've also had people who were donating their books more for the ethical reasons than for the money.  At the end of the month, we found a lot of members were just asking us to donate their money to a charity.

We recognised that there's probably a wider appeal in more charities, so in January we re-launched allowing sellers to opt to give £1 of their £3 to a charity of their choice. We started with Macmillan Cancer Support and Age UK are just about to join, hopefully in the next week or two. Eventually, I'd like to bring in a new charity every two months.

What sets you aside from sites like Amazon or even eBay?

Our site is more like a book club; it's a community doing it to benefit each other. It's for people who want to share their books with each other and at the same time raise money for a good cause. It adds to the whole feel-good factor of the site.

When you join us, you get an online account and every time you sell, you can either have the money refunded to you or use it buy new books.

Everyone should benefit, whether buying or selling, and ideally, we want our sellers to have enough credit from sales to buy their next one on the site without ever needing to use a credit card.

What's been the biggest challenge?

I think probably promoting the site. I have no experience with the marketing side of things. My background is computers and IT, so I didn't have a problem with the technical side of the site. But I suppose I naively thought after 6 months that once we had a great website, people would naturally come to it.

Like I said, we've never advertised it, and it's been a very slow process. I started off and it was just me and I massively underestimated the time it takes to do everything.

Where do you see the site in five years time?

I would like GreenMetropolis.com to be the main ethical alternative to Amazon for second hand and charity books. For myself, I would like to work a little less, so that I can read a little more.

So what are you reading at the moment?

I've got a nice, easy going read on at the moment. It's a book called Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson.

But we launched our forum a few months ago, which actually, has been one of the best things we've done. It's become the easiest way to get feedback.

One thing the users have asked us to do is to set up a book club. So I've been going over books for that and reading things I wouldn't normally read. I'm breaking myself out of my normal reading habit. So although John Irving is my favourite author, I will pluck recommendations out from the forum.

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