“Alexa, tell me what book I want to read next.”
Siri. Alexa. Google Home. Artificial intelligence and cloud-based services are increasingly invading our daily lives. But Premium member, Melissa Tantchev is bucking the trend with her business that relies heavily on the human touch.
When Melissa’s husband was looking for a present to celebrate their first wedding anniversary (the modern theme is paper), he thought he’d be able to find an Australian website that could hand-pick a book for him. Not so, and soon after Bookabuy – Australia’s first and only personalised book subscription service – was born.
Melissa does most of the handpicking herself (wait, til we tell you the numbers!), so we sat down with her to talk bootstrapping, scalability, AI, and the health scare that prompted them to take on their first employee.
Congratulations on the success of Bookabuy. Can you tell us how it works?
Simply pick a book category, choose between a monthly (recurring) or fixed term (1, 3, 6 or 12 months) subscription and tell us about your reading tastes, or the reading tastes of a loved one, and we’ll hunt down the right book for you!
We’ll then deliver a new, handpicked book once a month to yourself or your loved one. Each book is tailored to the reader’s interests, beautifully gift-wrapped, and accompanied by a personalised message.
It was your husband’s wedding anniversary gift that prompted the idea for Bookabuy, when did you think ‘this could be a business’?
When Chris first told me about the idea, I was so excited about it – but I wasn’t 100 per cent convinced that it would work! But like anything, you’ve got to give it a go to see where it leads, and that’s exactly what we did.
We’ve never really had grandiose ambitions of scale or taking over the world, but like most small businesses, we just take it one day at a time and work really hard to achieve our objectives and deliver the best possible service for each one of our customers.
How did you take Bookabuy from idea to reality? What were your first steps?
We took it one step at a time, starting with designing the brand and logomark, then progressing onto our website and associated marketing material.
Setting up the brand and online storefront was an important step – but just as important was how we approached the structure behind the scenes. This included how we’d set up each of our subscriptions, and guidelines for how our brand would interact with would-be customers.
How many books have you hand-wrapped since launching in 2015?
Since launching in 2015, we’ve handpicked and individually gift-wrapped over 13,000 books!
Ok, 13,000 is a lot of books to personally hand-pick and gift-wrap. What do you do if you’re sick?
Yes, I handpick all of the titles we send out, and this aspect of our business is something I am really proud of. This is because it distinguishes us from the plethora of ‘Book of the Month’ boxes available in Australia. It also enables us to have a personal connection with all of our subscribers.
Regarding what happens if I get sick – funnily enough, this happened to me recently. I am a person who lives with Type 1 Diabetes and was admitted to hospital with Diabetic Ketoacidosis. This is a serious, life-threatening condition where the body produces excess acids in the blood. And this is all because I neglected to take a few of my routine insulin injections (I am required to take four insulin injections every single day because my pancreas doesn’t produce insulin).
That was a bit of a wake-up call, which made me realise I can’t always manage this aspect of the business myself. No one can! It is also why we’ve advertised for our first casual Book Wrapper position.
Your business model relies on the human touch, but do you think you could ever automate your process using AI?
It is something we’ve considered, but at this point, we’re mostly looking at automating more simple, everyday processes to make our customers’ interactions with Bookabuy easier (like managing their order history online, renewing orders with just a couple of clicks and having their own online accounts). Watch this space!
At the end of the day, the heart of our business is our unique human connection, making it Australia’s only personalised book subscription service.
How many books do you send out per month?
We can average anywhere between 500-1000 books per month. It changes every month depending on the time of year. For example, the gifting periods of Christmas, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day are always very big periods for us. We’ve seen over a 60 per cent year-on-year increase in turnover since we launched in July 2015.
How did you initially fund the business?
We initially bootstrapped our business and funded it with our own capital. This means we’ve been able to scale up debt-free and have complete control of where we want to go next.
Do you both plan to work on Bookabuy full-time?
Our short-medium term goal is to be in a position where we can put all of our energies into running Bookabuy. Moving into a part-time role in September 2017 was a big step for me, and it has given me the opportunity to put more time into the business. My aim is to go full-time with Bookabuy within the next 12 months.
What’s your strategy for Bookabuy in 2019?
We’re really happy with the growth we’ve seen since launching the business, so our aim for next year is to keep the forward momentum and delight even more readers all around Australia and New Zealand with our service. There might also be a few more specialty product lines to come!