Imagine a company that takes a product from a waste stream, resells it and matches each sale with a donation to a person in need, all while raising money for literacy initiatives. This is Better World Books, an online bookseller offering print and eBooks. Talk about innovation. Wondering how one business creates and implements so many innovative practices, I spoke with John Ujda, vice-president of marketing and chief literacy officer at Better World Books.
TriplePundit: TriplePundit has published a number of articles about Better World Books but, for those readers who are unfamiliar with your company, can you provide a quick overview of what you do?
John Ujda: Better World Books is a social enterprise that brings products and information to consumers through online retail. Because of the social mission, Better World Books lets people align their purchase decisions with their values. So, purchasing books and eBooks through Better World books not only fulfills the need for the product but also provides a secondary impact in the form of donated books, support for literacy initiatives and reduced waste.
3p: What is your role at Better World Books?
JU: I am vice-president of marketing which makes me responsible for revenue generation. I am also chief literacy officer. I chair the literacy council where I ensure that we are appropriately fulfilling our literacy mission and communicating our impact to employees.
3p: Can you talk about how you educate your employees about literacy initiatives?
JU: We give presentations to employees, disseminate information through newsletters and, with greatest impact, bring representatives from our non-profit partners to Better World Books to have them address employees directly.
3p: Can you describe one of the best ideas to have come out of Better World Books since your inception?
JU: I have to mention the creation of the company itself. The very idea of taking something that is a waste stream and finding a market for it was an innovation, one that is now ten years old. And of course, combining this with a mission to fund literacy projects.
Better World Books started as a campus book drive, which was a solid innovation. But we didn’t stop there. We thought, there are other markets that have unwanted books and don’t know what to do with them. We went to a conference just to talk to librarians and learn what they do with their unwanted books. We learned that in many cases, libraries were throwing books away for want of a better outlet. So, we formed the library divisions, and today we serve 3,800 libraries.
Another example of an innovative idea is our drop box program, a central part of the business that we didn’t have two and a half years ago. That program has expanded quickly, growing from a few test locations to drop boxes in over fifty metropolitan areas today. The drop boxes are an example of innovation by imitation – there were drop boxes for clothing donations but very few for books. We looked at the drop box model and thought, how can we do this with books and how can we do this better than it is being done now? So, we put boxes on the ground in test markets and saw what came in and what does and doesn’t work in logistics, appearance, location, etc. Testing this project led to other innovations. For example, we are the only collection bin network that we know of that has sensors installed in the bins to tell us how full they are. This ensures that we empty bins before they get full, keeping neighboring businesses and consumers happy.
3p: Does Better World Books think actively about how to encourage innovation within the company?
JU: Yes, we do but unlike a larger corporation we don’t have innovation systems or programs oriented around innovation. At Better World Books innovation springs from the organization’s culture.
3p: Can you talk about how the culture at Better World Books encourages innovation?
JU: Sure, for one thing, anyone in the company has access to people at the top, so if you have an idea you can bring it to decision makers. There’s also a scrappiness to the company which comes from its origins, making a business out of what was a waste product, and, in the process, giving away a substantial portion of what comes in – this is a history that encourages innovation. The business environment, being a B corporation and a social enterprise, forces innovation in order to achieve margins. Our current President and CEO, Andy Perlmutter, is an entrepreneur at heart and has started and sold multiple businesses. He brings a mindset of entrepreneurialism to the company and has encouraged us to understand changes in the market and get out ahead of those changes.
3p: Can you think of any companies that you look to as leaders in innovation?
JU: One good example is TOMS Shoes, who, like our book-for-book program, gives away a pair of shoes for every shoe purchased. Also, any of the certified B corporations. By nature of the corporate form they have chosen these companies are innovating.
3p: Do you have any advice for new social entrepreneurs about how to continue to innovate as their business grows?
JU: You have to understand your market and potential market’s pain points and changing needs. From there you need to act on what you know. Acting on this knowledge can be difficult and it is important to have leadership that encourages people to embrace change.
Heidi Sistare is a freelance writer who just completed the documentary writing and multimedia storytelling program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. She holds a BA in Social Work from Warren Wilson College and has experience in non-profit management, community development, and planning for small businesses. Visit her website at: www.heidisistare.com