How your old books turn into $14 million in sales

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Pre-owned books have been the path to profit for Glen Nothnagel.

His online “re-commerce” business sellbackyourBook.com, which he launched nearly six years ago at age 19, boasts more than 300,000 customers. The company purchases and resells used books and will do $14 million in sales this year, up from $9 million last year and from $200,000 its first year.

Nothnagel’s entrepreneurial story began at the College of DuPage.

“It was my first semester in college, and I went to sell my books to the college store,” he says.

He had several to sell, but the store was only interested in buying back two.

Nothnagel began his homework.

“I learned how all these books that college students have aren’t typically bought back,” he says. “So I rented a real small warehouse space in Hammond, Ind., and tried to do everything as low budget as possible. The response was phenomenal.”

But it wasn’t a drama-free start.

“I wanted a website, so I paid someone to build it,” he says. “But every time I’d go to them to make changes or add features it was like hitting a brick wall because my vision would get lost in translation.”

His solution — build the site himself.

“I’d work all day on the business, he says. “At night I would be learning how to program and code, so I could make the changes that the business needed without having to relay them to somebody and pay them to do it. It was a pretty big learning curve because I never had any introduction to any computer science type stuff. It was kind of like dive in and learn the basics, so that I could get the business running. It wasn’t until 2010 where we had enough capital to hire a [software] developer.”

To get the word out on his enterprise, he initially hung fliers on college campuses and used guerrilla-marketing tactics.

“None of that was super effective, so then I started playing around with search engine optimization and pay per click [online] advertising,” he says.

“A lot of people are searching for how to sell books,” he says. “I was just capitalizing on their interest in getting rid of their items.”

Nothnagel moved the company to Aurora its second year, looking to take advantage of a ready labor pool and cheap lease space. That brought new travails.

The warehouse site “was dirt cheap, but unfortunately the roof leaked, and that’s not good for books,” he says. “We had to put plastic tarps up and wait for the lease to expire. It was pretty bad.”

The company moved to a 26,000-square-foot, leak-free site in Montgomery in 2010.

SellbackyourBook.com has expanded to include SellDVDsOnline.com, where consumers can get cash for unwanted CDS, DVDS and video games, and the company also buys back calculators.

Its customer demographic is primarily college students and young mothers, Nothnagel says.

“A lot of times younger mothers have a lot of books that they’ve been stockpiling, and the same with DVDs,” he says. “There’s only so many times you’re willing to watch Barney.”

SellbackyourBook.com’s prices range from 50 cents to $95, depending on the book, he says, adding the average buy-back price for DVDs is about $1.30.

The company competes in an industry with roughly two dozen players, Nothnagel says. Among them is online giant Amazon.com.

“The main differentiator between Amazon and us is Amazon wants to pay with gift cards,” he says. “We’re more than happy to send [customers] a check or [pay through] PayPal.

“We pay as much as we can,” he adds. It’s “not only price, but also service. We try to pay as fast as possible.”

SellbackyourBook last year was recognized at a White House ceremony as one of the top 100 companies started by young entrepreneurs.

His CliffNotes for other business owners: Don’t be afraid to venture outside your comfort zone.

“When you’re really comfortable you kind of want to keep things the way they are,” he says. “But sometimes that stops you from succeeding because in order to get to the next level, you constantly have to leave your comfort zone. If you don’t change, then somebody else is going to come along and eat your breakfast for you.”

He adds, don’t think you’ve always got it going on.

“If you come up with a great idea, just because you’re the owner of the company doesn’t mean it’s going to work,” he says. “You have to prove that it’s going to work even if you don’t have to answer to somebody.”

ABOVE: Glen Nothnagel

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