Impacting Society and Promoting Literacy with Better World Books’ Andy Perlmutter

October 3, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have Andy Perlmutter on from Better World Books in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome to Green is Good, Andy. ANDY PERLMUTTER: Hey, John. How are you? JOHN SHEGERIAN: We are great today. Mike and I are so excited. This is going to be just such a great segment today because you are doing some wonderful things. But before we get into talking about Better World Books, we have so many listeners in the United States and around the world, and they’re always so fascinated by the leaders of the great organizations that they represent, and I want you to share your fascinating journey. If I shared it, it would take the whole show up because you have a bio that’s amazing. Can you share how you became the leader of Better World Books and sort of the journey to this point? ANDY PERLMUTTER: Well, sure. I started out as an eager entrepreneur who thought that there was a better way to contribute to the world and find a way to leave my mark, and was quite successful in what I’ll call conventional business in a capitalist world. I built a business right out of school and was successful enough. It was acquired by GE Capital after about 10 years of sweat and hard work. I found that being a part of a large organization probably wasn’t in my DNA, and started yet another business that aggregated information to deliver solutions to law enforcement and have positive impact on our society. I took that company public on the New York Stock Exchange. Ultimately, I decided after several years that it was time to be a real good dad and get involved in the community. I enjoyed philanthropy and got involved in some great projects here in my hometown, in Alpharetta, Georgia, building barrier-free facilities for children with varying degrees of disability. I loved it and headed on a journey to try to find a way to incorporate doing good across society with doing well in my professional life and leveraging my expertise, and came across Better World Books. This is just a tremendous opportunity to impact society and promote literacy around the world and find a way to keep books useful and repurpose them wherever possible, where not, recycle them. We kept books out of landfills and found a way to promote literacy, both here in the United States and from corner to corner around the country and around the world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. What a great story. How long have you been now the CEO of Better World Books? ANDY PERLMUTTER: I’m the new guy. I’m still in my hazing period. I’ve been here for about two months now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re the rookie. That’s great. Well, welcome, and we’re so glad to have you on today and for you to share the Better World Books story. I have the site up and Mike has it up on my iPad and Mike has it up on his laptop here in the studio. First of all, for our listeners out there, if you’ve got an iPad or a laptop or a desktop in front of you now, pull it up. It’s www.betterworldbooks.com. It’s a gorgeous website. Before we get going with some Q & A and stuff, Andy, why don’t you frame what Better World Books is and does, and sort of what your mission statement is? ANDY PERLMUTTER: Sure. We’re a social enterprise committed to, again, repurposing books and donating our proceeds to our mission, which is again promoting literacy around the world. What we do is we are what’s called a B-Corporation, which is a social purpose corporation, and we partner with nonprofit enterprises across the country and over in the U.K. in order to collect books whose useful life in the hands of the individual who currently has them or the organization that currently has them has kind of run its course. You know how it is. We collect books over the course of our lifetime, and once we read them, we put them on the shelf or they collect in boxes down in our basement. We derived, basically, a mission that says we want to get those books out of the boxes and off the shelves and put them in the hands of other folks who can read those books and gain knowledge from those books wherever possible. For books that are not in condition to be reused, then we’re focused on recycling books so that we keep them out of the landfills, and so far we’ve been successful in recycling over 57 million books in our short history. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s amazing. For our listeners out there, go to betterworldbooks.com. It is a beautiful website laid out really special. Talk a little bit about, now, the difference. Of course we know the wonderful website that does great commerce and that we all turn to for buying books many times, amazon.com. What’s the difference between buying a book on Better World Books versus other popular booksellers, whether it’s barnesandnoble.com, amazon.com. Share for our listeners the difference. ANDY PERLMUTTER: Well, I think the difference is in several points. Let me start off by saying that we’re available on 26 different sites, so a lot of times, when folks go on amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com, and they’re looking for a good used book at a great price, we’re actually the party that fulfills that need on behalf of the customer. You’ll find that we’re all over the corners when you’re looking to buy a good used book. But on betterworldbooks.com, I think you’re going to find a great commerce experience, but there’s a tremendous community experience as well. One of the things that you’ll find as you come onto the site is, first of all, you’ll be greeted with a header that talks about the funds we’ve raised so far for literacy and libraries around the world. We were thrilled to death last month to pass the $10 million mark in donation. But we’ve also introduced a program called Book for Book, and in Book for Book, for every book that someone purchases through one of our websites, both betterworldbooks.com and betterworldbooks.co.uk, we’ll actually donate a book as well, so not only are you gaining the experience, but you are putting a book in the hands of someone who could really use it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. The purpose of your business is you make money. You’re a profit-driven guy. You’ve come out of the profit world, so you’re a businessman who knows how to drive profits, but there’s a huge social bottom line to also what Better World Books does. ANDY PERLMUTTER: Exactly. To even put it a little more succinctly, a portion of every dollar we take in goes to fund literacy. Regardless of whether we deliver profits to our shareholders or not, we’re delivering money, real dollars, in addition to the books to literacy programs in your own backyard, and again, across the continents. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Recently I know some of your folks shared with me you had a big announcement. Why don’t you share that big announcement with our listeners? ANDY PERLMUTTER: Well, we really had two. One was that we passed the $10 million mark of actual cash donations. And the second one was the launching of Book for Book that commits the company long-term to donate a book for every book that’s bought on one of our sites. We are truly committed to making sure that those who seek out knowledge and want to read have a book available to them to do so. It’s core to our being, and we’re very passionate about it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk about that, the $10 million mark. How many years did it take just to get to that mark? ANDY PERLMUTTER: Well, the business was founded by three Notre Dame students back in 2002, so those were our humble beginnings. We really started to grow as a business quite significantly back in 2008. As an example, we reached the $20 million in revenue milestone for the first time, and last year we had grown from that $20 million all the way to $55 million, so, in essence, I think we started to really achieve some significant growth in 2007-2008 and beyond. We continue to grow double digits. We’ve been recognized by Ink Magazine as one of the fastest growing privately held companies for three years in a row now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I know, given your background as an entrepreneur and with lots of ability to scale and build and things of that such, you have goals. So when you look at that $10 million number, what is your goal for the next $10 million? Is it going to take years? Is it going to take 10 years? What are the goals in terms of funds raised for literacy? ANDY PERLMUTTER: That’s a great question. I think what you’ll find is that it took us in total from our founders that first day in 2002, it took us basically nine years to get there the first time. My guess is we will double that again in three. I’m going to work as aggressively as possible to support our mission and those who are engaged. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I want our listeners to help, Andy, in that mission. Betterworldbooks.com, use the website, buy books from them. They’ve got now a great program, as he said, the One for One program. As Andy said earlier, funds are raised for literacy and libraries around the world, not just in one community. This is benefitting the whole world’s literacy rates, so that’s just so amazing. You explained earlier about being a B. I’m 48 years old, Andy, and I’ve been doing business since I was 15 or 16. I never heard of a B Corp before. Is that typical, or is this a real unique situation? ANDY PERLMUTTER: It’s a unique situation. It’s growing. Basically, to be a B Corp, you’ve got to be a for-profit with social enterprise embedded into your business. We were one of the founding members of the B Corp community. It’s growing. There are about 300 and change B Corps today, and what’s great is that as a collective group, we’ve got tremendous passion for doing good throughout the world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. If you and I were just on an elevator together, now you said the Notre Dame guys started this in 2002 and you’re in your ninth year now. Now we’ve got 42 floors in front of us here, and I ask what you’re doing, and I ask you to tell me a little bit about some of the success you’ve had. What’s the elevator pitch on the success you’ve had in the first nine years, besides hitting $10 million, which is massive? What are the high points of the success of Better World Books? ANDY PERLMUTTER: I think the $10 million for literacy, including $5.5 million for literacy in education, nonprofits, and another $4.5 million for libraries here in the United States, contributed more than $2 million to college service clubs through book drives, having sent more than 5 million books in donation to Books for Africa and the National Center for Family Literacy, Feed the Children. We collected over 63 million books through active book drives at over 2,300 colleges and universities. We work today with over 3,000 libraries here in the States. Our contributions to folks like Books for Africa have reached the pinnacle of $2.3 million to date. Even down to New Orleans Public Library Foundation we work with real closely, through Katrina, where we were able to raise $80,000 for those folks. Reusing and recycling over 57 million books, over 70 million pounds, to keep them out of our landfills. I think some tremendous things. Even down to carbon offsets. We purchased over 21,000 tons of carbon offsets in our history. JOHN SHEGERIAN: On a practical basis, for our listeners out there, to support your great organization, talk a little bit about this. On a blocking and tackling basis, can people come to your website and just buy books just like they’re on Amazon or Barnes & Noble? Do you have lots of titles for sale? ANDY PERLMUTTER: Absolutely. We’ve got over 8 million titles on betterworldbooks.com. So come to our site directly at betterworldbooks.com and buy your books. But also, you’ve got books down in the basement. We all do. You’ve got them on the shelves and haven’t pulled them off for years. Either find one of our drop box bins that you’ll find in your neighborhoods or go online onto our website, and we have something called Click & Ship. We pay the postage. You can go to Click & Ship and print out a label, throw your books into a box, and send them to us so that we can put them in the hands of someone who will put them to great use. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK. Time out. Book drop box. That’s fascinating. I see it here on your toolbar here on your great website. Again, for our listeners out there, if you just joined us, we’re on the line right now with Andy Perlmutter, the CEO of Better World Books. Go to their great website. Mike and I are on it right now. It’s www.betterworldbooks.com. Talk a little bit about these drop boxes. Where are they? We have listeners, first of all, in every community across the United States, of course around the world also. Where can we find these book drop boxes? This is fascinating. ANDY PERLMUTTER: Well, there’s goods, and I’ll make a sad statement for today. You’re going to find them in our test markets, which are Atlanta and South Bend, Indiana, near our two major locations. But as of January 1, our tests have been so successful, thanks to the community, that we’ll be rolling out the green drop boxes throughout the United States starting on January 1. We expect to have, over the next couple of years, as many as 8,000 drop boxes in our communities. But until the drop box comes to your community, I ask you to go to our site and go on our Click & Ship component of our site, and send them on to us. We’ll pay the postage and donate the books into the system. MIKE BRADY: Alright, Andy, on the site now, too, I see that listeners actually have an opportunity to host a Better World Book drop box too. Am I reading that properly? ANDY PERLMUTTER: Yeah. We would love to have folks who have businesses, schools, libraries around the country step forward and help us with the movement and offer to have a drop box on your location. That would be terrific, and we’d love to have you support us. We’ve got today about 500 of them out in the Atlanta market and around South Bend and Notre Dame University. But again, we’re striving to have 8,000 across the country, and so however you can help get them out there, we would love to have you as part of the team. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Do you think universities are going to have them all on campus and high schools? Is this your intent? ANDY PERLMUTTER: Yeah. Our intent is to be as one with the community that we serve, and so we want to seem that at everything from your local grocery store to your local library, to the elementary, middle, and high schools, colleges and universities, and wherever you spend your time is where we want to have one of our green drop boxes that allow folks to donate books and participate in the process. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m so glad you asked that, Mike. Andy, how much does that box cost? Do we pay for it if we want to put it on our school, our high school, our business, or does Better World Books pay for it? How does that work? ANDY PERLMUTTER: That’s a great question, and I really appreciate that, John. We pay for the drop boxes. We have them made, and they’re really great because A) they are green. They get our message out there. They’ve got our name on it. They also have the names of our partners on it, and they are done in such a way as to actually look good in the community. We’ve all seen donation boxes out there that are overflowing and kind of a little bit of an eyesore. We actually went the other way and designed our own to fit into the community. The concept is that you put them at a location. They collect books. Back to our social mission, a component of the money raised from the books that are put in that bin goes to a local cause. If you want to put one at a school or you want to support your local school, when we sell the books that are in the drop box, a portion of the proceeds will go to that local charity or cause. Another component goes to a literacy partner that can be named by whoever’s property that bin sits on, or if it’s a retail store and they would like to have the bin in front of their store, they get to name both the local charity they’d like to support and the literacy partner they’d like to name, which may be local or may be one of ours in some corner of the world. MIKE BRADY: Andy, I’m sure that there are people listening to this show right now that are thinking, “First thing when I get back to work after the weekend, I’m going to go to my supervisor. I’m going to talk to whoever it is that I need to talk to and see about getting one of these drop boxes.” How big a footprint is this? Is this going to be something somebody says, “I’ve already done the research, and it will only take up this much room. We could put it in the break room,” or what have you. ANDY PERLMUTTER: Sure. They are outside right now. We’re going to develop the indoor drop boxes, but right now, they’re outside. They take up about a half a parking space, and we manage all the logistics associated with it. Once we get the location offered up to us, we have technology to determine the traffic patterns. We then put the drop box on location, and then we’ve got the team that goes and empties those drop boxes on a regular basis. We have technology that tells them when they’re getting full, so that they don’t overflow because we all know that a wet book is probably not a good book. So we make sure that we keep those books in great condition so that when they come back to our facilities in South Bend, Mishawaka, actually, just outside of South Bend, that we’re able to repurpose those books successfully. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk about the triple bottom line. I think you’ve hit more than that with this. Not only does Better World Books make money and continue the great mission, but as you pointed out, the credit and the profits get reinvested with the people that are helping in the community and everyone wins. This is a bottom line that hits everyone in terms of profit and good will. More people are reading and the landfills are staying clear environmentally. Talk about changing the world. ANDY PERLMUTTER: Well, John, I think maybe I should interview you because you put it even better than I do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mike and I are just sitting here, and we’re literally waving at each other and our jaws are open because this is just an amazing venture that you’re running, an amazing business that touches so many of us. Honestly, I want our listeners to go to Better World Books. Sign up to have a drop box. Let’s help Andy get to 8,000 or more. There’s no reason we should be wasting our books or just storing the old books that we don’t want in our attics, in our garages, in our storage facilities. This is such an amazing opportunity to keep our landfills clean, but also to help people to read, something that we all take for granted. ANDY PERLMUTTER: It’s terrific. It’s just a tremendous endeavor. We’re very, very passionate about it, and we’d love to get this to be as widespread amongst our community as possible and do as much good as we possibly can for all. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk a little bit about beginnings and also you a little bit, as now a social entrepreneur, someone who’s really blazing the green path here. Of course, our listeners know that you’re on Green is Good today, and we talk about people, planet, and profits here. You hit all of them in what you’re doing. You hit all of them many times over. Talk a little bit about the gentlemen or the folks who started this concept at Notre Dame. Are they still involved? What are they doing now? What’s going on with the people who started this whole thing? ANDY PERLMUTTER: It’s a great question. We are in a unique position in that two of the three founders are still with us and actively involved in the business each and every day. The third is still a shareholder. One of the unique things, a lot of times when companies get to the size that we are, they’ve kind of given away the farm, as they say, to raise money. We’ve been very successful, thanks to our very dedicated customers and on the supply chain, our colleges, our educational institutions, and our libraries and their tremendous donations. We have actually gotten to this point where our employees and our founders own the supermajority, more than 66% of the company, still today. We’re very healthy and very invested in a very successful partnership with the community. Our founding fathers founded the business with, I guess, this vision that said a college textbook gets passed from generation to generation of student. People used to sell back college textbooks all the time or hand them down to a freshman or someone else in their family, and they’d be repurposed. Now we’ve taken it so much further than that. From the founding days when our Notre Dame students donated their books and our founding fathers did a partnership with the Robinson Community Learning Center in South Bend, Indiana, we were off to the races, having raised over $100,000 to date for the Robinson Community Center, which was there from the get-go for us. We’re thrilled that our founders are still involved. Cris and Xavier, who are a very integral part of both our Board of Directors and our daily activities here in the business, are very passionate about seeing this through. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s take it back to people who have books that are on sale on your website, 8 million titles. Do you work with all the publishers, and do the publishers also distribute through your website? ANDY PERLMUTTER: Well, the vast majority of our books are used books. Although we make new books available, our focus and core to our being are used books, so we don’t really work with the publishers as much as working with the community. Again, so you go out and buy a book today, you read that book, and two weeks from now, because you’re a fast reader, you sit down and you put that book down, and what are you going to do with it? Rather than thinking about throwing it in the trash or sticking it in a box in the basement or up on the shelf, we’d love for you to send it our way so that we can take that book and repurpose it so that someone else can gain the knowledge that you gained and the experience that you gained from having had the opportunity to read that book. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Andy, you are so interesting and your story is so interesting with Better World Books. We’re at the last minute-and-a-half here or so, and I just want to ask you a couple parting shots, and then we’re going to have you back. As you said, you just came on, but you have tremendous knowledge and drive, and you’ve had so much success running businesses before for profit. Now you’re doing the profit and also the social bottom line. Share some last thoughts, and then realize we’re going to have you back to give an update to our listeners six months from now on all the success that you’re having. What are you final thoughts as we have to sign off here? ANDY PERLMUTTER: I think my final thoughts for those folks that are listening, first of all, thank you both, John and Mike, for your time. This is an opportunity to give back to your community. All too often, we look at nonprofits as coming to us seeking donations, cash donations and in-kind donations. This is an opportunity. We use capitalism and just good business sense and passion for our beliefs and for our mission to go out and partner with the community to give back. We’re not asking for anybody to give us anything that they worked hard for. We’re asking for you to take the things, the books that have run their course inside of your own household, and give us the opportunity to contribute through your generosity back to the community and foster literacy. We appreciate your loyalty, your support. Please go to betterworldbooks.com and check us out. When you have the option, when you’re on another marketplace site, look for Better World Books as a seller, and do everything you can to support us so that we can turn around and support your community. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. That is so nice. Again, for our listeners out there, www.betterworldbooks.com. Andy, your story and your journey and what you’re doing now is just so amazing. We’re so honored to have you on, and we’re going to have you back. You are an entrepreneurial leader and truly living proof that green is good.