“I want to have a million books”

One afternoon last week I met R Sunder Rajan, the founder of Just Books at N S Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (NSRCEL), IIM, Bangalore, where the two-year-old startup is incubated.

Rajan belongs to a new generation of entrepreneurs, who has slipped into something totally different after years of working in IT firms.  Rajan spent 15 years at the IT firm IFlex, after joining them as a fresh graduate from Regional Engineering College, Trichy. The soft spoken and mild-mannered Madurai native in his late thirties says, “My father says I am the first in the family to ever handle a cash box.”

R Sundar Rajan. Pic: Chetan Boray.

Rajan started a book library near his Whitefield home in mid 2008, since he couldn’t find a good library close to his home. So was the case for a lot of other Whitefield residents. He was surprised to see the tiny operation gain a thousand members in a couple of months.

The response prompted him to take a break from his job around the same time, and he felt he had an entrepreneurial streak; this was a creative pursuit different from his normal work. He explains, “Books looked like an easy thing to handle.”

140000 books, 60000 titles, ten branches and 10000 members, reports Rajan as he describes the growth of Just Books in a short time. One can visit the library to rent, read and return, or do the same online, with books door delivered. Just Books is positioned as a family centric, open to all library, with plans starting at Rs 150 a month, without a pay-per-book charge. They plan to focus primarily on books without getting diverted into coffee shops and movie rentals.

Rajan’s vision is that every neighbourhood has a Just Books store, and the book base is large enough so that every reader finds his or her book, and every book finds its reader. I talked to Rajan for a little over an hour about his journey.

What is innovative about Just Books?

It’s (mainly) the packaging. We had picked up retail industry concepts, like good ambience, good flooring, false ceiling, throwing technology – RFID, self service, and kept the library functioning at the core: take books, read and return and pick up.

How did the firm grow?

I took a break from work, spent a few months at the library, lot of people asked if I can do something like this in their neighbourhoods. Why are you only here (in Whitefield), can you do something in Indiranagar? Essentially (it was) leading to franchises, so I read up on franchise (model)…didn’t want to go against natural momentum.

At one of the Franchise conferences, I bumped into a team from NSRCEL. So I went and gave them a presentation.  We formally got incubated in May 2009 (NSRCEL supports startups with incubation facilities and mentoring help. Just Books got incubated there and NSRCEL helped Rajan firm up the franchise model. The JP Nagar branch opened early 2009, followed by many other franchise branches over the months. Just Books now has 30 employees in all, divided into the retail, technology and books teams.)

At the same time (January 2009), I though it’s good to experiment and look at another branch. I looked at JP Nagar and consciously looked at a different kind of neighbourhood such as more traditional ones to find out if there are still takers for a library. Then the outline fell into place

Instead of one big library, there should be lots of small libraries, and connect them and let people know they could walk into any library.

How did you hire people?

We initially looked at people with library science background, but they were looking for corporates/schools and couldn’t connect to this. Most of them wanted to work from 9am-6pm. Most of them wanted to join IT companies and handle the libraries there. We ended up drifting to guys with retail industry background. They were quite okay with spending long hours, shifts, working Saturday and Sundays.

 
How do the staff connect with the readers?

We had a book centric approach, but since the people came from retail industry background, they could engage with the customers.

I thought I could use technology, to bridge the gap to provide book related interaction. I think there is still a missing connection, sometimes when a reader asks for a book, (the staff) don’t the know spelling of a popular writer.

But many of them (BA, BCom graduates) see it as a good career opportunity to learn, they are those who never got an opportunity.

How do you find the reading population of the various neighbourhoods?

The crowd in each area is unique; there is a lot of peer pressure in choosing a book. Whitefield community read a lot American authors such as Junie B Jones, Judy Blumes, whereas in places like Jayanagar, Amar Chitra Kathas are still popular. We try not be judgmental, all books are available in all branches. Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys are still popular, there are takers.

People take offence if you don’t have good Kannada collection in Jayanagar. JP Nagar has more of a mixed crowd, not so traditional.

What about regional language books?

Regional language books have their own takers if the right collection is available. They don’t want to read the old classics again and again. But there is a supply side bottleneck. There aren’t enough books getting published. I want to have a million books to meet the need of Bangalore’s reading population.

So what kind of books do you stock?

The regular popular books and we also have literary panels which recommend specific books.

How do you ensure every book finds its reader?

We have our reader base. We also ask publishers to send their samples to Just Books.

What’s your take on public libraries?

A library is considered a civic amenity for public good. Public libraries are book centric institutions where all kinds of books are available. But it is a volume game; it’s a challenge for a purely government run organisation to cater (to a large reading population like ours).

Do you think there is a trend of those moving out of IT?

It’s very visible. IT industry middle management phase is boring, fairly long phase..there is a strong ecosystem especially in Bangalore.

Is it an issue coming from a pure professional background?

It’s actually a big strength not to come from a business background.  We are more into lifestyle and service. Also the book trade has people from family businesses, they find it refreshing to talk to people like us.

Tell me about your family.

Meenakshi, my wife, she is an integral part of this whole thing. We met at iFlex, she still continues there, we chose that one of us spends energy in this. I was comfortable stepping out of the system. When it was just an interest, whole family was extremely supportive, but I talked about switching to full time, there were mixed reactions. People were not sure. There were no serious objections, but they felt, why so much energy on a library chain. But they could connect to the idea of books (we were a reading family).

What do you yourself read?

I read more of non-fiction, little bit of many things. Currently reading Business at the speed of thought by Bill Gates. I read Malcolm Gladwell, Ramachandra Guha and so on.

What are your challenges now?

Expectations will run ahead of our capabilities, that is going to be our main challenge in the next year. A year back, even when we were sloppier, they would say nice things. Now they come with a certain expectation…we may be able to scale much slower than expectations. I am hoping people give us a little longer rope.    

About Meera K 32 Articles
Meera K is Co-founder, Citizen Matters.

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