Innovator Highlight: Jonathan Robinson, Founder of FreeTextbooks

Name: Jonathan Robinson

Company: FreeTextbooks

About FreeTextbooks

FreeTextbooks brings the competitiveness of online textbook pricing to campus with one-hour in-person delivery. And, 25% of textbooks are totally free. Our network of 1,000+ student reps buy, sell & rent textbooks to their friends, running their own relationally-driven startup within their campus social sphere. Enabled by student development and our suite of mobile apps, our on-campus logistics infrastructure covers 90+ campuses, drives 300,000+ books sold, and saves students over $3.5m annually. Students can sell for more and buy for less, both with instant delivery, all from their peers.

Q & A

Why did you start your company?

I think students are eager to break from traditional purchasing habits toward more peer- driven alternatives. We see college campuses as fascinating micro-communities where students have enormous influence over decisions happening within their social sphere. Most of our competitors deploy their resources toward the institutions, but we think empowering the students and allowing them to facilitate the content, products & help they need is a better strategy.

What has kept you and your company in Birmingham?

Our lives are more faceted than just as entrepreneurs or managers, so we've stayed here because our friends, family & community are here. Most of our employees' lives were built here too, and there's plenty of social opportunity & entertainment to stay connected. Birmingham is both big enough and small enough, and I love it that way. You don't build strong networks by continually moving on to the next thing or location. It's fun to travel outside of Birmingham and let others be aware of what we're building here, but my favorite part of leaving is coming back.

What do you think makes the Magic City, “magic”?

I think the opportunity to flourish here is pretty unmatched for someone that isn't interested in a major metropolitan rat-race but still thrives in a vibrant city. More & more, I hear things when I travel like, "Oh, I've been there once; it was surprisingly great." Like anything good, it's a combination of many factors, but when you add everything up -- friendships, the cost of living, neighborhoods, restaurants/nightlife, companies, universities, churches, parks/outdoor activities -- that's enough to make it "magic".

What's the most enjoyable project you're working right now?

Our short-term residency program for grads. We believe students are poorly equipped to identify where they're interested in building a career, and then functionally develop a skill set to be successful in their first job. Most of my peers avoid hiring first-job applicants almost across-the-board, as the learning curve is too steep. That exposes a huge unsustainable gap, and in our worldview, fewer grads than ever want to sell insurance or join a management training program with a Fortune 500 company. So, we're developing curriculum that incorporates thought leadership, skill development, and measurable output into a 4-month paid residency with a group of peers. We boldly think we can prepare grads to succeed better than anyone, based on the last seven years of hiring, firing, training, coaching & deploying 22-25 year-olds. Keep an eye on our website if you're interested.

What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?

Start slow and small. Your ability to solve problems early demonstrates & develops your own grit that you will depend on as the stakes grow. Also, delay gratification as long as possible. The most urgent thing is not to raise money, get press, or post high growth-- it's to build a sustainable business that over (much) time, can be truly great. Your ability to handle stress and continually bet on yourself & your team is directly related to the level of success you'll achieve.

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