The library that brought great returns

Kwench found a way to build a business model around libraries
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

School and college libraries have been the setting for romance in several movies, rather than the stereotypical places to read in silence. Some people naturally gravitate towards reading but for a large percentage, books are sleeping pills. Bringing memories of cramming for exams and wading through incomprehensible blocks of text and images. A love for reading is established early in life and is a life-long habit. But converting people who are not naturally drawn to books is a long haul. 

Bill Gates has been a champion of putting out his reading list on Gates Notes and several gems in those titles have shaped his world view and indeed, his decisions.  It remains one of the world’s big mysteries – though books are still the best way to get valuable information cheap, there aren’t enough takers. We all know a global leader who makes decisions based on TV morning shows.

Now let’s take leaders who are bookworms themselves and want to spread the habit down the line. Not merely because they want their employees to read more – that’s incidental but the pool of knowledge within the organization improves exponentially when people read. They find new ways to solve problems and expand their own capacity for generating fresh ideas. Having a library within the office may not be feasible, given that space is at a premium. And having titles merely as decorative pieces serves no purpose. If you’ve noticed, the number of cities with great bookshops is also a good metric for the level of intellectual discourse that happens. Libraries are another point of reference for the cultural hotspots in cities. But they are seen as resources, not business models.

The library as a business model

Building a library in a virtual space
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

While public libraries in India frowned on stocking bestsellers, a niche opened up with private libraries operating from neighborhood garages providing thrillers, romances, self-improvement tomes, and business books at 10% of the retail price on rent  This model survived for decades until the emergence of the ebook and the popularity of smartphones ended them permanently. Practically every airport has a bookshop and the stocks reveal our preoccupation with our insecurities. There is also a practical limitation on the number of books and magazines that can be stocked in 200-400 sq. ft. of space.

An interesting business model emerged in 2008. It was called Kwench, a play on Quench, most likely since libraries are supposed to quench our thirst for learning. Four friends in Mumbai decided to set up a virtual library that would distribute real books to companies. So, what was the essential idea? Companies could let their employees borrow a book the company had licensed from Kwench for an annual fee.  The books would be delivered the same day in the metros and within 24 hours to the smaller cities.

Would companies bite?

Kwench provided physical and ebooks directly to companies
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There’s a strange sense of the value ascribed to eating vs reading. A person who nonchalantly spends Rs. 1000 on lunch or dinner has problems paying Rs.500 for a great book. Forget the fact that the satisfaction from lunch lasts less than an hour but a book can keep giving for decades. Somehow, intellectual stimulation is accorded a lower value as compared to sensorial satisfaction.

The venture would succeed only if the chiefs of companies bought into the idea – of acquiring a license to a defined set of titles for a fixed fee. Back in 2008, Sunder Nookala one of the four co-founders launched it with 3 of his IIM batchmates – Krishnan Madhabhushi, Mitesh Damania and Prashant John. They invested Rs. 10 lakh each towards buying the first set of books, creating a technology backend and a warehouse to manage operations. To begin with, they had just 2 clients – WNS Global and Yes Bank. That has now grown to 350 clients across India.

Scaling the library business

Kwench persisted with selling clients on building a reading habit
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One of the interesting things the company did was to promote their business as a way to engage employees and develop them. While it could have been a transactional relationship, it may not have endured with just the act of borrowing books. The company blog entry written by Prashant John reflects the journey after they were acquired by OC Tanner: We started in a small corner of the employee engagement domain with our beloved corporate library platform and never looked back. We got funded in a year the world was imploding because of the financial crisis and moved rapidly into the employee recognition space. Technology evolved along the way and we invested heavily in it. The iPhone redefined the way people used mobiles and “Instant recognition” took on a whole new meaning. It was a roller coaster ride and we held on tight, delirious in sheer delight at the excitement of it all.

A twist to the tale

The business model can be just one step away from the normal
Photo by Jarrett Tan on Unsplash

The way Kwench changed and built on its value proposition of lending books to facilitating employee recognition and engagement is a lesson on how traditional businesses can move to the virtual realm and have an impact at scale. With over 2 million orders in the last 10 years, the gap in the market was understanding that while companies may not invest in physical books like before, the need was still there. By adding distribution and facilitating doorstep delivery and pickup, they moved the hassle of managing the library out of the workspace. 

They expanded availability to ebooks and periodicals as well, responding to requests from the client base.

The new arrangement allows them to scale the model worldwide. It is one of those business ideas that seem simple once it is executed but we’ve seen that the conceptual leap does not happen as a linear progression.

A few of the top companies may have still maintained the collection of books that came as part of a corporate legacy but they were available to a smaller set of employees working on that particular premises. 

Kwench is now Klib under the new dispensation. The book summaries, the focus on the career by recommending books to read continues on the new blog. As opposed to Goodreads and other book recommendation sites which allow discovery but still need the books to be purchased, Kwench opens up new vistas and all employees have to do is pick the book they want to read next, at no personal expense. It may even work better than the ‘books and periodicals allowance’, that most see as a perk for spending on other things. And it is a brand story with a happy ending, making the founders and the first investors get a solid return on investment with the transition to a business model that can now be taken worldwide. 

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Author short bio: I head Ideascape, an agency that I started in 2004. I have over 35 years of experience building brands in businesses as diverse as payroll services, software, cycles, HR services, hospitals, hospitality and project management.

We’re a boutique creative agency but we provide the full range of branding services in partnership with several associates in digital marketing, web development, and event management. This blog is a collection of my experiences and my point of view on marketing and advertising