It's an eternal problem of students everywhere: Pay a small fortune for textbooks that collect dust on their shelves and then net only a fraction of the cost on resell. But that's beginning to change with Packback, a Chicago-based startup that is rewriting the (text)book on selling required reading to college students. Its pay-per-use model eschews spending hundreds of dollars on backbreaking tomes and lets students rent digital textbooks in 24-hour increments for $5 or less. Started by Kasey Gandham, 23, and Mike Shannon, 24, in their Illinois State University dorm room in early 2013, Packback now has users on more than 80 campuses, and is adding 1,000 to 2,000 new users each week.
"We were college students living in the problem and we saw an opportunity to make a positive change," says Shannon. "Today's professors often utilize a wide range of resources in addition to the book, and thus the textbook may be used as more of a reference point. Packback allows students the ability to make transparent financial decisions and access their digital textbooks in an affordable way."
It's not just a win for students; publishers are coming out ahead as well. "Over $5.5 billion of the $10 billion higher education textbook market is attributed to the used book market," Shannon explains. "This is a revenue hole for learning companies. With Packback, learning companies are able to maximize revenue on titles that are prevalent in the used market while expediting organic digital adoption by the students."
Their long list of investors—including Mark Cuban, who ponied up $250,000 when they appeared on Shark Tank—agrees. "We've had this track record of facing these large monumental tasks of having to break into conservative organizations, build complicated systems, or acquire a large number of consumers very quickly to show traction, and we've been able to execute consistently because of the people behind us," says Gandham. "Packback has some phenomenal investors—our board members Howard Tullman of 1871, Mark Achler a former Redbox executive, and of course Mark Cuban, and our other 20+ angels that back us, including serial entrepreneurs, education activists, and even NBA ball players."
Their support has allowed Gandham and Shannon to double their staff in just a month, to 10 from four—and sign up 100+ campus brand ambassadors who work hard to spread the new textbook gospel. Up next, more books. "We're in the midst of expanding our digital catalog. And we've also been engaged in exciting conversations with our partners around ways to expedite the adoption of next-gen learning technology products," Shannon says.
And what about that name? "We wanted to reverse the burden of a traditional backpack; we're keeping the weight in the wallet, and not a financial burden on the back," says Shannon.
[Image: Flickr user Library and Archives Canada]