Q&A with Anirvan Chatterjee of BookFinder.com
BookFinder.com is an open marketplace for books online. The completely free Web service allows readers to comparison shop for new, used and rare books from any of 20,000 bookstores around the world. Founded by Chatterjee and Charles Hsu, the site has been recommended by The New York Times and the Library of Congress.
Background: Parents are from Calcutta, India. The family immigrated to Canada in the 70s. Anirvan grew up in Montreal, speaking French in school and English and Bengali at home. The Chatterjees moved to the Bay Area in the 80s.
Education: Attended junior high and high school in Danville, Calif., where he met his business partner Charlie Hsu. Graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, with a focus on information systems.
AsianWeek: What gave you the idea to start BookFinder.com?
Anirvan Chatterjee: It actually had a lot to do with school. I was 19 four years ago and was taking a class at Berkeley on network agent software. It was a really fun graduate seminar. Our final project was to write an Internet network agent.
Just at that point, I had been looking online for books quite a bit. It had been a really frustrating process just trying to find stuff, going from Web site to Web site. It was in the back of my mind that this could be made a whole lot easier.
When I was assigned this project, I felt that, Heres my chance. So I built a really simple search engine that would help me find books online.
This was in the fall semester 1996. Thankfully, thankfully, I got an A. Otherwise, who knows if Id have started BookFinder?
AW: What were your expectations for the company?
AC: Within days of putting it online, people started e-mailing me, telling their friends about it. It was really amazing ... I was working at Microsoft that summer. I had other things in mind. But suddenly BookFinder grabbed me. People were emailing me saying, We love BookFinder. Give us more. Give us more.
AW: How many hits were you getting?
AC: A month or two into it, I looked at my logs and there was something like 2,000 people hitting it a day
I came to the realization, Wait a minute, this is bigger than I thought it would be.
It was a big deal. So I finished my undergraduate, and I came back to Berkeley for grad school at the School of Information Management and Systems. I did one year there, and since then have taken a leave of absence.
BookFinder got to be such a big project. Right around then, my buddy Charlie Hsu had just gotten out of college and we decided to work on this together. We put together a little team and spent most of 1999 on rebuilding BookFinder from scratch.
AW: Some people say you should never start a business with friends. Did you ever hear that or was that ever a concern?
AC: I guess that depends on who your friends are. Weve been able to separate personal and business and combine it at the right times. Its been a very fun experience.
AW: When you put the site up in 1997, did it cost any money? Did you need any funding?
AC: During that time, I was working part time in Web development out of my dorm room and on weekends. From that, I bought a computer. Actually, BookFinder started from a used 486 computer that Charlie helped me put together. So it wasnt very costly to put up initially.
AW: When you put up the new site with Charlie Hsu, did you get any funding?
AC: We took on some private financing. We expanded the back end and started marketing the site.
AW: How much money did you raise?
AC: Id rather not say.
AW: Is the site profitable? How do you make money off of the site?
AC: Yes, its profitable. The online advertising has consistently been a major source of revenue. The other thing is that when someone uses our site and buys a book, the booksellers give us a finders fee. We have relationships with the various booksellers [that] we work with.
AW: Can you say how much money youre netting?
AC: Id rather not just now.
AW: This is still a privately owned company. Are you planning to go public?
AC: Not in this market at all. Weve been generally very lucky. When Charlie and I first got together, we were talking to a lot of VCs. We were looking into taking on high risk financing. One of the really smart decisions we made early on was that we decided to go with private angel financing, instead of high-stakes VC money. We wanted to run the company the way we wanted to. Right now with dot-coms dying left and right, we are in a reasonably good position.
AW: Did you have a premonition that the dot-com shakeout might occur?
AC: Ive always been really paranoid about all these companies that were not making a profit. I would tell people not to invest much in tech industry. Back then, I thought maybe I was stupid, maybe I just didnt get the new economy.
Its also that both Charlie and I are the children of Asian immigrant parents. Theres some financial conservatism that comes with that. Both of us have been really careful about how we spend the money. And weve been very profit driven from day one. When we get X amount of money, we dont go blow it wildly as if there were no strings attached.
AW: How many employees do you currently have?
AC: Three people.
AW: What does each of you do?
AC: Charlie and I are the corporate people; we do a lot of the day-to-day work. Gosh, were a small company, basically we do everything. Charlie will do programming. Ill do programming. Ill do vacuuming. We all do everything.
AW: What advice would you give to young people interested in starting their own business?
AC: Start for the right reasons. One of the problems with the dot-com boom and bust was that a lot of people went into business just because of the rumors that there was money to be made. We hear so many horror stories today, and part of that is because everyone thought they could go in and be an Amazon.com.
Were not an Amazon.com; were never going to be an Amzon.com realistically. As a result, were going to act differently than Amazon.com does. They can afford to blow millions. We cant do that.
Its also a matter of knowing who your demographic is. We are very much in touch with our users. We exchange virtually hundreds of emails every month. It keeps us grounded in what people are looking for, what they are talking about, what theyre thinking about, what changes we should be making to our site.
Everyone in this company, were all big geeks, basically. Were book geeks; were tech geeks. That made a big difference; were all high-tech bibliophiles. We all love buying books online. It was something we were doing before we came to this project. So it wasnt a stretch for all of us to start thinking about this.
AW: In other words, do something that youre really passionate about.
AC: Yeah, absolutely.
AW: Whats the future of BookFinder?
AC: Were definitely going much further toward international markets. So far, weve been focusing on American books in the English language, but we see other large areas in other languages in other parts of the world that are not being fulfilled. Theres a lot of room there for better services to exist. And were looking toward filling some of those spots. For example, e-commerce is big in Europe right now. Its growing and its not strange for people to buy online there. Weve looked into Asia; its our next target after Europe; there are language and e-commerce standardization issues there. But we see a lot of opportunity around the world and wed like to be there to offer to them what we offer to our American users.
AW: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
AC: Gosh, I wish I had some good answer. I dont know. The entire Internet thing is so strange that two years ago I couldnt have predicted where I am now. I really enjoy what Im doing. I love the people I work with, I love what Im doing, I love the product Im offering. I hope to do something I love just as much as this ten years from now.
AW: What obstacles have you had to face?
AC: Im not sure. I would say, personally, coming from a background in which business is not a normal option; you work in academia; you work for someone else; you dont go into business. For me to decide to leave grad school and start BookFinder.com was a fairly difficult decision. I had to think about it a lot. I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur before.
AW: What did your parents think of your decision?
AC: They were supportive. But thats not surprising. They both work in the tech industry; they knew whats up. Starting a dot-com wasnt a stretch.
AW: Whats the key to your success?
AC: We understand what our customers want. We love listening to our users, and weve learned a lot from them. We have made a lot of changes based on what our consumers want. For example, one of the biggest things is emphasis on used books. Initially, the importance of the used book market was just one of the many things we were thinking about. One of our big plusses is that we are a really great way to find used and rare books.
AW: What is your philosophy of life?
AC: Oh, God
Do the right thing.