College professors offer little notice on buying class textbooks, so typically, students have little choice but to buy the books on campus.
"[University bookstores] are good at making it easy and being right there," says Richard Mondello, a junior computer science major at Tufts University. "What they're not good at is giving students good prices."
In Mondello's first semester at Tufts University in 2008, he spent $190 on a single physics textbook at the campus bookstore. The same book was $90, new, on Amazon.
"Students don't know better, and they think their bookstore's looking out for them, but unfortunately, they're not always," Mondello says. "At some schools, it's egregious."
A year later, Mondello was working on a final project for his Web programming course with his friend Michael White, along with Michael Walker, a Bard student visiting Tufts for two semesters. Upon the project's completion, White approached his two partners with an idea to put together a textbook-comparison-shopping website that would combine the convenience of the bookstore with the best prices on the Internet.
"After that Web programming class and that group project, it dawned on us that we could build something real now," Mondello says. "We can build something that helps people."
While most students returned home for the winter holidays, once the fall semester ended, Mondello, Walker, and White got to work on their new project, which they called "GetchaBooks." Their idea for the interface was extremely simple.
"All the student does is go to GetchaBooks, put in their courses—not their books, they just tell us the courses—and we'll look up all the books for them, and then shop around," Mondello explains.
Two-and-a-half weeks later, winter break was over, and the first version of GetchaBooks was ready. The trio marketed the new service with posters and plugs on the Tufts students' Web portal, "and it spread virally from there," Mondello says. "Within that first week back to campus, we made money."
That summer, Mondello, Walker, and White had internships in New York, California, and Massachusetts, respectively. but despite the distance, all three continued developing GetchaBooks. After getting home from their day jobs, all three GetchaBooks founders would work remotely on the project, revamping the look and tweaking the interface until it became what you see today.
Two years later, despite a gradual increase in users, the GetchaBooks team remains small. And GetchaBooks is just where the core team wants to be.
"We want to keep the product pretty pure," Mondello says. "It does one thing, and it solves the problem of buying your text books. We're pretty happy with the breadth of what we do."
While the majority of the work falls on these three students, luckily for the founders, working on GetchaBooks seldom gets in the way of classes.
"We're busy twice a year—when people come back to campus in September, and when people come back to campus in January," Mondello says. "We do what we have to do to keep the business running over the semester, but we really dig our feet into it when the summer comes or when winter break comes because the semester is over to really work on the product. It's a seasonal business, and the season is convenient for us, as students."
The service, which originally supported only 30 schools, now supports more than 500 schools. The tricky part is getting the product in front of more people. Nonetheless, the goal remains the same, Mondello says: "Our goal for GetchaBooks is to save as many students as much money on their textbooks."