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Fri Feb 9 2007 14:18:59

BookFinder Search Site Turns Ten, Shares Strategy

By: Ina Steiner

Sponsored Link, a "comparison-shopping search engine" for books, issued a press release announcing its 10-year anniversary. The site was launched on January 30, 1997, by Anirvan Chatterjee, then a nineteen-year-old UC Berkeley student, and his high school buddy Charlie Hsu. In that time, the number of books available for sale has grown from 5 million to over 125 million.

The press release includes an interview with the founders, and it contains some great insight into how a small company (just four people) got (and continues to be) successful.

Pick a great vertical, and stick to it:
We love books. Passionately. As high-tech bibliophiles, our team spent a lot of time grappling with unique problems inherent in book search to design a better way to find and buy books. We decided not to develop generic product search tools. Focusing on the book search vertical helps us offer the best possible product, serving the various types of book shoppers, a surprisingly diverse group (from deal-hunters to collectors).

Shut up and listen:
The used and rare book trade is centuries old, and some sellers and collectors have spent lifetimes in the field. We, on the other hand, started off with relatively little experience with bookselling or book collecting. While developing our product, we were reading up on the trade, lurking on industry mailing lists, and talking to hundreds of sellers and collectors. Our users taught us the subtleties of Long Tail book search. All we had to do was listen.

Figure out how to work with everybody:
As an open marketplace, we need to work with the widest possible variety of online booksellers and bookselling platforms. We built our software to exchange data via a wide variety of formats and mechanisms, while allowing for non-ISBN books and various kinds of dirty data and human data entry problems. (We once spent three weeks training our systems to accommodate Italian booksellers' incredibly poor cataloging practices.) Our tolerant systems enable our huge searchable inventory.

Control your core infrastructure, but don't reinvent the wheel:
With a team as small as ours (just four people), it's crucial to know what work to do in-house, and when to use third parties. Product development, customer service, and marketing are critical, so we keep those in-house for maximum control and flexibility. We rely on third parties for legal services, accounting, print design, and use hosted online tools for non-critical applications. Our infrastructure is built on open formats and open source platforms, which helps us deliver results quickly and avoid vendor lock-in.

We strive to be as open as possible with users and booksellers. We host the BookFinder Insider, a many-to-many industry discussion list, launched in 1998 and one of the largest in our field. For everyone else, we offer the Journal (our weblog), and we accept feedback via our website. Communication helps us hone our ideas, catch mistakes, and gives our communities a voice in our work.

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