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Bright Idea: New Online Service is Like Netflix for Textbooks



After students or, more likely, their parents, have settled the tab for college tuition and room and board, one of the biggest expenses is buying textbooks. The average student spends approximately $1,100 a year on textbooks , according to the College Board. There’s a new service that can help students and their parents save up to 75 percent of that cost.

SwoopThat, a San Diego startup, was conceived in 2009 by Jonathan Simkin when he was a junior at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. The site's original mission was to serve as a hyper-local search engine to check product availability in stores.

But the passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008, which required that schools post information on required textbooks online, freed up the data that SwoopThat needed to hone its purpose and focus on matchmaking between students and the textbooks they needed for their courses.

That data became available in mid-2010 and provided the raw material that the newly graduated Simkin, along with two other Harvey Mudd graduates and a recent graduate of the University of San Diego law school, needed to build their proprietary course search technology.

Through personal experience, they knew what a pain shopping for textbooks was both in time and money.

SwoopThat provides a one-stop shopping comparison service for textbook search and buying. Students select their school and their courses and the site's proprietary algorithms find every book they need to buy. It then identifies every online merchant selling those books and displays available options to buying a new book, including free digital textbooks, used books and book rentals.

"It's like a Netflix for textbooks," Simkin told BusinessNewsDaily. "The biggest challenge is that a lot of professors don't supply lists of required texts."

SwoopThat currently matches course and textbook requirements and options for 2,400 colleges and institutions and searches more than 1,500 retailers. Simkin estimates that the site covers up to 70 percent of required textbooks.

The savings of up to 75 percent on textbooks is nothing to sneeze at. The Government Accountability Office recently found that textbooks can represent up to 25 percent of the tuition and fees at a four-year public institution, and as much as 75 percent of the tuition and fees at two-year community colleges.

SwoopThat makes its money through payments from its retailer partners when users purchase textbooks. It also offers student organizations virtual storefronts with the organization's branding for fundraisers; revenue is split between SwoopThat and the organization.

"It's a season business," Simkin said. "We're on the precipice of profitability. We're growing phenomenally fast."

Most of that growth stems from word-of-mouth recommendations, Simkin said. SwoopThat does very little advertising.

The long-term goal is to work directly with schools and college bookstores to show them how SwoopThat software can help streamline their process and help their students. It's hard for them to gather information because it's in so many places and different formats.

"We view ourselves as a software company," he said.

For now, textbooks will continue to be SwoopThat's primary focus, but the company's technology and algorithms could easily be ported to other comparison shopping applications.

"It's certainly been a proof of concept," Simkin said. "Right now, our focus is solely on textbooks. It's a big problem and we want to help solve that first."

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

Do you know a unique or interesting company we should feature in our "Bright Idea" series? Let us know by Tweeting @jeanettebnd.



Ned Smith

Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and has a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.