In May 2021, I left my job in tech consulting at IBM to open an online indie bookstore. Here's why.
I grew up as a reader – it was probably my primary personality trait. I credit my family, especially my mom, for instilling and encouraging a love of reading from a young age. We left each visit to the public library with an L.L. Bean tote filled to the brim with books, only for me to devour them within the week.
Like many, this love faded during high school and college. Required reading for high school took up time and reframed books as a chore. In college, I held internships throughout the school year alongside my classes, and I preferred to spend my weekends at the bar instead of with my own thoughts. I had a lot of fun (ask anyone), but something was missing – it was easier to not ask myself what that was.
This changed my second semester of senior year. I finally stopped working 20 hours a week and now had time that I felt obligated to fill with something besides doing homework. One of my college's guiding values was to create men & women for others, and with graduation rapidly approaching, I felt a bit fraudulent. I had done some one-off volunteerism through my sorority, but every other decision I made in college was pretty self-serving. I decided to complete an AmeriCorps term of service as a literacy tutor, teaching reading skills to 1st & 3rd graders at the local public charter school. 450 hours of daily morning work showed me that helping others find joy in reading gave me fulfillment – I just hadn't found that same joy in myself yet.
Summer 2020 unintentionally rekindled the flame. I was stuck in a 3-bedroom NYC apartment alone, peak pandemic, nowhere to go. I ordered a book from Amazon, which turned out to be the first book I read for pleasure in over eight years. Unlike my Iowa hometown, which was served only by a Borders, New York City is spoiled for choice with cool indie bookstores – but that advantage is moot when there's a pandemic-induced retail shutdown. So Amazon it was, along with a few other indie-focused online services.
But each time, the experience felt incomplete. I would spend hours trying to figure out if a book was good or not – the shopping sites simultaneously told me too much (why should I care about the ISBN-13 number? How biased is this review by the author's friend?) and too little (what's the vibe of the book? Will I breeze through it in a day or want to savor it slowly?). The clinical nature of online book-buying felt so far removed from the in-person experience, where you could roam freely to books that drew you in. The online search functionality was optimized for title, not book characteristics. This is fine if you know exactly what book you want, but prevents casual browsing – I wanted something that mimicked the way you talked to an actual human.
When I finally decided on a title and placed my order, it would show up on my doorstep as a book in a bag, shrink-wrapped in loads of plastic and shoved in a bubble-wrap bag. I got what I ordered, but my experience ordering books, regardless of the source, was in sharp comparison to the way I felt ordering makeup, skincare, and clothing. Brands like Glossier and Parade built community, had a specific point of view, and made each delivery feel like unwrapping a gift to yourself – but my books kept coming in a plain bubble-wrap bag. It didn't help that all of the book-related messaging was stuck in the 2013 Buzzfeed Millennial era.
Around winter 2020, I started to feel a bit stuck at work. I studied for the GMAT (🚩🚩🚩 I actually like taking standardized tests), but after receiving my scores in January, I was forced to actually think about the reasons for pursuing business school. Each step in my career journey was taken to give me the best shot. But that sentence always remained unfinished – the best shot at what? Did I want to start a company? Did I need business school to do that?
For about a month straight, I took late-night walks through my Soho neighborhood and maniacally tried to figure out what I actually cared about. Not a goal for next quarter, next year, or even my next decade – what could I look back on in 50 years and highlight as the overarching theme of my personal-professional career? The time I spent alone in my apartment over quarantine reading was the inspiration, albeit delayed, for Folio.
I had the idea for Folio on February 26, 2021. I wanted to help Gen Z rediscover a love of reading through a brand that's built for them. Beyond selling books, we're building a community that's thoughtful, clever, and timely. Luckily, I have a background in web development (s/o to all the other girlies who learned HTML through Tumblr themes), so I built the site myself in a slightly manic span of a few months in which I turned nocturnal. There are over a million new titles published each year, but I didn't feel pressure to have everything in stock – I curated the inventory to include only the best & most relevant titles for my demographic, and our selection is changing all the time (we're taking lots of notes from booktok).
Today, I live in a NYC apartment with about 1,000 books as my roommates. At the outset, I made the decision to hold inventory and do all fulfillment in-house (literally – I'm packing each order by hand in my living room). While dropshipping books would be less labor-intensive, following that route would shirk one of the reasons I started Folio – to give others the excitement of unwrapping the gift of reading. Our recommendation system is still in beta, but it helps match you to a selection of books you'll actually want to read – be on the lookout for a more in-depth rec process coming soon!
I started building Folio for myself – I wanted to recreate the experience of talking to an awesome indie shopkeeper and getting personalized recommendations – and I'm so happy that others are loving Folio in the same way. There's so much to come, and I'm grateful to have you along for the ride.
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