Pakistan’s first online book rental service, The Readers Club is an innovative concept initiated by entrepreneurs Usman Ali Siddiqui and Jawad Yousuf. It is an attempt to fill the void created by the dearth of quality and accessible libraries, and remedy the problem of the high cost of books. The Readers Club selection offers the latest bestsellers and hundreds of other common interest titles in various categories. It provides its members with a comprehensive browse section and advanced search functions on its website www.thereadersclub.com and members can choose from this selection to have the books delivered to their doorstep free of charge.
This initiative was recently recognised at the P@SHA ICT Awards held in October in Karachi and was the runners up recipient of the P@SHA Tech Crunch Gong Award and also got the runners up award in the Service Innovation category. Co-founder of The Readers Club Usman Ali Siddiqui talks to Blue Chip about the inspiration and mechanics behind this unique concept.
What was the inspiration for The Readers Club and when was this project initiated?
Usman Ali Siddiqui: “I think the idea crystallised in my mind due to a combination of factors. In my time in America, I was working with a software company right in the middle of the dot com boom, so I had seen the rise and proliferation of online business models firsthand. After returning, Jawad – who is my friend from university and the co-founder of Readers Club – and I always had the concept to somehow leverage the power of the web into something useful and to address a real need (and not just another mindless facebook application!). So, I think the ‘A-ha!’ moment finally happened about 8-9 months ago, when I was looking for a very specific book and could not find it in any of the book stores. Taking that further, it crossed our mind that even if someone has the title, there is no centralised way to look for it or even share the ones that we have. The product of this thought is The Readers Club!”
How many books do you have in your library and what genres?
UAS: “We are in the range of about 1000 books and growing rapidly. This includes both English and Urdu books belonging to different genres including biographies & memoirs, current affairs & politics, history, religion, fantasy & sci-fi, children’s books, fiction, self help, cookery, graphic novels, humour etc.”
How did you amass such a huge collection of books?
UAS: “The Readers Club is truly a labour of love, so we are happily investing both our time and financial resources to build our collection. All the books we offer are a part of our own collection which only includes original purchased copies and absolutely no pirated titles.”
How has the response been so far?
UAS: “Fantastic! We have managed to attract a very loyal and active member base in a just few short months who are not only enjoying the collection but also helping us expand it with some wonderful suggestions and book requests.
Is The Readers Club a hobby for you or have you taken it on full-time? How much of your time does it consume?
UAS: “Well, what started of as a small idea is increasingly becoming a full-time endeavour! Both myself and Jawad are spending extremely long but hugely enjoyable hours trying to organise the operations. We are wearing many hats at once from book procurement to managing the logistics to getting the technology streamlined. Our underlying motivation is to the get quality books to the reading public while providing a first class customer service experience.”
The Readers Club is only in Karachi presently. Any plans of expanding to other cities?
UAS: “Certainly! We do plan to expand to other cities but only when we are confident in our abilities in providing the same quality of service as we do in Karachi!”
What kind of challenges do you face?
UAS: “Managing logistics is a daily challenge with Karachi being such a huge city. Identifying and procuring quality books at reasonable prices is also a key task.”
What are you reading these days? What genre do you prefer?
UAS: “I prefer non-fiction books. Currently, I am reading Pandora’s Keepers – the story of the scientists involved with the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Bomb.
Please tell us what you were involved in prior to The Readers Club?
UAS: “I have a degree in Industrial Engineering & Operations Research from Purdue University, USA. After graduation, I worked for three years with a software company in USA. Upon my return, I have been involved with expanding and streamlining our family business of paper & packaging manufacturing. Jawad has a degree in Actuarial Sciences from Purdue University and a Masters degree in Statistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.”
There is a perception that Pakistanis don’t read. What other initiatives can be taken to encourage people to read?
UAS: “According to our members, one of the biggest deterrent factors is the high cost of new books. Local publication is almost non-existent hence most books have to be imported. Making the situation worse is the complete dearth of libraries. So, working on these two areas might make the situation better. Also, we need to get school-going children to start reading at an early age – both schools and parents share equal responsibility.”
Do you have plans to add educational/curriculum books for students?
UAS: “We do have requests for specific areas of interest like medicine and law. Since textbooks are a whole different area with a unique set of challenges, we hope to study that market once we have a critical mass of members.”
Are people contributing their libraries?
UAS: “Yes! People have stepped forward with their books and we are currently working on ways to make the process easier. This collaboration will only help in introducing people to whole new genres which they might never have thought of browsing and purchasing. And this, in fact, was one of the key motivations of starting The Readers Club: getting people to share their reading material!”