- Libro Library is an app that turns your bookshelves into a public library that anyone can borrow from.
- It’s run by an unusual founder team — three siblings in different cities — something that can cause unusual challenges.
- The business has been bootstrapped to date, but the trio are now on the hunt for outside investment.
Around two years ago, Yongrim Rhee had a problem: Too many surfboards.
The then-Google employee’s Californian home was overflowing with more than 40 boards, and he wanted to do something with them. So he and his siblings came up with a plan for a business: An app that let you lend out your spare boards to others. Surfboard sharing-as-a-service!
They didn’t end up making it.
But from there, a new and broader idea emerged: A neighbourhood sharing app, where users could list their spare possessions for others in the neighbourhood to borrow.
They didn’t end up making that either.
Instead, the Rhees decided to focus on a single, narrow segment: Books.
And from there, Libro Library was born.
It turns private bookshelves into public libraries
In a nutshell, Libro Library is an app that turns your private book collection into a public lending library. You list the books you’re willing to lend out, and users can then select to borrow them — and vice versa.
It’s still in the early stages, and the three siblings — JuJu, Yongrim, and Kyurim — are currently its only three employees (chief executive officer, chief product officer, and chief strategy officer respectively). It’s being tested in specific regions, and book exchanges become available in an area if enough people “enroll” for it.
Right now, that’s only in South America, in cities like Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile. Around 400 books are scanned into the system a day, Kyurim said, while it has thousands of active users.
(Also, it’s iOS-only for now, though there are plans for an Android app further down the line.)
It’s an almost anachronistic idea in an era of ebooks and digital sharing — but in an interview with Business Insider in London, Yongrim and Kyurim emphasised the importance of the physicality of books and the emotional attachment they provide.
“We have a lot of books ourselves, print books we’re talking about, and we grew up pre-ebook times,” Yongrim said. “We never fell out of love with print books, we share this sentiment with users, they tell us ‘oh, we love the smell of the books, and these almost intangible thing that ebooks don’t [have].”
The team is still working out how to make money
This nostalgic sentiment is informing certain design choices the trio are making on the app. “We want to maintain the features of libraries we really like. In the old days, you can open the book, you can see who checked out a book before,” said Kyurim, as he explained Libro Library is trying to implement something similar. “So you can see who the book’s passed through. This is a feature we think will be really compelling for our readers.”
They have bootstrapped the business with their savings so far, but are now on the hunt for outside investment. They’re not yet certain how they will make money off the app (“this might sound naive, we don’t really have a monetising strategy,” Yongrim admits), but they’re exploring a few different routes.
They might charge independent authors to distribute books through the platform, or put up relevant adverts on the app. Or they could provide analytics to publishers, letting them track the movement of their titles as they change hands.
They’re keen, however, to keep it free at the point of use — so the actual users on the hunt for new books to read won’t have to pay to see what’s available in their area.
Working with siblings has ‘its own set of challenges’
Before Libro Library, Yongrim worked as a software engineer at Google in Mountain View, California, and now lives in London. Kyurim was a network engineer in Washington D.C., where he still lives. And JuJu, who lives in New York, has worked as an artist and coordinator.
All this adds up to an unusual dynamic — not only are they siblings, but they also lives thousands of miles from one another, across timezones.
It makes communication far easier, they said — but it can also be far harder to switch off. Startups can already be all-encompassing, and the trio will sometimes find themselves chatting work at family get-togethers in the States. (“It’s going to come up, it’s like this ugly beast that’s in the corner,” said Kyurim.)
And in professional situations, things can sometimes get too familial: “The word ‘let’s be professional’ comes up quite a lot,” Yongrim joked.
“It comes with its own set of challenges,” he said of working with his brother and sister. “When it’s bad … sometimes I feel like ‘what have I done, why did I start this business with my siblings?’ But then it gets really bad, I feel like with anyone else it would have been over but because it’s my siblings I think … ‘let’s thin this through and stay together.'”
Kyrurim added: “If something bad happens, if we have a bad fight, we have to get over that. I can’t stop being your brother. I can walk away from my coworkers, yeah, I don’t wanna talk to that person any more, but I can’t stop being a brother to him.”
But despite this optimism — there’s still a danger that if things do go badly wrong, it could seriously damage some of their relationships. It’s a risk that Yongrim has encountered before.
“I’ve done a startup before with my best friend from college, and we don’t talk any more,” he said. “So I am somewhat experienced in that. So they know what I’ve gone through, it was such a painful experience, so in that sense we were somewhat prepared … I was like ‘I’m never going to let that happen again,’ because in retrospect it really wasn’t worth destroying my friendship over.
“I don’t think it was my fault,” he added with a laugh. “He shouldn’t have done that, but that’s sort of what I’m talking about. Being siblings you never let it go that far.”