The startup Packback is bringing textbooks to the digital age

A turning point for the company was when the founders appeared on the hit reality show 'Shark Tank.' Credit: ABC A turning point for the company was when the founders appeared on the hit reality show 'Shark Tank.'
Credit: ABC


The beginning of the new college semester also means that its time for lots of grumbling from college students about the price of textbooks.



“It’s a no-brainer that textbooks are expensive, but no one was asking why,” says Kasey Gandham, the co-founder of Packback, a site that provides digital rentals of university textbooks. “Many people rush to the used book market, but anytime a used book was sold, publishers don’t get anything — which raises the price of new textbooks. It’s just a vicious cycle of increasing costs.”


Packback allows students to rent digital books for $3 to $5 a day. “They are saving hundreds on underused books, while publishers are reclaiming lost revenue,” Gandham explains.

Building the company

Packback was formed when all of its founders were still undergraduates at Illinois State University. Working with Mike Shannon, Jessica Tenuta and Nick Currier, Gandham and the group came up with the idea while talking about books in 2001. “We started our junior year,” says Gandham. “By our senior year, a typical day was that we’d stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning talking to our offshore team in India. We would have meetings in between classes or sometimes miss classes for meetings.”

Swimming in the ‘Shark Tank’

The company had its public launch in March, and since then Gandham says they’ve raised a million dollars in venture funding. A big breaks came earlier this year when the team appeared on the hit ABC show “Shark Tank,” in which small companies make their sales pitch to an all-star team of venture capitalists. Their idea caught the eye of businessman and NBA owner Mark Cuban, who decided to back the company with a $250,000 initial investment.

Breaking down the rental process

Here’s how the program works: After students find the book they need on Packback’s site, they will get 24 hours of digital access upon renting it. “You can highlight, take notes, read it on different devices,” explains Gandham. “After 24 hours, your access is gone, but all of your notes and highlights are saved.”

How students use Packback to study

Contrary to the belief that students spend all of their time on their phones and tablets, Gandham says the vast majority of users are accessing their digital books on their desktops.

There is one instance when Packback’s users are rushing to use the service on their phones. “People use mobile to cram,” notes Gandham. According to the company’s research, 80 percent of its users have accessed books on their phone when they needed to in a pinch.

Follow Lakshmi Gandhi on Twitter @LakshmiGandhi.

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