Dec. 12, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
Monday wasn’t my first time around smart people, but it was the most interesting because it was the most recent, and then there’s this: Facebook just flew these three Georgia Tech students out to the mother ship to pick their brains.
I’m not intimidated by smart people, but I am wont to jealousy in the presence of folks who are better at distilling ideas than I. Mine is a muddled mind, and while I don’t see myself as smaller around bright folks, I do sometimes feel the victim of wonky chemicals in my synapses that prevent cleaner firing of neurons. It’s a theory. (Good Lord, did I open myself up to multi-layered ridicule with that.)
They’re Georgia Tech track & field and cross country student-athletes, and they’re so bright that just a week and a half ago, Facebook paid their way to travel to FB headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., for a couple days of gray matter cultivation.
With candor in mind, I’ll state up front that I hope the intellectual properties of Gomba, McNutt & Black aren’t ripped off because, as mentioned, they just may have something. If there’s gain to be gained, they should gain it.
Here’s the deal, as best this author can put it in layman’s terms: these guys think the present model of college textbook re-sale is not only inefficient, but a rip-off.
When most of you were in school, there were not internet middle men involved in the process of moving text books after a semester and before the next. It doesn’t appear much else has changed; there’s a big difference between what middle men pay for used books, and what they charge to re-sell them.
“I’ve seen a bunch of companies come up with solutions that I think are half-backed and poor. And often times they’re…trying to take a cut,” said Gomba, a junior distance runner from Hopewell Junction, N.Y.
“I saw a girl ship a book from the Georgia Tech post office to the Georgia Tech post office because another student had purchased that book through Am*z*n. Am*z*n takes $10, it takes her $5 to ship it.”
“A lot of times they create a market place, and you have to keep going on the web site, and you have to beat people to it, and spend a lot of time and effort and give your credit card number, you have to go pick it up, they take a cut…it’s just a complete dirty mess.”
With this basic disgruntlement in mind, and dollars lost in accruing it, Black, Gomba and McNutt have built a program whose goal is to link — via technologies like the internet and cell phone text messaging — buyers and sellers who might make deals both without mark-ups on re-sale and a better price for sellers.
As McNutt, a senior distance runner from Etowah, said, “we want to eliminate the middle man.”
Actually, the goal is for this new website — which will hopefully be up and running before fall semester of 2012, to work as the middle man.
So you’re wondering where Facebook figures in this, right?
Early last month, the Tech trio competed on campus in something called a hack-a-thon sponsored by the internet giant.
“They gave us 24 hours to make something. It could be pretty much anything in the computer science field. So people mostly made software products, web pages, mobile applications,” Gomba said. “They did this at 14 schools, and the winners got to travel to Palo Alto, Facebook’s headquarters.”
There, these guys did it again with amplitude.
“We hooked into the Facebook open graph, so when you find a match you can prioritize friends. Every time you want to buy or sell, if your friends happen to have that book or need it, it will tell you right then.
“We also enabled voice and created a mobile app for the iPhone where…you can scan the bar code, and we’ll list it and try to find a match. If we have one, then we’ll send you a match. If we have a match, you’ll probably know it before you put your phone back in your pocket.”
I asked at least some of the obvious questions: how do you pay to make this happen? Do you get anything out of it?
“There are a lot of ways to possibly monetize it,” McNutt said.
This will come off like typical college pie-in-the-sky-change-the-world-for-free stuff, but Gomba and McNutt — who’ve been horribly plagued by leg injuries — said they don’t want to advertise on the site (“We want to eliminate clutter,” McNutt said.).
And they don’t see charging a fee. They hope for donations, although they admitted that if this works they’d like to be compensated down the road.
To be clear, the goal is to set up an ON-CAMPUS swap shop rather than send books all over the country. Tech is small enough that a lot of students need the same books, but big enough that it is not easy for students to get the word out to others about what they have for sale or seek to buy.
“Padded envelopes, shipping labels and going to…ship off every book,” Gomba lamented. “This cuts out the middle man and makes it easier. Maybe it will put pressure on books stores about the way they do business. We think that it can change the way things happen.”
Without being a businessman, my thought is that for this system to support itself it would have to extend beyond the Tech campus and include others, even if most trading were done within campus boundaries.
Ours is, after all, a volume world.
“There’s 12 million college students in the United States, and conservatively we’ll say that they buy six text books a year, three per semester,” Gomba said. “They may lose $20 per transaction (through re-sale markup, shipping costs, etc.), and conservatively that’s $1.4 billion lost to companies like Am*z*n, and [others].
“It’s surprising that there hasn’t been an elegant solution yet.”
How interesting that a glitch that is somewhat global in its nature might find a solution in localization.
These are smart people. Gomba is the only computer science major among them. Black, a junior distance runner from Cary, N.C., is a math major, and McNutt is studying chemical engineering, but he’s not exactly foreign to fiddling with code.
“I’ve been programing since I was little. For chemical engineering, I like to go into integrated circuit fabrication, and programming ties into that,” he said. “It’s just a general interest in computers.”
Maybe it’s no surprise that McNutt teetered in a global direction. All internet monoliths have a share of free programs and applications, all in place with the idea of building large user bases. From there, possibilities grow toward the possibility of capitalization.
“We have the phone numbers of a lot of people,” McNutt said. “We might be able to let them know about different collecting events, or where they can donate.”
Key words, not necessarily in order: lot of phone numbers.
I’d like to think there are some folks in the Georgia Tech community who might find the ideas of Black, McNutt and Gomba interesting. Lemme know what you think. Send comments to email@example.com.