Today the team behind textbook rental company BookRenter is launching a new company, Rafter, to help post-secondary schools manage educational content. Rafter provides a cloud-based “Course Materials Network” (which evolved out of BookRenter’s Store Services solution) that helps schools navigate every step of the process, from finding and assessing course materials, to buying materials, to renting and selling them to students. BookRenter will live on as a textbook rental service, and will be available as a service of the new company, which provides a comprehensive solution to schools, faculty, administrators and students. Rafter streamlines the flow of material from publisher to student, including supply, distribution, purchasing and rental.
BookRenter CEO Mehdi Maghsoodnia said the idea for Rafter came from partnering with schools to co-develop services to manage their course material needs. “We were realizing that through the BookRenter experience we were saving students money, we were making our customers happy, and we asked schools how we could give them a software platform that allows them to better serve their students,” he said in an interview. He said that evolved into a larger conversation around how a professor adopts a textbook, how a school supplies the materials they need, how they deal and manage with suppliers, how they price and fulfill orders, and how they manage customer support. “It got into every aspect of the process, and for the past two years we’ve been solving those issues for our school partners.” Based on the success of their pilot program with existing BookRenter customers, they decided to launch a company that focused on servicing the course material needs of the schools.
Today the company also launched their Discover tool as part of the Course Materials Network, which indexes over 11 million textbooks based on eight years of adoption, bibliographic and economic data. It helps professions and administrators decide which books and course materials to use for a given course. The search tool shows an Amazon-like results page for each textbook with info and ratings. But unlike Amazon, Rafter shows the book’s classroom adoption rate in other schools, and plots where the book is on an adoption curve (whether it’s a rising title, or it’s at the end of its lifecycle). It also allows professors to compare textbooks side-by-side to see which is being used on more campuses.
Rafter also offers selection and pricing services. The service can advise schools on the best time to buy a specific book (prices are affected by demand, seasonality, and other factors), and shows inventory levels around the world. It also offers the Rafter Supply Network, a book marketplace where schools can buy and sell books. Rafter also offers students the ability to rent books, pick them up at the campus bookstore, and drop them off there when they’re done. “You decide what part of the process you want to manage, from deciding what textbooks you’re adopting, to how you want to supply it, and if you want to supply it locally within your campus or remotely online. We provide the suite of solutions,” he said. “We give you an ecommerce solution, an in-store solution, management reporting, pricing and supply intelligence.” The company also handles credit card processing, customer support, and email campaigns. “The whole end-to-end process of ‘How do I engage my professors and meet the needs of my students.'”
The platform is free for schools to implement, and includes both a self-serve cloud-based service for smaller schools, or a custom solution for larger schools using the company’s API. Rafter’s business model relies on a revenue-sharing model that changes based on what aspects of the platform a school is using. Maghsoodnia calls the pricing model “pretty complicated.”
“The cost is built into a revenue-sharing model,” he said. “It ranges depending on what kind of service you’re deploying.” The revenue sharing varies by program but ranges from affiliate fees to outright inventory purchases. “Often it is a revenue generator, not a cost,” Maghsoodnia said of the Rafter platform. “Because our platorm allows you to compete more effectively for your students, the schools that have partnered with us are increasing market share. They’re getting market share back from Amazon and Chegg and others.”
Over 500 schools across the U.S. have been testing the Rafter platform (it’s limited to U.S. schools for now), and Maghsoodnia said the top-adopting schools have 30 percent adoption from students. Today is the first time new schools will be able to sign up for the platform. “This is going to be a coming out party for the Rafter platform,” Maghsoodnia said. Their goal is to sign up 50-100 new accounts per year, with 100 percent student adoption per campus. “There’s about 6,000 campuses and we’re already in 500. That’s close to 10 percent of the market.”
The team maintains that their solution is complementary to existing textbook creation and management tools, but looking at the existing options seems to indicate otherwise. While Rafter doesn’t think its product is competing directly with platforms like iTunes U, Apple is angling to make that a comprehensive solution for educational institutions, students and instructors in combination with the iBookstore‘s digital textbook sales. Rafter will be launching digital textbooks on March 31.
Educational app company Kno looks to be Rafter’s stiffest competition. Kno’s co-founder is also the co-founder of textbook rental site and BookRenter competitor Chegg, so Kno offers textbook rentals from their website. Kno also offers an Educational Platform for schools, allowing schools to use Kno educational apps, the textbook rental service, and to implement a content management platform. While their features aren’t as robust as Rafter, they have funding from powerhouse investors including Andreessen Horowitz and Intel Capital. And with Amazon retail store rumours swirling and companies like Inkling working with educational institutions to implement their smart textbooks, the competition to partner with schools will only get stiffer.