|January 1, 2001|
The Mission Behind The Business
Martin Manley, CEO of Alibris.com, became an entrepreneur by chance when searching for an out-of-print book. His goal? "To keep books alive forever."
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"You have to have a mission as well as a business," he says in a resonant, fast-paced baritone reminiscent of actor Richard Dreyfuss. "Some say you have to offer employees meaning as well as money; to me, especially to attract and retain your talent here [in the San Francisco Bay area], meaning is all there is."
Manley has had a strong sense of mission for a long time. A college anti-Vietnam War activist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, he spent many years as a labor-union organizer, and his Alibris office proudly displays a United Farm Workers flag--a personal gift from UFW founder Cesar Chavez.
In 1993, after about a decade with McKinsey and with In Search Of Excellence co-author Robert Waterman's consulting firm, Manley's mission took a turn toward government policy. President Clinton named him assistant secretary of labor to create a new agency promoting workplace innovation.
Manley co-founded Alibris two years later, by an unconventional route. Searching for an out-of-print book written by a friend, he discovered a Web site called Interloc that had started as a dial-up bulletin board service for used-book dealers in 1993. He also learned that 98% of all books published are out of print. But Interloc was mainly a locator service. "Interloc had the world's best content trapped inside the world's worst business model," Manley says.
He arranged to meet Interloc founder (now Alibris chairman) Richard Weatherford, and the pair spent two months visiting used-book dealers. "We were testing a new idea in a business that hadn't really changed since 1600," Manley says. Alibris' mission is "to keep books alive forever." The Emeryville, Calif., company taps the supply of some 1,500 independent dealers of used, rare, and out-of-print books to sell to consumers, retailers, distributors, libraries, and other Web booksellers.
Alibris is best known as a consumer site. But the majority and fastest-growing part of Alibris' sales are dealers buying from other dealers or big distributors such as Ingram Book Group (an Alibris investor) fill-ing orders for hard-to-find titles. Sales tripled for the 100-employee company in 2000, and Alibris expects to turn its first profit this year. Although the company laid off 15% of its staff as part of a cutback in brand-building activities, morale remains high; no other employees have left, according to Manley. "Everyone here is a volunteer; they can easily go elsewhere," he says. "Of course it needs to be fun and a cool place to work, but you need more than that. You need to challenge people. You need a mission."
Photo by Richard Morgenstein
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