Better World Books founders recall start at Notre Dame

Author: Gene Stowe

A group of Asian high school students tour Better World Books as part of the University’s iLED international program

The three founders of Better World Books, a $64 million for-profit social enterprise, along with their initial mentor and the company’s first CEO, traced the deep roots of this triple-bottom line organization to the University at a forum Thursday, May 2, at the Mendoza College of Business. The event was part of the company’s 10-year anniversary celebration.

Xavier Helgesen, Kreece Fuchs and Jeff Kurtzman co-founded Better World Books in 2003 after collecting used textbooks through campus book drives and learning to sell them in the early days of e-commerce. Helgesen and Kurtzman are no longer directly involved in the company’s operations, though Helgesen remains on the company’s board of directors.

David Murphy, former president and CEO of Better World Books

David Murphy, now associate dean of entrepreneurship for the colleges of Science and Engineering, started mentoring the three during the 2003 Best Social Venture in the McCloskey Business Plan Competition, which they won. He served as president and CEO of Better World Books from 2004 to 2011, and remains on the board.

Jim Davis, a longtime Mendoza College of Business professor who is now head of the management department at Utah State University and teaches in Notre Dame’s Executive MBA program, moderated the panel. Davis taught the founders and recruited Murphy to become a judge in the business plan competition as well as a member of the Irish Angels, volunteer alums who judge the plans and sometimes invest.

“His classes were a tremendous inspiration for me to be an entrepreneur, to think differently,” Helgesen says, recalling his first exposure to entrepreneurship in Davis’ classroom. “I started my first online business out of my dorm room solving a problem I had, which was how do you look up girls’ phone numbers when you don’t know their last name?”

He wound up creating a website with a reverse telephone directory and a public teacher review that attracted some three-fourths of the student body before a letter about his disciplinary hearing was slipped under his door (he still graduated).

“For myself personally, it was a big confidence builder,” he says. “I learned the power of building something useful.”

At Better World Books, Helgesen became chiefly responsible for software architecture, outsourcing the actual development to a Russian firm that answered an Internet ad; Kurtzman, who quit an investment banking job on Wall Street, looked after finances; and Fuchs was in charge of the warehouse, operations and logistics as the company grew to become the third largest online seller of used books.

“I think the key was we were all willing to sacrifice,” Kurtzman says. “It was by the skin of our teeth.”

The team returned to the business competition in 2004 to report their rapidly expanding success. Murphy appealed directly to funding, attracting the attention of competition founder Tom McCloskey, who helped the team improve its business plan and secure its first bank loan. Better World Books did not take outside equity investment until 2008, when it built its own e-commerce site and established its brand identity (www.betterworldbooks.com).

An early book drive to benefit the Robinson Community Learning Center embedded social benefit. The company so far has given $14 million and more than 8 million books to partners and libraries, while keeping more than 100 million books out of landfills. The company has also donated more than 8 million books to its nonprofit literacy partners over these 10 years. Better World Books is a founding member of the B Corporation community, aimed at social benefit as well as profit.

“It always seemed so natural,” Fuchs says. “It’s the good will of people to donate books to us to do something good with them. People trust the working relationship we have established with our partners. They know we are doing well by doing good. It has always been ingrained in the business model.”