In 2011, I started a book business with my best friend called Emily Books.

We were qualified to start a business in some ways, not so much in others. We had some expertise in our field: We’d both worked at the intersection of publishing and tech for years, and we wanted to start an online bookstore that sold a small collection of books and allowed readers to subscribe and receive a carefully chosen book per month automatically. Our idea was that this would provide an online version of what we loved about shopping at independent bookstores: the great taste and careful curation of expert booksellers, which no algorithm can replicate. We had no management experience, though, and had never created a PowerPoint presentation or written a business plan. We also, probably more importantly, had no ambition to found the kind of startup that barrels toward acquisition or IPO. We wanted to test waters, grow organically, and pivot on a dime in response to customers’ needs like a startup, but we also wanted to stay independent, avoid gimmicks, and build a sustainable business that would stay true to its core values.

That was three years, many gray hairs, over 5,000 sales and 36 excellent books ago, but we’re still pretty much just as far from the point of being able to pay ourselves any wages as we were when we first started.


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