Jeff Croft

I’m a product designer in Seattle, WA. I recently worked at Simply Measured, and previously co-founded Lendle.

Some of my past clients include Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and the University of Washington.

I’ve authored two books on web and interactive design and spoken at dozens of conferences around the world.

I’m currently accepting contract work and considering full-time opportunities.

Blog entry // 02.15.2011 // 11:11 AM // 24 Comments

Go ’head, Mr. Lendle

About a month ago, I got a call from Brian Ford, who happens to be my cousin. Brian’s wife, Carolyn, had come up with an idea and Brian wanted my thoughts. Amazon had recently rolled out a new feature that allows users to lend Kindle books to others using their e-mail address. This, in effect, means you can really only lend books to people you know (because you probably don’t know many stranger’s e-mail addresses). Carolyn’s idea was simple: what if there were a site that could hook you up with a stranger that has the book you want, so they can lend it to you?

Although I owned exactly zero Kindle books and in the past five years have literally written more books than I’ve read, it sounded like a pretty great idea, and I was interested in building it. The first thing I did was call up my homeboy Nathan Borror, whom I trust implicitly on all things, but especially all things web and all things books. Nathan runs social book site Readernaut, and I figured he’d be able to help me understand the ins and outs of how a service like this might work, and he’d probably also know if something similar was already out. Nathan dug the idea and said wasn’t aware of anyone else already doing it. I was sold. That same night, I dug into Amazon’s Product Advertising API to see if I could make this thing happen.

Carolyn, Brian and I also brought in my Dad, who is a great business man and marketing guy, as well as plenty of thoughts from my wife Nobu, and we all started sorting out what this thing would really be. We quickly ran up against some constraints that ended up shaping the product:

  1. First, we learned that Amazon only allows each copy of a book to be lent out one time. That is, if you buy Water For Elephants, you can loan it to a friend one time, and then you’ll never be able to loan it again. This meant that for our book lending service, it wasn’t good enough to have a copy of a popular book available from one of our users—we needed lots of copies of popular books.
  2. Second, we learned many Kindle books are not lendable. That is, their publishers have decided they are not on board with the lending concept and have forbid Amazon from allowing certain books to be lent. To make matters worse, Amazon’s Product Advertising API doesn’t include book lendability information, so we had to resort to—let’s call them “less elegant”—methods for getting that information.
  3. We had initially wanted to target Nook, as well as Kindle, since that platform also allows for book lending, but Barnes and Noble doesn’t have the APIs to make a really great service available, like Amazon does, and we decided that it was better to make a great Kindle site than a not-so-great Kindle and Nook site.

The first two restrictions are clear indications that the publishing industry isn’t yet convinced that book sharing won’t ruin their old school business model. And while I don’t really give a damn about their business model, I am a published author, and it was important to me that any site we built encouraged people to buy books as well as lend them. I didn’t want to build the Napster of books.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most contentious point of the proceedings was coming up with a name. I really wanted a fun, “producty” name, but I also suck at coming up with such names. Some others in the group wanted a name that was a bit more obvious and straightforward (primarily for SEO reasons). In the end, Brian suggested “Lendle,” which I thought was perfect. I suggested a pairing with the .me TLD, and we ended up with Lendle.me. As Brian said in his post about Lendle, “I’m not sure that it was a universally loved choice, but I can’t imagine calling it anything else, now.”

We spent a great deal of time hashing out the model for how the site would work. We consider the idea of book trading, but ended up going with a system that enforces a lending/borrowing ratio—that is, if you’re not willing to lend, you won’t be able to continue to borrow. When you join Lendle, you’re given two “borrow requests.” You can request to borrow two books from our users. Then, we ask you to tell us what books you own. The more lendable books you own, the more borrow requests you’ll accrue. And when a user requests one of your books and you lend it to them, you get rewarded with even more borrow requests.

One of our early concerns was that mooches would quickly deplete our supply of available books, but so far, this has not been the case. In just a few days of being live, our users have added over 1300 copies of over 800 unique lendable books, and despite several hundred borrow requests fulfilled, the vast majority of the books are still available. So far, our users have proven to not only be willing to lend, but actually to be more interested in lending than borrowing. Also, so far, our users have bought almost as many books from Amazon through our “buy it” buttons as they have borrowed from other Lendlers (yes, we’re calling them that). We gots good people.

Anyway, I spent most of my evenings and weekends for about three weeks hashing the thing out, and then we had a short one-week beta period before launching this past weekend. A real whirlwind, but it’s been fun, and worth it. In the meantime, we discovered that we do, in fact, have some competitors, including a couple that launched before we did. But we think we’re better, for a few key reasons:

  1. At Lendle, we are 100% transparent about what books our users have and don’t have, and which books are lendable and which aren’t. Our competitors don’t tell you how many members own the book you’re requesting to borrow, so you have no indication if you’re likely to actually receive that book anytime soon or not. And some sites don’t even let you know which books have been deemed “not lendable” by their publisher, so you may request a book that it’s impossible to get! On Lendle, you’ll know what you’re getting into before you request a book.

  2. Lendle does everything humanly (and roboticly!) possible to protect your anonymity. No one has to know what books you own, no one has to know you’re the one who lent a particular book, and no one has to know which books you want to borrow. And while borrowing a Kindle book requires your e-mail address be shared with the person lending you the book, we do it in the safest, securest way possible.

  3. Book-sharing sites like Lendle can’t work unless people are willing to lend, not just borrow. Lendle rewards you for being willing to lend books, and ensures that “mooches” don’t deplete the available supply of books.

For those interested in some technical details: Predictably, the whole project was built using Django and Python, and is hosted at Rackspace Cloud. The stack is pretty typical for Django projects: Python, Memcached, Apache, nginx, MySQL, Django 1.3, etc. The site makes very heavy use of the Amazon Product Advertising API.

All in all, it’s been fun and exciting to watch Lendle sprout from a simple crumb of an idea Carolyn had to an actual product with an impressively high number of users for only having been live a few days.

Hell, even I now own some Kindle books—I might even read them!

Comments

  1. 001 // Caleb Ogden // 02.15.2011 // 11:26 AM

    This is a great concept, I love how it gives a greater opportunity for community with Kindle. Just registered and added some of my books. Excited to share and borrow :)

    Would be sweet to be able to login with Twitter. Generally I keep my facebook pretty private (and I know I’m not alone there).

  2. 002 // Kyle Slattery // 02.15.2011 // 11:28 AM

    Lendle is pretty awesome, thanks for making it!

    One thing I was thinking, with regards to the email privacy issue—what if you set up one-time use email addresses for each request that simply forwarded the Amazon email to the borrower? Then, when I go to lend a book, all I see is an email address like abc123@requests.lendle.me, but it still gets to the actual email address of the borrower. Then, once the Amazon email gets through, you could shut off that forward.

  3. 003 // Scott Nelle // 02.15.2011 // 11:34 AM

    That’s awesome, Jeff. It’s really cool to get a little background and hear how quickly you put together what seems like a pretty polished project. I’ve passed word on to some pals who blog about the writing/publishing industry and with any luck they’ll pass it along. At the very least, I imagine they’ll become users with lots of books to lend.

  4. 004 // Mike D. // 02.15.2011 // 12:14 PM

    The weird thing about book lending is that its purpose has completely changed since books went digital. In the past, book lending had exactly one purpose: save a friend the cost of purchasing a book that you already own by lending it out to them. That’s really all it was. The ability to do this was probably a net negative for book publishers as the lendee would rarely buy the book after he/she had already read it for free.

    Now that things are digital, the lending concept doesn’t really make a lot of sense. There is nothing to lend except a limited form of the license that expires in 14 days. Amazon is banking on people not being able to read most books they borrow in 14 days and then buying the full copy themselves in order to finish. We’ll see if that works. It could. Either way, the whole concept of lending needs to be rethought in this context and I think you guys are doing that with Lendle.

    Seth Godin also talked about book lending as a viral agent a little while ago, basically saying that when you buy a book, the publisher should really be giving you several full copies of it, such that you can spread it for them. Interesting.

  5. 005 // moonflowerdragon // 02.15.2011 // 6:07 PM

    @ the idea of “one purpose” of lending in the past.

    Not true. I don’t believe I am the only one whose purpose in loaning books was not to “save a friend the cost of purchasing a book”.

    Usually a loan from my collection happened either because I wanted my friend to read something they had not yet discovered and might not otherwise pursue, or because someone expressed curiosity about an idea that was covered in a book that I happened to have. The principal factor of a loan happening was serendipity and convenience. The factor of cost was no greater than the factors of whether it was worth the person’s time to go to a bookshop to flick through a copy of the book (if it happened to be on the shelf) or to go to the bother of going to the library to see if a copy might be there to borrow.

    As it happens when I have borrowed other people’s or libraries’ books I would end up buying my open copy of the very good ones.

    Considering the number of books I’ve loaned that have unfortunately not been returned, I really like Seth’s idea, although I think that purpose would run counter to the business point to his idea.

  6. 006 // Jim Haug // 02.15.2011 // 8:34 PM

    I like the idea. I joined and added the books I had. Two problems so far. Most books are not lendable. I tried to add Spencer Wells’ Journey of Man, which I bought through Kindle, but it doesn’t come up on a search—although another Wells book does. Also (third problem, actually) the server seems to be really slow. I’m getting a lot of time 504 Gateway Time-out errors.

  7. 007 // Joe Clark // 02.16.2011 // 5:54 AM

    Fix the non-apostrophe in your hed, please.

  8. 008 // Mike D. // 02.16.2011 // 12:50 PM

    Moonflowerdragon: Good points, but I guess I still boil that all down to a cost thing. For instance —

    1. Here, take this book since I think you’d like it and I don’t think you would otherwise pay for it on your own.”

    (Otherwise, why not just say, “Here, go buy this book.”)

    1. You were talking about ___ the other day, and I just so happen to be reading a book about it, so I’m going to lend it to you so you can read more about it without having to actually purchase the book.”

    (Otherwise, why not just say, “Hey, that concept is explained in ___ book, which you should buy!)

    While your primary goal may not be monetary in nature, the act of lending in the past has almost always included saving someone money as a by-product, except in the rare cases where the lendee actually bought the book later.

  9. 009 // Brian Ford // 02.16.2011 // 3:03 PM

    I think I agree with your comments, Mike, but I also see Moonflowerdragon’s points.

    Generally, if I lend a book to someone, it’s for the same reason I invite people over to see a movie I’ve already watched: I want to share the experience with someone, and I’m not sure they’ll do it unless I provide something to facilitate their interest. If I thought people WOULD go out and buy books when I recommend them, I might be more likely to do so.

    WRT Lendle, my thoughts on Amazon’s restrictions are that the 2-week thing isn’t all that big of a deal. I actually like that it encourages people to buy, because it keeps our stock fresh. What I DO wish they’d get rid of is the lending limit. I think that the more people can lend books, the more people will try new genres, and eventually buy new books.

    I don’t want to exaggerate, so I won’t make up a figure, but my music listening habits (and purchasing) have gone way way up since the digital music revolution started. It’s night and day.

    I also have no issue with the “when its lent, you can’t read it on your own Kindle” because that’s pretty much how a paper copy works, too.

    And, of course, the biggest issue we face is no international lending. I think that one will be resolved sooner than the others, though.

  10. 010 // Podesta // 02.16.2011 // 5:23 PM

    The big question, lending an elephant smell to the issue, is not mentioned in any of the material from Lendle founders I’ve seen: Will Amazon take legal umbrage at Lendle converting a service it offers as part of selling Kindle books to its own use and profit? I will wait until that question is answered by Amazon before jumping on board, and, think others should do the same. This venture could be stopped by an injunction in less than a week.

  11. 011 // Jeff Croft // 02.16.2011 // 6:16 PM

    This venture could be stopped by an injunction in less than a week.

    It could be, indeed. But I’m not expecting that. None of our competitors, which have been around longer, have been shut down. And some of my closest friends are Amazon employees — word on the street is that Amazon is impressed by Lendle.

    Also, what do you have to lose if you jump on board and then it’s shut down in a week? What would you have lost?

  12. 012 // Brian Ford // 02.16.2011 // 10:09 PM

    This venture could be stopped by an injunction in less than a week.

    As I mentioned on my Tumblr article, I have my doubts that this is true. With that said, I certainly hope I turn out to be right, and that you’ll eventually join once you’re satisfied that I am. :)

  13. 013 // Greger Klen // 02.18.2011 // 8:39 AM

    I love the concept. Good thinking is always enjoyable ;)

  14. 014 // ICC World Cup 2011 // 02.18.2011 // 11:22 PM

    I am certainly no logic expert, but, if we take a look at context, it seems like Martin’s argument is in context of studying logic in the present time. That being said, no one is studying logic in Adam’s time. God finished His creative work on the seventh day and rested. If God will no longer create humans, then we can throw out the argument of Adam in the context of studying logic today. Maybe it was different, but more importantly, since it will never happen again, it does not change today’s logic study.

  15. 015 // Tripp // 02.24.2011 // 5:52 PM

    Congrats! You guys are doing pretty good for being live such a short period of time. How did you get over 1,000 books added to the site in just 3 days? Did you have sites posting press releases, paid ads, or just social word of mouth?

    Very curious.

  16. 016 // John // 03.02.2011 // 3:43 PM

    Sounds like a pretty cool model. Hopefully more publishers will eventually see it as an opportunity for free exposure and get on board with the idea. It kind of reminds me of the way music labels were slow to adopt the idea of digital media. I definitely see some great potential here!

  17. 017 // Eti Sharma // 03.04.2011 // 11:53 PM

    Its really good,, thanks for sharing it.

  18. 018 // David Vanden // 03.05.2011 // 7:07 AM

    Amazon making things much complicated than necessary I feel. But I still feel that Kindle is far better than any other devices when it comes for reading the books electronically. I would just laugh when people compare IPad with kindle for reading. No IPAD is just a toy for my kid. Nothing beyond that.

    It is a nice post. Thank you

  19. 019 // Podesta // 03.21.2011 // 5:30 PM

    On Feb. 16, I said: “Will Amazon take legal umbrage at Lendle converting a service it offers as part of selling Kindle books to its own use and profit?” Well, that question has been answered today.

    It appears that the owners of Lendle intend to make some kind of coding end run around Amazon having withdrawn its API for third-party lending. That, too is ill-advised, and, likely to result in legal action against Jeff Croft and other principals.

    This unsustainable effort is over.

  20. 020 // LSINTAMPA // 03.22.2011 // 1:03 PM

    Podesta, not quite sure what your point is. IMHO, I think that perhaps you don’t really have all the facts needed in order to make such a claim.

  21. 021 // Akhza // 03.29.2011 // 7:45 AM

    Congrats! You guys are doing pretty good for being live such a short period of time. How did you get over 1,000 books added to the site in just 3 days? Did you have sites posting press releases, paid ads, or just social word of mouth? …

  22. 022 // Vinay // 04.06.2011 // 12:45 AM

    I like your concept,,, good one..

  23. 023 // Sebastian // 04.13.2011 // 6:44 AM

    great idea ! good luck! I think that’s the way how you can have success on the internet;) congrats

  24. 024 // detektei // 04.15.2011 // 3:14 AM

    well, we’ll see big changes in kindle within the next weeks :)

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