Students for sustainability…Thryft founders Eddie Lim, Chow Jia Yu and Tan Ye Kai

The founders of Singapore's first sustainable online bookstore Thryft share how they started the company and their advice to budding entrepreneurs in the sustainability scene.

thryft team
The Thryft team. Image: Thryft

What started as a weekend passion project between friends, Thryft is now established as Singapore’s first sustainable online bookstore. 

Thryft is an online site that allows people to trade in second-hand books in exchange for credits that can be spent on the platform. A group of students, Eddie Lim, Choy Jia Yu and Tan Ye Kai conceived the idea while studying at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The founders hope that by encouraging people to resell books and buy pre-loved ones, it will minimise waste. Old books gain a new lease of life while avid readers can create space for exciting new reads. Thryft has resold over 12,000 second-hand books since it began operating two years ago.

The platform uses algorithms to determine the trade-in value based on the current first-hand retail price, popularity and market saturation. Thryft’s community commitment operates on a 10, 50, and 100 per cent model. Ten per cent of their profits go to non-profit organisations on a quarterly basis to support tackling urgent environmental and social issues. Fifty per cent of their profits are donated to various social organisations. Non-profit organisations are able to list their books on the platform at no cost and take back 100 per cent of the profits from what they manage to sell. 

Eco-Business sat down with the three bookworms to learn more about Thryft, their personal experiences in running a business, and the advice they would give to other budding entrepreneurs looking to make a name in the sustainability sphere. 

How did the idea for Thryft come about?

Eddie: I previously worked at a big data and Artificial Intelligence-related startup and I would get at least two cups of coffee every day. Three months into the job, I realised I had amassed over 100 cups. Just the thought of all those cups struck something in me; that an individual can make such a significant impact on the environment. That was when I started getting concerned about sustainability issues. 

Our school has a small Facebook group where students can list and sell second-hand textbooks within the community. It got me thinking about what made this idea work compared to my own personal experience on public platforms (like Carousell) which are branded as marketplaces for buyers and sellers. The difference lies in the fact that all us students stay in the same student accommodation which offers great convenience. This allows us to move lower value goods easily and efficiently.

Trying to replicate this on large online marketplaces introduces inconveniences such as location and price negotiation. So, I began brainstorming ways to change the process of moving our pre-loved books quicker. By using data, we have created an algorithm that helps us arrive at a fair value for these second-hand books. This idea started out as a weekend project with friends, where we tested the first version of the algorithm to see how well we predicted prices. It continued from there. 

Jia Yu: I started a thrift shop with a few friends when I started college in 2019 and we operated on a point system, whereby people could trade-in clothing for points depending on the quality of the donated item. One of the disadvantages I observed was that it was logistically and operationally challenging. For example, it is difficult to determine the actual value of the clothing, so even if someone traded in a high-end luxury item, it would be priced the same as a cheaper garment. When Eddie came to me with his algorithm, we realised we could help each other out. 

What are some challenges you have faced growing this company?

Ye Kai: Aside from the obvious technical aspects that we had to learn, I would say our biggest challenge was just juggling work, school, and personal life. We are all still full-time students, and we started Thryft in Year 2. Trying to build a successful business forced us to learn how to better prioritise our responsibilities.  

Eddie: To add on to that, I don’t think many people know that we’re still students. Customers can be very demanding because they expect a full-time team to be behind Thryft. Even still, we try to be closely aligned to professional standards. 

With the surge of e-books in recent years, why did you choose to focus on physical books?

Ye Kai: If you look at the statistics in the past five years or so, after the initial surge of e-books in 2014-2016, we saw a steady decline and instead it was more ‘trendy’ to have print books. In the United Kingdom alone, 200 million physical books were sold last year. But, where do all the books end up? That was an important question we wanted to answer. 

Eddie: There’s also an alarming statistic that every Singaporean household has an average of 52 books. With over 1.3 million households, that’s over 68 million books just lying around. So what can we do about all these resources? According to data, the trend is still increasing. These are key questions that we are trying to address. 

What are your thoughts on the sustainability scene in Singapore?

Jia Yu: There’s a growing urgency where people are beginning to realise there is a need to reduce their plastic usage. People are also looking for more sustainable options when they shop. Especially in the past three years, there are more brands offering sustainable clothing or household items. There are more secondhand stores too. It’s encouraging to see this mindset gain popularity. 

Do you think that the Asian/Singaporean stigma towards second-hand items is changing?

Eddie: Unfortunately, there aren’t many statistics or a lot of data in Singapore. However, the largest online second-hand fashion retailer in the United States, ThredUp, has said that it is outgrowing the traditional retail market by 11 times. There’s a general acceptance of second-hand items, particularly by millennials who are slowly reaching the stage where they have purchasing power. In that sense, the trend is likely to continue. Although there aren’t many robust reports available here, there are many sustainability-focused businesses popping up, so it definitely carries on in Singapore as well. 

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs looking to start a sustainable organisation like Thryft?

Jia Yu: One piece of advice would be to think about systems. Everything is interlinked and for us, because we’re trying to facilitate the movement of second-hand goods, our focus is placed on building a system that works for people. For entrepreneurs looking to start their own company, they should explore how their ideas can link systems together too.

You have to see meaning in what you do too. Owning a business is often difficult, and it’s very easy to get lost in all the operational or logistic challenges. Our motivation is making a circular economy of books within Singapore and Southeast Asia, as well as opening up opportunities for people who don’t have access to second-hand books. It helps push us and keeps us focused on what we’re really doing here. 

Ye Kai: My advice is to be aware that you’re in it for the long term. Building a business doesn’t take one or two years, it’s more of a 10 year or more journey. A lot of people our age start with weekend projects just to see where it goes, but it’s important to keep the end in mind. When it shifts from a passion project to an actual business, that is when things get hard. 

What does 2022 look like for Thryft?

Eddie: We started having monthly book fairs this year, but because of the pandemic it had to be switched from physical to virtual. Now that things have settled down, we are excited about hosting fairs again next year. 

We also recently received the SG Eco Fund grant to run a sustainability fair. The idea is to host it a convention centre where like-minded vendors can set up booths and customers can bring items from their homes to trade them in. It’s a fun way for people who are quite new to sustainability to dip their toes in and try it out. 

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