Last year, Sharnila Pillai received the notice every worker dreads: She was being laid off.
However, the software engineer wasn’t surprised. The economy was going downhill and a lot of her friends being were being let go.
“So, I knew it was coming,” she said when we met at a cafe in Kuala Lumpur. “At first I was very upset when I lost my job. I knew it was not very easy to get another job.”
She had been with her company for ten years.
Also, Sharnila had always worked from home. The thought of going through rounds of interviews to get a “proper” job in an office did not appeal to her.
“We’d have to pay for childcare and bus transport for my kids. It would negate the salary,” she said.
So, she made the choice to stay home with the kids.
“Anything is workable,” she said when I asked her how she felt about being laid off. “It’s just the initial shock. The two months of not knowing what I was. Who am I now that I’m no longer employed? What’s my worth?”
A romantic idea
Seven months after losing her job, Sharnila and I met over coffee. It was during this conversation that both of us began lamenting about the lack of romance novels in the bookstores. Both of us were avid readers of the genre and were part of a reading club where we had regular book discussions about them.
However, it was so difficult to get the titles! Despite being one of the most profitable genres in publishing, bookstores barely stocked them. Worse, since most romance writers write in series’, we often couldn’t find a complete set to read.
Being a minimalist, I disliked the bother of buying books only to sell them off later at a steep loss. Sure, I could buy the ebook versions, but I really liked having a physical copy to read too.
“I wished there were more rental bookstores around,” I told Sharnila. “I would so love renting romance novels from them, but so many have closed down over the years.”
Then, Sharnila’s eyes lit up. Why not start a business where she could rent romance novels to readers like us? But instead of a physical store, she would set up an online rental bookstore.
“Oh my God, you so should! I’ll be your first customer!” I gushed.
Since that day in January, I’ve watched Sharnila grow her little idea into a viable business. Her growth as a businesswoman has been so inspiring to me.
Her IT skills came in really handy. In quick succession, she set up her online store and started social media marketing.
Of course I had to feature her on my blog!
Sharnila called her online romance book rental service “Lovely Ever After”, naturally. Today she receives orders from all around Malaysia from eager romance book readers.
What got you started on the entrepreneurship road?
I spent months at home sitting around after getting retrenched. I can’t just do nothing. I really wanted to do something I like.
And then I thought, I liked books. I liked collecting sets of books.And I love to see people reading books I recommended. And I also really love online shopping. I love it when I get my packages. “Bookmail" is the best!
I don’t mind lending my books; since I’m already lending books why not make some money out of it? Back then I was only lending books to my friends. I thought that this business would be great to reach those I don’t know.
I also felt that (the business) is something I can start small, without much time. It’s up to me how much result I get — It’s up to my effort - it’s something I can control.
Why set up an online renting business?
Because everyone’s going online. With physical bookstores, the overhead is so high. Where you open — there’s your clientele. I like online shopping, looking at things and throwing them into a (digital) cart. It’s much easier to browse and shop for books online because you can see everything with a click.
After attending a conference organised by MDEC, I’m even more convinced that we have to go online (to do business). I think this is the way to go — businesses are changing. We have to.
When I set up my website I realised my IT background was really useful. I can control how my site goes and set it up how I see it. I’m thankful of the skills I can put to good use now.
Why focus on romance books?
There are just too many books out there. If there is no focus you’d end up stocking very few books of each genre. Because Lovely Ever After is so narrowed down with our selection, we can go all out for that genre. And what’s more, I love romances because they have happy endings!
The problem is you can’t find romance novels to read. The thing about romance — the older books do not go out of fashion. The current bestsellers tend to go out of fashion. But bookshops don’t carry these books.
Therefore, if you’re reading a romance series you often can’t find all the books.
We are lucky that we live in the Klang Valley where there are more options but what about those who lived outside?
The problem has been around for some time. When my favourite bookstore stopped carrying romances I was so sad. Then you have to order the books from overseas retailers but it still takes time. But what of those who don’t or can’t get these books from these outlets?
The good thing about my service is that you don’t have to hunt for them and the delivery time won’t be a month!
How do you rent books from Lovely Ever After?
First you visit http://leabooks.com.my to select your books. After making your payment, we will post them to you. Once you’re done reading them, you can post it back to us. We give you two months’ limit and there are promotions for rentals of more than a certain amount. If you rent more books, you get to save on postage.
We charge RM4 to rent a book but you’d have to pay a deposit to rent the book. When you return the book, we’ll return the deposit.
However, we’ve had readers who said that they’re not returning a book — they want to keep them. We don’t mind, but do let us know so that we can look for more books.
What about financial aspects of setting up your business?
My initial set up was to rent out the mountain of books that I already have and invest a little bit more to set up the website, administration costs such as stationery, promotional materials and storage.
After opening the bookstore, I realised that my reading tastes was limited compared to other readers’, which is why I’m buying more books. But to do that, I need more capital. This is something I’m working on.
What are the tools that you use for your business?
I want my customers’ shopping experience to be an easy one. At first, I started a Facebook page but I realised that it wasn’t easy to browse for books there. Also, you’d have to be able to search for books and I also wanted an payment facility.
Currently, I use Easy Store, a local online e-commerce content management system. I’d rather pay for a service than set up one my own. i didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I pay about RM2000 per year for the service.
I also do a lot of social media marketing on Instagram and Facebook. I buy Facebook and Instagram ads mostly to get the word out about the service and so far it’s been good response, generating the business a lot of leads.
What advice would you give those who want to leave their jobs and start their business or after being retrenched?
I’m in no position to give advice! But I’ll say do your research, have your business plan to keep you on track
And most importantly do it with conviction and passion
No half-half commitment. 100% all in.
I'm very lucky in having the support of my spouse, in supporting my ideas and venture, and support in other ways like being my despatch pickup (haha). And also my gang of friends who help me think out ideas (like you!) and who help me out a lot in sourcing great books.
You can find Sharnila’s Lovely Ever After books at http://leabooks.com.my. She is active on Facebook (Search for Lovely Ever After Book Rental) and Instagram (@leabooksmy)