Folio’s 24-year-old founder is bootstrapping a curated, online bookstore

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Image Credits: Christina Stoever / Folio

In the midst of TechCrunch Disrupt, hundreds of founders will video call into Startup Alley, eager to share what makes their company stand out. But 24-year-old Clare Carroll’s video background speaks for itself as she calls in from her NYC apartment, which doubles as a stock room for hundreds of books she sells online.

Just months ago, the recent Marquette University graduate left her job in consulting at IBM to found Folio, an online bookshop that helps Gen Z and millennial readers discover (and then purchase) their next favorite books.

Carroll is a company of one, doing everything from web design, order packaging, social media marketing and accounting on her own. But as she rediscovered her love of reading in quarantine, Carroll realized that her peers didn’t know where to turn for book recommendations.

“Goodreads has benefits, but the UI hasn’t been updated since Amazon bought it,” Carroll says — and, at least judging by the image in TechCrunch’s article on the acquisition from eight years ago, she’s not wrong. “The problem of helping people rediscover their love of books really resonated with me. I couldn’t find something I wanted online, and I couldn’t believe it didn’t exist: a cool online bookstore. I was really reflecting on what I want to get out of my career, so I was like, OK, screw it, I guess I’ll make it.”

Image Credits: Folio (photo by Christina Stoever)

Companies like Bookshop.org and Libro.fm have proven that bookworms want an alternative to buying books on Amazon, and The Storygraph is trying to build the next Goodreads.

But Folio lies somewhere in the middle, trying to solve discovery while helping support publishers and independent booksellers at the same time. Right now, Folio has about 200 hand-picked books in stock, including buzzworthy hits like “Detransition, Baby” by Torrey Peters, “Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller and “Crying in H-Mart” by Michelle Zauner.

“We don’t try to have every book in stock. We never will,” said Carroll. “Even if a book is targeted toward my demographic of 18-to-30-year-olds, skewing female, we still scan and pre-select for quality. We will probably never have more than 1,000 different books.”

A lot of Folio’s stock comes directly from publishers, which means that a book will cost, on average, about $18 to $20. “We’re not falling into the Amazon trap of like, let’s try to bring the price down as low as possible. I believe in paying artists for their work, and devaluing books is doing no one any favors,” Carroll says. But other titles are purchased as overstock — that means that if a brick-and-mortar store doesn’t sell all the copies they purchase, the books can be returned to a wholesaler, which then sells at a discount to businesses like Folio.

Folio has only been online since August — Carroll started the company in May this year — but through influencer collaborations, an affiliate program, a book club and its addictive book suggestion quiz, Carroll says the company has developed an enthusiastic consumer base. Though she declined to share sales numbers just yet, she said that about 30% of customers post about their purchase on social media, and the company has many repeat customers.

“We really see ourselves as the Sephora of books,” Carroll says. “You go in, you browse, and there are other options, but you’re not completely overwhelmed. Whatever you get there, someone else has already said, ‘Yes, this is worthwhile.’”

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