Online book-rental business evolves from college experiment to full-time venture

Textbook rental companies are flourishing as college students seek alternatives.

Some may call it “Netflix for textbooks,” but what David Comisford really wants to call his new venture is “successful.”

Frewg — pronounced , not coincidentally, like the first syllable of frugal  — was quietly launched online, evolving from an enterprise that Newark native Comisford developed as a scrappy Capital University undergrad.

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Frewg is an online college-textbook rental business. Students order their textbooks online, then ship back the books when the class ends.

Students pay “about 60 to 70 percent less than the cost of buying, and we offer prepaid return shipping.” Students can buy extensions, or if they decide they want to keep the books, they can pay a purchase price that includes the rental fee.

The Columbus-based business is a spinoff of an enterprise Comisford, now 25, started during college, said Ward Hill, a professor of business and finance at Capital who has taught and advised Comisford.

“When he came to school as a freshman, he recognized that the cost of textbooks was high,” Hill said. “So he did a little research and started a textbook-buying business.”

Comisford was tentative about the venture at first, he said, thinking that “maybe my friends and a few kids would buy them” and “the school might shut me down if it went beyond that.”

But the school didn’t shut him down. And bargain-hunting students quickly made a beeline to his door.

That expanded to other colleges — Otterbein, Ohio Wesleyan and Ohio State universities and Columbus State Community College.

Comisford worked at the venture during his college years and decided to make it his full-time business after he graduated in 2008.

“I thought I’d just do this after I graduated instead of trying to get a job, and I never looked back,” he said.

“He was out in a tent with a portable heater and his laptop,” Hill said. The laptop was useful not only in keeping track of the books, but in helping to set accurate prices — a function developed for him by David Hummel, a recent graduate of the OSU School of Engineering.

That small venture led to the online rental business, Frewg.

“I’ve always been trying to make money here and there,” Comisford said. “I think it was a natural progression.”

Hummel signed on to the enterprise, and he and Comisford invested their own cash to launch it and are seeking more investors to continue to expand.

The business is Comisford’s only job, with Hummel continuing to provide website development and another friend, A.J. Timonere, handling bookkeeping and accounting.

“If you think about it, a lot of kids buy books, then sell them at the end of year,” Comisford said. “That’s like a rental, but the risk is on them. This (Frewg) sort of shifts the risk to us and has a lower upfront cost to students.”

There’s money in the business concept, which isn’t new. Barnes & Noble has a textbook-rental division. and also are major rental companies. reported revenue last year of about $130 million, and reported about $50 million.

The expansion of this industry niche has come so quickly that the National Association of College Stores described 2010 as “the year of the rental.”

“It’s booming, there’s no doubt about that,” said Julie Traylor, the group’s chief of planning and research. “And I’m not sure the market is totally saturated. The reason it has gone in that direction is that it’s all about offering choice. That’s what they’re trying to do, give students a choice.”

The growth has been so dizzying, in fact, that various comparison shopping sites have launched online in the past two years.

Rental sites such as Frewg could eventually pose a problem for publishers, said Malcolm Litchfield, director of Ohio State University Press.

“More power to everyone, but I’m glad I don’t make my living doing textbooks,” he said. “From the publisher’s point of view, it sounds good, but it could be a potential vicious circle.

If sales of textbooks go down, that just forces the price to go higher. Textbooks aren’t expensive because publishers are trying to gouge people, but because they cost a lot of money to produce. If you can’t recoup that cost on sales, it goes in a vicious cycle.”

With plenty of competition, Frewg has developed a strategy for success based on loyalty.

Hill noted Comisford’s cultivation of freshmen and sophomores as clients and his “great relationships with people on the campuses.”

“He has not only a pretty solid Web approach but an early approach to users/renters and a continuing touch with people.”

Frewg is also “looking to make partnerships with Greek organizations on campuses, too,” Comisford said. “We’ll probably pilot that in the spring. Once you establish yourself on campuses, it sets your mark there. It’s not foolproof, but I believe it will work.”

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