In 2016, when he was a graduate student, doing a masters in entrepreneurship at the Judge Institute in Cambridge, Gauthier Van Malderen had a eureka moment. He was listening to music on his phone using Spotify, and watching films on Netflix, but he was struggling to buy textbooks or find them in the library when he needed one. Surely, he thought, it must be possible to access books in the same way I access music, film or data? Easily and cheaply, anywhere, any time. But, he realised, there was no subscription service for books. Thus was born Perlego (Latin for “I read through” or “I scan”), the Spotify of textbooks. Van Malderen even went on to write his thesis on the subject, “Why the Old Textbook Model is Broken”.
There is a scandal, verging on a scam, in the realm of textbooks. Since 1982, the price of textbooks has risen at three times the rate of inflation. Some figures depict a tenfold increase. As if students didn’t have enough trouble already with tuition fees. They would be justified in feeling it’s a rip-off, up there with secondary ticketing for gigs and flights to Madrid when there’s a Champions League Cup Final on. Perlego aims to make learning accessible, without perhaps killing off libraries completely. “Students can still go to the library to study,” says its CEO and co-founder Van Malderen.
Gauthier Van Malderen, 26, was born in Belgium, lived in Henley-on-Thames as a kid, and was an undergraduate in economics and management at Bocconi University in Milan. His dad is in banking and his parents expected him to go into finance. “They nearly had a heart attack when I mentioned textbooks online.” They’ve swung around since. Van Malderen the younger is really responding to student need. When he was still an undergraduate he noticed that most students were using notepads so he set up a business producing very classy notepads, called Iconic Matter (“made by students for students”) with advertising from big companies at the bottom of the page, selling them in Belgium, Switzerland and Morocco. He made enough money out of that scheme to launch Perlego, together with backing from the founder of Zoopla, Alex Chesterman.
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