Alexandra Stroe & Iulia Ghiță, Bookster's Co-CEOs, on Lifelong Education, Business Challenges and Habit-Building Books
The Romania-based start-up was launched in 2013 and has an interesting business model. It’s a subscription-based platform that works like this: Bookster team selects the best books in the world, providing access to more than 80,000 books (yeap!), and they deliver those books to their customers’ offices, based on a subscription offered by the employer. Besides books, the subscription includes access to articles and videos, free delivery to the office, but also internal communication campaigns that promote quality reading.
Bookster has been well received by over 65,000 readers and it quickly became the preferred employee benefit. It’s currently used by more than 700 companies in Romania (if you take public transit, you’ll surely spot the stickers that mark all the books borrowed from their library).
The company was started by Alexandra Stroe together with Bogdan Georgescu (no longer involved in Bookster’s operations). Iulia Ghiță began as a content manager at Bookster, and then took the co-CEO role together with Alexandra.
We’re big fans of Bookster, as we have overlapping goals: Bookster encourages quality reading, personal and professional development through books, so today’s double-interview has been on my ‘bucked list’ ever since The CEO Library was born!
In our book-talk, Alexandra and Iulia share the books that helped them think, work, and sleep better, and also their reading habits, note-taking system, key aspects about their business and industry, and many more.
What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.
Alexandra: My favourite business book is The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. I think this book is the one that helped us find a viable business model for Bookster by testing different hypotheses and pivoting when needed. We still use the knowledge from this book in everyday projects. You would hear colleagues asking in the office: how does an MVP (minimum viable product) look like? Did you apply the Build-Measure-Learn theory? What is your value proposition? I recommend this book to anyone starting a business or even starting any kind of project.
One of my favorite non-business books is When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin D. Yalom. His books combine psychotherapy, philosophy and science fiction and they address issues like death, growing old, love and the meaning of life in a very honest way. Many of his books give you an insight into the conversations between the psychotherapist and his patients and the interaction between them is always human and sincere. The therapist makes mistakes, sometimes says the wrong thing and this makes the story exciting and extremely real.
Iulia: My favorite business book is Scaling Up by Verne Harnish; and people hear me talking about it all the time. It’s the book that helped us grow Bookster into what it is today: 65,000 readers in over 700 companies. Scaling Up is not an easy read, it has a lot of very specific information, much like a handbook for your own business. I keep Scaling Up on my desk and even though I’ve read it time and again, every time I open it I find new insights and information I may have overlooked the previous times.
On the non-business side, I like Milan Kundera’s books with his philosophical digressions that sometimes remind me of my own dilemmas, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being as my favourite. I find Kundera’s stories awfully sad, but yet so real, so close to human nature. I admit, I’m not a fan of happy endings, I prefer thought provoking endings.
Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell us about it?
Alexandra: I agree with the saying “routine sets you free” and I am trying to bring some daily habits into my life, such as meditation, that would help me stay balanced and present in everyday moments. One of the books that helped me understand more about the practice of meditation is The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness by Andy Puddicombe. After reading this book, I understood that meditation does not have to be some sacred, difficult practice that lasts for hours on end. It’s enough to dedicate 10 minutes a day in order to relax and get at ease with my thoughts and emotions.
Iulia: I’m not a morning person and all my life I’ve struggled with waking up early Monday to Friday, and sleeping until noon during the weekends and then waking up with my head in a whirl. The book that really helped me overcome this bad habit was Sleep by Nick Littlehales. It has two simple rules: wake up every day at the same hour and sleep in 90 minutes cycles. I’m still not a morning person and never will I be, but these simple habits helped me sleep less, but rest more.
What books had the biggest impact on you? Perhaps changed the way you see things or dramatically changed your career path.
Alexandra: I read many books that actually had an impact on my life – both business and non-business ones. Even some fiction books can carry important lessons if you keep your mind open. One of the books that I remember right now and which I wholeheartedly recommend is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. The author talks about two types of mindsets: a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset”. A “fixed mindset” means that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static, therefore we cannot change them in any meaningful way. The “fixed mindset” encourages striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenges and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as an opportunity for growth and broadening our existing abilities. While we were growing up, we were encouraged to always look for the right answer and to avoid failure. This book helped me realize that failures are actually opportunities for learning. It gave me courage to take on new projects and be more open to admitting when I make mistakes.
Iulia: I try to take something from every book I read and the person I am today is, partly, the result of the books I’ve read. I’ve always been a passionate reader, but I clearly remember the first book I read from the Bookster library: How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen. Christensen’s writings are so powerful that they make you rethink your life and your business strategies. How Will You Measure Your Life? taught me that it’s easier to hold on to my principles 100% of the time than it is to hold on to them 98% of the time. Made me realize there is no “just this once” in life.
What books would you recommend to young people interested in entrepreneurship, management and leadership? Why?
Alexandra: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur and Zero to One by Peter Thiel when they are in the starting phase of a business that needs to validate its business model.
The Lean Startup taught us how to validate our business assumptions using small batches and MVPs and, most valuable of all, how to learn something from every failure.
Scaling Up helped us align and organize Bookster. I believe it’s a must read for every company that wants to grow fast.
On the leadership side, my favorite concept is Jim Collins’ “Level 5 Leadership” from Good to Great. Level 5 Leaders look out the window when things go well, to find the reason for success or progress. At the same time, they look in the mirror when things go poorly, taking responsibility, never blaming bad luck.
We’re interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? What format do you prefer? Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?
Alexandra: I try to read daily. When I’m in the office, that’s easy because we have a reading break for half an hour every day (from 12:00 to 12:30), when we get away from our desks, find a cozy spot in our office, grab a book and read in silence. I mostly read when I travel or when I am on holiday, usually several books at the same time (typically a business book and a non-business book). I prefer the classic, hard copy format – I also have the privilege of being able to go in the Bookster library and choose from 85.000 books. I regularly write down the ideas I like the most from a book – in order to mark my favorite paragraphs, I use colored sticky labels.
Iulia: At Bookster we have a half an hour reading break that helps me save time for reading every day. The reading break is also an important part of the Bookster culture – a culture of curiosity and learning. We practice what we preach and every day at 12 o’clock every member of the team grabs a book and enjoys the 30 minutes reading break. I prefer reading hard copies because I like the way the pages feel and I also find it easier to browse through the book when I want to read again a certain paragraph; and, of course, because Bookster makes them readily available for me.
What are things that other people spend way too much time doing that you generally stay away from?
Alexandra: I try not to watch TV – I only use it to watch movies on Netflix. I try not to spend time in traffic – I live nearby the office and I try to avoid rush hours. I mostly do online shopping (for groceries, clothes etc) and that also saves a lot of time.
Iulia: I don’t know what other people spend way too much time doing, but I try to stay away from the TV. I haven’t had a TV for 5 years now. Also, I’ve uninstalled the Facebook app from my phone when I realized that I was checking my Facebook account every time I had a small break.
How do you make sure you retain and apply as much information from what you read? What’s your current note-taking system?
Alexandra: I write down in my notebook the ideas I like most from a good book. Sometimes, after reading a book, I browse it again really fast in order to focus on the most important parts. Nevertheless, the best way to retain information from a book I read is to talk about it with others. Every Wednesday we have a half an hour presentation about a book in our office (the event is called Read’n’Learn and is hosted weekly by a different member of our team). When my turn comes, I pick a book and try to summarize the most important chapters from it. The preparation of the presentation actually helps me keep in mind the main ideas and think about how I can apply what I just read in the best way possible.
Iulia: I always have a notebook next to me when I read and I write down the main ideas. This helps me better digest the information while reading. As a result, I also end up with a structured brief that I can quickly read whenever I need to refresh my memory on a certain topic. Besides, I use these notes for our weekly event – Read’n’Learn. It’s a learning experience both for the audience and for the speaker, who gets to exercise public speaking and deliver the best presentation.
How do you choose what books to read next? How do you filter them in the first place and decide what’s worthy of your attention? Do you leave any room for serendipity – impulsive shopping and reading? And what happens if you really dislike a book?
Alexandra: There are several ways in which I choose my books. Sometimes I just hear about a great book from my friends or colleagues or from the Read’n’Learn presentations. I also read articles about what other famous people such as Bill Gates or Warren Buffett recommend in terms of reading. Other times I just research titles for my specific need at the time. Before I start reading, I usually look for reviews or summaries so I can have a better idea about the book. Nevertheless, If I really dislike a book, I just stop reading it.
Iulia: There was a time when I thought there’s not one book in this world that I wouldn’t find something enjoyable about. However, now that I am more aware of the time constraint, I tend to be very careful with what I read. If I can’t find value in a book, I quickly put it away.
I choose books based on my priorities – what I need to improve at a certain time and mostly rely on trustworthy recommendations and reviews. That’s why I find the Bookster recommendation algorithm to be very useful – the entire content of the Bookster website is personalized based on users’ preferences and interests. That’s how, from the thousands of titles in the library, Bookster chooses to show me what’s relevant for my reading interests.
With the jobs market more and more unstable and insecure, lifelong education is key. At the same time, learning resources are becoming increasingly commoditized and know-how also becomes obsolete faster. What fundamental skills, those that will always matter, do you believe should be learned in schools?
Alexandra: The barriers for understanding and rapidly accessing new fields are indeed coming down at an exponential rate. What used to take several months or even years of study within a formal education system is now being democratized, with digital resources available at scale for anyone willing to invest the time and effort. As such, old teaching paradigms will evolve, from a knowledge / know-how transfer process towards a cognitive centered process, scalable in supporting the student’s inevitable transition between different fields, roles, industries. Here I’m talking primarily about emotional and intellectual skills: critical reasoning, inter-personal interaction and cooperation, empathy, creativity, problem solving, cultural acceptance, leadership, sustainability.
Iulia: Lifelong education is, indeed, key. Learning does not end with school and I find Bookster to be a useful companion. In my opinion, the most valuable asset nowadays is our network, i.e. the people we know; and not only in business, but in all aspects of life. Our happiness depends on the quality of people surrounding us. That’s why I think schools should encourage children to develop their skill of building powerful and meaningful relationships with other people.
A decade ago, I was working in the music business during a major transitional period: streaming platforms were emerging and the old gatekeepers (record labels and other organizations representing the recording industry) were trying to control the digital medium, opposing technological changes. Of course, their attempts to control how people want to consume music didn’t work, and they happened anyways. What similar challenges are you facing with publishers and regulations specific to the book industry?
Alexandra: We don’t face any challenges in regards to publishers and specific regulations of the book industry – Bookster is a public library and operates accordingly. When we first started the project, one of the early ideas was to have e-books in our library – it would have saved us the logistics hassle. Unfortunately, the demand for e-books in Romania is very low. Even in more developed countries the demand for e-books is still low. For example, Amazon started to open brick-and-mortar bookstores in the US in order to give people an opportunity to discover new books.
Iulia: Bookster is a public library lending hard copy books and the regulations allow and encourage this kind of activity. However, for entities not authorized as public libraries it’s impossible to lend books legally under the current legal framework.
In the realm of e-books lending there is a legislative void in the EU, probably also due to the fact that currently there is no real e-books market (it’s less than 5% even in the most developed European countries).
What business challenges currently keep you up at night?
Alexandra: I have learned that people are the most important aspect of a business. As such, I am now mostly focused on building Bookster’s employer branding image in order to attract the best candidates and improve our selection process by correctly assessing them. I also want to constantly discover innovative ways to keep my colleagues happy and motivated.
Iulia: Finding the best people is the main challenge for us as we believe this is a crucial aspect of a business. As Jim Collins said in Good to Great: first, get the right people on the bus. Luckily, great people are drawn to Bookster because of the social impact of our project. They’re eager to make a change and to contribute to the lifelong education of people. But Bookster grows very fast, and so we have job openings all the time.
Links where you can find out more about Bookster and/or connect with Alexandra Stroe and Iulia Ghiță:
All books mentioned by Alexandra Stroe and Iulia Ghiță in our interview:
- The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries
- When Nietzsche Wept, by Irvin D. Yalom
- Scaling Up, by Verne Harnish
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kunedra
- The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness, by Andy Puddicombe
- Sleep, by Nick Littlehales
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck
- How Will You Measure Your Life?, by Clayton Christensen
- Business Model Generation, by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur
- Zero to One, by Peter Thiel
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz
- Measure what Matters, by John Doerr
- Good to Great, by Jim Collins