Balancing the Grind with Elisabeth Sanson, Co-Founder of Ourlit

In this interview, we sit down with Elisabeth, the founder of Ourlit, to discuss her unique transition from environmental research to entrepreneurship. Elisabeth shares the lightbulb moment that led to creating Ourlit, a community-focused platform for sharing preloved books. 

She talks candidly about the challenges and triumphs of developing a local book marketplace, balancing work and personal life, and her strategies for competing in the digital era. Elisabeth also offers insights into the sustainability of Ourlit’s business model and gives advice to budding entrepreneurs. 

Elisabeth, what was the defining moment that shifted your path from pursuing a PhD in environmental research to founding Ourlit, and how did your research background influence this decision?

Shortly after moving to Sydney in Nov 2022, I was chatting with some of the ladies in my run club about how hard it is to access a good selection of affordable preloved books! It took too long at op shops and Facebook groups to find a book I wanted.

I bought a few books online and they were so expensive, shipped from overseas, and took a long time to arrive. It seemed like such a waste of money and emissions when there was likely someone in my community with a book they would love to sell collecting dust in their garage. Once we had the idea – I became obsessed. The only thing I can compare it to is falling in love. It’s all I could think about. Once the idea took root I had to see it through. 

My research background is in environmental studies! I feel most at home outside in natural spaces and always knew I would want to spend a good part of my life working towards environmental preservation. A lot of the reason Ourlit excites me so much is because of the potential to reduce emissions by bringing people together.

Can you share some insights into the early stages of Ourlit’s development, particularly the challenges you faced in creating a local book marketplace and how you overcame them?

I love solving problems! The largest design and development challenge has been integrating payments to create a seamless experience for buyers and sellers.

We decided to partner with the world-class payment provider Stripe, so sellers get earnings sent directly to their bank account and buyers can pay directly through Ourlit. Luckily I have an incredible co-founder and gifted engineer, Will Smith, who was able to tackle the complex problems that came with integration. 

Finding work/life balance and managing the stress that comes with being a small, bootstrapped team with big dreams and a lot on the line.   

With the digital era reshaping how people read and buy books, what strategies are you implementing at Ourlit to attract and retain customers who are used to instant access and vast digital selections?

Through innovative features like Surprise Me, genre browsing, filters, and exciting categories you can connect with a book you’re excited to read very quickly. My personal fav is the Surprise Me feature which can help you find a book you’ll be interested in. 

On e-books versus physical – In a world where so much of our time is increasingly being spent in front of screens, a print book allows us to get away from that pull and find a healthy, relaxing escape. The smell of fresh paper, the crisp feel of turning a page, the physical act of opening a book – no e-book can ever replace that. It’s why when you walk down the beach you see so many readers, print books in hand. 

In creating Ourlit, how did you address the balance between making books affordable and accessible while also ensuring the sustainability of your business model?

What we found in our interviews with readers is that integrated payments were really important to the community. Readers want a secure way to pop in their credit card and pay when they buy a book and receive earnings right to their bank account after completing a sale. Once we decided to partner with Stripe to securely integrate payments, we had our business model – a simple service fee. 

That way Ourlit is free to use! You can list as many books as you want for free and you only get charged once a book is sold. A 20% service fee is charged on the total book price (no fee will be charged for shipping cost). 

I love this model as well because it puts us on the same team as our community! 

So many tech products work to swindle or be sneaky with subscriptions that are hard to cancel (i.e., hoping customers will get a free trial, forget to cancel and be paying the company for months). Or like gyms where they are actively rooting for you not to workout but to sign up. 

With our business model, if the seller wins by selling their book, the buyer wins by getting a great new read, the overall community wins as waste is reduced, and that’s where we also generate our revenue. 

As an entrepreneur, how do you manage the demands of running a start-up like Ourlit while maintaining your personal interests and well-being?

Taking mid-day breaks to exercise outside – like surfing and running and seeing shows with friends. Even with those strategies – putting all of myself into Ourlit and working pretty insane hours has taken its toll at times. That’s where mindfulness has been really helpful. I’ve realised that some level of stress is unavoidable when you care so much and have a lot on the line. I’m working on trying to sit with that stress, be ok with it, and channel it into productivity. Having an incredible co-founder helps as well!

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs who are passionate about solving a problem but might be hesitant to take the leap into starting their own business?

If you are extremely passionate about solving the problem, care deeply about who you are building for, and are ready to work – take that leap. I think it’s the things in life we don’t do that we end up regretting the most and life is too short. 

Looking ahead, what are your long-term visions for Ourlit, and how do you plan to evolve the platform to meet changing consumer needs and environmental challenges?

We are a community built on feedback and have thought deeply about every UX flow by chatting with readers during the design phase. We have big dreams and lots of ideas, but when it comes down to it what we create will depend on what our community wants.

Early on we did a preview launch to 200 book lovers around AUS and started a running list of desired features. We’re going to keep updating that and based on weekly feedback from readers and using it to inform what we build and talking to community members frequently about their experience.

About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.