Hi, I'm Jeff Sherwood, founder, designer, lead architect and programmer of BIGWORDS.com, the textbook price comparison site. I founded the current site in 2001 after the previous version flamed out at the end of the dot-com bubble.

BIGWORDS.com first launched in 1998 at the beginning of the dot com boom, when 3 friends and I grew the company to 250 people, raised $80M, then flamed out when the bubble burst.

I believed in the brand so much that I bought the domain back from the bankruptcy auction and re-founded the site in 2001 as a price comparison site that I designed and programmed. I figured what students really needed was a site that just cut through all the marketing hype and mumbo-jumbo and really just compares all the options at once.

I'm a successful entrepreneur, a programmer, a would-be designer, and a guerrilla marketer. My favorite color is orange, and I own an original Millennium Falcon.

Ask Me Anything!


Comments: 118 • Responses: 47  • Date: 

leecmyd23 karma

Jeff Sherwood of Sherdog fame?

wwwwizard4 karma

No i don't know that guy. i have nothing to do with that dude.

Fakezaga7 karma

Sure, dawg.

wwwwizard4 karma


twinwood3618 karma

There was an article posted some time ago about how the price of college text books has risen by 1000%, though publishers and sellers claimed law of large numbers, do you believe textbook prices are unfair? What can we do to bring them down? Do you think post-secondary education system within in the US is broken?

wwwwizard25 karma

Textbook prices have been going up at more than twice the rate of inflation since at least the mid-90's. However, that's referring to the retail prices for new books.

Publishers do everything in their power to suppress the used book market - releasing new editions regularly, requiring single use access codes, etc., but the fact is that many times an older edition is adequate. You should always check if the professor has requested a new edition.

But... If there are used copies available, then you can usually find them at 70%-90% off online. The overhead for online book sellers is so much lower than brick and mortar stores, and the competition is so heavy that book discounts are huge.

I do not think the post-secondary education system is broken. I think its expensive and difficult to navigate, but we have the most robust and well-respected system of public and private institutions in the world.

smfaviatrix13 karma

Small question, and a huge thank you.

BigWords has been my god-sent since my first semester. I tell my classmates about it, I sticker around campus, I fuckin love you guys.

I'm also a film student. Wanna shoot a commercial?

wwwwizard6 karma

thanks so much for the compliment!!!

Wowyoureaprick2 karma

I won an iPod Shuffle from you guys a few years ago. So I wanted to say thanks. Thank you!

wwwwizard6 karma

You bet!!!

ThatSpookySJW8 karma

Do textbook manufacturers get upset you are likely costing them money?

wwwwizard44 karma

I really have no idea. Although the National Association of College Stores - that's the lobbying group that represents campus bookstores - did send me an extremely threatening letter demanding I stop saying we save students $1,000 annually on average. I had to go back to the database and prove it to them. Hah! $1,057!

TheCondor36 karma

  1. I LOVE YOUR SITE! I used it all throughout college.

  2. What's the most bought and sold books through your site?

wwwwizard6 karma

Thank you so much!

GE courses, the first year general education courses like Biology and Algebra, Calculus, etc., are the biggest sellers because those books are in use at the most colleges and universities.

bvknight5 karma

I used Bigwords in college every year after the first and saved a ton of money. Thanks for making it!

Recently I've seen a few other websites popping up that provide the same service as Bigwords. With all these competitors, what do you think makes Bigwords the best? And what new features are on the horizon to let you stay ahead of your competitors?

I realize that's basically an opening for you to give me your marketing pitch, haha, but I loved using Bigwords and I'm interested to hear how you plan on keeping the service relevant in the future.

wwwwizard7 karma

We have always innovated, and innovated first.

We have so many technology driven features that make us the most comprehensive price comparison site it's hard to know where to start, but here are a few:

  • multi-item price optimization calculates the cheapest combination of stores to get your stuff out, maximizing coupons and minimizing shipping. MANY times coupons don't kick in until you cross over a threshold. Comparison sites that do one at a time leave a ton of value on the table.

  • "consider buyback pricing" - BIGWORDS compares the cost of renting vs the cost of buying the book now and selling it later. BTW - it's cheaper to buy and sell 95% of the time.

  • support for eBooks, international editions, shipping times, quality of the item being sold, in-stock vs. out-of-stock, and so many other options helps students find exactly the item they need.

sevendoose4 karma

An intriguing business venture, i think you're providing a valuable service, i hope it is worth your while to run the site (and it looks great, BTW). Meanwhile, please tell us more about your original Millennium Falcon? This sounds rad.

wwwwizard8 karma

Well, OK, it's not the original Millennium Falcon, but it is the original Kenner Millennium Falcon toy, and it is on the most coveted shelf in my office, next to the action figures and Return of the Jedi lunch box.

Unfortunately, my original X-Wing met with an untimely end when it was attacked by little green army men who somehow managed to pack it full of firecrackers and maybe just a little gas and light it off in a glorious plume of melted plastic.

trailerparkboyz3 karma


wwwwizard3 karma

There is no question our software could be used to aid purchasing for large companies. Off the subject, we currently aid lots of individuals who are looking to buy and sell books for a profit. The feature is called "consider buyback pricing" and it shows you whether it's better to rent or buy and sell later, and in many cases identifies items that can be sold today for a profit.

I-Am-Dog-2 karma

I have a question!

What has been your key marketing strategy for growing after the bubble burst?

wwwwizard6 karma

On-campus, in person ambassadorship and guerilla marketing tactics.

After I bought the company back from bankruptcy, I didn't have any money to promote the company, so I started gathering street teams - college students who had used BIGWORDS - to help spread the word with flyers and super-balls and now beer-pong (I MEAN PING-PING) balls.

I learned how to layer on additional types of promotion, like newspaper advertising, PR, and even snail mail, coming up with inexpensive strategies for reaching college students on campus.

In 2006, seeing that this approach had a lot of potential to help other companies promote themselves, I started Bigger Markets. The company now has what we believe is the largest network of street teams in the US, reaching over 300 campuses.


Current high school senior, what do you recommend that I do?

I'm going to study pre-med, specifically pre-physical therapy.

wwwwizard3 karma

apply everywhere. visit the schools you get into. attend orientation. live on campus for 2 years. get the GE's out of the way first in case your plan changes. stay in, don't take time off, get it done, you will be better off. um... play hard. study harder. trust and be trustworthy.

spalt2 karma

man, i remember the original bigwords.com circa 1999-2000. the carpet bombing of my campus (UMD) with the stickers, the orange leaflets all over the floor of the classrooms, etc.. I definitely remember it saving me money and time. Do you think the original idea of the site, where you actually sold and repurchased textbooks, would be viable today, maybe moreso than before the dot-com crash? Did the original business die because of lack of interest? Was it the cost of shipping the heavy textbooks both ways?

wwwwizard1 karma

Wow, good questions.

We went out of business because of the investment environment. Basically, VC's pushed dotcoms to grow, grow, grow!!! Get profitable later. Then, in April, 2000, there was a big crash, investors freaked out, and it was as if immediately they changed their directive to "ok, NOW be profitable."

The first BIGWORDS was on its way to profitability, but we were on a 2-3 year time frame. We could not change our entire business model overnight.

Even with shipping, we still saving students about $1K per year by searching the inventories of every good site and maximizing coupons. On-line sellers have vastly more inventory and deeper discounts than brick and mortar.

tomtomtom_22 karma

Where did you learn web design? Are you self-taught in programming or did you have formal education?

wwwwizard2 karma

Totally self-taught. I was in college when the first web browser, NCSA Mosaic, was released. I took to it immediately and learned to code based on view source.

tcg28152 karma

I remember Bigwords.com sponsoring a promotional event at one of my college football team's home games in 1999. They passed out bouncy balls with the company logo on them to everyone in the student section.

The game quickly became a blowout, with the home team on the losing end. Soon, the student section began raining the bouncy balls down upon the field every time the visiting team's quarterback or running back broke away for a big gain. The referees had to stop the game several times to clean up the field, and threatened a forfeit if it happened again. If I remember correctly, the game may have been televised on ESPN2.

Did you or your company ever hear of this? Was there any ramifications for your company for the problems the promotional item caused?

wwwwizard1 karma

We did hear about that! No ramifications.

dgran732 karma

I'm curious if you think open source textbook movements, which seem most prevalent in the areas of hard science, will make some real traction. While your business is doing great things to reduce the cost to students in some ways it still operates off of the standard model of publishers selling books. Can you envision the open textbook becoming disruptive to not only traditional publishers but also your business?

wwwwizard3 karma

Yes! I absolutely think this will be disruptive. Several companies have atempted to create open-sourced textbooks but they haven't quite broken through yet. The difficulty is in competing with publishers. These companies create great textbooks, for nearly no money, but they don't adequately promote these alternatives to college professors. Meanwhile, publishers VERY actively sell their books to professors, convincing them that their book is the best. Because the big publishers have big budgets and big profits (given that their book prices are so high), they have more power to influence the required course materials. It will happen. It's just going to take the right company with the right approach.

inkazak2 karma

Do you like dogs ? What is your view on rescue vs. breeders?

wwwwizard2 karma

Love dogs! My dog's name is Alpha (Dog). Dog is in parentheses. She is a golden beagle. She is model year 2002. She was rescued off death row in Hagerstown Maryland, and through a series of uncanny events now lives in California. Quite a life. I prefer mutts because they're more like me.

inkazak2 karma

SWEEEEEEEEEET. Good job! I work a rescue and we fly dogs from the Middle East to America. I love a travelling rescue story! Good on ya!

wwwwizard2 karma

Don't tell Ted Cruz. And especially don't tell Donald Trump.

DBAY0122 karma

is ur favorite fruit an pineapple?

wwwwizard6 karma

I guess this falls under anything. It's very difficult to decide between pineapples and blackberries.

tomrhod3 karma

The problem with pineapples is they're one of the few fruits that fight back.

wwwwizard2 karma

This is why I always eat pineapples on a pointed stick. my fingers stay clean and it keeps them at bay

NDRoughNeck2 karma

What do you foresee as one of the new big things for tech online? Does your company deal with both digital and printed formats? How do you think students and textbooks will evolve with the advancement of electronics and the so-called digital age?

wwwwizard3 karma

Some of my favorite new innovations are drones and all the ways they may revolutionize mapping, rescue, delivery, and shipping in remote areas. This is part of the internet of things, another area of interest.

But the most exciting thing happening is AI, and Ray Kurzweil being hired at Google to run their Darpa-like artificial intelligence unit.

BIGWORDS compares prices on eBooks, new, used, and rentals. Pretty much any way you can get a book is considered and compared.

FiberNeck1 karma

How did you initially learn to code?

wwwwizard1 karma

I've always been interested in computers. But I taught myself HTML, Perl, then cold fusion, then PHP, then javascript, then all the common frameworks, and Unix administration, mostly out of necessity. I'm completely self-taught. I just figured it out and used the web to learn. Every time I'm presented with a new challenge I look for the best solution, then learn it.

mikeroit1 karma

As a programming student, what advice can you give as far as a career in the tech industry? From a coding stand point, what kinds of things stand out in students from a company's point of view?

wwwwizard1 karma

Learn programming, not just frameworks. It's fine, when given a project, to use off-the-shelf libraries, stitch them together, and create the project. But take the time to read, line by line, what's going on underneath so that you understand the language and ways in which a goal is achieved.

Do your own projects. Too many times, I see resumes of people who have claimed to work on this project or that, but it's very difficult to figure out what that person actually did, vs. what the team did or what was already available in the framework. Doing your own project shows the hirer what you are capable of... and who knows, maybe you'll create something that is in and of itself a product.

Work well in teams, and try to lead the teams. The unfortunate reality is that most programmers can be replaced. Know how to LEAD a team and you will have the ability to move up throughout your career.

Invent and create. Do your own thing. Experiment.

All of programming is people who have innovated and found better ways. See if you can make an impact.

And get involved in whatever open-sourced movement you find interesting. It will help with all of the above.

arpm1 karma

What programming languages/technologies did you use to develop BIGWORDS.com?

wwwwizard3 karma

Whatever's free. Because it's better.

PHP on a Zend Framework MVC architecture. MySQL AJAX (jQuery) Redis Linux Amazon EC2 cloud There's a little PERL in places.

DartyDevil1 karma

What made you interested you into programming and this sector of book market comparison ?

wwwwizard1 karma

In high school I took a proficiency test and they said I was good at science and art. Under the "recommended jobs" section... well, there weren't any :-)

I wanted to do CGI effects. But when the web made its debut I knew I had found exactly what I was looking for.

MHodge971 karma

Would you say that the increasing number of these websites is going to lead to the market price dropping in order to stay competitive?

wwwwizard1 karma

There is no question that more and more companies are figuring out ways to decrease the cost of textbooks. It was only a few years ago that rentals were introduced. But the biggest driver of price drops are the big marketplaces like Amazon and Half.com, who allow tiny little companies with small inventories of books to compete head to head with the largest retailers and distributors. Because they have low overhead (they don't even have a web site!) they can charge less.

FrakkinPhoenix1 karma

What is your favorite sandwich?

wwwwizard1 karma

Katz's delicatessen: pastrami on rye with Swiss cheese and hot mustard. It is the penultimate expression of this already perfect cuisine, and it is the first stop I make every time I'm in New York City.

ilikedirt1 karma

Huh. I know your brother from Montana, I remember him telling me about your company! He was a fun guy. Took me on a birthday drive to see some llamas one time.

I guess my question is, does your family still have that sweet land on the Yellowstone?

wwwwizard1 karma

Yeah, my dad keeps threatening to sell that property and we keep asking them not to. My bro and I had some great parties out there, for sure.

Shaqintosh1 karma

So how do you guys make money? Do you just take part of each sale?

wwwwizard1 karma

Yeah, so the site is free for users to find their books. We get paid a small commission on the sales that we refer to the merchants on our site. However, it's important to note that we don't give any preference to any of our merchants. The site strictly sorts of things based on lowest price.

Ggungabyfish1 karma

Hi, Jeff! If you had to pick, would you get used or new textbooks?

wwwwizard1 karma

Used. Then sell them back for about what you paid. Use a price comparison site both directions.

Ndgtr1 karma

Why is your site so orange?

Granted, it could be my various tracker and cookie blocking addons breaking it.

wwwwizard2 karma

I've been thinking more about this. The site is orange because it's orange, and that's the reason.

Years ago my buddy Leri and I did a job for Steve Jobs. We built a site around the "Think Different" campaign. I was just trying to help. "It's think differentLY," I said, and so I changed all the banners, and launched the site.

Oh, man. Steve was not happy. and if Steve wasn't happy, nobody was happy.

We lost the contract. So fast... I mean we lost the contract 2 weeks before I made the first edit. Yes, it's true, Steve Jobs could actually go back in time and smack you down you before you even pissed him off.

What I learned is that branding is NOT conformist. brand is statement. brand is memorable. Think Different is not correct. It's impactful.

Orange is an acquired taste. I LOVE orange. Orange is bright and inexplicably happy. It's garish yet unassuming. It may not be your favorite color and that's OK. One thing I know for sure is that MANY people comment on the color of the site - that says to me that the color resonates. It's impactful. Originally, it was because school buses are orange and the color stood out. Now, it's just because we are orange.

BIGWORDS is, was, and always will be orange. For better or for worse.

wwwwizard1 karma

The real question is why aren't all sites orange?

The site is orange because orange is perfect.

The site is orange because school buses are orange.

The site is orange because it is intentionally not blue and gray like every other frickin' web site.

The site is orange because it can be!

The site is orange because... It is.

itsTHATgirl1 karma

School busses are yellow though. ;)

wwwwizard3 karma

Ah, common misconception. School buses are FF9900.

AKAlicious1 karma

The pre-bankruptcy Bigwords owed me something like $80. Can I have it back now?

wwwwizard1 karma

Aww, geez. They owed me about $40,000. Man (woman?) it went south. Sorry.

danknissan1 karma

No question just wanted to thank you? Sorry i have to put a ? For my comment not to get deleted

wwwwizard1 karma

You're welcome?

quinsy421 karma

I use your site a lot to rent books each semester so thank you so much! My question is I've noticed some books link sites that are known to be suspicious in terms of renting and if the book even ever gets sent, do you try to limit these sites or do you include every site that distributes textbooks, regardless if they're a scam or not?

wwwwizard1 karma

Great question. We do a couple of things to make sure students are getting the best deal on the right books...

We search the inventory of every big marketplace, but we suppress offers from sellers with less than an 80% positive feedback rating.

We read the comments and suppress copies that are obviously pirated or that are not the right edition of the book being searched.

We regularly suppress merchants that are having customer service (delivery) problems until they get their act together.

We don't list everybody, but sites that specialize in textbooks, have in-stock items, and a great customer service track record.

It's not just about getting the cheapest price, but getting the best price on the right copy that is in good condition and actually shows up in a timely manner.

PaperlessJournalist1 karma

Have you gotten into any trouble with the text book companies? Do they ever give you any hate mail or anything like that?

wwwwizard2 karma

We work with most of the reputable textbook companies, and they love us because we send them business when they have the best prices. not so much with the college bookstores, though :-)

jamori1 karma

At first I thought you were the Coding Stack Exchange/etc guy (Jeff Atwood), but you're not - you just have similar names and are both programmer guys who made cool things.

So have you and he conversed?

wwwwizard2 karma

Nope sorry. But I like his stuff.

Tdk641 karma

What inspired you to start BIGWORDS.com?

wwwwizard2 karma

In a word, or in an acronym, USC. I went to school in the 90s, and stood on line for three hours in order to buy badly damaged used copies of the overpriced textbooks that I needed, from the only source that was available, the college bookstore. When Amazon and other online ventures started, it became obvious that we could do a lot better. But nobody out there was cutting through the marketing hype and showing you where to buy stuff! Everybody was just trying to make you believe they had the best prices. So I thought to make a price comparison engine which brought all these companies together in one spot and let them compete on a price basis. Service levels are fairly easy easy to achieve, and discounting part of your catalog while raising the prices on other portions of your catalog is an easy sales ploy to get people in the door. But a price comparison site cuts through all of that and just shows people the best deals. College students are poor, even if they're from Rich families! Every little bit helps. A price comparison site helps you to save on every book that you need to buy, not just a loss leader that gets you in the door.

azakd1 karma

I've used BIGWORDS a few times with great success and tell everybody I know about the site. Much thanks for the site! A few questions if you don't mind:

  1. Other than getting BIGWORDS out of debt, what was the biggest obstacle into launching and maintaining a site such as yours?

  2. What advice can you give to people who want to become a successful entrepreneur such as yourself?

  3. Will you be late for your 11 o'clock workout?

Thanks for your time Jeff!

wwwwizard1 karma

The biggest challenge is of course getting enough people to enjoy the site that they begin to tell others, and that in turn creates the kind of virtuous cycle you need to become a popular site on the net. I have always looked at engineering as marketing, as I would rather develop new features that people talk about and spread the message organically, rather than spend money running advertising to get a few people to know about the site.

My advice to new entrepreneurs is: get it done and out there in a good form, but don't keep iterating to create the absolute perfect product. I've been working on this... wait a second who am I? I'm nobody... Bill Gates has been working on his thing for 30 years and its still far from perfect. The point is recocgnize and respect the 80/20 rule. You spend 20% of your time making something that 80% complete, and the other 80% trying to achieve the last 20%. Get it good not perfect, and get it out there. Then, not to be lazy... listen to your customers and innovate, and change your product.

I have had several projects that went south because we kept trying to make it perfect before we released it. You run out of steam, money, interest, etc., if you go that way. Get your basic product out there in the mainstream, with monetization, and build from there.

3.) yes, most likely.

ytyno1 karma

So what's your favorite coding language ??

Do you still use it now ?

wwwwizard2 karma

Php, and yes I use it, but I've adopted the Zend Framework to make rapid application development go smoothly.

beebish1 karma

Hi jeff,

Im friends with your brother Randy, and was a small part of the big words bus tour about 10 years ago or so. (It actually changed my life, with some of the people that bus collected)

Can you tell me anything embarrassing or hilarious about Randy as a child?


wwwwizard3 karma

He once mistook a tick for a raisin. And he freaked out when he couldn't swat it off (like you do when raisins attack).

beebish1 karma

Haha thats awesome. My mission now is to secretly stick a raisin to him somehow and then exclaim, "damn dude thats a massive tick on your leg!" and see what happens.

Thanks for answering! Im pretty sure I still have a couple of those yellow bigwords bouncy balls floating around. Big Words is great, thanks for doing this ama.

wwwwizard2 karma

Yeah. It wasn't on his leg.

wwwwizard1 karma

mookdaruch1 karma

How does the site, an aggregator designed to save people money, that doesn't have noticeable ads profit?

wwwwizard2 karma


Lol just kidding. The service is completely free, but we make a small percentage of every sale that we refer. It's important to understand that we do not give any merchant preference based on how much they pay us. We always sort all of our recommendations based on lowest price, period.

wheres_my_vestibule1 karma

Your website provides a fantastic service and it has saved me a lot of money. Thank you.

Do you think textbook rentals will soon dominate the market? It seems like it's less effort than to buy and sell used.

wwwwizard2 karma

No, I don't. I think that rentals are great for first run books, when there are no used copies available. But as soon as there are used copies, we have found through our research that is basically always (95% of the time) cheaper to buy the cheapest copy (using a price comparison site so you're sure) then selling for the highest value (using a price comparison site).

rentals are great because they are easy. BUT, basically what they are doing is charging you for the projected depreciation of the book over the semester PLUS A MARGIN. Thus, by their definition, it's better to buy and sell if your first concern is saving the most money.

BIGWORDS compares all rental sites and a LOT of our referrals go to rental sites. but we also created a feature called "consider buyback value" to help you understand all your options.

Ratiphex0 karma

Who had the bright idea to use Tom Green for commercials? Those ranked up there in a personal list of most irritating ads.

wwwwizard1 karma

You stole my banana!!!