As a nonprofit social enterprise, More Than Words empowers nearly 400 Boston-area young people ages 16-24 -- who are in the foster care system, court-involved, out-of-school or homeless -- to take charge of their lives by taking charge of a business. The young people run a successful $4M bookstore, which includes a brick-and-mortar store and eBay e-commerce bookselling operation, and leverage the business to develop critical skills and hit measurable, positive outcomes in education, work and life.
Q: Where does the inspiration for your business come from?
A: I started More Than Words in 2004 with a pile of books found on the side of the road, four young people from a group home, a 150-square-foot office space, and a computer to list books online. Today, More Than Words is a job training and youth development program. Every book that moves through our operations provides a variety of skill building opportunities for young people, from processing the book through our inventory management software, listing it accurately online, fulfilling the order to answering customer inquiries, and monitoring aggregate business data.
We work with especially vulnerable young people in the Greater Boston area. At More Than Words they earn a paying wage and work approximately 20 hours per week learning critical customer service, technology, inventory management and leadership skills. As a nonprofit, our mission and our young people are the owners of More Than Words, and they are the inspiration for our business.
Q: How has selling on eBay contributed to your success?
A: eBay has been a huge part of our sales strategy since we opened our doors in 2004. Our young people run a big business that generates over 50 percent of our program costs, a huge milestone for a nonprofit like us!
But the impact of eBay extends far beyond our financial bottom line. eBay is an incredible model for balancing customer and seller support. Our young people have learned valuable skills through answering customer service emails, looking at sales metrics, and day-to-day interaction with the eBay support team. The skills that drive success on eBay drive success in business and employment overall, making it a particularly effective tool for training young people.
Q: How has eBay allowed you to give back to the charity, community, or cause you are passionate about?
A: More Than Words is a social enterprise — we use business to advance a mission. Our work selling on eBay is the backbone of our operation, helping vulnerable young people gain concrete skills and see that their actions matter in this world. There is something incredibly tangible and empowering about taking a book, listing it on eBay, and then coming back the next day to see that someone else has bought it.
Too often, programs for disconnected youth focus on remediating their problems rather than treating them as part of their own solution. By contrast, we often say we’re not just in the book business, we’re in the "mattering" business. Our business helps young people realize that they matter, reclaim a sense of self, and chart their own path to success. When young people work in an environment of success and compassionate accountability day-after-day, they are empowered to take charge of their lives.
Q: How has selling on eBay impacted your life?
A: Work really WORKS. After a habit-forming, skill-building 6-12 months in the More Than Words program, our graduates go on to achieve measurable, positive outcomes in education, work, and life. Few of the young people who come to MTW are employed or have a high school diploma. Afterward, 90 percent are productively engaged in work or school at least 15 hours per week! 94 percent have or are on track to receive their high school diploma and 82 percent are now working.
In the words of Olivia, one of our graduates:
“More Than Words isn’t like other programs. It has good vibes. I loved working in the store and giving tours to volunteer groups. I learned leadership and communication skills — being able to get in front of a group of people and direct them. As a shift leader on shifts selling books online I had to think on my feet and stay calm, cool and collected under pressure. I’m now at Northeastern as a biology major. I plan to go to medical school, study pathology, and become a medical examiner. No one expects much from kids like me, but at More Than Words, we’re breaking every stereotype and taking control of lives we previously thought were out of control. I’m proof that youth like me can be so much more!”
Q: How has selling in one space supported the other (e.g. selling online supporting your physical store or vice versa)?
A: Our original business model was built exclusively upon online sales. We have since added brick-and-mortar locations, and currently operate two retail bookstores. The majority of our sales are still made online, but our bookstores offer a suite of skill building opportunities for young people, such as in-person customer service, managing a cash register, marketing sale days, and making creative product displays.
Q: What is your favorite eBay tool/program?
A: Our favorite eBay tools are promoted listings and promotions. We made over $87,000 from promoted listings alone since we started using them earlier this year!