A fascinating story of Seni Glaister, the Founder of Litalist

8 March 2022

Seni Glaister, the Founder of Litalist and WeFiFo, shares her entrepreneurship story and advice to fellow female entrepreneurs on International Women’s Day 2022

finerva founders : Clients, COVID-19 and Leadership

Last week, our Marketing Specialist Agne Petrauskaite interviewed Seni Glaister, Founder of Litalist and WeFiFo as well as an author of The Museum of Things Left Behind (2015), Mr Doubler Begins Again (2019), and Growing Season (2020). We’ve met Seni when helping Litalist with their accounting and we’re fascinated to hear her entrepreneurship story.

Litalist was founded by Seni in September 2020. It is an online platform, designed to help readers make recommendations, discover more books and to help everyone buy books locally and ethically. Before that, Seni also founded WeFiFo, an online platform that enables enthusiastic home cooks, Supper Club hosts and professional chefs to share their food with paying guests. Both of her recent businesses have interesting stories on their own and yet that is not all to Seni’s story as a Founder.

You have a lot of entrepreneurship experience in several industries – tell us your story of how all of it started and your motivation behind it

At the age of 21, I co-founded The Book People, a business I was very proud of. But my love affair with books began even earlier than that. One way or another I’ve been involved in books throughout my life: as a reader, a collector, a bookseller and most recently as the author of three novels. When I exited The Book People, I founded a supper club platform called WeFiFo. Food is as important to me as books, and I think they are similarly vital in many ways, so going from books to cooks wasn’t as big a leap as you’d imagine. By 2019, WeFiFo had been through some successful accelerators and raised investment from both individuals and institutions. We were working with some superb commercial partners and had gathered a pretty impressive army of some of the country’s best chefs, including talented home cooks, highly respected restauranteurs, and much-loved celebrities. We were really gathering momentum… and then Covid struck.

Honestly, I can’t imagine a business less suited to a global pandemic. We could have pivoted to an online substitute but the element I felt most passionately about was the sharing of food around communal tables, particularly as we were bringing a lot of solo-diners together, and I think this was a big part of the purpose behind the business. So, rather than delivering a second-rate version of our platform, we took the decision with our investors to mothball the business and relaunch the minute it was safe, responsible, and commercially viable to do so.

What’s the story of behind founding Litalist?

It turned out, I’m not very comfortable sitting on my hands! I’ve worked hard building businesses since I was 17 and lockdown prompted me to turn my attention back to books, so I began to think about some of the problems I was facing both as an author and as a reader. The problems I identified, whilst compounded by the pandemic, were fundamental. Amazon was great if you knew what you wanted to read, but sub-optimal if you wanted to be inspired. It was discoverability that I wanted to solve, not just during this period of crisis, but for the long term.  And I wanted to come up with a future proofing service that would help everyone in the bookselling ecosystem in the event of any other unseen interruption to the supply chain.

In the meantime, I was really inspired by the burgeoning sense of community in our local area and was encouraged that so many people were valuing their local amenities where previously they might have taken them for granted. My family and I live on the outskirts of a small Sussex village but despite our rural location, we are very well served by our local butcher, brewery, baker, and bookseller… between them, they did an excellent job of keeping us nourished during lockdown. So, I began to think about how the independents could continue to thrive when the fickle consumer – that is, all of us – flipped back to their bad old habits when they didn’t need their local suppliers any more. And I’m always concerned by the motivation of some of the marketplace solutions. They can feel like a lifeline in the short term but in the wrong hands, the small businesses can eventually lose out, potentially terminally, so I began to think about how to scale these individual efforts in a way that wouldn’t cannibalize their business by relinquishing control to the umbrella brand. 

At the same time, it was really exciting to witness the resurgence that physical booksellers were enjoying during the pandemic, but I wanted to address some of the problems I was facing as an author. With 160,000 books published in the UK every year, and with no big marketing budget to ensure I was visible on Amazon, how could I find an audience for my books? Like a lot of my booky friends, I knew that Amazon was not good for British business, for our high streets, for many authors, or for readers who weren’t sure what to read next. So, I began to dream of an online bookshop that could address a number of these different problems at once. I used my experience of building market-place solutions and my thirty years of bookselling knowledge to build a platform that would encourage readers to discover new books, allow readers to buy them easily online but to collect them from their local bookseller.

What is your vision for Litalist?

In the most simplistic terms, Litalist is an online community for people looking for an ethical alternative to Amazon. It’s a place to recommend your favourite books so other readers can enjoy them; to discover new books you’ve not heard of before; and to keep a permanent, visual record of everything you’ve read and loved. Authors use it to talk about their own books or the books that inspired them, bloggers use it to share the books they’re most excited about, readers use it to browse the shelves and – most importantly – book shops use it to present a digital shop window to an audience that is as comfortable online as it is on the high street.

And we’re already seeing amazing traction! I’ve been told the platform is ‘addictive’ and ‘a bibliophile’s dream’. Readers have had thousands of visitors to their personal libraries and are using the like, share and pin functions very instinctively. And all of this makes me enormously happy. But the real joy comes from seeing it used as I had originally conceived: Readers can hit the discover button and follow threads – users, tags, books, or bookshelves, to properly browse the site, flitting from one recommendation to another, adding shelves to their own library or books to their own wish list.  We wanted to make the journey feel as close to wandering amongst the shelves of a beautifully curated bookshop as possible. And I think we’ve achieved that. Readers are already buying books inspired by other readers so we’re fulfilling our purpose of making it easy (and fun) to discover more books you’re likely to love.

What are the main obstacles you faced when establishing your Litalist (or other businesses), especially during the pandemic and how did you overcome them?

I’m fortunate so far in that I’ve only encountered obstacles, not barriers. You can always find a way around an obstacle, or simply take a deep breath and climb over it. I don’t like being told ‘no’ but of course, there’s nothing more motivating than that, so when it happens, I tend to raise my eyebrows and move quickly on! The pandemic was particularly challenging on every level because whilst I might have felt compelled to keep pushing forwards, there is no denying it was an extremely hard time for absolutely everyone, whether emotionally, mentally, physically or financially, so I tried to be sensitive to that. And we are resourceful, aren’t we? We all adapted to a new way of doing business and I ended up working with investors I’d only met through zoom. I’m yet to share a cup of coffee with them, which is very new for me as I definitely like to get to know the people I work with, but we’ve all adapted. From a time-management perspective, back-to-back zooms with no travel in between are a pretty efficient use of time and if you’re working from home then de-stressing can be much easier as you can switch from one task to another, personally I reach for a chainsaw!

As a founder of multiple businesses, how do you juggle it all at once?

I used to think I had an exceptionally good work ethic but during the pandemic I began to understand that a requirement for forward momentum, particularly the need to build things and problem solve, is actually a compulsion, so I am trying to remember that I am probably not always that fun to live with!  I have always chosen to be busy, even if that choice makes my life more complex, and even if it involves a degree of sacrifice. But I’ve always found those choices have led to a much more interesting life. I’m very lucky in that I’m happiest when I’m working so I tend to multi-task out of choice. And I’m lucky, too, that I love what I do so it never really feels like a burden. 

What are your top tips/advice for founders who are starting on their journey?

I’ll give you three…

  1. Say yes more than no when you’re building and no more than yes as soon as you can afford to. 
  2. Don’t ask people to follow you if you don’t know where you’re going and be prepared to go on your own if they don’t like the sound of the destination.
  3. Surround yourself with people smarter than you are. 

Being a woman in tech, perceived as a male predominant sector, what advice would you offer fellow female entrepreneurs?

It’s not just a perception, it’s a fact. Both tech and the investors that support tech start-ups are hugely male dominated and statistically the odds are still very much stacked against us women. I’ve encountered casual sexism and direct discrimination throughout my career, but things are improving, I promise! When I first started out, I knew women that hid the fact they were mothers, in order to get ahead with their careers, which feels impossible to imagine now.  

But, you do have to be thick skinned. You are going to have to learn to cope with rejection. You will feel crushed and you’ll think they’re wrong and you’re right and it’s unfair. And I don’t have a panacea for any of that. So, I suppose I would advise fellow female entrepreneurs to keep pitching their ideas until they find their people, and they’ll know them when they meet them. The right people will be so bewitched by your idea and your passion for your business that your gender is irrelevant, and they will be so intoxicated by the realisation you’re going to make them a lot of money, that they’ll listen carefully and demonstrate they’re smart enough to join your team. If your business is good enough, you’ll end up with a choice of investors so make sure you choose the ones that can add value as you start out but that you can imagine wanting to celebrate with in the future.