“A product like ours is fundamentally trying to focus on celebration and love of reading, and getting you to read more,” said Felix Brandon Lloyd, co-founder and CEO of Zoobean, describing his education technology solution Beanstack. “Voice can help us to identify and track this reading, and it can also potentially check real engagement with the book, and I’m excited about what it could be as we go down this road.”
Lloyd is an award-winning educator who, together with his co-founder and wife Jordan Lloyd Bookey, has been helping to nurture lifelong reading habits with their Washington D.C.-based company since 2013.
Boosted by an appearance on Shark Tank in 2014, the startup has been developing its flagship product Beanstack, a reading tracker for libraries and schools that encourages readers to create, manage, and measure their habits with reading challenges, through several iterations.
In 2019, the company joined the Alexa Fund portfolio. According to Zoobean, they envision a future where incorporating voice helps create a more natural and intuitive experience for Beanstack.
According to Lloyd, now over 1,900 library systems and 1,200 schools across the country are using Beanstack. He says over 3 million readers have participated in reading challenges and rely on the product to stay motivated to read.
Lloyd explains that Zoobean’s story is personal to his family, and it begins with a book. The couple was searching for a children’s book that would portray and describe their interracial, interfaith family to their two-year-old son, who, incidentally, was also about to become a big brother. That’s when they decided to start a book-of-the-month business, helping diverse families like theirs find non-traditional and unique stories in print by curating books through a combination of algorithms and children's and school librarians— “the most trusted curators” as Lloyd said.
“We thought there was a problem that you couldn’t necessarily find books by less traditional filters, so that was the original idea,” Lloyd said. “It meant a lot for my son and for our family to find a book that represented us.”
A few weeks later, Mark Cuban invested in the family's company on Shark Tank. But when all that publicity and exposure failed to materialize into online orders, Lloyd says that the two co-founders came to the realization that their underlying technology was the hook, not their box business.
“We thought it was going to work, it didn’t work, but it’s a good story,” Lloyd said. “And then we noticed that librarians were writing about us on their blogs, and they were writing to us asking to work for us part-time helping do the human part of the algorithm: tagging children’s books.”
So instead of shipping boxes with books, the company says its founders concentrated on the software that powered their business. The result was Beanstack, a technology that curates children’s books and delivers personalized recommendations to library patrons based on the reader's age, interests, and over 1,300 librarian-selected tags.
According to Zoobean, the Sacramento Public Library became the very first partner to see the potential that Beanstack had to help institutions and parents spark connections between young readers and books. More institutions quickly followed. Beanstack grew from a recommendation system to a software as a service— a set of tools for libraries, schools, and families to motivate and encourage reading.
For example, Beanstack helps librarians create and customize reading challenges, track their patrons’ reading progress, and motivate them to participate with prizes. Beanstack also offers personalized recommendations for more books to engage with, and analyzes reading logs, reporting back to librarians with insights and statistics.
After a school system or a library signs up for Beanstack, Lloyd explains that its students or patrons gain access to a mobile app and an Alexa skill, making it even easier and more convenient to log and track reading.
Voice has been an essential addition to Beanstack’s experience because it falls exactly into the category of “making things easier and longer-lasting,” as Lloyd said. It’s easy for families to get started with Alexa, just like his did. “I was legitimately seeing this, and like any product person there’s some fundamental things that are almost always true: if you can make it easier, cheaper, faster, that typically doesn’t hurt," he said. “So, it was very clear to me that we track reading, and this is one more way to make it easier and faster.”
Lloyd says he was thinking about ways of adding voice technology to Beanstack rather than developing a completely new hardware product for families that would also keep track of reading.
“The basic skill we wanted to start with would just be the same thing our app did, but for somebody who doesn’t have their phone near them, as you probably shouldn’t when you’re really trying to enjoy leisurely reading,” Lloyd said.
Determined to explore this further, Lloyd got in touch with the Alexa Fund, and within three months Zoobean joined the Alexa Fund portfolio.
“This came about naturally. It started off from an idea that immediately made sense,” Lloyd said, “and ever since, it has been really easy to work with the Alexa Fund.”
As more libraries partnered with Beanstack so did more schools, and the various after-school and summer reading challenges led to more and more families signing up, according to Lloyd. “Once a parent starts to use the mobile app to track their reading, they are drawn in by convenience and the intuitive nature of the Alexa skill,” Lloyd said — and that’s how families have become another set of end users for the company.
Zoobean has added another Alexa skill that supports readers at home who are concentrating on their book by playing ambient sounds and music. From a combination of moods, settings, and themes, a user can select an appropriate ambient background noise, whether it’s a horror track or relaxing raindrops.
Now, according to Lloyd, families can participate in reading challenges even if they don’t have an affiliation with a Beanstack-licensed library or a school district — by using the recently launched mobile app BeanstackGo.
Lloyd attributes Zoobean’s evolution into a smart reading company, reaching readers of all ages, to what he termed “a flywheel at the center of reading for all users: libraries, schools, and families.”
According to Lloyd, reading challenges are key to getting families to read and stay interested in reading. “We’re also seeing that if we produce our own content then people use the product more,” he added.
With that in mind, Lloyd says Zoobean is planning to deliver reading content through voice. In the future, Zoobean is hoping to be at the forefront of developing and implementing voice-recognition tech to help educators measure readers’ engagement with books. According to Lloyd, such technology could check whether a student read and understood a book, and if so, how much of it they understood.