Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background:
I was going to ask you not to do this about me.
I do software development. I run a business that does web-based software development for different clients and we have been doing that for the past ten years. Somewhere in between the establishment of that business, and running of that business, my son was three and we really enjoyed reading books with him. That kind of got me to a point where we would go to a library or go to a bookstore regularly. And you know, (when) you go to a bookstore, you go to a library, you pick up the books: four books, five books - you're not going to take two crates of books and carry it home!
So we would bring these books and we would read them with him nightly and then we'd realize that three books are not enough! You read it once, you read it twice, but you know you need a constant kind of flow of new books! Especially at that age! We realized with him that he was very interested [in story time] and he liked that bonding process through reading. So at some point he started asking for [the story time] as if that is his right! As if we owe him something! “So what that daddy is tired, I didn't have my story time!”
And that kind of clicked: “What if there was a service…”
Back then, we're talking about 2011-2012, the subscription world wasn't this popular. So we created a website. Coming from the software and web development world, it wasn’t that difficult to put together a website…I thought, “What if there was a service that would ship us books regularly?”.
(For) the first couple of customers, we had to go to Barnes and Noble and pay an arm and a leg to have books to ship to them! We reached out to different publishers and they didn't know what to do with us. “What are you?! You're neither a bookstore, nor a library?” Th(ose are) the two traditional ways (we could) work with them.
What we realized, with our experience, with our kids, and working with them, is that when you keep up with reading to them…daily. Right at the beginning, they don't read - you just read and they just are on the listening end. That creates a lot of the connection between the two of you and that becomes a moment in their psyche that they cherish throughout their lives! (That’s) one hand. Then on the other hand, they start looking at reading as a process that has value!
When we were growing up (I'm in my 40s), all of the shiny items – the electronics that our kids have today, weren't available. So books weren't competing with an iPad with an Angry Birds game in it or whatever today's popular game is, right? So it's a lot more complex today to have books compete with all of these things. But, …start working with your child early on, so that they see the value of the content (and) the value of closeness with you! Because at the end, you know any child looks for their parent’s attention. That's how humans are wired! When you start working with them and giving them that attention through books, books become that intermediary that connects in their mind - connecting the good (content) and the good times with their parents.
When they graduate from that level, where I'm reading a book, to a level where they start reading individually, that connection helps to combat the idea of “I'm not going to watch this on Netflix” or “I'm not going to play this game - I'm going to grab a book”. This is something that we learned based on our experiences.
We have customers who signed up seven years ago, six years ago, and are still paying customers, every month. That kind of tells you for those who… again this is not a bicycle that we invented, but for those parents who understand this process and put time into this process, there (are) a lot of positive advantages later in their child's life.! For my kids, they got to a point where they are advanced readers, advanced English class - In all of the different lessons they have in school, they are at an advanced level! …When you start looking at life at a later stage everything that you do is really comprehension and retention. That can't come to you unless you have experience of reading and talking about what you have read and discussing it with your parents, your peers, etc.
When you look back at human progress, the only medium that survived everything throughout the centuries of development is books! Nothing else came through! The different things that we had, they evolved - books stayed. But getting parents and getting children involved in this, seeing this worldview and this understanding and then putting time (is important).
In reality for me, for our team members, a lot of (this) is about putting the time in…, because you need to do it consistently. You need to do it daily. You need to figure out a way for your child to be interested in doing this with you and if you start early they will be interested because that's all they’ll want! When they are teenagers, it's difficult, and we lived through that too…When they are teenagers, it is difficult to keep them around the house, around your agenda etc.. But if you start early they will have that one thing that is so positive in their head that books will take over and move on!
Just more about the actual business: Is it catered to every specific customer? Based on what the parents want for their kids, as customizable?
What we do in the world of subscription is a bit different than everybody else does and the logic of that is that again based on our experiences. What happened is, we realized that preferences and the understanding of the world, the environment and the atmosphere children grow up in sometimes impacts what they like. Some kids like trains, others like trucks. Others don't like either, etc. What we have done in our system is set it up in a way that when a parent or guardians or grandparents sign up, there's a questionnaire on the website - they go through that questionnaire and answer questions about what they like, what they don't like, what genre of books they would like, etc. Then based on that questionnaire, here in the office, one of our associates assigns books to each account manually.
…Our system that we developed specifically custom for us, shows all the data that we have for that customer. (It) shows a certain number of titles that match with the keywords that the parents choose. The associate looks at these and (any) emails that the parents write to us - letting us know what they like, these are the books that were a hit, these are the books they didn’t really like, (etc). So we have all those notes on that dashboard. We would look at that and then see whether the recommendations of our system are a match or whether there needs to be a different book matched for this specific box. That's how the match works! Then the boxes get packed and shipped out of our office. The box goes and the parents receive it. They can log in and they can rate the books. When they rate the books, we get an extra layer of data about what the child liked, what the parents liked, etc. Sometimes they would receive a box and it would a hit - it's perfect, it's exactly what the child wanted, sometimes it would be a box where he or she didn't like the genre of the book so we would add notes to the account and we would make sure that we have that datapoint as well. That's why we are constantly on a lookout for different types of books.
Another thing that is very important, and I realized this from my own experience with my younger son, it was very difficult to get him into reading. Whatever (we did), he wouldn't be interested. He'd be interested in…other things. But we kept going at him. Kept throwing time and energy into figuring out what works. What clicks! And that click is very important! Because once we figured it out, we found that specific book series that he liked. (Got) him all of the titles in that series, and all of the titles in similar series to keep up the momentum! To keep up this urge to go through it! Over time, you realize that he takes this book and he reads it in a very short period. Just like when you get a book that you are ready not to do anything but just read that! That is replicable in kids and it's amazing to watch it! But, to be able to do that, you actually need to find that correct title and that click needs to happen. Once that happens? Man! That's just an amazing process that they go through! And keeping up with that - making sure that they go through that (book), and then the next, next, next, and then evolve it in a way that they're going to get to a point where they're going to read classics! There is a very specific number of titles and authors that, if you want to be anybody in this life, you need to read, whether you like it or not! How do you make a teenager read that list? It's that momentum that will at some point come to them! They understand that, yes, the first chapter or the first five pages weren't that interesting, but I gotta keep going to get there!
How do you get those books to ship out? Do you work with the publishers or distributors?
We started with re-sellers because, back then, it was very difficult to figure out a structure with the publishers… Any children’s book that retails at $17.99 or $16.99 or $18.99 a publisher would give you a 50% or 40% discount and that depends on the volume of your orders. So, if I take a $17.99 book, and I want to put together a three-book box, the budget I have for books is less than that (especially if you're just starting). What we did is we contacted everybody! We worked with different resellers to figure out a way to at least get into this, but once we got into it and then started seeing that it's possible, we also got into partnerships with almost every major publisher and we figured out a way.
We have a big wish list of books. I know that these are books that work. These are books that work in terms of the story time. In terms of later on whether it's a chapter book, easy reader book, etc. So these are the books that we are constantly on the lookout for because we know that this will work with different levels of our customers. On the other hand, we constantly receive new books and new titles…it takes time to take a title, work with it, understand what it is, understand which level of our customer base it will work with and then try to move forward with an order.
After doing this for the amount of time that we've been doing (it), we have a good relationship with almost all the publishers and that kind of helps, too. We constantly are looking to make sure that the box that we're shipping is perfect for that specific child that's going to receive it!
Another thing that I forgot: our boxes are addressed to the child on the account, which is an important aspect of doing this, because you want to make sure that the child has ownership. They feel that this is theirs and that anticipation that the mailman will bring the box and this box of books is theirs to keep! The ownership also helps later on with developing the habit of reading!
How do you think that does change the development - having the child's name on the box? What significance do you think that has?
What happens overtime, if you keep up with reading … the maximum books you can receive from us is 3 books in a package. If you are a reader that's nothing! It really is nothing! But what happens is when a box comes, (and) it's addressed to them, they open it, they look at it, they feel the ownership of these books! Over time you will have a library of books that are yours! That adds on to the pride and the feeling of accomplishment that you (have) read so many books! That, I think, helps in the overall process of trying to raise a reader.
What is the age range of the children? What happens when they end up growing up?
We do 0 to 12. We have some kids that stayed beyond 12, who we continue shipping books to. The issue is that, once they get to their teens, they are at a level where they want to do things themselves. They want to choose their books themselves. If they are still readers, if they still value time spent reading, then it's not always easy to match books. Your world widens a lot more in your teen years and some people stay, some people don't. We don't stop the subscription unless we're told to do so by the parent or by whoever is paying for the subscription. When the parents sign up they give us the birth date of the child and our system calculates the books based on the age of the child. When the child grows, with each year, our system kind of advances the books with the growth of the child on the account. When they cross the 12-13 years or reach 14 years, if the parents are happy, they're still keeping the service, the subscription will go with on them.
What is the general reception from parents who have purchased a subscription or who have stayed with the subscription?
You can look at the reviews that we have here, there, and everywhere in the world of social media and the fast pace changes of the Internet. We kind of try to keep up with everything there so that people can leave reviews so you can see them. A lot of times what happens is we get very positive feedback from our customers and that positive feedback helps us to kind of know that what we're doing and the way we're doing it is something unique and something interesting and something valuable. I think that there is a tendency fueled by the same crazy Internet and social media world where people don't read as much as they used to and I'm sure that this argument and this sentence is something that every generation repeats over and over again. Because the world kind of changes and evolves and I'm sure in the 1980s or with the invention of color television or radio people had this same notion that people don't read anymore as much as they should or they used to. But the reality is that people who stay on with the subscription tend to see results in their own lives and with their children being an advanced reader or doing better in school, having better comprehension.
I mean, obviously the reality is, if you read then you go further in life is something that doesn't need proving. There's no need to try to all of a sudden figure out a way to prove that reading is good for you no matter the age. In that sense, the more people keep up with their subscription, keep up with reading with their children, or if their children are at an age where they read on their own, that's amazing! …Obviously, it won’t be a negative thing: “Hey! You send books (and) my child is reading!” I hope and I wish we could reach a lot more people and get a lot more people reading! That's a very inherent thing for us too, because it's an important process!
We saw some statistics the other day according to which, on average, each American reads less than two books a year and even that's an outdated statistic. People don't read. In the world of tweets at 140 or 280 characters books (can) seem to be a lot of reading!
Is there anything else that you'd like to add?
When you look at how we are getting through the process of life, with talking fridge that can order something for you, or give you the weather, and how electronics take over everything, and how sometimes as an adult you would sit in front of your social media and you realize how fast you burn the time - as an adult, you should have, the willpower to understand that this is a waste of time and stop it! It's a lot harder and more complex for a child to do so.
So …you anticipate that this book, that is 2 dimensional, only does one thing - you flip a page, you read and you use your imagination. Versus these devices, that will do so many different things in such a fast-paced manner, which is enticing and keeps you up with it and is intrinsically created in a way so that you continue interacting with it. (In this light,) books will always lose… and it's the parents responsibility to work with the child to make sure that books are on an equal footing! They will never be, but you have some abilities to work with your child consistently to get to a point where it works and it's a medium that can compete with the electronics of this world!
Well, thank you so much. This is a great interview!