Mark Cuban’s email read, “Why not just write skills for Alexa, rather than trying to figure out a completely new product?”
And, when I think back, that was the start of the whole thing.
Mark was writing in response to my weekly report to investors in our company, Zoobean. I had shared a recent survey we conducted of parents, which revealed that most “free choice reading” for school-age children occurs between the hours of 6–9 pm in the living room or the child’s bedroom. This insight had led us down the path of prototyping our own hardware device — something to help families keep track of their reading time in settings where a mobile phone, computer, or paper reading log would take away from the reading experience. But Mark, in his usual incisive way, was pointing out a much more direct path.
Four years earlier, our company had gained an investment from Mark on the television show Shark Tank — just weeks after my wife Jordan and I started Zoobean. I brought my background as a classroom teacher and onetime Washington, DC Teacher of the Year. Jordan had been the first-ever head of K-12 education at Google.
Our business has evolved significantly since that night on Shark Tank. We now license our software, called Beanstack, to over 1,200 public libraries and schools around the world. But it was only about a year ago that we began to truly understand what we do best in the world and are deeply passionate about — namely, innovating a 21st-century set of tools that better inspires kids (and their families) to realize the joy of reading.
Beanstack makes it easy for families to log when and what they read, incorporating “reading challenges” that offer concrete goals and rewarding incentives along the way. For librarians and educators, it helps gain data and drive better outcomes. In short, our software tracks reading to encourage more reading. Our clients have often referred to Beanstack as their “Fitbit for reading.”
“I hear you,” I replied to Mark. “We have an 8- and a 6-year-old, but we’ve been wary of having our Alexa in the kids’ room for now.”
“My youngest is 8 and has an Alexa Show in his room,” Mark replied. “We have no issues with it.”
I wasn’t sure. Also, I knew I didn’t know enough. So, I bought an Alexa Show for our kitchen to better understand Mark’s family’s experience and, more generally, the clear upward trend in number of families using voice-enabled devices.
It took no time at all for Cassius, our now 9-year-old son, and Florence, our 7-year-old daughter, to interact with our new Alexa. First, there was music — day after day of listening to Ed Sheeran more than Ed Sheeran would want to listen to Ed Sheeran. Thankfully, my children discovered they could branch out with a simple, “Alexa, please play the Descendants 2 Soundtrack,” or “Alexa, please play music that we can listen to by rappers like Drake.” We use the explicit lyrics filter and always make them say please when speaking to Alexa. I mean, it’s the least we can do :)
Soon, Cassius would check the MLB or NBA scores from the night before when he came down for breakfast. Florence would ask Alexa to tell her a joke, and then another joke and then another joke… Before long, Jordan and I would use the Alexa to set timers to let us know when to take the cookies out of the oven or to remind the kids when they needed to brush their teeth.
The turning point may have been when my daughter asked, “Daddy, how do you spell ‘experiment’?” I told her to hold on one sec. She gave me maybe five seconds before turning to her more immediate assistant. “Alexa, how do you spell ‘experiment’?” It was a #dadfail to be sure. But it was also an opportunity to observe the growing sophistication of our voice interactions and to imagine how much more we could do — at home, school, the library, and in between. I knew then that Alexa and Beanstack could be a powerful fit.
There’s a behavioral economics study that says kids will eat 70% more apples if you slice them up and put them in a plastic bag. The takeaway is simple — if you want to help people do something, make it easier.
At Zoobean, and through our product Beanstack, we want to make it easier for people to stay motivated to read. We know that reading challenges work. And the more convenient we can make it for people — especially kids — to track their reading, the better. In the same way our mobile app helps track reading in some settings, it’s plainly clear now that voice interaction will also save time for a growing number of our users. It’s another way for us to slice the apple.
Today, we’re excited to announce a new investment from the Alexa Fund. Mark, true to his words, has also made another investment in our company. He’s joined this round by EAI Technologies, Jo and Elizabeth Tango, Pamela Bass-Bookey and Harry Bookey, and Neil Jaffe of Booksource.
Just three months ago, I had the opportunity to have coffee with Kevin Crews, a senior product manager at Amazon, while attending the American Library Association Midwinter Conference in Seattle. In fact, I got off a plane I had already boarded when Kevin emailed that he could meet that day (thanks for the intro, Bryanne Leeming of Unruly Studios).
That first meeting with Kevin led to a series of conversations with the Alexa Fund and a second trip to Seattle. I shared with them our vision for Beanstack to fundamentally improve how much people read, especially kids and in deep partnership with libraries and schools. They listened, asked questions to learn more, and shared more about the support they would provide our company. It didn’t take long after that for this latest round to come together.
Mark recently said, “There is no future that doesn’t have ambient computing or voice activation.” He followed emphatically, “None.”
We agree. Also, we know that reading is fundamental to who we all are and what we do — past, present, and future. So, we’re excited for this partnership with the Alexa Fund. Stay tuned for the next chapter.