As parents of interracial children, Felix Brandon Lloyd and his wife, Jordan Lloyd Bookey, had trouble finding childrens’ books with characters that looked like their son and daughter. After a librarian friend sent them such a picture book, Felix was moved by how his son exclaimed, “That’s mommy, daddy, and little sister!” with unrestrained enthusiasm.
This, in turn, helped spark a love of reading that continues today.
Felix, a former Washington, D.C., Teacher of the Year, and Jordan set off to inspire the love of reading in other families. The result was Beanstack, a web and mobile application that makes it easy for people to track their reading, keep reading stats, and earn virtual prizes and badges.
This summer, more than 800 libraries used Beanstack to run 2,400 reading challenges. More than 1.5 million people-;from pre-schoolers to retirees-;used this remarkable software to enhance their summer reading. “That’s something like one out of every 200 people in America, pretty unprecedented for our industry,” Lloyd said.
Felix and Jordan have big plans for Beanstack with new features being added constantly, so the ending to their entrepreneurial journey isn’t written yet. However, just getting to this point took more twists and turns than a Harry Potter novel.
“We’ve had to manage the stress, both financial and emotional, that comes with starting a business as a husband and wife,” Felix said. “But when we see the culture of reading we’re building, it’s a powerful eye-opener that makes it all worthwhile.” The Lloyd’s original product was Zoobean, a book-of-the-month service where a computer algorithm selected the ideal children’s book for each family. Lloyd and Jordan pitched their idea on Shark Tank, the reality show for budding investors looking for funding. After the episode aired, traffic on the Zoobean website swelled, and the company received enormous amounts of positive press coverage. However, not many people actually bought the monthly subscription.
“The night Shark Tank aired was actually one of the hardest we’ve experienced as entrepreneurs” Lloyd said. “We could see that there wasn’t a good product-market fit, and we knew we had to adapt.”
The Lloyds altered their business model from a book subscription to a software-as-a-service model, helping public libraries facilitate reading challenges. In the two years since, they’ve worked closely with schools and libraries to encourage independent reading as well.
Beanstack has been, in the parlance of the book world, a page-turner. In Washington, D.C., the public-school system used Beanstack to motivate students, families, and staff to read more than three million minutes from January to April. For the 2018-19 school year, the school district is aiming for 10 million minutes. That’s important since students who read 20 minutes a day take in 1.8 million more words per year and gain better academic outcomes.
“Reading is to the brain, what exercise is to the body, and we’ve found a way to encourage people to stay fit as readers,” Felix said. “Best of all, we’re seeing people’s expectations rise as they realize how much they can accomplish.”
While all of that pleases the teacher in Lloyd, his best moment was more happenstance. His children opened a lemonade stand in their front yard, and Lloyd mentioned Beanstack in his conversation with a father of a family that stopped by. At the mention, the man’s daughter lit up. “We use that in school!” she exclaimed. The little girl excitedly told them about the book she was reading, the virtual badge she had won, and how the reading challenge also helped raise funds for a dog adoption service.
There have been other testaments to their program’s success. Beanstack was named a member of the 2018 class of the AT&T Aspire Accelerator, a four-to-six month program designed to support promising education technology (edtech) startups. This endorsement has helped Felix and Jordan persevere on their important mission.