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Education Curation: Zoobean Builds Child Literacy With Handpicked Books, Learning Apps

By:  Darren Dahl May 22, 2014
Family

Growing up in Washington, D.C. in a single-parent household, Felix Brandon Lloyd dreamed of writing and directing Oscar-winning movies or authoring the next great American novel – not launching one of the nation’s hottest startups.

Yet, today, Lloyd and his wife, Jordan Lloyd Bookey, serve as Chief Dad and Chief Mom of Zoobean, which offers parents and their kids personalized recommendations on books and apps that match age, reading level and interests. “We see that people come to books for answers to life’s questions,” says Lloyd. “We help people engage in the world of books and literacy while teaching their kids offline and online.”

In an age where it can be difficult to discern news from noise, Zoobean’s offering can be seen as a godsend by parents overwhelmed with the choices available to them in the more than $3 billion-a-year children’s literature market. The app market for kids, worth some $25 billion, may be even more intense.

Mom and daughter

Zoobean offers parents and their kids personalized recommendations on books and learning apps that match age, reading level and interests.

That helps explain why Zoobean has secured several venture capital investments, including $250,000 stemming from a successful presentation on Shark Tank. Zoobean’s appearance on the hit show (which taped in July 2013 and aired in May 2014) gave the year-old startup a big boost. Lloyd says some 5,000 customers have signed up in the month since the show aired.

“Our trajectory has completely changed,” he adds. “A year ago, it was just Jordan and I. But now we have five full-time employees and a team of contractors, mostly former teachers and librarians, whose role it is to go out into the real world and find the best books and apps for our customers – sometimes directly from the shelves of a library. Our goal now is to fuel our growth so we can reach that next inflection point where we can continue to grow and serve our customers.”

From There to Here

Lloyd admits that his path to becoming a successful entrepreneur has been more of a zigzag than a straight line. As a high school senior, he won a prestigious scholarship from the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation that enabled him to attend Syracuse University, where he studied film and screenwriting. He says winning the scholarship was an early formative moment for him and his mom, who encouraged him to apply.

“When I flew to Atlanta to receive the award, it was the first time I had ever flown by myself,” he recalls. “And despite the fact that I was battling acne and missed my flight, I had a great experience because it gave me the chance to talk to other people about my vision of where I wanted to go and how I was going to get there.”

After graduating from college, Lloyd returned home to D.C. and struggled to find a job. He turned to teaching and joined a startup charter middle school called SEED as one of its first four educators.

“I definitely became a teacher by accident,” he says. “I stumbled into a startup that was part of the reform movement in education. They gave me a great opportunity.”

The move clearly suited him and his students, who helped name him a D.C. area teacher of the year for the 2000-2001 school year. Lloyd stayed at the school for seven years, eventually moving into a more administrative role, before deciding to try his hand again at a creative career by pursuing a master’s degree in fiction from Washington University University in St Louis.

Just as importantly, he'd fallen in love with a fellow teacher at a school who would become his future wife. As Lloyd went off to St Louis, Bookey headed to Philadelphia to pursue her MBA at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. They got engaged a year later.

And that’s when things started to get even more interesting. The couple moved to California for the summer so Bookey could take an internship with Google, who later hired her as its head of K-12 education when she graduated.

Meanwhile, Lloyd, who, despite his new master’s degree, began to realize that he enjoyed flexing his creative muscles through entrepreneurship. That’s when he and Bookey hatched the idea for their first company, Skill-Life, Inc., a technology company that developed the MoneyIsland (formerly called CentsCity) online money management game to teach kids how to make the most of their financial future.

After using Bookey’s time at Wharton to hone the firm’s business plan, the couple moved to Pittsburgh after her graduation. Lloyd knew he could access top video game design talent emerging from schools like Carnegie Mellon there. Google also had an office in the city.

As Skill-Life built traction, licensing its software to community lending institutions around the country, financial services firm BancVue presented an offer Lloyd and Bookey couldn’t refuse. In 2010, they sold their company and moved to Austin, Texas, as part of the deal.

Seeds of a New Venture

After a few years in Austin, Lloyd and Bookey again felt the entrepreneurial itch – this time fueled by the birth of their two children: their son Cassius and daughter Florence. “We call them Cash and Flo,” says Lloyd.

It was actually when the couple went looking for books to teach Cassius, then 2, about what to expect when his new little sister arrived that Lloyd and Bookey began to recognize that despite search options available though online book sellers like Amazon, and the help of independent booksellers like the ones they had access to in Austin, it was still difficult to find exactly what they were looking for.

Family

Zoobean's 'Chief Dad' and 'Chief Mom' with their two kids, Cassius and Florence.

“It wasn’t for a lack of trying,” says Lloyd. “But it had become harder in some ways to find a personalized experience, especially when it came to kids books.”

That’s when the seeds of Zoobean were planted. “We always knew we wanted to try and start a business together eventually,” says Lloyd. “And given our backgrounds in education, we began to ask ourselves how we could make it easier for people to find the books they were looking for.”

But pursuing Zoobean meant the couple, now with two toddlers, would need to quit their full-time jobs. “We talked about it a lot and decided there was a greater risk in not trying to do this thing,” says Lloyd. “We thought it would be riskier to stay comfortable when we had the resources to fail and not be financially ruined. So we decided to give it a go.”

After moving back to D.C. in early 2013, Lloyd and Bookey launched Zoobean using a book-of-the-month club subscription model – something they still offer along with their other curation services. “We recognized early on that price means a lot to some customers,” says Lloyd, explaining why the business has moved heavily into Web-based services and apps that allow  more personalized offerings including lessons plans for home-schoolers and family activity kits to entertain the kids on a rainy weekend. The newest offering from Zoobean will allow customers even more latitude when it comes to getting recommendations on an area of special interest, such as books, apps, and videos about amputees or LGBT families.

“It’s an evolution of what people are asking for and where we grow next,” says Lloyd.

Future Dreams

One downside of Zoobean’s early success is that Lloyd says he doesn’t have much time to read as he would like – especially fiction. While his dream is one day to have earned enough money to pursue his dream of writing a novel, he now spends his free time reading biographies of successful business people like Sam Walton of Walmart and Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter.

“I want to enjoy what I read, but it still needs to connect to the business or the kids,” says Lloyd. “Oddly enough, I could use some curation help with that.”