By Felix Lloyd

If you share your story, ask questions, and move forward, you can learn a lot. I know we have learned a lot since we first began. Our initial (or at least our second) success came from an appearance on the ABC show Shark Tank, although the product featured on Shark Tank is very different from the one that we offer today. To be frank, we didn’t have a clue when we first started. But we asked questions. And we listened. And we moved forward.

Our mission remains the same—to motivate readers towards a love of reading. During our growth, we’ve gathered data that shows how community reading challenges, competitions, rewards, and recognition are key to transforming a school’s reading culture. These elements became the cornerstone of our approach, helping to make reading a celebrated part of everyday life in schools and communities. But we had a lot to learn.

I remember walking from my thesis presentation onto the lawn outside Olin Library on the campus of Washington University, some 15 years ago, and just before that day’s graduate fiction workshop. A bulletin board in Duncker Hall and a hot pink flier invited students to a pitch competition at the university’s Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurship.

I entered the competition as a student from the graduate school of Arts & Sciences. As it turns out, giving a business pitch and writing fiction are close cousins.

So, I won and got my first check as an entrepreneur for $5,000 dollars.

Fast forward a few years later, and I’m underneath the lights on the set of the television show Shark Tank. There, my wife Jordan and I would pitch a children’s book subscription service for diverse families. And, pulling from my Washington University in St. Louis experience, we were able to obtain a $250,000 investment from Mark Cuban.

Life was good. But in truth, there is much more to the story.

Late, the night after the Shark Tank episode aired, I couldn’t sleep. Even after the lights had faded to black, I couldn’t stop seeing the world around me – spinning, and spinning. I was sick. I felt like a fraud. And my hands trembled as I typed out a message to a friend of mine who happens to be a doctor. “Should I go to the emergency room?” I wrote him.

A few weeks later, Jordan and I went to ALA, the American Library Association Conference in Las Vegas. There, the director of the Sacramento Public Library, Rivkah, stopped by our booth and asked me how it felt to be on Shark Tank.

The business was so distressingly quiet, at a time when I thought we would be making millions in sales. And that quiet nearly drove me crazy, because I knew something I was afraid to admit even to myself. The business we had pitched on air couldn’t work. I felt like a fraud whose fiction had run its course.

Meanwhile, my doctor friend sent me a reply. “Breathe, bro,” he wrote, “Seriously, are you breathing?”

My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. My teeth rattled like so many needles in a can sealed too tightly. But I opened my mouth as wide as I could open it. I took a deep breath. And another, until there was enough air inside me to move forward.

After the show aired, I got an email from a librarian, Rebecca, who had been helping our business curate children’s books. “I saw you on Shark Tank,” she wrote. “You should be at the ALA conference.”

“What’s ALA,” I asked Rebecca the librarian. “Why should we go there?”

I told her my story – about the pressure, about why we were there. Rivkah leaned in. And, soon after the conference, Sacramento Library became the first customer for a revised version of our business. Instead of a book subscription service, we’d license the software we had developed to help her library recommend diverse children’s books. And that was the change we needed. We listened, and we moved forward.

Partnering with public libraries, which I never saw coming, prompted us to pour months into developing and testing a new program. The result was the company as it now stands; Beanstack—an innovative program created to help libraries take on summer reading.

Once we understood what we needed to do, everything clicked into place. As we grew library clients, we also started to grow K-12 clients. Over the past two years alone, we’ve experienced amazing growth. We’re proud to share that Beanstack is a staple in more than 15,000 libraries and schools. Currently, the Beanstack community is nearly 14 million readers strong, which I couldn’t have fathomed the night of my panic attack.

Asking questions

As important as it is to tell your story, it is even more important to ask questions. Learn and ask more questions. It’s a magical skill we gain as adults. Well, truth be known, we learned to ask questions in preschool. But then, somewhere around middle school, we forget how to ask questions. And, if you’re like me, and have a teenager at home, you may be reminded daily that by high school – we know it all.

In the graduate fiction workshop I attended, after each of us shared the latest draft of a story or chapter, we would sit there quietly and listen as the other MFA students critiqued our work. When at last it was our time to talk, we would ask questions. No arguing. No defending our decisions. Just open-ended questions: What’s working and not working? What revisions would push us forward?

That night after the Shark Tank episode aired, as I was sitting there quietly coming apart, Rebecca’s suggestion that I should be at ALA helped me remember that revision is part of the process. I asked her intently, “Why?” Which would soon lead me to Vegas, Sacramento, and across the nation.


What the Data Shows

As we grew, we gathered data that shows how community reading challenges, competitions, rewards, and recognition are the keys to transforming a school’s reading culture. These elements have become the corner- stone of our approach, helping to make reading a celebrated part of everyday life in the schools and commu- nities we serve.

The data also shows that students are much more likely to engage in reading when there is a goal to work towards. As such, more schools are implementing our reading challenges, and more and more reading minutes are being logged—over 7 billion minutes so far.

As we grew, we gathered data that shows how community reading challenges, competitions, rewards, and recognition are the keys to transforming a school’s reading culture. These elements have become the corner- stone of our approach, helping to make reading a celebrated part of everyday life in the schools and commu- nities we serve.

The data also shows that students are much more likely to engage in reading when there is a goal to work towards. As such, more schools are implementing our reading challenges, and more and more reading minutes are being logged—over 7 billion minutes so far.

Community reading challenges can be used in a variety of ways, like a district-wide reading challenge, and are a powerful motivator for students. A little friendly competition against classmates or grade levels helps get kids excited to read.

We’ve also found that incentives and rewards really work. Whether it’s pizza parties, field trips, or earning badges, perks create a buzz around reading. Students are eager to dive into books when there’s a fun reward waiting for them, and we’ve seen participation in reading programs skyrocket as a result.

Community reading challenges can be used in a variety of ways, like a district-wide reading challenge, and are a powerful motivator for students. A little friendly competition against classmates or grade levels helps get kids excited to read.
We’ve also found that incentives and rewards really work. Whether it’s pizza parties, field trips, or earning badges, perks create a buzz around reading. Students are eager to dive into books when there’s a fun reward waiting for them, and we’ve seen participation in reading programs skyrocket as a result.

One Recent Success Story

Pasco County Schools in Florida has experienced strong results using this approach, even among their 19 sec- ondary schools, when they celebrate student achievement and reward reading efforts. Creative incentives such as allowing students to wear pajamas to school, pairing up with students from different grades for read- ing sessions, earning new books, and enjoying treats from their “Read a Latte” cart—which serves snacks and beverages to students who meet their reading goals—have been very successful. These activities help create a fun, inclusive environment that makes reading a highlight of the school day.

Individual and group recognition in social media and newsletters is another way schools and libraries can re- ward great readers and is often as effective as offering prizes or special incentives. Giving them a shout-out and publicly acknowledging their efforts boosts morale and fosters a sense of accomplishment and commu- nity among students.

All are Welcome

Any school or library is welcome to tap into our program to help students build sustained reading habits. From that $5000 prize at the university, to our appearance on Shark Tank to everything we have been fortu- nate enough to learn from our schools and libraries, we have been asking questions and listening and moving forward with one goal in mind – to motivate readers towards a love of reading.

What we’ve learned is that creating an inclusive environment where reading is celebrated, encouraged, and truly valued makes a significant impact. When we focus our efforts on the joy of reading, that’s when a stu- dent’s love for reading can really grow. We believe in the transformative power of reading and look forward to continuing to help schools and libraries cultivate a strong reading culture.

Keep Reading!

–Felix Brandon Lloyd

About the author

Felix Brandon Lloyd is Co-founder and CEO of Zoobean. Their flagship product, Beanstack, helps motivate students, library patrons, and people of all ages to read. Prior to starting Zoobean, Felix taught and served as Dean of Students at the SEED Public Charter School. During this time, he was named Washington, D.C.’s Teacher of the Year. In 2007, Felix received a fellowship from Echoing Green, a seed funder which supports the world’s most outstanding emerging social entrepreneurs and the organizations they launch. He founded Skill-Life, Inc. — a technology company that developed the MoneyIsland financial education software for kids. Skill-Life, was acquired by BancVue, Ltd. in January 2010.