Do you remember the feeling of standing in your school library as a child, surrounded by endless shelves of books?
For some, this moment would have been incredibly exciting: new adventures, and new friends to be made through books. For others this would have been utterly dreadful: feeling overwhelmed by choices and being told by adults what you should like.
This experience is still the same for children in 2022 — and this results in 60% of children aged 6-17 becoming infrequent readers.
It’s this grim statistic that fuels award-winning experience designer and researcher Meena Tharmarajah — who founded Huey Books (formerly Wriveted).
The edtech startup is on a journey to transform the reading experience for children with Huey: a friendly bookbot that can make personalised book recommendations for children in a matter of minutes.
Meena’s muse for Huey Books was a poorly written children’s book.
“My son brought home this children’s book which we had to read together,” Meena tells me. “After we were done, I asked him if he wanted to read it again and he said: ‘Do we have to? It’s boring!’”’
This was her lightbulb moment.
“Studies show that 74% of children would read more if they could find books they enjoyed, but children don’t have the skills to find those books,” Meena explains.
“I have a background in developing children’s apps and an understanding in how big data works. So naturally, I thought that there had to be a way to leverage the data from books, combine it with a child-friendly interface, and create a great app that children could use to find books they loved.”
The first prototype of Huey was built in 2019 and showcased at the Children’s Book Council of Australia Conference for feedback from librarians and publishers. Not only did Huey get great feedback, but 86 libraries signed up to use the beta product! Next was a pilot launch for Huey, conducted at 2 schools in collaboration with the NSW Department of Education.
The result? Borrowing in the schools increased by 42%.
A contributing factor to Huey’s success is how the team solved the boring-book conundrum.
“We looked at the data around books and discovered it’s not that great in helping to find books that you actually want to read,” Meena explains.
“Book cataloguing is geared towards information-retrieval focusing on themes, genres or authors. However, this results in limited recommendations. A kid who loves sci-fi will only get sci-fi recommendations, however, it is unlikely that they will love every book in this genre. So the question we asked ourselves is what kids actually loved about the books that they loved.
“Our hypothesis was that it was the writing style that kids loved. So, we went about describing writing style, emotions and illustration style for 1,000 books.”
The Huey team also conducted several interviews with teacher-librarians and children that led to three key insights about what made the product special.
“The first insight was that kids who read frequently liked Huey because it opened up the possibilities of books they could read,” Meena says.
“Second, kids who were infrequent readers (which we took to mean were not that confident about reading or were overwhelmed by choice), enjoyed being in control of the process and finding books that they liked.
“The third insight was that Huey made the kids feel heard. He was seen as a judgement-free zone for recommendations which made him accessible.”
Today Huey is available in over 100 schools — and this traction is largely due to word-of-mouth success.
“Our biggest win to date is the incredible community of teachers and librarians who share the impact Huey is having on reading in their schools”, Meena says.
Huey Books has been a finalist in SXSW’s pitch competition, conducted research with the State Library of NSW, did a pilot with the NSW Department of Education, launched in Blacktown City Council Public Libraries, and is one of the 12 startups in Startmate’s Winter22 Accelerator program. But Meena didn’t set out to become a startup founder with numerous accolades to her name.
“People talk about startups being a rollercoaster,” Meena says.
“It’s definitely a place where everything is always ‘on’. It is always so exciting. I didn’t go into this with any expectations. I just had an idea; I didn’t go into it thinking I was starting a startup.”
“Something that’s been really good and surprising is how much goodwill there is for startups. It’s like a moonshot; the chance of failure is so high. But, there is now this global ecosystem that is really supportive and wants everyone to succeed.
“Startmate’s network has been incredibly helpful. As a founder, having a structured network with regular catch-up and opportunities for advice has been really great.”
Meena worked as a consultant before transitioning to life as a full-time founder.
“I wasn’t scared to jump,” she says.
“I think the fact that I was already a consultant and wasn’t walking away from a 9-5 helped. I think that so many things have to line up for opportunities to come to fruition. To me, this was one of those opportunities that I wasn’t sure would come again if I didn’t try.”
Quoting William Hutchinson Murray, Meena’s advice for other aspiring founders is “boldness has genius, power and magic in it”.
“Whatever you think you can do, do it now, because everything will move to support you in it,” she adds.
“Take a shot and see what happens!”
Huey Books has gone from strength to strength in its mission to make reading more accessible and enjoyable for children. Next on their cards is launching a product that will help families get children addicted to books rather than screens.
I, for one, will be keeping a lookout for the next chapter in the story!
Are you one of the region’s most ambitious founders? Are you ready to take your startup to the next level?Express Interest