From the Classroom to the Shark Tank
Alumnus Felix Brandon Lloyd on inspiration, entrepreneurship, and the evolution of an idea
For decades, parents and educators across the country have been trying to solve the great mystery: how do we get kids excited about reading and encourage early literacy? Well, alumnus Felix Brandon Lloyd is working on it. In 2012, he and his wife Jordan Lloyd Bookey started Zoobean, a service that sent children a personalized book each month to encourage reading. The company received a lot of recognition right off the bat, including an invitation to appear on ABC’s hit show Shark Tank, and it has continued to grow and evolve since.
In some ways, Felix’s experiences as an educator, father, entrepreneur, and graduate of the creative writing program here at WashU culminate perfectly in Zoobean and its successor, Beanstack. For Felix, the urge to innovate came early.
The Path to Zoobean
Long before Shark Tank, Felix watched his own father start several businesses. “My dad wasn’t a successful entrepreneur per se,” he says, looking back. “He didn’t make a lot of money. He was very passionate about setting his own path, which I respected then and I respect now. But he was also relatively absent from my upbringing, which I tied to his being an entrepreneur. That was challenging for me.”
Since then, Felix has focused much of his life on education and childhood literacy. After graduating from Syracuse University, he taught for eight years at the SEED Public Charter School of Washington, DC, which provides a rigorous education to underserved students. At age 25 he was named Dean of the Students, and he went on to be named Washington, DC’s Teacher of the Year. He then returned to school, coming to Washington University in St. Louis’s renowned creative writing program as a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow to earn an MFA. The writing talents he honed here were immediately put to good use, though not in the traditional way of publishing novels or short stories.
“I always loved to read, but being an entrepreneur, I think that’s what’s in my DNA.”
“Right after I graduated from WashU, I ended up starting a business, though I didn’t think about it that way at the time,” he says. “I thought of myself as applying my creative writing talents and my education background to create MoneyIsland, a game to teach kids financial skills.” For him, these experiences feed into one another. “My time in education taught me the benefits of kinesthetic learning, tactile learning, the benefits of doing something to learn, like in a laboratory. The creative writing background really helped me to be creative and make everything a story, give it a narrative, so people can understand it.”
Soon after its launch in 2010, MoneyIsland was purchased by BancVue. It is still available online to use.
Eventually, Felix and his wife were inspired by their own son to start Zoobean. Suffice to say that when he and his wife Jordan, who had been a teacher herself and was the head of K-12 Education Outreach at Google, decided to have children of their own, they felt pretty confident in their abilities as teachers. “But,” says Felix, “when you have little kids, you quickly realize how much there is you don’t know.”
Like most parents, Felix and Jordan read a lot of picture books to their son, and once their daughter was on the way, they decided to try to find a new sibling book to help prepare him for his new sister. However, they had a hard time finding a book that fit their family.
“The Arthur series had a book about him becoming a big brother, and it was okay,” Felix says, “but two months after my daughter arrived, some friends randomly sent us a book called All the World. It was a picture book that was perfectly age appropriate for my son. It was beautifully illustrated, had great language, and it featured a big brother and little sister in an interracial family—and our family is interracial. And for the first time, my son was pointing to the pages saying, ‘That’s me. That’s mommy. That’s daddy. That’s my little sister.’ It was a very meaningful experience.”
“It featured a big brother and little sister in an interracial family — and our family is interracial. And for the first time, my son was pointing to the pages saying, ‘That’s me. That’s mommy. That’s daddy. That’s my little sister.’ It was a very meaningful experience.”
The light bulb went off. “That was the impetus for Zoobean,” he says. “It was the notion that in this day and age of algorithms and key words and all this information at our fingertips, that it was harder than we expected to find something unique to our child and family, so we decided to try and do something about that. That’s the problem we were trying to solve with Zoobean.”
Into the Shark Tank
Felix says he was a fan of Shark Tank even before he and his wife appeared on the show. “I loved Shark Tank since it first came on TV. Now people know about it and have seen it. I saw it by accident, when I was just flipping through channels early one morning, and I loved it.”
Like many entrepreneurs, he dreamed that he might one day appear on the show with a business of his own, but that dream became a reality much faster than he ever anticipated. Only one week after Zoobean was initially launched in 2013, a producer from the show wrote to Felix and Jordan through the form submission on their website, asking if they’d seen Shark Tank and if they’d like to be featured on the show.
“I thought one of my friends had just pranked me,” Felix says. “It didn’t seem true. So I looked up [the producer’s] name, and it was legitimate. I called the number he gave us, and literally five, six weeks later, we were in LA, on the set, about to do the TV show.”
Later, he would learn that the producer found Zoobean after Felix and Jordan had won a weekend business competition for women and minority business owners. The organization behind the competition had written a blog entry about Zoobean, and the producer was intrigued. To prepare for their appearance, Felix and Jordan did their homework.
“We’d studied every episode that had ever aired,” he says. “If you really watch every episode of the show, you will know every single question they’re going to ask. The first questions are usually, you know, who cares about this thing, what value to set for the company. What you can’t predict is the way the conversation will go.”
“The other thing you can’t get around is how strong your business is, and for us, we’d been in business for a week when they contacted us, and five or six weeks by the time we went on the show,” Felix says. “We knew going into the room that we didn’t have millions of dollars in sales. But we knew the show, we knew the people, and we knew we had good personal stories — not just our family, but I had been a teacher, had gone to WashU, had started another successful business. Jordan had worked for Google, was also a teacher, and she had gone to the Wharton School of Business—so we knew we had other assets.”
Even with all of their preparation, the experience was intense.
“My heart was pounding. I remember that,” Felix says. “One secret about Shark Tank is that you’re actually in there for an hour, making your pitch and answering questions from the sharks. It ends up being just 10 minutes on the show, but it’s a long time in reality. Also, when you get out there, you stand still for 30 or 45 seconds while they make sure they get a couple important camera shots. You’re just standing there, 10 feet away from Mark Cuban, Kevin O’Leary, Daymond John, and all these people who are famous in their own right. And you’re just staring at them.”
“You’re just standing there, 10 feet away from Mark Cuban, Kevin O’Leary, Daymond John, all these people who are famous in their own right. And you’re just staring at them.”
“Finally some producer you can’t see shouts ‘Begin!’, and when they say that, you just start. And then it just feels like any other presentation because it’s moving so fast. There are no cuts. They never stop filming. They never stop you while you’re talking,” says Felix.
All of their preparation paid off in the end because—spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t already seen the show—Felix and Jordan walked away from Shark Tank with a new investor: Mark Cuban!
“I can’t overstate how amazing an investor Mark Cuban is,” Felix says. “You have to send him a report every week—we didn’t realize this until after the show when we read the terms—but it’s a really good thing. Every Saturday morning, I write him an email, and he always writes back. He’ll give his thoughts or say this is great. I didn’t expect that.”
From Zoobean to Beanstack…and Beyond
“Since filming Shark Tank, we’ve actually changed a lot,” Felix says. The Zoobean that was originally pitched on the show is slowly phasing out to make room for a new business that could potentially reach more kids and more communities.
“As parents and social entrepreneurs, we focused on the specific problem and mission that we had—to find books for children—more than the broader possible business application of what we had built,” Felix says. “We had all these books labeled in a way that only a person could label, and our first application of that information and the technology we built around it was to send kids a book each month. That was Zoobean. That’s what we were doing when Shark Tank aired.”
Clients wrote in with a child’s gender, age, reading level, and interests, and each month Zoobean would supply a book for that child, specific to them. “That’s what Mark Cuban invested in,” Felix says. “But what he really invested in, and the direction we’ve moved since the show aired under his guidance, was more the application of the information and this curated approach.”
And who might be more interested than parents in this kind of personal book recommendation algorithm? Libraries.
“We already had a lot of librarians working for us to pick and catalog books in these expert, human-centered ways. So a couple months after the show, we went to the American Library Association conference,” Felix says. After a few conversations, the idea arose that “instead of sending a kid a book each month, we could just tell them the name of a book and send them to a library to get it. And instead of each month, we could do that every week. It would help families find more books that are great for them, and the books are free. It also helps the libraries reach the families where they are and bring them to the library.”
Beanstack, the new service’s name, is already taking off.
Beanstack also offers more engagement tools for kids. “It’s evolved from being a tool that helps people find a book each week to providing ways for them to track what they’re reading, to earn badges for their reading, to share with other family members. It’s really become an application around early literacy and helping families find, track, and set different goals with their kids’ reading.”
From a personal book service to a service for communities and libraries, Felix and Jordan now have their sights back on the classroom as their son enters kindergarten. Beanbright, which offers similar services as Beanstack, but for schools, is still in the early stages of development, says Felix.
As far as his own children are concerned, Felix’s son is now five and still loves to read. “We have a wonderful problem,” Felix says. “When he and his sister go to bed, they want to read six books each night, and we have to tell them to pick only two.”
In the middle of his office, surrounded by books mailed from publishers to the Zoobean and Beanstack founders, Felix has a table for his children to sit at and play with Hot Wheels or read books, while he and his wife run the business. “We spend what seems like every waking hour with our business and with our children. It’s been wonderful.”
This story first appeared in the fall 2015 issue of The Ampersand: Alumni Edition. For more news, stories, and events from Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, please visit artsci.wustl.edu or write to firstname.lastname@example.org to subscribe.