There’s lots of talk of the potential damage too much screen time can have on children, but Carly Shuler has figured out a way to use that screen time to encourage reluctant young readers to read more.
About a year ago, Shuler, a Winnipeg serial entrepreneur, launched Hoot Reading, an online interactive literacy tutoring service targeted at parents with kids from kindergarten to Grade 4 who are not reading at their grade level.
Using only certified teachers with the same qualifications classroom teachers have, Hoot Reading has quietly built up a user base in Canada and the U.S. that now includes parents with some pretty powerful testimonials.
Earlier this month, at what was effectively a public launch of Hoot Reading, two sets of parents spoke about the anguish they felt when their kids had trouble reading and the joy they experienced as their kids started to really learn using Hoot Reading.
Shuler points out reading struggles at an early age can have far-reaching implications because after a certain age, there is a big difference between learning to read and reading to learn.
With more than 500 published titles licensed, and interactive technology Shuler had developed for a previous ed-tech offering, Hoot Reading’s 20-minute sessions gets the teacher and student to read a book together with the same page appearing on each user’s screen.
They can see and hear each other over video chat, and see where the other is pointing.
With research suggesting more than 60 percent of young children are reading below their grade level, there is a huge potential market for such assistance and few online offerings focused on addressing that need.
There has been strong customer feedback, and Shuler now feels ready to become more public in getting the word out about Hoot Reading.
“We are seeing that Hoot Reading is increasing confidence. We are seeing kids move up grade levels and increasing their love and interest in reading,” Shuler said.
“We are having a real impact on families. It feels really great.”
Five years ago, after coming off a stint working at the Sesame Street think-tank developing interactive technology for kids in New York, Shuler developed a sort of Skype-for-kids app called Kindoma, which allows children to interact with loved ones online.
The interactive app included all sorts of graphics and games kids could share with grown-ups on the other end. But as well-received as that app was, it became clear to Shuler the business model was not sustainable. People loved it and were using it, but they didn’t want to pay more than $5 per month for it.
“Frankly, that is why we shut the doors on Kindoma,” she said. “Because we were not able to come up with a feasible business model.”
But with Hoot Reading, the monthly fee for a set number of sessions has not been a deterrent.
“People are used to paying for tutoring and they understand we are connecting them with real teachers,” she said. “We have actually not had a pushback on price. People are paying for it. The business model is working.”
It helps that the costs are a fraction of the market rate for an in-person tutor who might not even have the same qualifications.
(A recent online ad looking for more teachers for the business received 200 resumés in 24 hours.)
The business model is aided by the fact Shuler and her new partner, Maya Kotecha, had ready-made proprietary technology from Shuler’s previous startup, Kindoma.
“We had this beautiful piece of technology and a business model that was not working,” Shuler said. “We wanted to figure out a way to pivot to use everything we had done and worked so hard at.”
A pilot project a little more than a year ago with 12 families in Winnipeg encouraged the founders to continue the rollout.
In addition to having already developed the technology for another application, Shuler also had experience in raising financing. This time out, things went a lot more smoothly. She’s already successfully raised $500,000 for Hoot Reading, led by Jeff Fettes, one of the founders of 24-7 Intouch.
With much in place now, the company is launching a summer program with special pricing geared at forestalling the “summer reading slide” that hits some young kids just learning to read.