Three years ago, Epic! founders Suren Markosian and Kevin Donahue set out to build the Netflix of children’s books.
Based in Palo Alto, Calif., the company offers an app that lets kids access unlimited books, educational videos, quizzes and audiobooks — and it’s free for educators. If students want to use Epic! at home, they can subscribe for $4.99 per month. The content is tailored to kids ages 12 and under, and the app currently offers a selection of about 20,000 books, from “Goosebumps” to “National Geographic Kids.”
The startup has raised about $13 million in funding, closing $8 million in Series B in December 2015.
“I’m very excited to see education technology playing a larger role in the tech community,” says Markosian, CEO of Epic! “As many founders and investors are starting families, having kids and realizing the need to serve this large portion of our population, I look forward to seeing education become more fun and accessible to all the kids in the world.”
In addition to content, Epic! Offers additional features, including a read-to-me for younger readers, offline reading and reading badges for reaching certain levels and tasks. The content is personalized overtime as kids start reading, interacting and taking quizzes.
Some 70 percent of U.S. elementary schools are using Epic!, and the company reports people read about 12 million books per month right now. Teachers have created more than 100,000 collections (a set of books) in the app’s first two months and students have taken almost 1 million quizzes to date.
We sat down with Markosian to get his take on the future of Epic! and reading in school and beyond.
What's the problem with accessing books and reading in general in schools?
Books are one of the most essential resources used by teachers, but because so many of today’s school and classroom libraries have limited quantity and selection, it is becoming harder and harder to get kids excited about reading. Our children’s teachers are being asked to do so much more with less, and that’s especially hard when a classroom of students is at vastly different reading levels. It’s hard to engage every student when you don’t have the right book to put into the right child’s hand at the right time.
Is there a plan for the app to make it into all U.S. classrooms? What about overseas?
Epic!’s mission is to make high-quality personalized content available to as many children as possible by removing any friction between a child and a book. We would love to see more schools and classrooms use our vast library of content to build early literacy, inspire kids to read, help students gain more knowledge, enhance existing lessons and aid in classroom projects and research. We have an ever-growing library of Spanish and Chinese books and will be adding more languages in the future. Epic! is already used in over 70 percent of all U.S. elementary schools and in schools around the world where kids use it to learn English and improve their reading skills. As we become more ubiquitous in schools in the U.S., overseas is a next natural area of focus for us.
Where did you get your start in investing and technology?
I’ve been always fascinated by the ability to use technology to build products that can affect and improve lives of millions of people. It’s an amazing feeling to create great experiences and then watch people enjoy them and appreciate your work. It is a form of art — but unlike a finished painting or a musical composition, technology is always evolving, changing and getting better. I founded five companies before Epic! — including a large gaming company and an e-commerce company — but building Epic! has been the most rewarding journey by far.
At the same time, being an active angel investor, I look for companies that can have a long-lasting social impact, solving real world problems, companies that will be around for many years to come. One of the companies I invested in is Wonder Workshop, makers of Dash and Dot robots, that teaches kids programming. My son Max is an avid fan, using the robots at home and in school.
What other apps does your kid like and use often?
One of the reasons I started Epic! was because I couldn’t find many high-quality educational apps for my children. As a new parent, I wanted a safe, ad-free environment with content and an experience appealing to me and my kids. My son was into fire trucks and I had a hard time finding good books on fire trucks in the App Store. Most of the apps were simply low-quality games designed to exploit children’s naiveté and trick them into making in-app purchases with their parents’ account credentials. This is when I realized that the entire eco-system was broken and that nobody had built a compelling and fun reading experience for children on touchscreen devices. Kids can easily download games and watch videos — why couldn't they just as easily access and read good books?
A lot has changed since I started Epic!, and I’m really happy to see many more mature educational products for children becoming available. In addition to Epic!, my kids enjoy games that teach math and geometry as well as practicing reading through interactive experiences. They like the Toca Boca apps and the “Endless” series by Originator.
What edtech do you like?
I like edtech that connects parents, kids and teachers and helps them work together to improve education. Companies that not just solve administrative problems in schools but seek to actively involve parents and the entire educational community. Companies that go beyond traditional B2B models and create consumer-grade experiences with their technology offerings.