books and sky clouds

Taking Child Literacy to New Heights

Removing the friction between book and child

I had the opportunity to sit down with Suren Markosian, CEO, and co-founder of Epic! the next generation children’s digital media company, to discuss the popularity and fulfillment of creating a company that is enhancing literacy in children. Founded in 2014 and based in Redwood City, CA, Epic! has risen the app store rankings to become one of the most popular apps in kids and education categories.
 
Markosian saw the importance early on in allowing kids to stream and search quickly and effectively for their books of interest. Children’s curiosity can fluctuate and change at a moments notice, so Markosian wanted to bring an ease of access to the realm of reading. A background in game development opened the eyes of Markosian that kids could take that same immediacy and bring it to the experience of reading. By teaming with a variety of children book publishers, Markosian has built an extensive collection of quick, streamable literature that is controlled by kids themselves.
 
The success of Epic! can be seen in the classroom environment as teachers have joined hands in creating quizzes that are equally educational as they are fun. Kids look forward to the challenges of the quizzes which naturally reinforce greater reading. Children are constantly using technological devices, so it’s nice to learn of a company that understands the intrigue and wishes to point kids toward reading and learning. It’s uplifting to recognize that Epic! is poised to effect literacy - stratospherically.
 

Interview

Rod Berger: Suren, it’s nice to be spending some time with you, not only as a parent, but someone who has worked in education his whole career. The topic of literacy and the ways in which we can engage students in a 21st-century learning environment continue to evolve and change, and it seems that you have really cracked the code on bringing children to books and the experience of reading.
 
Let’s go back to the beginning. Tell me about the impetus to start Epic! Could you ever have imagined having the following you have right now?
 
Suren Markosian: I started about three and a half years ago. The reason was to actually solve my own problem with my own kids. I was observing my kids use the iPad, and I realized that it’s a great device, but there really isn’t a good experience with reading on the iPad with kids. And, also, there isn’t enough content.
 
For me, the biggest issue was that kids were not in control. As a parent, I had to go and buy individual books, download them to a device, and read them in some reading app that wasn’t designed for kids so that the kids wouldn’t engage with that experience.

Also, kids didn’t have a way to go and find the books they want to read as easily as a parent. For me, as a new parent, I didn’t really know what right books for my child or what were the “good” books.

ipad books
I thought someone has got to do something with this because we have videos available for kids now. They can go on YouTube and browse and watch videos that they should not be watching.
 
It’s the same with games. They can download any game they want, but they can’t read any book they want. At least, before Epic! - It was not possible.
 
I was a founder of several other companies before Epic! ─ two gaming companies; and given my background on the games and knowing how to engage users and how to create fine experiences, I thought I could actually solve the problem of bringing great books to the kids and engaging them in reading.
 
That was the inspiration behind starting Epic! Three and a half years ago, I got together with some of my friends and my co-founder, and we started the company.
 
RB: Tell us about the experience of bringing in content from lots of different places. I think that people have a misunderstanding of the way in which licensing can work and a way in which we can bring in rich content that has already been published or put out into the market in a way that students can experience in educational settings.
 
SM: It was very important for me to remove any friction between a book and a child. What was important is that they should not be any wait time. When a child wants to read a book, they should be able to read it immediately.
 
Videos are streaming these days. Why can’t we make the book stream?

And so, we developed a format that allows the books to be streamed so that a child can browse the library of books; and then they can tap on a book and, immediately, they would be able to read the book. There’s no wait time.

 
We had to go and talk to many different publishers. It turned out that there are a lot of wonderful publishers of beautiful children’s books who were interested in working with us on this model.
 
We started getting a lot of content from these publishers. We made them available on our streaming format. We’ve also built in an experience where it’s personalized so that we know the child’s age and we know what they’re interested in. And we present them their iBooks for their age and their interest.
 
And as they read more, Epic! learns about their preferences and interest and changes the books.
 
Kids are interested in so many things, and they change their interest very quickly ─ unlike adults. I’ve seen that with my son.
Epic! always adapts. As a child grow and develops, Epic! adapts and then Epic! shows them the books at their reading level and their interest.
 
RB: I had a chance to go into Epic! It was interesting because I’m a parent with two young kids. I noticed the “read to me” function where you can audibly hear the book read to you. I think that has far-reaching implications for young children who don’t have potentially the ability to have an adult read to them on a consistent basis.
What have you seen from your users with that functionality?
 
SM: What we hear is that the Read-to-Me service is a first step towards getting kids to love reading. A lot of the young kids who are not comfortable or don’t look confident yet in picking up a book and reading it get started with Read-to-Me.
 
And so, they first experience the beauty of combining the text with the audio, and then slowly start reading on their own.
 
There’s a teacher in Chicago who told us that a fifth-grader was reading at a kindergarten level. And then, she started experiencing these Read-to-Me books at the kindergarten level; and within just a few months, she became a proficient enough to jump up to where she’s now reading at a second-grade level.
 
RB: That’s a great story ─ the power of the audio. What do you envision in the future of reading? I think the streaming is very innovative in the way that you’ve looked at access and understanding how young people want to come in contact with content in books and videos.
 
What do you envision in the near future and have you given thought to the financial model because one of the challenges often in education is we can innovate and create, but that doesn’t mean that the education industry can afford to be able to partake in that innovation?
 
SM: I think the future of what we can offer to kids is just making this experience a little bit richer for kids discovering words they don’t know. If they’re not familiar with certain words, we can provide them the definition of the words right there; they can look them up in the dictionary.
 
We can improve our Read-to-Me experience by highlighting the words. When they listen to the books, they see the words that are being read to them highlighted at the same time.

Financially, I think we are on our way to make the model work. We have certain agreements with the publishers that, unfortunately, are confidential and we cannot disclose them. But our publishers are very happy with how we’re doing.

illustration children's book
If you look at the app store rankings, we’re number two in the kids and education categories.
 
And so, it’s working real well. Everyone is enjoying the experience. Kids love it. Parents, obviously, love the ability to offer so many books to their kids. And teachers love it because it solves a lot of problems within a classroom.
 
RB: I noticed that there were quizzes as a part of certain books within Epic! Do you see that as a growing trend? Obviously, assessment is a very big topic around global education. Do you see that becoming a part of Epic! in a more mainstream fashion?
 
SM: Yes. The quizzes you see in the books are actually teacher-created quizzes. We are allowing our teachers to create quizzes so that kids can take them at the end of the book. Teachers can either assign them in their classroom, or they can make them available to the entire user base of Epic! so any kid can enjoy the quizzes.
 
There is definitely a joining of hands where teachers are helping us provide better discovery and better content experience.
 
Quizzes, at the same time, are fun. Kids love taking these quizzes. In general, we’re trying to make this experience fun for kids.
 
It’s key actually to why kids love Epic! so much and they’re asking to use Epic! in the classroom and at home because it doesn’t feel like homework; it feels like fun.
 
It has great content. The quizzes are fun. They’re not the dry version. They’re actually fun. I made it, and you also experience this kind of a magical flipping of the pages and being able to access any book. The books are very relevant to what you like to read as a child.
 
The entire package together is why Epic! is so successful in schools.
 
RB: Let’s talk about this as we close down a little bit. You’ve had success in other areas ─ in gamification and those types of components. I would imagine that there’s quite a bit of pride for you when close down for the evening and you think about the impact that Epic! can have on a young person’s development.
 
If we also think about the other side of the coin, which is, when kids become disengaged in learning, often, it’s because they don’t have opportunities to personalize their learning in a student-driven or personal way. You’re providing an opportunity to change that course for a young person.
 
What is that like for you? You’ve been successful as a business owner and innovator. But what is it like to feel the impact you’ve had on young people?
 
SM: As I’ve mentioned, I founded several other companies previously. This is, by far, my favorite.
 
Getting emails every day from teachers and seeing our Twitter page full of kids reading in classrooms, group of kids reading in different settings ─ on their SMART boards or tablets or teachers reading to them ─ seeing the impact we’re making here.
 
I’ve never had a company that had such a huge impact on people.
 
Games are fun, but games don’t really provide anything more than just pure entertainment.
 
This actually solves very important problems and, at the same time, it gives kids access to the material that they would have never ever seen before. There are books on Epic! that I would never go and buy in the store because I just cannot go and buy 25,000 books. We are basically putting these great books in front of many kids.

It feels great hearing stories from teachers. It’s also very rewarding. We had some teachers the other day in their office telling us a story of a boy who became an avid reader. He was behind in his class. He was basically the boy who didn’t read at all. He became an avid reader. It was so touching that one teacher actually started crying because it was so emotional.

boy looking out tear wall
 
I’ve never had that experience that with any other projects I’ve worked on. And so, this is a very rewarding journey.
 
RB: Just from my perspective as a parent, I have two young kids under the age of five; we start to think of ways in which we can take the physical book ─ that experience that they have at nighttime ─ into the world that we know that they’re entering.
 
To be able to show them Epic! and to be able to very quickly look at and hear books that were age-appropriate for both of them was very exciting ─ and very quickly for them.
 
So, from a parent’s perspective, I thank you for your innovation and your commitment often the marginalized student - the younger student. Let’s remember it’s the younger student who loves technology who will probably teach you and I a thing or two, as they grow older. (laugh)
 
SM: One thing that I want to say before I go is if you really want a child to be interested in reading, they need to find the right book for them at the right moment.
These kids are interested in specific things, and their interest change. If they find the right book, they will become readers.
 
RB: Yes, to be able to search. We were researching last night with my son. He wanted to see books on bears and the Epic! search went quickly; we could see that he stayed engaged which was nice for the two of us, as parents.
 
Thank you.
 
SM: Thank you.
 
* This article was previously published by Dr. Rod Berger on The Huffington Post
 
About Suren Markosian (Co-Founder, Epic!)
Suren is the CEO and co-founder of Epic!, the next generation children’s digital media company. He is a successful, serial entrepreneur and founder of several consumer technology companies with several successful exits, including CrowdStar, which rose to become one of the largest social gaming companies with over 200M users, second only to Zynga. Among other companies Suren also founded List.am – the largest e-commerce company and the largest online destination and business in Armenia.
 
Having created and successfully scaled large consumer businesses to serve hundreds of millions of customers, Suren is an expert in product design, gamification, technology, scalability, consumer growth and marketing. Suren holds a degree in Physics from Vienna University of Technology and fluently speaks German, Russian and Armenian.
 
About Epic!
Founded in 2014 and based in Redwood City, CA, Epic! is a premium content and learning platform for kids 12 and under and 2016 recipient of the American Association of School Librarians’ Best App for Teaching and Learning and Best Website for Teaching and Learning. Epic! offers more than 20,000 e-books from leading publishers such as HarperCollins, Macmillan, Candlewick and National Geographic, and more than 1,500 educational videos from providers including Smithsonian Enterprises, Encyclopedia Britannica, the Columbus Zoo and many others.
 
Every piece of content on Epic’s platform is selected by a team of children’s content experts, and the company’s personal recommendation algorithms help kids discover new books and topics they will love. Epic! was founded by Suren Markosian, founder of several successful technology startups, and Kevin Donahue, former YouTube, Google and Disney executive, with the support of top-tier investors and veterans of the children’s publishing industry. To learn more about Epic!, visit http://www.getepic.com, or follow Epic! on Facebook and Twitter.
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