12 min read
The thing that hooked me about Vooks wasn’t merely its pull as a parent of two school-aged kids, but its cozying effect for my own unmoored self in this pandemic age. That dual appeal is distilled in Kate Winslet’s hushed reading of Kitty O’Meara’s of-this-moment And the People Stayed Home. But it’s distributed across the site, which brings classic and contemporary children’s books to life with original animation from graphic designer and visual storyteller Russell Hirtzel and narration from, yes, Kate Winslet, but also up-and-coming voice talent like Mia Bankston, who ushers kids through Beautiful Shades of Brown, author Nancy Churnin’s adaptation of Harlem Renaissance artist Laura Wheeler Waring’s life story.
Yes, there is a business model: Vooks costs $4.99 a month after a 30-day free trial, because licensing the likes of Margret and H.A. Rey’s Curious George catalog and rendering the books anew as nearly three-dimensional works of virtual art necessitates some kind of buy-in. As circumstances would have it, the pandemic created a potentially captive audience of device-weary moms and dads eager to cut down on screen time but not quite ready to make their sons and daughters go cold turkey. That’s not what founder/CEO and longtime branding exec Marshall Bex IV counted on when he ideated Vooks in 2018, but he and his co-founder and chief communications officer (and sister) Shannon Bex — who was once one-fifth of Diddy-curated pop phenomenon Danity Kane — have done their best to rise to the occasion as a business and public good.
Brother and sister co-founders Marshall (l) and Shannon Bex, along with animator and partner Russell Hirtzel.
Image credit: Vooks
We recently caught up with both Bexes, as well as Hirtzel, from their respective workspaces in Portland, Oregon, where Vooks is based. The three leaders, who very much identify and present as co-conspirators, walked us through the business’s innovative platform; the process of persuading publishers to sign on; their eagerness to co-exist alongside similar services; and the benefits of launching a company out of the Pacific Northwest.
Kids are finally getting back to school. How do you think that’s going to affect engagement with Vooks after what I imagine was a spike in interest with so many working parents keeping homebound children occupied?
Marshall: We saw the opportunity in Vooks before Covid, so we knew that teaching kids how to get excited about reading early on was something that would be very special for them. Covid definitely saw the opportunity of parents wanting to make sure their kids were learning new things and that the 2-to-8-year-olds who were focused on reading stayed really engaged. So we saw a spike in the beginning of Covid. After Covid goes away or whatever this new normal ends up being, we are now going to have more digital access to the parents and kids and teachers. And then we’re also going to be seen more in a physical form for kids to be using on their TV, just like they do Netflix and Disney+. So it’s going to come back into some kind of normal rhythm, but I feel like what was going to take about five or six years of advancement got crunched down into like 15 months.
Russell, from the creative standpoint, how did you balance attention to detail with the unexpected rise in demand for available product?
Hirtzel: My standpoint has always been that kids don’t get the credit they deserve with the content that they’re given. A lot of times the content for kids is dumbed down. It’s treated just for entertainment value, and that’s where you see a lot of kids turning into zombies when they’re watching stuff. So our focus has always been — before this, during this, after this — that we want to give the kids the quality content that they deserve. We don’t cut corners on that, and I think it makes a difference, and I think that they can see it and their parents can see it, and that’s always our mission.
And Shannon, how did that same tension translate when it came to the pace of licensing new titles?
Shannon: That’s a daily conversation. And you know, we take very specific care in our curation of our content. We have some amazing contractors whom we brought on who have such history in the publishing industry and licensing. I handle all of our licensing agreements, and I get conversations [with rights-holders] going, but when we pick the content, it’s not just to have anything up. It’s specific to make sure we’re not turning into a cartoon channel and just grabbing any IP that’ll grab the kids’ attention. When they come into Vooks, they’re walking into a library. We’re looking at [creating] maybe a thousand titles, if not a little bit more, but we’re not trying to overwhelm the consumer. We’re really trying to help their experience be rich.
Vooks is a fairly idealistic for-profit concept, but it is for-profit. How did you go about sizing up potential competition like Kanopy Kids, or actual libraries’ online adjuncts?
Marshall: We didn’t look around us to see what the competitors were doing or historically what was there. And there’s a company called Weston Woods that was around for a long time that created a similar kind of content, but never words on the screen. A lot of these other competitors are just for eBooks. I was looking at apps for my youngest daughter. She would just click on the sounds, and she wouldn’t let them finish, or she wouldn’t get engaged with the eBooks. And what we saw coming from our backgrounds in music and marketing was we knew that the consumer needed this product, and they didn’t even really know that they needed it. As a parent, when you have a kid who doesn’t like reading real books or is inundated with the new digital landscape, you need to get in front of them with content that is paced very purposefully; that’s a slow pace that allows them to think, allows them to increase their imagination. When kids are into their repetitive mode of learning and retention, they can start seeing the animation at one point in time and then start associating words with it. I built Vooks so that my youngest daughter would choose it over YouTube or Netflix. I kind of say that I apply that Fred Rogers lens, because kids who are going to be watching this stuff by themselves need to be able to digest what the content is saying.
So you don’t feel like Vooks poses an existential threat to physical books?
Marshall: I don’t think so.
Shannon: That’s definitely been a conversation. My background in the music industry was I launched my first album the year that physical sales started to decline and streaming started to come up. So I saw that 15-year struggle as the music industry tried to find that pace of consumer behavior, what they really wanted and how they want their content. And realistically, if we don’t get books in front of kids in the way they’re used to digesting, how are we going to spark that love of reading for them to make them lifelong readers? So we’re just trying to come alongside publishers and actually be a digital-strategy partner that gets their content in front of millions of users around the globe and helps them push and strategize to get these physical books to the kids. I’ve had a lot of consumers and teachers say, “My kid has a favorite Vooks story, and they actually want the tangible book.” And it’s amazing.
There’s been no reluctance, then, from publishers who view Vooks as inherently at odds with their mission?
Shannon: No, that line hasn’t happened. It’s more the type of rights that are available to be licensed. If they’ve already been given away in a different capacity, like an enhanced eBook, they fear it might be too similar to what we’re doing. So it’s just having that conversation and educating them on how we actually carved out unique rights so that we don’t interfere with other ancillary opportunities. And that’s a growing relationship and conversation. We’re still the new kids on the block, but we’ve been received very well.
You guys had some capital reserves from your respective careers, but were there still challenges going from ideation to execution?
Marshall: Me and Russell helped large companies like Nike, Gatorade, PepsiCo and Verizon launch first-iteration products to test in the marketplace. So we knew how to scale up really fast and to iterate quickly and then see if it was going to be a success in the market. I initially fronted it the first year, and then my accountant was like, “You’re running out of money.” I was like, “I just need two more months. We’re so close.” We landed some of our seed rounds in June 2019, finalized our series A in 2020, and then we just closed our series B in December 2020.
Shannon: It went from, “We’re running out of money” to, “We’re moving so fast, we need to keep propelling.”
I always like to ask how someone with no access to capital gets a creative idea off the ground. So what does someone with a million-dollar concept but no cash do to pursue their dream?
Hirtzel: The joke is you have to get a hundred nos before you get your first yes. And our joke was that we were well overdue for our first yes. For a long time, we had a lot of people tell us they couldn’t see the vision, how it worked. But every single pitch that we did made the next pitch better. We’d hear a problem from one person, so we’d fix it for the next pitch. And that just continued on until finally our pitch was so dialed-in that our investors were telling us that it was the best early stage pitch they’d ever seen. But it took us multiple hundreds of pitches to get there. You’ve just got to keep going. You just don’t give up.
Marshall: On the agency side, Russell and I always waded out into the water and just took the next step, took the next step, took the next step. With Vooks, we knew all the steps we needed to take, so we just jumped off a cliff and got right in. You just have to believe in yourself and take action towards that. And just small steps. You hear people say, “Don’t let people tell you you can’t do it” or whatever, but it’s kind of true, because you have to invest for the long run. You can’t just be a day trader.
Shannon: I think the first thing is saying yes to yourself and your vision for sure. And it helps to have a support group. I mean, having Marshall and Russell on my side during this — I’m just so blessed with that. Not that you want “yes” people around you. Because I’ve also seen the dangers of just having people who tell you yes. So it is a balance. So much of your career and life is being self-aware. What is your purpose behind your passion? Is it really from the heart? This was evolved from a father’s heart, you know? Yes, we have the experiences and the backgrounds that we have, but the heart was Marshall wanted his daughter to love to read, and Russell’s heart is he wants quality, and in my heart I just want everyone to be happy. [Laugher]
You’re saying being in the music industry didn’t lead to happiness?
[Laughs] That’s a whole other conversation I could have.
Lastly, I have to ask: What’s the upside to basing Vooks out of Portland, Oregon?
Hirtzel: My wife and I joke that whenever we’re traveling, we’re always comparing everything to Portland because Portland’s got everything you could want. I mean, it rains a bit, but not as much as other places. It’s weird and fun, and that’s a good thing.