Each week, Female CoFounder features a female founder in the community. Follow along each week and learn from different founders and their journeys.
FcF: Tell us about yourself?
Maya: I was born and raised in Winnipeg and was on the path to a career in healthcare when I completed a Science Degree at the U of M. In my final year, when decisions needed to be made, I knew I wanted a different path so I took a risk and changed directions completely. I was accepted into business school at Simon Fraser University in BC and right after graduation I moved to Toronto to find my first job. I was fortunate enough to land a position working closely with the CEO as the first marketing hire for a small, but quickly growing, entrepreneurial company in the customer service industry called 24-7 Intouch. The company growth took off and I ended up spending 15 years growing and scaling the business closely with the two Founders, holding several leadership positions in marketing, sales and corporate strategy. The company brought me back to Winnipeg after I started my family and just two years ago, I took another big risk and ventured out to start Hoot Reading with my close friend and cofounder Carly Shuler. Carly was doing some amazingly innovative things in literacy and technology and I was excited to join her to make a difference in families' lives.
FcF: What is Hoot Reading?
Maya: Hoot Reading is an online education service that connects kids with real classroom teachers, to practice reading over video chat. Lessons happen online over our proprietary App, which was incubated at Sesame Street Workshop (the creators of Sesame Street).
Over 60% of 4th graders read below grade level, making them unable to make the leap from "learning to read" to "reading to learn". This is called the 4th grade reading slump and has a long term impact on children's learning and beyond. The best way to become a confident, proficient reader is through daily practice and every child, no matter level - from struggling to gifted - need to practice reading out loud for 15-20 minutes each day. Hoot Reading's mission is to close the gap on the 4th grade reading slump and build independent, confident, lifelong learners.
As a double bottom line social enterprise, we achieve this through two models:
FcF: How did you come up with Hoot Reading?
Maya: The technology developed to power Hoot Reading was based on a research project at Sesame Workshop (and their internal think-tank, The Joan Ganz Cooney Center) to understand how video chat applications like Skype could support cooperative play and learning at a distance. My co-founder, Carly Shuler was one of the leads on this project over a decade ago. The idea was too good to stay in the lab, so we got the rights to build the App that powers Hoot today.
Fast forward two years ago, Carly and I (who are very close friends) were out for lunch when we discussed my personal challenges as a parent with a child who was struggling to read. The options for tutoring and supporting my child were inconvenient and expensive. We came up with the idea to use our App to bridge distance and connect highly skilled teachers with students, from the comfort of their homes.
The timing was right for both of us to start this venture together with our unique skill sets and Hoot Reading was born. We both have a strong passion for literacy and supporting parents (and teachers) on their journey to help kids learn to read.
FcF: What were the first three steps you took after you knew you wanted to pursue this idea?
1) Product/Market Fit - Could we confirm a child would engage with our program? Would parents see value in our offering? We did a summer pilot with 15 students entering Gr.2 to see if they liked and engaged with our concept. The results were through the roof! Kids and parents both loved the convenience and overall experience with our program. Over 50% of our pilot parents converted to paying users when we launched our Beta three months post pilot. Today, we have had consistent user growth each month with very high retention numbers.
2) Supply Scalability - Could we hire real, classroom teachers at a competitive rate that would meet our margin goals? YES! We posted the opportunity on a few Facebook groups and Carly's Harvard email list and we got 100's of applications! We knew we could scale and had a large waiting list of highly qualified teachers.
3) Fundraise - Would investors believe in our idea and business model? YES! We raised Angel funding quickly after the pilot. Our angels believed in Hoot's purpose and potential, but more importantly they believed in us as cofounders.
FcF: If you are CoFounder, how did you meet your CoFounder? What do you look for in finding your CoFounders?
Maya: Carly and I met through our husbands (who were friends in high school) on a trip through Southeast Asia almost 20 years ago! We stayed in touch after our trips and when we both moved into parenthood, we both ended up moving to Winnipeg, MB (where I was raised and her husband was from) around a similar time and deepened our friendship. Today, our kids (one girl and one boy each) are very close friends, our husbands work at the same company together, and we live two streets down from each other! We are so fortunate to be business partners and often say we are "friends who are like family". We both have unique skill sets that enable us to own our roles in the business, but also complement each other. When we argue (and we do) we always touch base with each other to make sure everyone feels heard and listened to.
FcF: What advice do you have for other women who have a start-up idea or side project idea?
Maya: Hone and practice telling your story. What are you selling (in 1-2 sentences) and why are you passionate about your business? The new selling is storytelling. If you can personalize what your business means to you, you will get the right attention from customers and investors!
FcF: How can the Female CoFounder community help you?
Maya: Please help amplify our voice and to help us spread the word about Hoot Reading to parents! Our program is perfect for kids in K to Gr. 6 who are at all reading levels. We offer lessons in both English and French through our distinct programs: 1) Hoot Jr program for preschoolers, 2) Hoot Tutor for struggling or reluctant readers, and 3) Hoot Enrich for kids who need to keep up their academic success and accelerate in their reading proficiency.
FcF: How can people get in touch with you?
Maya: Give Hoot a try! Our first lesson is always FREE to try, giving parents (and kids) the chance to experience our amazing and unique service first-hand. No contracts or credit cards required. All you need is an iPad and Wifi. You can book online on our website at hootreading.com/freesession.
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Hoot Reading Website