Startups

After 10 years and a ‘Shark Tank’ appearance, DC’s Beanstack is far from done

Founders Felix Lloyd and Jordan Lloyd Bookey began working on the edtech startup in 2013. Since then, the DC-founded company has changed its name, appeared on "Shark Tank" and planted roots in Pittsburgh — and it's still evolving.

The Beanstack team. (Courtesy photo)

When DC edtech company Beanstack made an appearance on a 2014 episode of “Shark Tank,” it achieved the dream most founders seek while trying their luck on the show: funding. But as it turned out, the television success wasn’t enough to get the founders’ initial idea off the ground.

“We got Mark Cuban as an investor, but we didn’t get a lot of sales,” cofounder Felix Lloyd told Technical.ly. “When it came on TV, we had lots of traffic, so it was clear that we were getting attention and that Shark Tank worked, but our product for that audience didn’t work. ”

Beanstack, at the time known as Zoobean, was only one year old when it appeared on the show. At the time, Lloyd and cofounder Jordan Lloyd Bookey were pitching a subscription box service for curated children’s books. But with the lack of success after the show, the model needed a change.

“It really was a feeling of hopelessness; I felt like a fraud,” Lloyd added. “We had all this attention, everybody thinks we’re a success, but we haven’t figured it out. And if this isn’t going to work and it’s not working, I don’t know what to do.”

Luckily, though, Lloyd and his team did manage to find a solution. Now, the company offers a software product for K-12 student-oriented reading challenges and partners with local schools and libraries. Built with Ruby on Rails for the web version and React for the mobile one, Beanstack helps students stay motivated by giving them tests and benchmarks, similar to how Duolingo helps people learn languages. Users can also comment, share and see what their friends are doing to keep them motivated. And this month, the company announced that it surpassed 5 billion minutes read on its platform.

Creating this structure and pushing for kids to continue reading, Lloyd said, helps increase children’s academic outcomes and benefits mental health. But it’s not something he would have figured out without the hit-and-miss of the “Shark Tank” appearance, which gave the company a chance to test its product and business model that it might not have had otherwise.

Now, the company is 35 people strong and operates remotely, with team members located in both DC and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the company’s CTO and much of its engineer and design team are based in the latter city. It also received funding from angel investors, Amazon’s Alexa Fund and Cuban (who committed additional funds beyond the “Shark Tank” experience), among others.

Going forward, Lloyd wants to lean more into gamification by adding features that inspire competition and collaboration and tuning more into the psychology of reading motivation. He’s also hoping to further build the company’s K-12 connections for students.

Looking back on the last decade, he said that the company has certainly grown, changed and learned a lot. But, he emphasized, there’s plenty more room to grow.

“It feels a bit like when you were a kid and now we feel like we’re in college,” Lloyd said. “We’re not like all the way up with retirement on the way, but I look back and it feels foolish in some ways, but a happy foolish. I feel grateful, kind of silly and not done yet.”

Companies: Zoobean
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