Dave Rader created the idea for BookBugs – an online children’s book retailer that donates books to kids in need and closes the book access gap – while getting his MBA. As the son of two educators and the husband of a pediatrician, he was inspired to build a company that could create sustainable profits while also improving the lives of children. BookBugs is the embodiment of that vision. SEE Change recently spoke with the former management consultant and digital media whiz at Walt Disney Company about his foray into social entrepreneurship and his vision for helping more children read.
What inspired the launch of this social venture? What issues were you trying to address?
Education has always been a major concern of mine – which I guess is to be expected when your mother is a teacher and your father runs an education advocacy organization. When I started to read about the powerful consumer trends toward companies with a social mission, I knew there must be consumers out there like me who want to buy from companies that care deeply about education. My friend Ryan and I started talking about how to shape that movement toward educational outcomes and together we came up with the idea for BookBugs.
We wanted to give consumers the chance to support children’s literacy without really changing their purchasing habits. Our message is: keep buying books like you normally would but know that when you do, you’ll be helping children who need it. We also realized that there really isn’t a great place to buy books just for kids; big box retailers currently dominate the market. So by building a store that was just for parents and kids, and combining that with a mission to help improve kids’ education, we felt like we could offer something new and appealing to a wide range of customers.
Why books? What’s the attraction to this industry?
Books are fundamentally important to child and community development – but only with access to them. Studies show that 80% of preschool and after-school programs for low-income populations lack age-appropriate books for their children, and also that middle-income households have about 14 books per child while low-income neighborhoods have only one book for every 300 children. We wanted to find an industry where we could really make a difference in children’s lives, so closing this book gap seemed like an initiative worth all the effort we can give it.
How does the initiative work? What are your goals?
In the short term, we wanted to create a minimum viable product and keep things simple: make a site to sell books, and just try to get books to kids in need. We think we’ve accomplished that basic structure. In the longer term, we hope to find ways to boost kids’ efforts to improve their reading. Parents are always looking for ways to challenge their children and we think we have some good potential solutions to help them, such as partnering with Lexile to ensure parents can find books tailored to the right reading level for their child, an effort which – among others – we hope to expand as we build our company.
Our social mission will continue to be at the core of who we are and we hope to expand those partnerships to broaden our impact, and also hope to get our customers even more directly involved as opportunities to do so arise. Millennial parents want to teach their children about the value of giving back, so we strive to provide opportunities for them to do so.
Why did you decide on the for-profit model? How does it benefit your mission?
Our mission is to get books to kids. A common way to accomplish that is as a non-profit that collects money or books from donors and donates those to children in need. That is great, admirable, and essential to social impact; but it relies on donors’ kindness and ability to give and seldom involves a level of resources that permits tailoring donated books to kids’ needs and interests. First, we didn’t want to rely on consumers doing anything that they weren’t already doing – over $3B is spent on children’s books every year, and if we can harness that economic activity and drive it toward book donations, the impact we could have is immense, and we would not have to rely on donors ourselves.
Second, being for-profit incentivizes us to invest our profits into making the book-buying process better for everyone: the more successful our company, the more we can invest in improving the process for people to purchase books, hopefully encouraging more readership. And distinguishing ourselves from many book donation non-profits, an independent and reliable revenue stream permits us to purchase new books for kids. It also ensure they are books that kids actually want and their parents and teachers want them to have – as opposed to relying on book drives or excess publisher inventory – which is paramount to having an impact on these kids’ ability and desire to read. At the end of the day, being for-profit gives us some money to donate to kids in need, and some money to invest to better serve our customers, allowing us to spread the joy of reading in both directions.
How important are partnerships to achieving your mission?
Hugely important. We don’t intend to be a service provider, nor do we think it’s efficient for a retailer to be an expert in reading metrics or other educational services, so we need to partner with organizations that do those things well. To start, our partners at Compass Youth Collaborative are already providing educational resources to kids in inner city Hartford, helping them read and shaping their futures. We partner with Compass and similar organizations in order to make the biggest impact possible. Meanwhile, Lexile – one of our contractual partners – has invested significantly in algorithms to determine how challenging a book is to read. And we just signed a new partnership agreement with the Children’s Literacy Foundation. CLiF spreads the love of reading to low-income, at-risk, and rural children in nearly 400 communities across New Hampshire and Vermont.
We say, let the experts be the experts and let implementers implement – let’s rely on their work, but build on it and fuel it, to ensure the best end result for kids and consumers. We also feel strongly that there should be a partnership connection even for transactional relationships. Whenever possible, we strive to hire organizations for web design or other services we need to run our company that believe in our mission. We strongly believe that we will end up with a better product if it’s created by someone who shares our passion for kids and literacy.