Sproutkin, a newly launched subscription service for children’s books, has raised an initial, but undisclosed (and still ongoing) seed round of under $1 million from investors which include 500 Startups, the TechFellow Fund, and other angels. Like the tagline implies, the startup is introducing a Netflix for children’s books – that is, it’s a rental service where you pay to receive shipments of new books on a regular basis, but you don’t necessarily get to keep them.
The company was founded by Raelyn Bleharski, a former lawyer with two kids of her own, alongside ex-Airtime folks Alda Dennis and Mark Jen. Like most startups in the kids or family apps space, Bleharski says she was inspired to build Sproutkin out of a personal need. When kids are young, she explains, you’re reading to them nearly every night, making it difficult to maintain a constant supply of quality, new books. “It takes a lot of time – I don’t think people realize that,” she says of her trips to local libraries and stores. Plus, she adds, “when you’re ordering off Amazon, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. And once you read it, it’s kind of done.”
Sproutkin works with a small educational advisory board to select its books, which includes a current preschool teacher plus two well-experienced former educators, each with 30 years of teaching experience behind them who have also worked in the past on developing the curriculum and standards in different states.
Parents of children ages 3 to 6 can subscribe to Sproutkin’s service, receiving a shipment of 10 books at a time, which are generally centered around a theme. For example, the company sent me and my daughter a sample shipment, which focused on problem-solving. The box included some older and classic tales like “Caps for Sale” and “Harry and the Lady Next Door,” as well as newer books like “Big Pumpkin” and “My Daddy Snores,” to give you an idea. I can report that my child loves them a lot. (And that I’m sick of reading them repeatedly, which speaks to the need Sproutkin fills for the parents.)
The books shipment also includes a card with follow-up activities, trivia and other questions mom or dad can ask to spur on kids’ imaginations. And at the bottom of the box, there’s a return label, so when you’re finished, you can just drop it in the mail and get a fresh batch of books. Bleharski notes that, unlike Netflix, parents can actually go online and request the new shipment before the old one is mailed so there doesn’t have to be a time frame where you’re without books to read. In addition, parents have the option to buy any of the books their child has really bonded with, instead of having to send them back.
A newly launched baby books vertical (ages 0-2) is also available, but because babies like to bite, chew and tear up their books, it’s not a rental service. Instead, parents receive two or three books and a baby toy to keep. These books aren’t centered around a theme, but are rather focused on a developmental stage, like stimulating the child’s vision, for instance. The infant/toddler service has an inventory of about 100 books, while the service for older children has 300 to 400 titles at present.
Both services are $24.99 per month, but Bleharski tells us that the company may play around with price points – maybe offering fewer books or limiting ordering to once per month to bring costs down. Speaking as an (arguably somewhat thrifty) parent myself, I believe Sproutkin has to find a way to bring the cost down for something like this to reach a more mainstream audience. Though it’s certainly easier than spending time at a local bookstore or library, and more affordable than actually buying 10 new books at retail, the price is still steep considering that you’re not even keeping the books. Local thrift shops and yard sales are rife with used kids books for the taking, often at ridiculously cheap prices like a quarter each. If you can handle a little wear-and-tear (and kids can), it’s a way to keep book selections fresh for a lot less.
In addition, Sproutkin competes with another newly launched, subscription-based kids’ books service called The Little Book Club which send parents 3 books they can own for $24.95. There are also other “Netflix for kids’ books” services out there, like Bookpig, for instance. (Meanwhile, earlier competitors like Excite! Books and Grow Up with Books didn’t make it.)
And it’s hard to not point out that Sproutkin also goes up against the iPad and other tablets where a number of companies and startups offer digital books, including iStoryTime, MeeGenius, MeMeTales, Nosy Crow, Bookboard, StoryBots, StoryPanda, and FarFaria (to name a few – hold the emails, please! I know there are tons!), not to mention the dozens of standalone book apps. Some of these use a Netflix-like subscription model, too.
Bleharski says that Sproutkin will also compete on digital, however. ”The main problem I found with my daughter when buying books on the iPad is that it’s always been very low quality, and not something she continues to be interested in,” Bleharski says. ”I want her to be able to read books she actually loves on the iPad.”
The company plans to use the funding to develop a digital app which parents can either add on to the main service or subscribe to separately. Talks with publishers are underway now, she tells us. The hope is that the digital app will be good enough to get kids to choose a book over a game.
The digital app is not yet available, but parents can sign up for the subscription-based books by mail service here.