Inspired by his childhood, Joe Heinzen founded Zoozil in 2013 with a mission to turn young reluctant readers into avid readers.
Zoozil is an educational software developer that offers original, downloadable e-books for children. In 2015, the company participated in the Lighthouse Labs business accelerator in Richmond, but it has since done what many startups do as they evolve: It has pivoted.
From its original goal of getting its own e-readers into school systems, Zoozil is now broadening its approach. To reach the home-school and mass consumer markets, it plans to make its books available for download soon from its website, Zoozil.com, for use on any device.
“We have continued to chip away and make progress,” Heinzen said. “We have grown and expanded our team.”
The company’s book catalog has grown to 60 titles, all authored exclusively for Zoozil.
“We expect to have 100 by the end of this year,” Heinzen said.
The company made a key addition in December by hiring Dean Shaban as chief content officer. A graduate of Princeton University with a master’s degree in fine arts from Emerson College in Boston, Shaban is the author of nine children’s stories and a collection of poetry. He also has taught English at the college level and previously worked at Barefoot Books, a children’s publishing house in Cambridge, Mass.
“The underlying premise [of Zoozil] is what drew me to it,” Shaban said. “It is the ability to produce original and imaginative content that can make a difference in a child’s life.
“Zoozil is the only company that does what we do. There is no other digital, choose-your-own-path adventure-style publisher out there.”
Most of the company’s titles focus on historical events and personalities and on science and technology subjects — and all are “change the story” books written with multiple plot paths. That allows the reader to make decisions and select the story’s direction at key points. The books include animations at those points to emphasize to children the significance of decision-making in historical and personal outcomes.
“At the root of all our stories is choice,” said Heinzen, who said Zoozil’s approach is what transformed him from a Northern Virginia kid who struggled with reading into an avid reader.
“All the choices you think don’t matter throughout your life, do matter. You see the impact of those choices.”
For instance, one of Zoozil’s books, titled “Eureka,” is about Nobel Prize-winning physician Alexander Fleming’s discovery of the antibiotic penicillin.
“Children are able to engage and feel that eureka moment as Alexander Fleming has it,” Shaban said. “It is almost like a discovery within the book.”
Zoozil’s software also can track how much progress children are making reading its books, and what words they look up in the dictionary. That can give parents and educators insights into how a child might need help.
Zoozil is working with a team of about 30 contract writers, illustrators, editors, animators and others to create its books. To be successful in the consumer market, the company needs to continue building its book catalog.
“Raising money locally has been a challenge,” Heinzen said. “As a result of that, I have had to go outside of Richmond to raise money.”
In March, the company initiated a Kickstarter campaign lasting through April 11 to raise $10,000. The successful campaign will allow the company to introduce its books to a wider audience via its website, where books could be downloaded for a per-book fee or a monthly membership fee.