By: Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission
Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote about Epic — about how the company had just reeled in a $30 million investment and how its model was different. It gives away its reading platform stocked with well-known books to teachers and school libraries.
Back then, the company was five years old and already had some promising road behind it. The investment aside, by January of 2019 more than 10 million children had read 500 million books on the platform. It had a library of 35,000 books for readers 12 and under. At the time, I wrote, “maybe a streaming, subscription-based platform built for kids and with a focus on learning and reading, one with millions of existing users, has a future.”
Two years later, it appears that possible future is now because in 2020 Epic ran up some eye-popping numbers.
In the past year alone, the company moved from 20 million child readers to more than 50 million. In 2020, kids read more than one billion books on their platform – a billion with a “b. “Half of those, five hundred million books, were read by new readers. Now, more than one million teachers use Epic to assign, track and curate reading. It’s not just volume either. The company says that in 2020, individual reading time, the amount spent per student per book is up 60%.
“We have been amazed and really exited by this year,” said Kevin Donahue, co-founder of Epic. “From the beginning, we’d been building a foundation for the success we are now seeing, always giving it for free to schools and teachers, and that has started to pay off,” he said. That, “massive growth” is “core to what we do,” Donahue said.
Donahue and co-founder and CEO Suren Markosian always planned to build a company with a robust, for-profit, consumer-facing structure, but with a “soul” built around inspiring reading, they said. That, they both said, is what has helped them reach another significant milestone.
“That core has made us a brand that everyone recognizes,” Markosian said. “And we’ve become a profitable company as a result.” Epic sells a subscription service for $7.99 a month.
There’s no question that the path to millions of users and profitability was shortened by the Covid-19 pandemic and the reliance on home learning and technology that came with it. But the company’s accomplishments are appreciable, nonetheless. And maybe more importantly, though the company may have benefited from the realities of pandemic learning, it’s clear that kids did too — probably more so. A 60% bump in reading time is eye popping. There’s other evidence of one student-level benefit too.
“Anecdotally,” Donahue said, “we have a ton of information about how we helped fill learning gaps for young learners this year.” In one example, Donahue says a teacher reached out to thank them because she’d had a student who had dropped off attending virtual classes — a troublingly common and well-documented occurrence of remote learning, especially among younger students. In this case though, Donahue said, “the teachers realized that the student was continuing to use Epic, reading books even though they were not in class. And the teacher was able to build a bridge to the student by suggesting and assigning reading and keep apprised of progress though the platform directly.”
Looking ahead, it’s easy to forecast the company will continue to grow, building on the counter-intuitive idea of giving away their product. “We’re going to be leaning into more free products and materials,” Donahue said. He also added that while there is “a lot more growth to be seen domestically, there’s a lot of growth to be seen around the world too.” They don’t plan to focus internationally, just recognize the opportunities.
For Markosian and Donahue, where they are and where they may go is understandably exciting, but in ways that relate to their initial vision. “What was really exciting to us is that we started the company with a simple vision to serve kids, help them have better access to reading materials,” Donahue said. “And that has gone beyond our wildest dreams. It’s a healthy, growing business and we’re really hitting big numbers and just getting started. It’s a much bigger opportunity than even we realized.”