Wake Forest-based Toggle Book Factory lets children interact with reading in a new way. This time, as the authors of their own stories.
The startup, which will be presenting at CED’s Venture Connect conference on April 7, is the brainchild of Marc Mailand. Mailand spent years working for children’s television shows at Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney before 15 years as a sound designer for video game developers like Insomniac Games and Boss Key Productions.
Two years ago, Mailand saw an opportunity to create a new kind of entertainment company, one that could potentially transform the book industry in similar ways to how television and film have innovated over the past few decades.
The most recent book technological development came with ebooks, using 1990s technology, Mailand said. But there were plenty of ways to innovate children’s books, and that’s exactly what Toggle Book Factory’s first product aims to capitalize on.
On the platform, children can create personalized books for themselves instead of just reading stories that were created by adults.
The Toggle Book Builder is a web-based application that enables children to put their name on the book and interact with a fun robot who helps them create their own character, choosing from 11 different hairstyles and four different skin tones. Kids choose their own outfit, pick the color of the book and then start to make choices that will affect the story.
When the book arrives in the mail two weeks later, Mailand hopes that kids will be more invested in the stories, and in reading in general, since they were part of the creative process.
“Toggle Book Factory’s mission is to enrich the lives of families by providing innovative books, world-class stories, and cutting-edge technology that inspires children to read for pleasure,” Mailand said. “Our philosophy is to embrace various learning preferences, encourage imagination, and celebrate diversity. We believe this philosophy will lead to new and exciting presentations of written stories and help more children become lifelong readers.”
By presenting books in new, innovative ways, Toggle Book Factory is working to reverse recent statistics that found only around 35 percent of children in the US are reading at grade level in fourth grade, he said. From age 9 into the teens, the number of hours that children spend reading declines exponentially, Mailand added.
Children ages 3-8 are the sweet spot to create their own books through Toggle Book Factory, but parents of younger children have also shown interest in creating their own Toggle book for their child.
So far, Toggle has sold around 500 books total since launching its MVP in 2020, but much of the previous time was spent building out the platform and raising money.
The pandemic initially slowed Toggle Book Factory down, as Mailand originally planned to start raising money in April of 2020. When getting in front of investors seemed less likely, he elected to self-fund and focus on building out Toggle.
He also had to adjust expectations for offering Toggle Book Factory literacy events at preschools. Most preschools delayed these events until coronavirus rates improved, but as time has passed, there is now more interest than ever.
“I think it’s going to set us up nicely for more explosive growth in the future when we don’t have these little barriers that are kind of holding us up a little bit,” Mailand said.
This year will mark the first year Toggle is selling all year long, and revenue has already matched last year’s just a few months into 2022. Mailand anticipates it to be the biggest year of growth yet.
“I’m an impatient person, so it’s been a little slower than I expected,” Mailand said. “But this year, I think, is going to be our big year.”
Toggle Book Factory is also releasing new gift boxes this year that come with gift certificates, stickers and bookmarks. What’s more, the startup is slated to announce a retail partnership this spring and hopes to raise a seed round between $1-$3 million later this year.
Guilt-free screen time
Finding ways to get rid of friction and pain points has been key throughout Mailand’s startup journey. To meet that end, Mailand said Toggle is planning to launch an app for its books, reading to the children in different voices.
Mailand is continuously looking at what can be better about Toggle Book Factory’s offerings and how to expand the startup to become an overall bridge between technology and books. He wants parents to have the option of providing guilt-free screen time, where kids can spend a half hour or more on a screen just reading books.
Mailand had the option to go looking for another game job after his last game studio closed down, which likely would have entailed moving around the country or the world. But he made a choice to stay because of what the Triangle could potentially offer.
“One of the reasons I was motivated to start Toggle is I thought that there was just a lot of opportunity here, to, in a sense, almost grow another entertainment industry,” Mailand said.
Venture Connect offers an opportunity for Toggle Book Factory to get the word out. They’re looking to invest in marketing and enter a period of explosive growth, Mailand said.
“Being in my 40s, and having kids, time is really precious with my startup,” Mailand said. “I spend a lot of my time building and working and not a lot of time networking, so I’m looking forward to the network opportunity.”