An Entrepreneur Focused On Empowering Children

By Paul Wood The News-Gazette, Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a high-tech difference maker. This week, meet MELANIE KEIL of Red Clover Reader, an online service specializing in the promotion of children's books.

The News-Gazette, Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

Melanie is co-creator of the online platform with fiancé Armand Tossou, who is completing a Ph.D. in applied economics. She earned a degree in environmental health and radiological science. Together they write books for children about the power of positive mindset and self-improvement.

Question: What is Red Clover Reader, in your own words?

Answer: Red Clover Reader is an early stage educational tech startup based in Champaign. We are creating a fun, online reading application where kids can read books online and parents can track their progress and create reading incentives. We provide safe, affordable and worthwhile online "edutainment" for children and bring greater diversity into children's literature by highlighting stories from a wide variety of independent and self-published authors. Our platform is currently in the testing phase.

Red Clover Reader was born out of our own struggles (my partner and I) as parents and self-published children's authors. As parents, we worried about what our kids were consuming online: Is it safe, is it worthwhile, does it align with our values? We were always looking for a great solution that was fun, educational, and affordable.

Question: And what problems do you solve?

Answer: When we wrote and published our first kids book, we realized that there are tons of self-published authors, like ourselves, who have great stories to tell, but lack the industry connections or the financial backing it takes to be traditionally published. We developed Red Clover Reader to solve both problems. We provide families free access to fun online content that they feel good about and give independent authors a chance to share their stories with a wider audience.

Question: Is Red Clover Reader available on all platforms?

Answer: Our vision for Red Clover Reader includes web, iOS and Android application availability. Right now, we are focusing on the web application. Parents do not need to invest in a specialized reader like Kindle or LeapFrog to take advantage of our offerings.

Question: How does it allow users to share creative work with the right audience?

Answer: First, independent authors get exposure by listing their eBooks, audios, videos and animations for free on our platform (the e-reader). Parents and kids can read any of these eBooks and play any of the audios, videos and animations for free. This gives parents and kids an opportunity to get to know the authors, to hear their personal stories and to get acquainted with their creative work. Second, authors list their print books and related merchandise (for example, mugs, T-shirts, hats, backpacks) on the Red Clover Reader boutique. Parents can purchase these items directly through our platform once they are interested in supporting an author.

Question: Users can list your eBooks for free. Can you add audio and video versions?

Answer: Yes. Authors can add any media content they like, including audios, videos and animations. We plan on introducing more enhanced content in the future, including online educational games, curriculum and activity sheets.

Question: Is there a charge for any of the services?

Answer: Parents can use any of the available materials for free to educate and entertain their kids. We do not charge independent authors to feature their books on the e-reader or to list their books and merchandise for promotion. When a transaction takes place, we keep a small commission to sustain the platform.

Question: What kinds of books are available?

Answer: Authors in our community write in most of the popular kids' genres, such as adventure fiction, fantasy fiction, realistic fiction, poetry and verse, concept books, and faith-based books. Also, Red Clover Reader focuses on promoting value-based content. These books are written to help kids develop much needed non-cognitive abilities that will accompany them into adulthood. Examples of such values are self-confidence, imagination, courage, and persistence.

Question: What else do you offer?

Answer: Parents can "invite" their favorite kids' authors into their homes in a virtual way. This is through an ongoing two-way communication between parents and authors. Also, authors get direct feedback from parents which can be very useful in writing new books. Additionally, parents share comments and suggestions with like-minded parents. This creates a sense of community among our users.

Question: How did you become an entrepreneur?

Answer: I have always been an entrepreneur, in one form or another. I used to manage a small landscaping business in upstate New York. I also sold food at farmers markets. As a mother, I am particularly interested in working on novel solutions to meaningful social challenges especially in early childhood development.

Question: What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?

Answer: Believe in yourself and your bold ideas for making the world a better place for all. Find a local community of entrepreneurs. Put yourself out there. Get feedback from potential customers and successful entrepreneurs in your space. Stay committed to your personal values and focus on creating something useful to society. Surround yourself with people who will push you to be your best self.

Question: Did you ever make any mistakes that you learned from in your early years?

Answer: We sure did. Though we are still an early stage startup, we have made a few mistakes that were also learning opportunities. For instance, we started out trying to do too many things at the same time. From pitching to experts both within and outside the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, we realized we would be more successful focusing on a single value proposition, that of connecting parents and authors.


Question: Do you have an entrepreneur hero?

Answer: I find Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, quite a role model. Without technical skills (i.e., coding) and formal business training, he has successfully led the Airbnb ship down quite a successful path.

Question: What are you reading right now?

Answer: I am reading "The Airbnb story" currently. This amazing book by Leigh Gallagher takes you on a journey with Airbnb, from its inception to the present. The Airbnb story is quite inspiring and relevant for Red Clover Reader.

Question: What about websites?

Answer: We are looking for volunteers (parents and kids) to test our platform and give us feedback. Please check out the Red Clover Reader website.

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