Melissa and Matt Hammersley got the idea for Novel Effect when they were expecting their first child, Eleanor. They wanted to create something that would help them bond as a family and use technology to bring a little more magic into her life.
A light bulb went off at their baby shower, when a friend did a theatrical reading of a book that would soon become Eleanor’s. What if technology could simulate that experience and turn story time into an almost cinematic experience?
They brought on a team of experts and began building Novel Effect, which uses voice recognition technology to follow along when someone reads a book out loud, adding music, sound effects, and other features.
“We’ve combined traditional storytelling with modern technology to create a one-of-a-kind reading experience,” said Melissa Hammersley.
Novel Effect launched in 2015 and the 11-person team is currently participating in the inaugural Alexa Accelerator, a new program that Amazon is running in partnership with Techstars Seattle. The accelerator supports early-stage companies developing technologies related to Amazon’s popular artificial intelligence and machine learning-powered voice platform.
Before launching Novel Effect, Matt Hammersley was a patent attorney and Melissa Hammersley a graphic designer, specializing in patent drawings. Unsurprisingly, Novel Effect’s technology is patent-pending. The team plans to expand what it calls “voice-first storytelling” to other forms of media.
“Technology’s constant distraction is frequently blamed as part of the problem, but new outside-of-the-box solutions, like Novel Effect make books more engaging than ever before, creating a new generation more immersed in reading,” Melissa Hammersley said.
We caught up with her for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Novel Effect is voice-first storytelling. Add theme music, sound effects, and characters, voices to books, simply by reading aloud.”
Inspiration hit us when: “My husband, Matt and I were inspired with the idea behind Novel Effect at a baby shower before our daughter, Eleanor was born. Friends and family brought us kids’ books to start a library for her. As the party wound down our friend, Toby, read the book that she’d brought aloud and had the entire room full of adults captivated. Just as she’d read it for her own son, she added silly voices and sounds in all the right places. It was a light-bulb moment for us: if every parent could read to their child the way she did, every kid would fall in love with reading.
We couldn’t shake the idea of using voice to unlock the magic of storytelling to get kids excited about reading. With our daughter on the way we knew if we didn’t go for it then we probably never would, so two months later we’d quit our jobs and sold our home to bootstrap Novel Effect. The day before Eleanor was born was spent in meetings finalizing the plans for a proof of concept.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “A little bit of everything. We bootstrapped as long as possible, took Angel money after establishing product market fit, and then VC to scale. On all of these paths, the most important thing for us has been building relationships in the right networks.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Novel Effect uses voice recognition to follow along as a book is read out loud, determining your precise location within the story, then perfectly syncing theme music, sound effects, and characters voices. We use our own algorithms and a customized voice recognition system to do this. With our system, reading becomes more immersive, creating a movie-style atmosphere kids love. The best part is, Novel Effect works with books families already know and have on their bookshelves at home.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “We established a model that creates a win-win situation for us and the publishers. We market their books to our users while they market our platform with their books. These network effects will help to scale our user base with a low customer acquisition cost.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “We probably don’t know we’ve made it. Mistakes happen all the time, it’s what you do once you discover a mistake and how the individual and company responds. We take pride in ownership of our mistakes and working together to solve them.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “To have any of these founders in our corner would be a dream come true. Novel Effect is a family company that focuses on making a better life for children. Our desire is to bring the lifetime benefits of literacy to kids of all ages and abilities. Jeff, Mark, and Bill have shown similar priorities and goals through each of their foundations. If we have to choose only one it would be Jeff Bezos. Taking Amazon from a bookseller to one of the world’s largest technology companies displays a vision we hope to mirror. His work ethic, drive, and devotion to his family inspire us to build our own company and lives in the same way.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: “On Wednesday mornings we set aside time to breakfast together as a company. Each week, two team members prepare a meal in our office kitchen and we all step away from our desks to enjoy time with each other. Our CTO, Kevin Coulton, makes a mean blueberry pancake.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “It doesn’t matter what role we fill, we’ve found that passion is the best indicator of success in terms of bringing someone onto our team. As a company, we want to do things right, and we enjoy working together to solve the problems that stand in the way of our efforts. With each hire, we look for someone who enjoys what they do and will share that with us as we make great products that our users love.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Don’t give up. Starting your own company is a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Some days you might think it’s not possible to get knocked down any lower. Then suddenly you’re taken by surprise and your view completely turns around, only for it to happen all over again. It takes a lot of perseverance and a bit of fearlessness to believe in yourself and your product when no one else does. If you’re putting in all the hard work and know you’re getting results, keep going.”
Editor’s note: GeekWire is featuring each of the nine companies in the Alexa Accelerator leading up to their Demo Day Oct. 17.