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The Peeka founders, from left to right: Alex Comfortes, chief financial and chief strategic officer; CEO Michael Wong; and Hunter Stutsman, vice president of business development. (Peeka Photo)

Michael Wong might be the only tech entrepreneur who can point to a gig as a Disneyland Jungle Cruise skipper as startup inspiration. But Wong really digs the rides in the Magic Kingdom.

So three years ago, he started Peeka, a Seattle-based company that is taking children’s picture books and turning them into an immersive, virtual reality experience, making them something like a “Disneyland ride,” he said.

Peeka takes the images from the books and animates them, incorporating the written text and adding music and narration of the words. This month, the company is launching its app featuring three books that can be viewed on customers’ phones using an inexpensive VR headset. Users control the speed of the storytelling depending on where they look on the screen, triggering the next sentence of narration.

“Elements of the story are happening to you,” Wong said.

The idea is that the technology complements traditional reading, inspiring a greater interest in books while not trying to replace them.

For the past year, Peeka has participated in the Pacific Science Center’s Startups in Residence program in Seattle. The company has a space at the Science Center for working on their technology and sharing it with visiting families. The residency gives guests the chance to see a real startup in action and be the first to try their innovations, while Wong and his team get valuable feedback.

“If you’re building something that the kids can play with, we get 10-to-15 minutes of face time with these parents,” Wong said. The Peeka team asks about the kids’ reading and phone habits, and watch how the children respond to the stories.

The residency also led to a partnership with schools in South Carolina. An educator from the state visited the Science Center and was so impressed by Peeka that she asked the startup to bring its technology to her schools. With a lot of hustle, the Peeka team took its product to the Jasper County School District and shared it with hundreds of first-grade students. The partnership was such a success that the state’s House of Representatives adopted a resolution celebrating the arrangement.

A student in South Carolina’s Jasper County School Districts takes a Peeka story for a test drive. (Peeka Photo)

Wong was excited to see the South Carolina students view the story, whip off their headsets, run to the physical books and share the sections they loved or hated the most. Wong said the devices also show promise for kids who are learning English, as the words and narration combine with VR to provide additional visual cues.

Peeka has grown to 12 employees. Wong and his two co-founders, Alex Comfortes, chief financial and chief strategic officer, and Hunter Stutsman, vice president of business development, all attended Chapman University in California.

Other U.S. and international companies in the VR and augmented reality space for kids books include Quantum Storey Company, SnapLearn and AmayaSoft.

The Peeka app will feature three VR storybooks. (Update 6/13/19: The app is now available to download through Google Play or App Store.)

Parents will be able to buy tokens to unlock individual books for 12 hours of viewing. Tokens will sell for something like five for $1, and books could cost three or four tokens. Wong compares the pricing model to a video game arcade. He likes the idea of different prices for the books, again hearkening back to Disneyland and the days when each ride required a ticket, with more popular rides costing more.

We caught up with Wong for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

What does your company do? Give us your 2-to-3 sentence elevator pitch. It’s like Disneyland rides for books. Peeka works with authors and publishers to create immersive picture book experiences in virtual reality, so kids can jump into their favorite books and let the stories happen to them.

Inspiration hit us: In spring 2016. I had come back from California after going to school and making my dream of working at Disneyland come true. I had just tried virtual reality for the first time. And I was thinking about my then 10-year-old cousin Sommari who hates to read. That’s when almost everything about Peeka congealed.

The second epiphany came when we launched in South Carolina. Demoing our technology with private schools in Seattle showed us completely different needs than the students in South Carolina, a state that ranks near the bottom for U.S. reading scores. The kids there reacted to Peeka like nothing we had ever seen. For the first time, we saw VR experiences leading to actually reading the physical books. That inspired us to reexamine our marketing and how we design Peeka user experiences.

Kids in Seattle testing out Peeka. (Peeka Photo)

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: My other two founders went to business school (I have an English degree), and we are all self-taught entrepreneurs, developing Peeka with limited outside guidance. We were honestly very green at the beginning. After making our first demo and prototypes, my team spent so much time and energy chasing VC. It hurt. Eventually a mentor advised us to “really think about who the customer is and actually make them pay for it instead of chasing VC” — and that revelation has made all the difference.

We were able to do so much with a small $60,000 friends and family round. And instead of taking on VC at a ridiculous valuation, we bootstrapped again with a $15,000 loan that helped us launch in Washington, Idaho and South Carolina as well as create our flagship book experience.

So the answer is to boostrap if you must because it’ll really show you what matters at your company and where you need help.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Peeka’s secret sauce … is this a trick question?

I’d say it’s our ability to build strategically during a bear VR market or the “trough of disillusionment.” That stems both from our ability as a team to onboard new members who are ready to roll their sleeves up and build the future today and from always staying true to our facts (e.g. mobile has the lowest friction, so we should optimize and capitalize on that technology).

The smartest move we’ve made so far: Always asking for an opportunity, even if we didn’t know exactly what it would look like. This is how we began working with the Pacific Science Center. In fact, we came there initially asking for money (see the section above!) and instead were invited to join their nascent Startups in Residence program. This has taken Peeka to incredibly new heights and realigned our priorities. Working with the Science Center has given us so many wins and it’s all because we asked.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Chasing money when we should’ve been building more.

Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? I have a very big “professional crush” on Chris Milk, CEO and co-founder of Within, a company launched in 2014 using VR and augmented reality for storytelling. He is a pioneer for so many VR entrepreneurs. As an artist and director first, he brings a new take to VR that’s different from the gaming narratives that have dominated the sector. We could do great stuff together.

And Bob Iger, CEO of Disney.

The Peeka founders met with members of the South Carolina House of Representatives to recognize their partnership with the Jasper County School District. (Peeka Photo)

Our favorite team-building activity is: It’s very simple: eating pizza. It has provided considerable morale boosts over great and honest discussions. And yes, pineapple is a suitable topping.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Does the candidate understand why what we do is so important not only to our team, but to the industry at large? I would rather train someone’s skills if they bled pink (for Peeka) than try to get someone on the same page mission-wise. They might never get there.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: The same advice I gave my friend when we learned to skateboard together: If you don’t anticipate falling, you’ll get worse injuries and maybe not get up again. Prepare for the lows and savor the highs. Lastly, do not tie your identity or self-worth to that of your startup.

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