Pam Taylor had a successful career in corporate project management, but she always dreamed of being self-employed. She was hesitant to make the leap, but when she was laid off, she decided it was now or never.
How to Transform Children's Reading Experiences
Maxine Binger is a parent, teacher, and entrepreneur who is on a mission to transform children's reading experiences. She is the founder of Koobool, an online platform that allows children to share book reviews with each other. In this interview, Maxine shares her insights on the importance of reading, the challenges of being a parent and teacher, and her vision for Koobool.
Read her interview:
Can you introduce yourself?
OK, my name is Maxine Binger. I’m a parent and a teacher, and I’m in my 40s. I live in London, where I’ve lived all my life and to be honest, apart from when I was a kid, I haven’t really travelled around England much, until more recently, with my kids, particularly visiting beaches, which are lovely.
And what industry are you starting your business in?
The business is education, and I’m going to link in edtech. So, it’s education with some online, face-to-face and other practical activities, and also, it’s bringing in new technologies.
How long have you been self-employed? And what led you to being an education startup?
I’m very much at the beginning. I’ve been at this stage for the last year, so it’s a startup that’s been at this stage for a little while.
As I said, I’m a teacher and a parent and I’d seen that there were consistent concerns about reading. We know some children can’t read; or some children struggle to learn; and even some don’t want to read. Or when some children reach a certain age, they’re not really interested in reading anymore. It is reported that one in five children can’t read to the expected level by the time they go to secondary school. And I could see this pattern with children in the classrooms I worked in.
So I thought “Why don’t I do something. I can get children to write book reviews to each other.” One of the most powerful things in the classroom is when children talk to each other. Peer to peer learning is really impactful. So why can’t they do that more with reading. Also, I was looking online to get book recommendations for my daughter. And even though I’m a teacher, I didn’t know which books to get at all.
Then Covid happened. And I was home with my children doing home learning and I thought let’s start building up this business, for children to be able to recommend books to each other. For kids by kids. And the business is called Koobool.
It was hard to get the business name, by the way. I tried every name and combination around books, any kind of combination you can think of was unavailable. But the beginning of Koobool ... Koob ... is book spelt backwards, so that works.
The mission of Koobool is to transform children’s reading experiences.
And the reviews aren’t necessarily all written? You’re encouraging other ways to share their opinions?
Yeah, because when we learn, we don’t just learn through one subject. English is everything, obviously, reading and writing is across all of our experiences for our entire lives. So, it’s vital. But because there’s so much pressure in the curriculum, we sometimes forget the creativity that can be brought through other subjects and other means.
The reviews will be published and they can be written, but can also use audio, video, music by doing a rap poem to review a book, art which could be in the form of a basic mind map; someone might even bring in animation and we can have some lessons and tutoring to support children reviewing a book in this way.
What is your experience in the industry? Is it primarily from teaching?
I don’t know when you stop being a teacher. I have a two-year-old, so I went on maternity leave, and would have had to go back full-time after the leave. That was when the kids were homeschooling, so I couldn’t go back to my job at that point in time. So at the moment I’m not working in a school environment, but I have taught for 14 years or so in primary schools, from nursery up until Year 6.
With my first two children, they stayed home nine months and then went to nursery full-time, from like seven o’clock until seven all day. But then when I stopped and looked, I realised I didn’t spend as much time with my children as I would have liked to. My son was in reception when lockdown happened, and he struggled a lot with reading and being able to write. He didn’t have the motivation, the energy for it.
And only when stopping, did I realise that I haven’t given them as much as I would have liked, and as much as they deserve actually. Because as a teacher, it’s like most jobs. You forget about home life until you get there again. I was fully involved with the children that I was teaching and working with, but I didn’t have time to invest my brain energy in the kids at home as much as I would have liked really.
So, part of your reason for self-employment would be to find a better balance?
Exactly. And childcare is so expensive as well. I might wait a little bit, build up this business to work from home, because as a teacher you don’t have the flexibility other jobs may have. Which, by the way I think is fabulous now, that following our shared Covid experience, industries are beginning to offer that flexibility where people can work from home. Fantastic!
And was that your main motivation?
I had the idea, and then I thought it can be more than just an idea. It can be something that can have an impact on children and their families. It needs time to invest. And if I went back to work full-time in the classroom, I wouldn’t have time to develop it. It’s just not going to happen.
So if it’s something that I want to do, to be self-employed in this way, I’m going to have to sacrifice a little bit of time to invest in it. I feel like it will really make a difference to children, to how children experience reading.
And are those your main objectives for your business?
There are several objectives. One is that being self-employed can create a bit of flexibility in my day and how I work, so I can go to my children’s school and pick them up. That would never happen as a teacher. The other, of course, is to make money to provide for my family. I don’t know how this business is going to fully generate an income, and I know it will take time. But to be honest with you, my priority at this moment is to help make a difference first, and then make money.
Another thing will just be to make a difference really, for children and their families. Because if we look at the problems in education, some of the obvious barriers, are children being unable to read, children learning the skills of reading, and the progress of children with special educational needs. But for me, when I was working, one of my barriers was having time as a parent to invest in my children’s learning. That’s an example of an unseen problem that parents have, not having the time or even knowing where to go for help.
And there’s other barriers where there’s parents where English is not their first language, or that they themselves have some kind of special education need, whether it’s ADHD or dyslexia, or something else, these may cause challenges to their children’s learning. So, the vision is to make a difference in the communities around them as well.
What are you biggest worries and fears about becoming self-employed?
One of my things will be procrastination. If I’m doing something for somebody else I will be on the ball, I’ll be engaged, I’ll be putting all my effort and heart into it. But you know, sometimes when you do something for yourself, sometimes you don’t have that same energy level. Also, a challenge for me, is knowing where to go, and how to go, and how to go about it. So, my journey is slower, perhaps, compared to other people that will be on a self-employed journey. My changes probably look like smaller steps.
One of my other things will probably be a bit of perfectionism. I like things done perfectly. I know that’s kind of the classic interview question and answer. But it kind of is true for me. So, for example, when the business idea started to come together, I did some research, focused on the competitors. Then I looked at other brands, I developed the brand, I looked at the colours, and I looked at the logo and all this kind of stuff. And then a bit later, I thought, actually, I need to validate it, test it out, and see if people want it. This, I should have done, earlier in the journey.
In fact, after doing that, the brand voice is great, colours were fine, I knew my competitors, but the logo I invested so much time in and other things, I’m not even using anymore. Funny, because even though initially I couldn’t let it go, I feel great that I’m not using it now. I think that sometimes there’s the fear of success and a fear of failure that becomes a blockage and we don’t realise the barriers and walls that all we really need to do is kind of just step over.
What do you enjoy outside of work? Do you have any spare time for hobbies and interests?
I’m a mother of three. I spend a lot of time with my children outside work. I’ve got a two-year-old, seven-year-old and a nine-year-old. So, we do stuff for them and they take up much time but it’s great. I do like films too, particularly Marvel and sci-fi.
If you had to pick a theme song for your self-employed business, what would it be?
I can’t really think of one to be honest. I even asked my family if they could think of one, and they started reciting songs that links to the mission as opposed to my journey. But what I was thinking that I like to do, which I haven’t done for a while, is just play a song, and have a dance around the room whilst working. So having a song that makes you feel good and keep momentum is great.
Do you have any heroes or inspiration in business, or for life in general?
Not really in business. In life one of my heroes would be my aunt. Because she’s an athlete and was in the Olympics, and she’s really committed and dedicated to her family. To the people around her, she’s really supportive.
Her name is Lorna Boothe, a hurdler, and she’s even got an MBE. I’m not saying I aspire to get an MBE, but just in terms of her determination. She still trains young people and she was a coach for the Olympics a few years back. And her son has the same drive, and he was a bobsleigh Olympian a few years ago.
What does your typical workday look like at the moment?
I have a base at Somerset House, so I try to go there maybe once or twice a week, probably on a Monday or Tuesday. And there’s a work hub there which is quite good. I scoot over the bridge, so I’ve got the energy levels when I get there. And then the rest of the time I work at home.
Towards the end of the week, I work at home alongside my two-year-old. He normally watches something on the phone while I try to work. He just insists on sitting next to me.
At the moment there’s a lot that I do in the planning stages. I have an opportunity to get advertising through Cadbury’s and the Chelsea Women’s Football team for an advertising board, and that means I need to adapt a little and have something a bit more concrete. So if people go to Koobool they can actually act on something. This has been my thing at the moment.
And I’ve been working on some launch challenges, and testing and validating in some libraries and community centres face-to-face.
Are there any websites and apps you have bookmarked to check regularly for work or leisure?
I’m constantly using Google Search because I’m testing things, validating and learning how to tackle new tasks. In terms of being a teacher, I’m very experienced but in terms of business, I’m very new.
The British Library, I go to very often in terms of intellectual property, things like that.
Have you found IPSE membership useful in getting started and progressing on your journey?
It’s been very good. There’s lots of information on the website, so I can go on and search for whatever it is I’m trying to find out. A big thing for me last year was GDPR, and I was able to find information and get support.
And that was a huge thing for me, because I spoke to someone last year, a business advisor, and he said ‘don’t do it, there’s going to be lots of issues’. I was completely frozen and my brain couldn’t move on from this for a short time. And then a little later I spoke to someone and they shared that it was good to have that experience of someone telling you no, not to do it. Because you learn from those experiences. And one of the things I really learned was that when someone gives us some kind of feedback, information or criticism. If it is a challenge to digest we then need to not stop but consider what could be done to solve the problem? How can we turn the feedback into something constructive? And IPSE was helpful in developing this knowledge and a strategy to move forward. It was really, really beneficial for me to have access to the resources available. Especially at a time where I stopped in my tracks. It helped me to start walking again.
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Colin Campbell has been working in IT for over 40 years, and he's seen it all. From the early days of mainframes to the latest cloud-based technologies, Colin has been there and done it all.