Utah EdTech startups have benefited from an unexpected spike in demand for remote learning tools brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. While most of these companies are focused on STEM education, a few are turning their sights to the Humanities. 

We recently sat down with Michael Romrell and Lawton Smith, co-founders of Literal, to learn more about how their new application leverages the playbooks of Facebook, TikTok, and Snapchat to get a reluctant crowd hooked on reading.

The idea for Literal came to Smith and Romrell in 2018 on a Hemingway-inspired trip to run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. On the stormy 3am drive from Barcelona where the two had been living, Smith, sitting in the passenger seat, leaned over to Romrell. 

“I’ve got this idea and I can’t put it down. No one likes to read anymore. No one is reading because every app on our phone is designed to be 100 times more mentally stimulating than any book that came off the Gutenberg printing press. So I’ve got this idea. I think we can make books just as addictive as social media.” 

For weeks, Smith had been attempting to read a Hemingway novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, but found himself constantly distracted by devices. “‘I’ve got to check my email. What about this? Oh, look at this cool thing!’ But I suddenly caught myself, ‘wait a minute, this isn’t only happening to me. I can’t stay focused on reading the book because my mind is wanting more immediate satisfaction.’” The two quickly realized this was happening globally, to adults as well as kids, because mobile phones have retrained our brains to get on demand mental stimulation. 

Romrell was hooked. “At that point in that car ride to Pamplona I decided to throw away all of my ambitions of starting a private equity fund, which I was in the middle of, and go all-in on making this idea a reality.”

“We started looking at reading rates,” Romrell said, “and we found that they’ve been declining. We also found that in schools, student reading comprehension scores are declining. Teachers don’t send books home to read like you and I had, because they know students won’t read them. If they’re going to read a book, they have to read it in class, which means they don’t get a lot of instruction. So that was the genesis, when we realized there’s a massive problem to solve. And that we could take those same elements that make the Kardashians so addictive and put that into something wholesome, like reading novels, plays, and poetry.”

The two quickly set out to test their idea.

“We wanted to see if it would be possible to take a book, exactly as the author wrote it, unabridged, and put it into a format that allows us to layer in a lot of those same elements that trigger that opioid system in your brain. So we initially said, let’s do a group chat format, and started by creating a Facebook Messenger chat between the characters in Romeo and Juliet.” 

Their next move was to test it on the public. “We just started talking to people, in airports, coffee shops, anyone we could find, ‘Hey, would you read a book in this format?’ The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.” When the only resistance they found came from avid readers, they realized they’d found their target market. “Our audience is generally non-readers. Students who hate reading love Literal. It’s also aspirational readers, where reading is something that you wish you did but you just don’t do it.”

After getting some traction on an initial PHP version of the application at an English teacher conference, they decided it was time to build something that they could scale. They added new features that allowed users to customize their experience. “Like those character images that let you know who is speaking, those are customizable. You can throw yourself in there as Romeo, and your lover as Juliet, or vice versa. All sorts of fun things like that, and we built out a content engine that lets you upload works onto your device automatically.”

In 2020, just before the pandemic hit, they took their new and more aesthetically appealing version, with a Netflix-style library, to a large education conference in Atlanta where they signed up educators representing 800,000 students. “These educators were saying, ‘I need this in my classroom, we have a massive problem with engagement and a massive problem with access’. And access is really twofold. Surprisingly, schools don’t have a good digital library for books. But more importantly, when educators talk about access, they’re also talking about representation. They don’t have books that represent black and brown students, they don’t have books that represent Asian American students. For us, that became a really critical piece. So we initially started with classic titles in the public domain, and we’ve since branched out to partner with publishers offering modern, culturally relevant, and accessible titles, like Cedar Fort, Story Shares, Mountain Press, and Native Voices.”

“There are a lot of literacy education products out there focused on K-5, because that’s where key literacy happens.” Romrell told us. “The problem is, if you miss a kid, and we miss a lot of them, they’re kind of screwed, right? And if you struggle, you’re going to get embarrassed when you have to read in front of your friends, so you may start to make fun of it or lash out. There are no tools out there that can solve this problem of engagement. So we think Literal can help with that, which makes it a fantastic pairing with core curriculum providers.”

Developers at Literal have also reimagined reading assessment. Rather than multiple choice, Literal offers a gamified question bank that gets to the root of comprehension by asking more open-ended questions. “The very best way to test comprehension is simply to ask, ‘how does that make you feel? And what did you understand?’ And so we’re building out a consumer grade tool that looks like something fun that you’d do with your friends anyway, but will also provide teachers with better, more accurate data that actually assesses comprehension.” The Literal team is working to bring their reading assessment tools into alignment with district and state standards.

“Our goal is to replace the time you spend on social media. When we talk about our competitors, we’re not talking about Norton or Pearson or McGraw Hill, we’re talking about Tik Tok, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook. Those are our competitors, because we are competing for time and attention.”

Literal recently closed its most recent round of financing, raising nearly $1.2 million from Utah-based venture capital firms RevRoad, Park City Angels, and Kickstart seed funds. Romrell and Smith plan to use that funding to build out their marketing, sales, and user experience teams. Given the student enthusiasm about the product, their plan is to continue to raise awareness among teachers, who can influence funding decisions at the district level.

Literal was just getting off the ground when the pandemic hit. “So like everyone else, we had to adapt to cold-calling and email, which was really hard in an industry where relationships are so important. But we were able to do that. And we’re really grateful that the conferences are starting to open back up again. But the other nice thing was that with all of the COVID relief efforts, providing budgets for schools and small businesses, the PPP loans, those things were also critical in helping Literal succeed and continue to grow. Additionally, a challenge we had before COVID was that not all students had devices. But that’s totally changed now.”

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