Lincy Ayala, Xiomara Figueroa, and Neysha Borrero are the co-founders and developers behind BookSloth, the app where book lovers convene. They’ve raised upwards of $300,000 in capital, garnered the love of over 33,000 users and positioned themselves as leaders bridging an important gap in the online reading space:community. With more than 30 years of combined experience under their belts, the female coding trio has released their mobile app in stores for both iPhone and Android.
Military artillery, zoos, and Silicon Valley: the brain power behind BookSloth
Lincy Ayala is CEO and co-founder of BookSloth, overseeing the design and business aspects of the operation. With a bachelor’s degree in applied science and biology from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, her approach to entrepreneurship and business management is precise, systematic, and continuously engaged in an iterative process to improve their product. Following her graduation from college, Ayala formerly worked for Tiger World in North Carolina and in our interview, mentioned that she still considers zoology a possible career path.[INSERT SPOTIFY WIDGET: Listen to the full interview at http://www.joinbased.com, for details on how her zoology experience helped the team choose a name for the app: Insert Spotify Widget.]
Before starting BookSloth, Ayala worked as a web developer and design freelancer for six years, and as a front-end developer for two years at GFR Media, one of the largest media companies in Puerto Rico. GFR Media includes brands such as El Nuevo Día, Primera Hora, Magacín, Por Dentro, Construcción, Oferta Del Día, Clasificados PR, SAL! and many others. During her time at GFR Media, Ayala met co-worker Xiomara Figueroa, a fellow avid reader, who would ultimately become her co-founder at BookSloth.
Figueroa is CTO of BookSloth, as well as a World Economic Forum Global Shaper for the San Juan hub, an advocate for Girls Who Code and the tech lead behind BookSloth. With a bachelor’s in computer science from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, Figueroa spent the years before founding her current venture working for a series of startup companies in Silicon Valley and Puerto Rico. Responsible for optimizing the iOS apps of ThinAir, Polsense, Pair, and ZipKick, she also collaborated for two years with computer science researcher Dr. Patti Ordonez as a research assistant. Following her time in the startup world, Xiomara joined GFR Media as a software developer in 2017. At this media conglomerate, fate brought her to co-founder Lincy Ayala.
A year later, Neysha Borrero became the third member of the BookSloth team. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the Universidad Politécnica de Puerto Rico in Hato Rey and says the years leading up to her time with BookSloth were paved with fascinating learning opportunities. As a programmer for Helvetia del Caribe, Borrero developed and maintained web applications for ATM systems and private branch exchanges. Later on, she joined Axon Puerto Rico Inc., where she served for five years as a senior consultant for clients in the aerospace industry. She then transitioned from Axon to Honeywell, where she stepped into a leadership role as a software engineer testing scripts for navigational systems within aircraft and military artillery. Badass, right!?
Borrero has the unique experience of working not only for well-established Fortune 500 companies, but also for smaller startups. After her time at Honeywell, she spent three years working as a freelance web developer and helping other startups, such as StageBoom, thrive. It was after her project at the musician-for-hire digital platform ended that she met Ayala and Figueroa.
A unique tool for cultivating community
When you think of streaming music, you think of Spotify. When you think about video streaming, the red logo of YouTube comes to mind. The same goes for other streaming platforms – with radio, Pandora; with movies, Netflix. What about books? For 30 million avid readers, the answer is a combination of all these platforms, plus a website founded 15 years ago called Goodreads and a couple dozen reddit forums. That’s because reddit forums have been the go-to place for enthusiastic readers to find their next title and initiate conversations with others currently reading books of similar interest. The subreddit for r/books has grown from 179,000 subscribers to over 18 million subscribers in the past seven years. Averaging 95 new book titles in review per day, over 1200 comments per day and consistently ranking as one of the top 25 forums on Reddit, this subreddit points to the fact that that readers crave online space for exploring new titles, fostering community and discussing books.
When Ayala stumbled upon the idea of founding BookSloth, however, it wasn’t from a business or market data perspective. In fact, BookSloth didn’t start out as a business at all. Instead, it was a passion project that Ayala and Figueroa worked on for fun. Ayala described her frustration at what she saw as a lack of community space for readers with similar interests to gather and discuss the books they liked. Before founding BookSloth, Ayala explained, she would talk with her mom about books, but even that outlet had its limits – if the title were in the Sci-Fi or Fantasy genres, her mom wouldn’t be interested.
Ayala began spending time online researching new books she could read, looking for details in stories that she might have missed and engaging in book discussions led by YouTube channels, reddit boards and Facebook groups. Ayala isn’t alone in her desire to share reading experiences. The second most visited book-related subreddit is r/suggestmeabook, with over one million subscribers, a thousand comments per day and over 140 book suggestions per day.
Building the first iteration
Apart from sharing titles and occasionally discussing books with her mom and fiancée, Ayala knew of another passionate reader, Figueroa. The two would talk during their breaks about different books they were reading and how fun it would be to create a solution that gave book recommendations based on previous titles, supporting readers with ways to connect more deeply with their favorite book series. Ayala and Figueroa knew that many readers followed series by authors such as George R. R. Martin, J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling, but also that there was no way to receive notifications about new book releases and availability.
Like many Puerto Rican companies founded in 2018, BookSloth began to grow as a business through Pre18. The co-founders quit their jobs at GFR Media, registered their company (BOOKED LLC), and began working on a mobile app. From an early stage, they were clear on what they needed to build and made a checklist of “must-haves” and “future features;” product management at its best.
With $20,000 in equity-free funding under their belts, they built the first iteration of the Booked app. They started collecting early user information in March of 2018 with a simple MailChimp-powered landing page. They launched a version of the app in September 2018 and rapidly iterated using reviews left by early adopters. Following a fast-paced launch, they realized that the approach of building a prototype and going to market quickly created two distinct issues that inhibited the success of their app.
First, their initial domain name was getbookedapp.us. When the time came to market an app using the keyword “Booked,” they found it costly. The keyword is mostly associated with booking engines for tours, flights, and hotel stays. The bid price to purchase and drive potential leads to their page was therefore prohibitive. Optimizing their web page to compete with the SEO of the international travel, tourism and hospitality industry was, simply put, too darn expensive. The team addressed the issue by rebranding the app to BookSloth and saw results quickly as the app began attracting its first users. In the first year alone, the app achieved over 4,000 sign-ups.
The second issue the team faced was that the app struggled with technical bugs that hindered its functionality. The bugs were cause for multiple bad reviews of the new app. Undaunted, the team used quick iterations and tight feedback loops to fix the technical bugs and earn the trust of their user base. Users can now easily navigate through the app pages and there’s not a single piece of feedback that they haven’t addressed, responded to or incorporated.
The team behind the app truly innovated in order to create a unique and original experience for their users, going where no app had gone before by creating a platform that specifically caters to the community aspect of the reader experience. The BookSloth team couldn’t see what Facebook, or YouTube, or Google were doing, and then replicate that. There wasn’t a precedent in their niche for them to determine what would or wouldn’t work. Lessons gleaned from BookSloth’s experience getting started include the fact that a key part of building a company in this unique position is to focus on the essentials and then add features one by one. You never know what might happen when you add too many elements at once, but it’s a safe bet that you’ll end up with angry customers. In this sense, companies like BookSloth continually engage with their community to build on each feature, a little at a time.
Where they’ve landed
After the initial release of the mobile app, BookSloth’s founders won a place in Parallel18. They received an additional $40,000 in equity-free funding and decided to build the next three features of the mobile app. They built in the ability to search and follow other users, tools to connect readers based on similar books read, as well as services for publishing houses, bookstores and online retailers to create BookClubs.
Their approach has unlocked new potential tools for book owners to interact with their readers. With more than 6,500 book establishments in the U.S. with a combined annual revenue of $9.6 billion and a global book market of $143 billion, the team’s ”BookClub” approach aims to nurture each bookstore owner’s community. In many cases, these are communities that they’ve been growing for years, if not decades. The ability to gather storeowner’s customers, paired with a release calendar of book series and noteworthy books, as well as exclusive invitation capabilities and staff profiles, all combine to create a space that brings a fresh and exciting new experience of community building in the book industry.
While still in a pre-revenue stage and growing their user base at a month over month rate above 73% in the company’s first 15 months, the team raised $215,000 of outside financing by June of 2019. With seed capital received from investors at Parallel18’s demo day, Figueroa and Ayala were able to hire their first full-time team member, Neysha Borrero. With Borrero onboard handling all the backend development, the team could split roles evenly and focus on the successful deployment of the BookClubs. Both Figueroa and Ayala noted how proud they were of the team chemistry and of each team member’s openness to follow each other’s lead in their respective areas of expertise.
Growing from Puerto Rico
Although four of the top five publishing houses in the United States are in New York City, when BĀSED asked the team at BookSloth, “why build from Puerto Rico?” they answered without hesitation. First, they value anonymity. Second, cities like New York are just a short distance away. Third, living in Puerto Rico allows them to keep costs down. Last, they know a secret about the island: the incredible wealth of sophisticated, educated, and well-trained technical talent that resides here.[IMAGE: data of PR’s Talent & Statistics]
Since Borrero leads the BookClubs vertical within BookSloth, Figueroa and Ayala are working on an additional iteration to the app that might prove even more useful for their corporate clients. The intention is to leverage readers’ purchasing and behavior metrics to predict what book they might purchase next. Think of it the same way Netflix suggests new series or movies based on a viewer’s watch history. BookSloth is approaching this opportunity the same way, with the aim of improving the app’s relationship to each customer and helping publishing houses understand what genres, titles, series and books are in demand.
As the team continues to keep living and research costs down by maintaining operations in Puerto Rico, they recently raised one final round of equity-free funding on the island. Through the Orlando Bravo Family Foundation Rising Entrepreneurs Program, BookSloth obtained an additional $25,000 in early 2020. The program, founded by the SAAS and private equity entrepreneur Orlando Bravo, actively committed $100 million to supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs in Puerto Rico. BookSloth is a member of the first cohort and as a result, has been able to increase their user base to 20,000 members, expand their team and begin the search for new developers.
With four full-time employees, $300,000 of both equity-free and seed funding, a total of 33,000 users, and a month over month growth rate of 15.76%, this agile, lean startup is poised to create the leading community space for a potential market of over 30 million readers in the years to come. BookSloth is currently raising $1.5 million and if you’re interested in supporting them or learning more, contact them here.