Will Bachman: Hello, Kevin. It is great to have you on the show.
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, thanks. It’s good to be here, Will.
Will Bachman: Kevin you started an organization, Start Reading Now. Tell us how Start Reading Now got started.
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, curiously it did actually spin out of a bit of my McKenzie experience in that, when I left the firm, had a few months to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I spent those months looking at the question of state government accountability. I’m actually a poly sci major back in the day. Always looked at comparative politics and I was curious around what actually is being spent by states. Not only in spending but the value that citizens are getting for that.
Kevin Terrell: I built a framework around that called Healthy, Wealthy, Smart, and Safe. I look at fiscal inputs to a state in terms of spending per capita, debt per capita, pension liabilities per capital. I balance that against outcomes. That’s the healthy, wealthy, smart, and safe piece of the equation. Under each of those, I look for metrics around readily accepted outcomes that people would expect from their state government. Under smart, I use reading at grade and math at grade.
Kevin Terrell: Reading at fourth grade and math at eighth grade scores are the typical benchmarks for early success in primary school. I built this big framework, and you get this BCG-like 2×2 matrix, if you will, of performance. You have high performing states that don’t spend much money but have very good outcomes. You have disaster states like California who spend a ton of money and don’t actually deliver anything. States like New Jersey that spend a lot of money, they get stuff done but they’re expensive. States like Texas, that don’t really do much but they don’t cost you anything.
Kevin Terrell: Anyway, so I did all that and then I thought, “Wow, who cares? Me and my four poly sci buddies. We’ll actually find this interest but what do I do with this and what would anyone else want to do with this.” I started taking a look at the idea of can I find interventions that citizens could take on their own to drive change in their community. I started looking under each of those healthy, wealthy, smart, and safe pieces of the equation. I came across some research from our guy who was at Florida, Northern Florida University, I think at the time. He’s now at Tennessee, Richard Allington. He had done a bunch of research around summer setback and the achievement gap. Specifically, a big part of the achievement gap comes about over the summer when poor kids fall behind.
Kevin Terrell: Wealthier kids tend to stay even or actually even learn over the summer. By fourth grade, typically, poorer kids are actually already about a grade behind their wealthier peers. As I said, it comes about over the summer and basically he hypothesized from looking at the literature and other studies that had been done that was because kids weren’t learning over the summer. The reason they weren’t learning is because they’re not reading. The reason they’re not reading is because, on average … You’ll see data vary on this but on average in the data that he was looking at, low income kids have under one book in the home. The reason they’re not learning is because they’re not reading and the reason they’re not reading is because they literally have nothing to read.
Kevin Terrell: What he hypothesized was that, if you got kids the right number of books at the right time of life for the right duration of time, you could positively affect reading scores and thus help close the achievement gap. They did an experiment over three years with about 900 kids and about 450 in the control group. What they found was letting kids buy a bunch of books at the start of the summer, after first, second, and third grade, had a bigger effect on reading scores than three years of summer school, at one sixtieth the cost. I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty interesting. That seems pretty simple. Seems like something I could try to implement myself.”
Kevin Terrell: After I left the firm, my first client in my consulting gig was a woman who’s a CFO of a nonprofit here in town in early childhood education. We just got to know each other and, after the engagement, continued to have coffee every month or two. I kept talking about this program called … I called it 12 Books at the time, because, in the program, in the test, they let kids buy 12 books each. I called it 12 Books and one day she came to me and said, “Hey, I’m working on this personal development opportunity. I need to do something in the community. Could I do something with 12 Books?,” and I said, “Sure.”
Kevin Terrell: I didn’t necessarily expect her to come back with anything immediately. A month later, she’d already talked to Minneapolis Public Schools and she had talked to Scholastic Books. They were both interested in figuring out how to do something with this. I was like, “Well, now I have to do something.” I went to another nonprofit that I used to be on the board of. I asked Daryl, the CEO of that, if they would be my fiscal agent. Fiscal agent is basically a way to get up and running as a nonprofit as essentially a product line inside someone else’s nonprofit. Then you don’t need to go through the whole IRS rigmarole of getting all your documents in order, creating the corporation and such, and waiting the nine months before you can officially raise money.
Will Bachman: Oh, that’s interesting, so [crosstalk 00:05:46]-
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, yeah. Nobody knows it exists really.
Will Bachman: Fiscal agent, so instead of trying to start your own nonprofit and all that overhead that requires getting your own board and getting improved, you could basically find a nonprofit that will be your host.
Kevin Terrell: They’re your sponsor.
Will Bachman: Sponsor, and then they … Any money that you raise would go to them and they would hold it in a separate …
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, they take a cut, 5%/7%, something like that, which is not unreasonable. They got to do accounting for it and everything else.
Will Bachman: They hold it. They charge you a fee but it doesn’t go into their general funds. Then they would take a agreed upon contracted fee and then you can use the money for approved nonprofit kinda stuff.
Kevin Terrell: Yeah.
Will Bachman: That’s awesome. Cool, so you got this fiscal agent …
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, and we decided to pilot the program with five summer school locations. Certainly not exactly what we were looking to get to from a full scale perspective, but five summer school locations with 300 first graders. That was based on working with Minneapolis Public Schools. Great contact internally there from the guy who’s the head of summer programming. He just got us in touch with the right people and that was February when we had that conversation. By May, we were in the schools.
Will Bachman: Wow.
Kevin Terrell: We raised about $15,000. My family put in about half the money. We raised another seven or so from other sources. We had enough money to pay for each kid in first grade in those summer school locations to buy 10 new books each at a Scholastic book fair.
Will Bachman: That’s amazing, so like 3,000 books.
Kevin Terrell: Yeah. Yeah. Then, the second year, we were back at those same summer school locations but we added second graders. We were building to the point where kids would have their own library. In the original research, it was 36 books. In our implementation, it’s 30 books. First, second, and third grade, by the end of that, you had your own library of 30 books.
Kevin Terrell: The second year, we added second graders but one of the problems with the summer school model is that only a certain number of kids get invited to summer school. Only a certain number show up. You don’t want them at summer school every year, because then obviously it’s not being very successful. Right?
Will Bachman: Right.
Kevin Terrell: If we actually wanted to reach kids all three years and build that full library back to the right number of books, the right time of life for the right duration of time, we needed to go full-scale across the city basically. Pam, my co-founder, had always had in mind talking to this guy Jim, who had been her I.T. vendor at the nonprofit that I had met her at. We went to Jim, CEO of a company called Atomic Data here in town. Sat down at lunch with him, told him what we were doing. I had met him for a total of like two minutes in my life.
Kevin Terrell: He said, “How much money do you need to take it city-wide?” I said, “We would need 440,000 to do that this year, over on top of what we already have in the bank, to reach every first grader in every elementary school in Minneapolis that has at least 50% of the kids on free or reduced lunch.” That’s our benchmark for poverty. He said, “Okay, done.”
Will Bachman: Wow.
Kevin Terrell: I cried. It was pretty awesome. Yeah, so five minute conversation over lunch and we closed the deal to go city-wide. We took a step back to just first graders. Went city wide, and the point being there that we’re in, as I said, every elementary school that’s high poverty. Even if kids move, and generally this is a highly mobile population, as long as they stayed within Minneapolis, they’re probably at one of the schools that we’re at. The point being that we wanted to make sure we reached them all three years.
Kevin Terrell: Since then, we’ve now just finished our fifth year and we just finally added all our third graders. We now have kids that have been in the program first, second and third grade, have their own library of 30 books and, anecdotally, we know that, just from asking the kids, “How many have you did this last year?” “Oh, I did this last year and I did it the year before. I was at a different school last year. I remember you at different …” whatever their school was last year type of thing.
Kevin Terrell: Anecdotally, we know that but we’re also tracking the data with Minneapolis public schools. They have their giant file obviously on each kid. We get all the program participants noted in the database and now, after the three years, those kids will now be fourth graders next year. In the fall of 2018, our third graders will have become fourth graders and they will take that fourth grade reading test that’s that benchmark for early success in reading. We should have data from that on their performance in early 2019. I think we have about 17-/1,800 kids per class. Given the expected loss ratio of kids moving out of the district, I think we’ll have well over 1,000 kids that will’ve been in the program all three years, which I believe will give us the largest database of any real-world implementation of a program like this in the country.
Will Bachman: That’s amazing.
Kevin Terrell: We’re obviously looking at the data piece of the equation. No, we don’t have a control group really. We can try to bottle some things, kids that we don’t … at schools that we don’t reach, for instance but it’s not an experiment. That’s the price you pay for actually implementing the program in the real world. We, while obviously looking at the data, have other things in mind.
Kevin Terrell: One of the things we talk about, our motto, is “Creating a culture of reading and learning for life.” What does that mean and how do you measure that? One of the things that’s different about our program is there’re a lot of programs in reading, many of them that people know. Like Imagination Library from Dolly Parton, for instance. Those are for pre-k kids. In Dolly Parton’s case, what they do is they send out a book to each kid every month. There’s no choice involved and it’s one book at a time and it’s pre-k.
Kevin Terrell: There’s some other programs like ours that try to address reading loss. There’s a program called My Very Own Library that has a model where, at each break, so fall, winter and spring, well spring/summer, they do three books, three books, and then four books. Then the fourth book at that summer break is one selected by the principal. The kids get to choose the books otherwise but then the principal chooses the fourth book and has everybody read the same book.
Kevin Terrell: One of the things that we do is, one, we focus exclusively on summer setback. We’re not trying to solve every problem. We’re trying to focus on summer setback. Two, it’s a lot of books all at once so it’s 10 books. Ten books is a lot of books. When we do the program, stand up in front of the classroom and say, “Here, we’re going to give you one of these. It’s a voucher. It’s worth $50. [Inaudible 00:13:41] the 10 books are worth $50. You can buy any 10 books that you want. We never tell them what to do with the books. We never tell them which books to buy and we let them do whatever they want.
Kevin Terrell: Invariably, what we discovered, and this was a big surprise to us, 10 books is a lot of books, again. Almost every kid says, “Hey, can I buy a book for my brother, my sister, my cousin.” They want to do something for someone else. Kids who have nothing, their first thought is, “Let me do something for somebody else.” It’s around literacy and it’s around books so, when we talk about creating a culture of reading and learning for life, that’s a big piece of it.
Will Bachman: That’s amazing, what you say. It’s like how they have nothing themselves, and their first thought is getting something for a friend or family member. That’s really amazing.
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, and, as I’ve talked to other cities that are interested in bringing our program to their city now, they react to that very interesting because they say, “Actually, we do this other program that does three, three, four. We actually have to tell kids not to buy books for somebody else because it’s only three books and we want them to have books for themselves.” I said, “I don’t have that problem.”
Kevin Terrell: As you think about … You don’t want to do a one-time intervention. What you want to do is reset the mindset moving forward. I coined the phrase, “insidiously positive.” I want kids to be thinking about books and literacy, reading as something they like to do and that they want others to do with them, independently, whatever the case may be.
Will Bachman: I love the part about they just get to choose their own. The whole year, they’re being told, “Here’s your assignment.” It’s really … Must be very liberating to say, “Just walk into this store that we’re setting up and you could have anything you want. It’s your choice. If you want a graphic novel, fine,” just whatever’s going to appeal to them. Do you get much sense or have you … Anecdotally or formally have you tried to get a sense of how many of the books they actually do read? Or do they then pass them on to friends or trade.
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, so we’d like to measure that and we’re trying to get there. I can talk about that but I ask the kids, “Did you read your books last year?”
Kevin Terrell: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I read them all.”
Kevin Terrell: “Do you still have them?”
Kevin Terrell: “Yeah, I still have them in my backpack,” and et cetera.
Kevin Terrell: Anecdotally, there’s certainly a strong piece of that. Now, moving forward, what we want to do is measure some of that. Today, we give them a backpack. We give them a pen. We give them stickers and the 10 books. We give them a lot of stuff already. Now that we’re really on the radar screen of the public school system here, what I want to do is try to introduce something like a book journal with the kids. Think 10 pages, 10 books. Why’d you pick this book? What’d you like about it? What was your favorite character? That sort of thing, and use that to really get some, I’ll call it, hard data back on what kids are doing with the books, with their friends and family. Did you gift the book to anyone? That sort of thing.
Kevin Terrell: I think that’ll give us some really good insight on what kids are doing and I think they are sharing the books. We know, as I said, that almost every kid is buying a book for somebody else. Couple of anecdotal stories, again, about this whole culture piece and what kids do with the books. Favorite story: had a kid a couple years ago. Comes back out after he bought his 10 books. He said, “Hey, can I exchange this book?” I said, “Sure, what’s up?” He said, “I bought a book for my cousin but she’s never owned a book and it’s not fair she only gets one.”
Kevin Terrell: “Okay. Yes, you can exchange that book.”
Kevin Terrell: Kind of crazy end of the spectrum. We had a kid one year. He bought 10 of the same book. Again, this gets back to, we never tell kids what to do. It’s all about choice and making decision yourself. I said, “Hey, why do you want to buy 10 of the same book?” He said, “I want to have a book club. I want everybody in my family to read the same book.”
Will Bachman: Oh, that’s amazing.
Kevin Terrell: My push on that is I don’t know if I would make that decision but, you know what? The success of this program is going to be when, in 20 years, that kid is some internet 4.0 entrepreneur and he’s got a holographic book club that he’s designing and he’s going to make tons of money off of. He’s going to remember the day he bought 10 books.
Will Bachman: Yeah, what a story for him as well. Some people might say, “There actually is this method that every city has right now where kids can get free books. It’s called a library. What’s the reality about that? Anyone can go to the library but it sounds like people might not be. How do you address people who ask you that question?
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, so, ownership is very different than borrowing. One of the things, invariably, there’s a kid in one of the classes who asks, “When do I have to return the books?” The notion of being able to choose your own books and own them and keep them is just foreign to them. That, in and of itself, is of great value.
Kevin Terrell: Secondly, as I say to people, “Hey, rich white guy from suburban Minneapolis, let me know when you’re going to let your seven year old daughter walk to the library in North Minneapolis.” Ain’t going to happen. Third, reporter that did a story on us last year, she called me up about two weeks later and she said, “I wonder about your program but this weekend, my son, he had to do a book report as one of his homework assignments for Monday. He’s like, ‘What do I do?’ and just walked over to the bookshelf, grabbed a book and read it and did a book report on it.” Obviously, if you don’t have any books in the home, you’re not going to do that, especially when it’s 20 below zero in the winter in Minneapolis.
Kevin Terrell: I think that libraries are great and I can talk about some of the things we’ve done to coordinate with libraries but it’s not the same as owning your own books and having them all the time, readily accessible.
Will Bachman: You find there’s a different kind of level of engagement with it or connection to the book when someone can mark it up or keep it on their shelf and look back at it. Is that the distinction?
Kevin Terrell: The distinction is it’s the choice and it’s the ownership and it’s the … It becomes part of your life, the expectation. The 30 books on your bookshelf, in your book bag or whatever, staring at you every day reminds you about books, reminds you about reading. As opposed to it’s this thing that’s off in the … a mile away.
Will Bachman: Talk to me about how you are … your consulting background. How you’ve brought in lessons to building this nonprofit effort.
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, so my counterpart Pam, co-founder, she was Anderson [Extensure 00:21:19 ] consultant back in the day. We’re both consultants, if you will. we don’t view this as a opportunity to make money. We put something like 95% of program costs directly to books and such. We only … Until this last year, we didn’t have anybody working for us at all. We just did this completely on our own as volunteers so we have super lean operation. Everything needs to be ticked and tied so that volunteers can execute it.
Kevin Terrell: We’re very clear about what’s the process going to look like. How do we make sure we get everything in the hands of the volunteers in a way that’s readily explained? This last year, as we expanded … Or two years ago, as we expanded to 30 school locations instead of five, I’m like, “This is not sustainable. We can’t continue to do this with spreadsheets.” Last year, what we did is we actually … We were the first to integrate Signup Genius, which is a volunteer registration tool with Nation Builder, the CRM tool. It’s primarily used for politics but they have a nonprofit component to it as well.
Kevin Terrell: We built our website on Nation Builder, integrate the Signup Genius tool so we can just quickly create all the signups at each school by the times that we need them. Two hundred different volunteer slots over 30 schools over nine days, automatically set all that up, have it port directly to our CRM tool and use that to then communicate with volunteers. I’m not a tech consultant really but I typically touch technology in most of my engagements in some way. Whether it’s extracting data, looking at systems and understanding what needs to happen in order for this to talk to that type of thing.
Kevin Terrell: A lot of those lessons certainly we’ve applied in this space. As I’ve talked to, again, other cities that are interested in our program, I tell them that we’ve done that. They’re like, “How’d you get that done?,” because they’re used to, I would say, talking to technology consultants, spending a bunch of money and time and then not getting what they want. We just walked through that process pretty quickly on our own with one part-time person taking the lead on it.
Kevin Terrell: Now, that allows us to, as we think about expanding or getting interest from other cities, part of our profit offering, if you will, is a) we’ve got this process baked, in terms of a deal with Scholastic. All the other components, in terms of book … Or not books but backpacks, pens, stickers and such, the letters to parents, all those things. Now we’d actually have an I.T. platform that can readily be StartReadingNow.org/YourCity, with your own dedicated website, your own dedicated piece of the CRM tool, with your own management rights, et cetera.
Kevin Terrell: We can easily sell that and we’re like 50% to 100% … Not 50. We’re half the price, a third to a half the price, of other book programs like ours.
Will Bachman: That’s amazing, in terms of the actual cost per book to the kid.
Kevin Terrell: Yep, yeah.
Will Bachman: Wow.
Kevin Terrell: Part of that’s just a) we’ve got a good process and b) we’re not looking to build a big … I’m not looking to make $300,000 a year running this thing.
Will Bachman: It sounds like you’ve also been super thoughtful about measuring the impact and collecting data and figuring out how we’re going to have metrics and KPIs on this so that you can demonstrate the value of the intervention.
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, and I think certainly in the nonprofit world today, funders are looking more and more for outcomes. They need to see that what they’re doing is having an impact. A interesting part of that for us is people immediately reveal whether they’re going to support us or not when we talk to funding organizations. Some people immediately get how simple our program is, how 80/20 it is, in terms of addressing a key problem that … It’s not everything, but it’s a very key problem that’s simple and inexpensive to do. Other people immediately focus on how simple it is in a bad way, that, oh, we’re not doing this, this, this, and this and coordinating all these things together all at once and turning it into this, I’ll call it, giant regression model of how do you drive impact on a kid’s life.
Will Bachman: Right, trying to do everything, solve everything.
Kevin Terrell: Right, and I had a discussion last year with a big foundation here in town and they had been running a series of, I’ll call it, like 10-factor interventions at four different locations across the Twin Cities with about 150 kids. They abandoned it after about a year and a half, because so many kids moved that they were no longer in the program and their end became essentially zero. As soon as you start cutting the data, you got nothing, and so they just gave up.
Kevin Terrell: What we do is we very intentionally said we want to get the scale. We want to reach kids all three years, because it’s right number of books, at the right time of life, for the right duration of time. It’s not one book, one year. It’s I want a sustain perspective for these kids of picking out and owning books and reading them. We focus very specifically on Minneapolis. We’ve gotten that down in a very holistic way. Now, we’ll try to stamp it out across different cities.
Will Bachman: Talk to me about how you balance your consulting work with this nonprofit effort. Tell us a little bit about the types of consulting projects that you do.
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, so obviously the independent consulting route is a great way to go if you need to take basically May off. You can plan for that. The flexibility certainly is a key piece and I think, for a lot of [inaudible 00:27:58] I think is a key piece, in terms of flexibility and being able to manage your life any way you want. A lot of my clients are in the healthcare space. Generally, well, almost always in the go-to-market frontend of the business. New markets, new products, new customers, almost always in the healthcare space. Not always, some education as well, as I alluded to before, oftentimes, some sort of technology angle to it. Not that I’m implementing programs but taking a look at … Here’s three different databases that have different data sources that never have been integrated in a way that tell us something useful about that go-to-market strategy piece.
Kevin Terrell: Who’s actually buying which products at what price from me today and what’s my cost structure to do that? How do I prioritize what I should be doing, in terms of raising price, lowering price, getting rid of customers, adding customers, et cetera? In that case, I’m not the I.T. guy but I know enough about the I.T. systems to know how to pull data and integrate that in a useful way that then drives the strategy question.
Will Bachman: Got it. Do you have any routines, Kevin, morning routines or any kind of productivity routines, throughout the day that you’ve been doing for a while or even recently adopted that really have worked for you?
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, I think one of the things about working independently, especially given cost pressures if you will, time to work at home. I think you got to stay focused at home. Part of that actually, that is, when I have the opportunity to go to the clients, like if it’s a local client, I make myself go to the local client. It’s easy to just sit at home at times and keep cranking away, but going actually into the client and just interacting … Just this week, I was out in Salt Lake. Didn’t need to be there, per se, but getting out there and interacting with the client, I think, moved the ball three times faster and then gives me the opportunity, when I’m back here, to accelerate things in more that private thinking space.
Will Bachman: Books, what are some of the books … They’re so much part of your life now. What are some books that you have most often gifted or that have meant a lot to you?
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, so my favor fiction author is probably [foreign language 00:30:43], Japanese author, so a writer of … I’ll call it fantasy fiction. He also has some non-fiction works as well around, for instance, the Japanese terrorist group that nerve gassed people back in the ’90s. I really like his style, from a, I guess, deeper thinking perspective. I always tell people, “Read anything from Hayek, so Fredrich Hayek.” Then there’s actually a bit of a connection there to Start Reading Now in that certainly Hayek’s perspective of the world is devolution of power is the key to success. The notion of centralizing power is the root of things going awry in society.
Kevin Terrell: What I talk about, relative to Start Reading Now, is that devolution of power, all the way down to the kid level, making decisions about what books do you want to read and why and what do you want to do with those books. It seems like a small thing but building confidence in kids to do that … Several years ago, I had a kid. He wanted to buy this one book but he’s looking at it. I said, “What’s going on?”
Kevin Terrell: He said, “I want this book but I know it … I think it’s too hard for me.” It was a chapter book and so I spent time with him, for like five minutes, a man he’s never met, having a conversation around, “Is this the right book for you. Do you have someone who could help you read this? If not, let’s go talk to your teacher and see what she says,” and had this conversation over five minutes. The notion that someone sitting in an office is going to mandate book number four for the summer reading program for this kid is the right book, and do that across the board for everyone, is ridiculous.
Kevin Terrell: Hayek talks about, not devolution of power per se but that’s’ the essence of much of what he talks about. Back to my politics aside, Road to Serfdom is probably the go-to book from him but numerous others as well.
Will Bachman: Kevin, people can find your nonprofit at StartReadingNow.org.
Kevin Terrell: Right.
Will Bachman: If people want to get in touch with you for your consulting side, what’s the best way to reach you?
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, so my consulting business is Katana Consulting, as in the samurai sword, KATANA. That’s just KatanaConsulting.com.
Will Bachman: We’ll include that link in the show notes. If people want to reach out to you about trying to bring your program to their community or city, what’s the best way to contact you?
Kevin Terrell: Just Kevin@StartReadingNow.org.
Will Bachman: Fantastic. Give kids the ability to choose their own books and they may actually read them is one of my takeaways. Kevin, it’s amazing what you’re doing. Just taking this from an idea to scaling it to city-wide at Minneapolis is really incredible. Looking forward to hearing about the results next year and the impact that you’ve had. Which you well as you look to scale this beyond the test city.
Will Bachman: Thanks, for joining.
Kevin Terrell: Yeah, thanks, a lot.