Q&A: The Hawaii Project by Mark Watkins
Tomorrow brings a Kickstarter campaign to help launch a new startup called “The Hawaii Project,” a book recommendation and news engine for people anywhere who aspire to relax on an island beach with something good to read.
The Hawaii Project is the brainchild of Mark Watkins, who reached out to me in January when I spun up a Slack chat group for the local tech community. As an entrepreneur who had long been splitting his time between Kailua and Boston, he was looking to get to know the Hawaii startup community better as he prepared to launch his next big idea, named for the Aloha State.
Mark had already earned his stripes in the startup space, serving as a mentor for the renown Techstars accelerator and an advisor to Cambridge startup Firecracker. He also helped lead two companies to major exit events: he was CEO and cofounder of goby, a location-based startup that was acquired by mapping giant Telenav, and the research and development lead for Endeca, which was acquired by Oracle for $1.1 billion.
Endeca, which is now an Oracle product, specialized in agile data discovery. And goby was a semantic search play in the travel space, automatically suggesting interesting things to do in a city. Both of these companies seem to be stepping stones to The Hawaii Project.
The project has been in private beta for a number of weeks, and I was fortunate to be among one of about one hundred guinea pigs kicking the tires and providing feedback. He also has a computer animator and a team of Emerson College students in Boston helping him with marketing. Now, he’s preparing to officially launch the startup with a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.
Without a doubt, Mark has been busy in the last few days, but he was kind enough to participate in an email Q&A session, and even called into Bytemarks Cafe tonight to give listeners a quick preview (listen below). Read on to learn about Mark’s connection to the islands, the genesis of The Hawaii Project, and what he thinks of Hawaii’s startup scene.
Q. Why is it called The Hawaii Project? Are you based here?
My wife’s family is from Kailua, and we’ve been coming here pretty much our entire lives. Now we’re splitting time between Kailua and Boston. For me, Hawaii has always been a place to revitalize, and rekindle my passion to make cool things. I do this by hiking, being in the water, and most of all, reading great books on the beach. That’s my ‘happy place,’ and I want The Hawaii Project to bring that same feeling to other people.
Q. So give me your elevator pitch. What is the The Hawaii Project?
The Hawaii Project is a personalized book discovery service with a social mission. We find great books and book news that you’d never find on your own, and 10 percent of our revenue goes to three great literacy non-profits.
Q: Where did the idea come from?
I’ve always been passionate about books and reading. Books have the power to change people’s lives. After my last startup was acquired — goby, a mobile recommendation engine for finding fun things to do — I wanted to do something with books. I kept feeling like I was missing out on new books from authors I loved, so I started with some really simple programs that would alert me about them. That felt promising, so I started building some far more sophisticated things.
I also wanted to find a way to ‘give back.’ I realized this could be a vehicle to raise funds for literacy programs that were already making a difference.
Q: Lots of sites have recommendation engines, including Amazon. What’s unique about your approach with The Hawaii Project?
The Hawaii Project quickly learns what authors you love, what kind of books you’re interested in, then brings you unique finds on a regular basis. And as you use it, it gets even smarter.
People are busy. They don’t have time to do research and go looking for things. The technology industry is well aware of this trend. We’re seeing the rise of apps that are contextual, personalized, and bring you relevant things without you having to ask. Google Now is a great example of that… it alerts you to all kinds of interesting things. The Hawaii Project is a kind of Google Now for books.
Meanwhile, people are getting jaded about the “ratings and reviews” game. Everyone thinks the reviews are fake and the system is gamed. And to some extent, they’re right. The key insight we had was this: when people take the time to write long form content (like a blog post) about a book, that book meant something to them, and it’s not faked. We’re crawling the blogosphere and mining those sentiments, then personalizing them for you.
Here’s a real-world example. There’s an awesome bookstore in Kailua, BookEnds. You walk in and you’re instantly surrounded with great staff recommendations, odd little treasures, old and new books. With The Hawaii Project, I’m trying to create that same feeling of discovery, online.
Q: Discovery is nice, giving back is admirable. But how will The Hawaii Project make money?
Great question. People are really cynical about ad-driven businesses these days, as they always feel like they’re getting stuff they didn’t ask for pushed on them. We agree. We’re doing it the old fashioned way. Our basic service is free, and after you track a certain number of books and authors, we’ll ask you to pay for a subscription. We want perfect alignment between who’s using our product and who’s paying the bills.
Q. When will we get to try it out?
We’ve been in private beta, testing with about a hundred folks. We’re launching a Kickstarter tomorrow to fund the final stage of launching the company. And while I say ‘we,’ it’s just me. I’m raising funds to hire some folks to get ready for primetime. People can check out our page here (going live on April 2), and if they like our mission, we’d love their support.
Q. I have to ask, given your background and experience in Boston: What’s your take on the startup scene in Hawaii?
Wow, what a huge difference in the last five years or so! The community really seems to have great traction, and it’s awesome to see things like Blue Startups doing funding and Dev League building people up to be ready to do startups. I had a chance to speak at a Hackathon in February, the turnout was awesome and Governor Ige was a judge, which was huge. There’s always more to do, but the trend is awesome.
Q. I guess I should also ask, what are you reading right now?
I hesitate to answer because it’ll sound pretty ‘book nerdy,’ but I’m reading “The Iliad” right now. And I just finished “The King Must Die” by Mary Renault.
There’s more to what The Hawaii Project does to gather intelligence and make recommendations, which you can hear about in his conversation with us tonight on Hawaii Public Radio:
You can also check out the official video on Kickstarter, or on Vimeo here: