How Reading Rainbow's LeVar Burton Is Bringing Storytelling into the Digital Age

How Reading Rainbow's LeVar Burton Is Bringing Storytelling into the Digital Age

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Since the 1980s, LeVar Burton has been bringing the joy of reading to young kids through engaging television programs. Now he’s making the move to mobile devices with the Reading Rainbow app. The interactive reading enhancement app for 3 to 9-year-olds encourages and teaches reading through animations, games and video.

In 2011, Burton and long-time entertainment producer Mark Wolfe acquired the Rainbow license -- which paved the way for the two to relaunch the Reading Rainbow brand under the RRKidz name and into the digital age.

To get a better sense of his transition into entrepreneurship and to learn about how he’s appifying Reading Rainbow, I interviewed Burton live on What’s Trending. He also shared his advice on how to effectively merge storytelling with technology and social media.

Q: At what point did you begin thinking about yourself as an entrepreneur? Why was this personal-rebranding effort valuable?
A: I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur until we formed RRKidz in 2010. However, now that I know what an entrepreneur is, I realize I have been one all my life. As an actor and director, I created, managed and marketed the ‘LeVar Burton’ business.

Related: Social-Media Maven Amy Jo Martin on Working Hard and Being a Renegade

Being an entrepreneur means developing and growing a product to fit the market need or to create a market for your product that never existed before. By that definition, expanding my own brand allows me to keep my first product -- me -- fresh and interesting to consumers while expanding my ‘product line’ to include software, feature films, television, speaking engagements, etc.

Q: How has social media helped you build your brand and now get the word out about the app?
A: I was an early adopter of Twitter and now with almost 2 million followers, I consider social media to be an integral part of my brand. Every day I have a conversation with my fans via Twitter, the content of which is completely of my own choosing in my own voice. No studio, network agent or manager in the mix. That personal connection with fans is, I think, core to whatever continued success I have.

Related: David Segal on DAVIDsTEA: North America’s Next Starbucks?

When we released the app, social media allowed me to reach audiences directly. For them to hear from me about this project and that I believe it’s something they would like, rather than a commercial, was key. Social media allows me to speak personally with fans and they can hear my passion and belief in the app.

Q: You’ve mentioned how arduous it was creating the app. Why was it so challenging and lessons can you extend to others jumping into the app scene?
A: When we started, my business partner and I were Hollywood storytellers, not technical developers, marketers, quality-assurance experts, accountants or anything that starting you own tech business might require. We had to learn very fast and we had to bring on a team that knew what we didn’t. That’s my main advice: Find the people who know what you don’t know.

Q: How about tips for young entrepreneurs?
A: Know what you want to do, why you want to do it, who you’re doing it for and how it will be financially successful before you design anything, write a single bit of code or pitch to anyone. Know it completely inside and out. Believe in it.

Related: Thrillist’s Ben Lerer on his Success as a Young Trep

Then when you’re ready, you have to be committed to living and breathing your business. Entrepreneurs work 24/7, 365 days of the year. They invest their own money, reputation, sweat, blood and tears from day one. I would tell them it’s probably the most rewarding thing you will ever do, whether or not the product succeeds.

– This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Want to hear more from LeVar Burton? Check out the What’s Trending episode:

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