Hawaii Project Taps Search to Suggest Right Books for the Beach

Xconomy Boston — 

Finding the perfect book to take to the beach could be getting more scientific and serious, at least if Mark Watkins, founder of the Hawaii Project, is on to something.

Watkins, a co-founder and former CEO of Goby, an MIT spinout that developed a search and recommendation engine for travelers, is trying to create the perfect recommendation engine for bibliophiles. The basic idea: something that knows your tastes better than your friends do, has a wider range than even the best bookstore clerks and librarians, keeps up to date with authors’ social media activity and new releases, and is much smarter when it comes to understanding readers than even Amazon or Goodreads.

The goal is to scour the Internet and social media to “find books you’d never find on your own,” Watkins said. But it goes beyond creating a list of suggestions readers can periodically check. Watkins, who is based in Boston, wants the Hawaii Project to be able to make “proactive” recommendations like Google Now does when it sends you a notification. That way readers won’t miss anything from their favorite author, whether it’s a new release, funny tweet, or insightful blog post.

Watkins is a lifelong reader and says as a kid he’d read the encyclopedia over breakfast. He always knew he wanted to do something related to books at some point, but it was his career in tech that gives the Hawaii Project its shape. He has specialized in search and discovery, including a stint as vice president of engineering at Endeca, a Cambridge, MA-based company that Oracle bought for more than $1 billion in 2011.

Until last year, he was with Goby, which was founded in 2008 and then purchased by TeleNav in 2011. The company was co-founded by renowned MIT computer scientist Michael Stonebraker, who recently won the Turing Award—called the Nobel Prize for computer science—for his pioneering work on database systems. Goby searched databases and the Web to suggest activities for people on trips (or planning them) and eventually evolved into a mobile app that recommends activities based on a user’s location.

Watkins said travel-related search proved to be a crowded market, and while Goby had about 1 million users per month, it had trouble expanding beyond that. Among the lessons Watkins learned from Goby was that most people don’t have the energy to go hunting for the coolest thing to do and would rather have well-tailored recommendations.

“People don’t want to have to go look for stuff—they want personalized, contextually relevant stuff brought to them,” he said. The Hawaii Project will do that by asking them about favorite books and authors. The site will send recommendations to users by e-mail and eventually through an app, Watkins said. People who want to test it out can join a private beta program, and a launch to the general public is expected this summer.

Watkins has been working on the Hawaii Project for the past year or so, and Thursday he launched a Kickstarter campaign he hopes will raise $35,000 to support it. The name for the app comes from the challenge of creating the ideal reading list for trips to Hawaii, a frequent destination for Watkins.

While Watkins’s approach to finding books might be novel, he understands why people immediately think of Amazon and Goodreads, a social network for readers, when he mentions his project.

In his eyes, Amazon is a mile wide but very shallow when it comes to recommending books; it often makes suggestions that are obvious, like the next books in a series or a few other bestsellers in the genre. Watkins said he’d like to build a site that could dig deeper into an author’s past, suggesting little known stories from early in their career or books they’ve said made an impact on them.

Goodreads has different shortcomings. The site has a mountain of user reviews that all seem to average out to about four stars for every title, Watkins said. And knowing what your friends are reading can be nice, but it doesn’t always help you find the perfect book.

“I have a lot of friends, and I like them a lot, but they don’t read what I read,” Watkins said. “It’s interesting, but it’s not helpful because my interests are so different than theirs.”

But what Goodreads’ success has shown is that there is a population of avid readers who are Internet savvy, and it runs into the tens of millions. So a market exists for people who still take books seriously—and could benefit from the Hawaii Project.

“Anybody who reads more than 10 books a year should be interested in this,” Watkins said.

Watkins said he plans on making the Hawaii Project a “freemium” service that is free to join but charges frequent users more. He wants to avoid relying on advertising from publishers because that “inevitably compromises you.”

He also said he isn’t interested in going down the venture capital road because he wants to keep control of the company and have more flexibility in how he runs it. The decision also gives him the chance to donate 10 percent of the Hawaii Project’s revenue to nonprofits that promote literacy.

Even without VC backing, there’s the potential for a bigger play by expanding to subjects such as music, Watkins said.