Inspirational Woman: Camilla Macoun | Founder, The Bear Can Read

Camilla Macoun

Camilla Macoun is a mother of three and Founder of The Bear Can Read, a subscription service for families with children aged 2-7.

Camilla has 16 years’ experience with educational publishing, with in particular expertise in children’s reading and phonics. During her career Camilla has worked at Ladybird, Penguin Random House, Pearson and Oxford University Press. Camilla commissioned then managed Pearson’s best-selling reading programme, Bug Club. As a Senior Publisher at Oxford University Press Camilla was instrumental in developing Oxford Reading Buddy, a ground-breaking virtual reading service for primary schools.

She read English at St Andrews University before completing a Masters Degree at University of the Arts London (UAL). Camilla won a scholarship to attend an entrepreneurship course at London Business School over 10 years ago. The first seed of The Bear Can Read was planted with this course as she was so passionate about supporting children’s emergent literacy.  Camilla launched The Bear Can Read in 2020.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I have spent my whole career in publishing, but the last 10 years I worked as a children’s educational publisher. After writing my MA thesis on early literacy, and researching the importance of establishing reading habits from a young age and what a huge difference it makes if parents are involved to support reading at home, I knew I wanted to build my career in children’s publishing. The Bear Can Read, a subscription service delivering bespoke early literacy and phonics bundles to children aged 2-7 so that parents can support them at home, was an idea that bubbled away a couple of years until I finally took the leap.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

To some extent yes. I started my career in magazine publishing, and knew that I’d have to effectively start again to learn the book publishing market. Like all industries now, publishing is really competitive, so I think it does require some planning to show commitment and to ensure that you’ve got the right skills. When I decided that I wanted to go into children’s education, I interned at Penguin and Ladybird to get my foot in the door, then moved to Pearson where as a Junior Editor I spent a lot of time in schools learning more about phonics and how reading is taught. It was only years later when I was a Senior Publisher at Oxford University Press that I felt that I had the knowledge and contacts to create a service for parents that could effectively help children learn to read at home.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

The timing of launching a new service to support families at home just when families needed it the most was incredible (The Bear Can Read launched in March 2020 just as schools were closing). However, the supply chain was hugely vulnerable with businesses closing with little to no notice due to working restrictions. The orders started coming in, but our book distributor closed, the printer started charging huge premiums for on demand printing and restrictions around gatherings meant that I was left with very little support to pack and send all customer orders. I overcame this by pure persistence (and by staying up into the early hours of the morning packing boxes with Schitt’s Creek for company in the background). Knowing that many children were now stuck at home and that families would need this support more than ever was what kept me focused. Thankfully I had publishing friends at Oxford University Press and convinced them to organise books to be delivered to me directly so I could keep going. I also visited every phonics book retailer in London that was still open to buy any remaining stock of phonics books. A key turning point was finding a small family-run printer in Manchester that was willing to go the extra mile to keep supplying printed materials as our subscription numbers grew. We still work with them today, and we have huge respect for each other’s businesses.  It was just about doing what was needed to be done however I could. At one point when the box supplier couldn’t deliver, I had my family sticking The Bear Can Read logo onto white mail boxes for me. At that point, I didn’t know if The Bear Can Read would grow to be a viable business, but I did know that I had an opportunity to send books to children who were about to have a very disrupted year of their education so I just kept going.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

We’ve sent out over 12,000 reading boxes to children throughout the UK. Sending reading bundles to children to help with their education at home during a pandemic was a huge honour and something I’m so proud of. The community of parents that we have is the most supportive. On a daily basis we receive photos and emails – the faces of our club members lighting up and that is our biggest achievement. In terms of the process, we now work closely with Oxford University Press which is a huge milestone for us. After spending many years in the industry, I know that Oxford brings the highest standards to all their books so I am incredibly proud that The Bear Can Read is in association with them.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I think it’s really important to pursue something that you’re passionate about and know there is a problem that needs fixing. When it comes to building the solution and having confidence in what The Bear Can Read does, I know how important it is to get phonics books that help children learn to read in the same way they are taught in school into the hands of young children. I know how critical it is to get the level of the book right so the child doesn’t feel frustrated or bored, and I know what an incredible impact getting this right can have on a child’s attainment across all subjects (and their happiness levels). I’m so passionate about making it easier for parents to support their child’s reading at home (as a mum of three myself I love our message of ‘open the box and you’re on your way, together we create readers’) and this mission has been my compass for the last 15 months.

Have you ever had a mentor or career coach?

Pearson used to have an internal fast track career programme when I was there. One of the benefits was a career coach. I was fortunate enough to be selected for the programme and the experience of meeting with a coach regularly was really interesting. My coach only ever asked steering questions so it really gave me the confidence that you can solve any problem that comes your way by creating a plan, implementing it, and by being brave. I’ve also worked with some incredible women role models during my time in publishing who were informal mentors. Now I have a small network of other start-up founders who I regularly speak to. Building a start-up can be really intimidating and it’s a massive leap of faith so speaking to other founders for encouragement is so helpful.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

The first year for The Bear Can Read was really about ensuring product/market fit, talking to our growing community of subscribers to ensure that they found the boxes timesaving, motivating for children and most importantly that children were gaining confidence with the additional support at home. Now we need to focus on scale and letting as many parents know about The Bear Can Read as possible. Our club members really love that we’re print based and children receive physical books and activities. This was so clear during lockdown when I think everyone had screen fatigue. However, I’d love to expand our digital offering to include online games to help children hear and practise the individual sounds that we focus on in their latest bundle. When online is used to support print, I think it works really well. It would be perfect for parents on the go when they have a spare 5-10 minutes for their child to practise specific sounds that they are learning.

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