Handheld devices have become so prevalent that every household has some sort of tablets or smart-phones. While these technological advances have simplified our lives with their functions and easy access to information, children have become obsessed with games such as Angry Birds and other mindless apps.
In addressing this vacuum of Biblically-accurate contents, 4Soils, a Biblically based children’s brand, has begun producing apps that aim to educate and to provide children with Christ-centered and interactive contents. Their apps are currently ranked as the number one or top five children Bible contents in iPhone and iPad platform.
In an interview with The Gospel Herald, Lusi Chien, co-founder of 4Soils and a Stanford Graduate School of Business MBA candidate, shares her inspiration for beginning this start-up company and producing Biblically-centered and enriching digital experiences for kids that aim to “tell the greatest story ever told” at the Stanford Venture Studio, where student entrepreneurs get to exchange ideas in a productive, collaborative way, while having a physical space to work on their projects.
R: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, the vision of 4Soils, and how you came about developing this Bible Story app while you are at Stanford Graduate School of Business?
I’m a second year student at Stanford Graduate School of Business. I come from a Chinese-American family. I was born in China and moved here to U.S., and my parents are in Michigan. I did not become a believer until I was in the U.S., so I’m an immigrant as well as a first time believer in my family. In fact, I first heard the gospel presented to me during Vacation Bible School, a program that I am very fond of. My faith is something that is very important to me and is my identity.
The mission of 4Soils is to "tell the greatest story ever told”. What that means is Jesus coming to earth and saving us from our sins. We believe that the whole Bible points to Jesus as savior, so we want to provide Biblically accurate, interactive, and fun content for children. When we first started this, it wasn’t something that we had been thinking about a lot. It was more through an inspiration.
My husband and I were having dinner with our close friends. It was us four adults and their three year old son, sitting on the high chair and playing with his iPad, so we can have our conversation. He started laughing hysterically at something he was playing with, and we were wondering what it was. His parents told us that it was an app called Talking Tom. For those who don’t know about it, it is an app that when you speak to it, it will speak back to you through a cat named Tom in a high pitch voice. What the child was doing was not so much speaking to it, but there are other functions on the app, which allows you to slap it, abuse it, or punch it in the stomach, and he thought that was pretty funny. We actually thought it was pretty funny too, but as we were observing how he was playing with his iPad throughout the week, we saw how a lot of contents were at best mindless games and at worse teaching violence through abusing a cat, which perhaps are not the best things for children to spend their time on.
We’ve observed many children on these devices, but we figured that this is the Silicon Valley. As we did some research, we found that on average children in both U.S. and China spend about 43 minutes a day on these devices, so we want to make sure that there are Biblically edifying contents on these platforms; when they are using these devices they can be encouraged and taught the Biblical lessons that these families are trying to teach their children through other venues.
R: While the culture here at Silicon Valley is deeply rooted in technological innovations, it isn’t common to hear of Christians taking advantage of the resources to develop products catered to the Christian market. What gave you the inspiration and the boldness to start this company?
The inspiration came from that dinner with our friends and their son. Just throughout, we’ve observed more and more and we’ve asked parents, who have iPhones and iPads, whether they have found good Biblical contents, but the resounding answer was no. That really was our inspiration to do something about it.
I’ve never imagined myself making iPad apps, but I think when God opens doors and shows you inspiration, you follow through on them. We actually joked around. My husband and I actually met at a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark in Hong Kong (Ma-Wan Park), and we were there for Christian mission’s conference for people who were doing lay ministries in China. As we reflect back when we released our first app, which was about Noah’s Ark, we just see God’s hands shaping our lives in ways that was very different than the trajectory that I was working on before. Previous to that, I had worked in international development and was actually in China opening rural banks as part of HSBC. If you think about that, you would ask yourself how did you end up making mobile Apps?
The way that I see it is that God’s guiding hands have been on our lives. That boldness really comes from just following an inspiration that we feel is from Him. As we continue to build the business, fundraise, talk to churches, we ask God that if it is really from you, then would you bless it and make it flourish. If it is not from you, please don’t let us make this particular company or app an idol, because there are things that we do in service to God can become idols for us. That’s one thing that we pray for ourselves and for our teams often that this project or company wouldn’t become our idol, but the end goal of everything that we do would be to glorify God.
Two other inspirations are YouVersion, which had digitalized and made widely accessible the Bible in all its different translations, and Veggie Tales, which have really influenced an entire generation of children. What’s interesting was that as I talked to many of my classmates who are not believers, because I’m making this product, it is much easier to talk to them about my faith than if I were just having a conversation and said, “Hey, I’m Christian.” (Chuckles) Sometimes people in the U.S. have their guard up because of this, but when they ask what is your start-up on and I tell them about it, it gives me an opportunity to connect with them. I find out that a lot of them actually went to Sunday School when they were young, have seen Veggie Tales even though their parents weren’t Christians, or they wouldn’t identify as Christian, so I think the influence that the media has on children can be great. Along the way we saw how those products have influenced the children’s lives, and we hope to do the same.
R: How long have you been working on this project and what kind of progresses have you and your team made so far?
The beginning inspiration was from the dinner that we had with our friends during the summer of 2011 prior to entering business school. We started with 150 parent survey that was sent out in November time frame. Although we’ve conducted research by ourselves at first, we couldn’t find anything, so we decided to poll parents. We started putting ideas on paper and Powerpoint; we started and talked to many kids and asked them what they like. We started building the products in March and released our first version of our Bible Heroes: Noah app on May 1st.
Since then, our first app Noah has been updated over 20 times now. That’s the great thing about digital technology. When we receive feedback on people’s likes and dislikes, we can update the app very quickly as opposed to a book once you print it, it requires much effort to update a new edition. We have then released eight Apps in just several months. We’ve been working at a very rapid pace in terms of releasing additional contents, because we realize that the most important thing as we were talking to parents are not the features on one app, but rather a library of different stories that they can tell their kids. One of our recent reviews from a customer said that as a parent she has been reading the Bible Hero App stories to her children every night and each night she would read a different story, which they really like.
Now, when you search Bible story or Christian children contents, we show up as either number one or one of the top five. We’re really glad at the progress that we have has made. We’ve also just entered into some partnerships that we think would be really helpful, including one with the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), which we just announced earlier this week. Their ministry currently reaches 12.1 million children worldwide, and specifically they believe that you can evangelize children and children can make the decision to become saved.
According to CEF, 80 percent of Christians become believers between ages of 4 and 14. This is a huge mission field. We also have a strategic partnership with Salem Communications, which is the largest radio network in the U.S. They have many contemporary Christian music and conservative radio talk. They carry the Adventures in Odyssey series as well as different websites.
R: What kinds of challenges are there when it comes to developing this product and publicizing it to the general public?
When we think about publicizing it, we have two customers. We have children. For them, we want to make it fun and edifying. We think of it like gummy bear vitamins. Even myself, I don’t like taking vitamins, but when it is in a shape of a gummy bear and is a candy, I want to take it and it is good for me. Because of the iPad and iPhone, there is a new category called “Edu-tainment”. It is education combined with entertainment. It is not just specific to the Christian space, but also to learning Math, learning English, and learning how to count. We believe that learning should be fun, and that kids are motivated to do it. Kids will do it and they will retain more as oppose to doing it as a chore.
At the end of the day, the Bible is the greatest story ever told, so we don’t want kids to think, “Oh, I have to read my Bible twenty minutes a day, because my mom told me to.” Instead, we want to bring these stories to life and to them, so that they will say that this is so exciting. The stories of the Bible are very exciting, because if you think about it, a flood covered the whole world. It is action-packed and has many amazing things in it. Maybe there is a connotation of reading the Bible as a chore, but we really want to change the mindset of children to thinking that it is a great that I want to read by making it fun and interactive. This is like the gummy bear vitamin.
When we did the initial survey with 150 parents, we asked them if they have found any good biblical contents, and they said no. And we asked if they have looked, and they said no, because they mostly associated these Apps with whether it was productive for them, such as my calendar. There is a lot of study that shows that interactivity helps children learn more and better than watching a video, which is a one way communication. When kids interact, they become involved, which helps them remember things better.
So I think for parents, it is switching their mindsets that I can actually give the iPad to their children for education and entertainment in both biblical category and learning in general.
R: How well is your product received by the Christian community?
People find it is a breath of fresh air. We just met with a group of churches on my trip to Houston, and they’ve shared how they’ve looking for something like this. I think for any churches and schools that have already embraced technology, it will not be an issue, but if they are skeptical about technology, then it is really more about technology rather than about the app.
A small anecdote is that we were having lunch with some friends at a local restaurant and we were showing them the app. The waiter asked us if that is a Christian kids’ app, and he then said that he has been praying for this for a long time, since the kids at his church are all on iPad during prayer meetings, but there isn’t much good content. He became so excited that he gave us a free appetizer, because for him it is an answered prayer from God.
We hear really encouraging stories from different people. We’re really excited about some inbound partnership requests from the Bible Society of Peru and Bible Society of Egypt. These requests came to us at an earlier stage of our progress when we were much smaller than today. It is amazing just how God opens doors. The Bible Society of Egypt is translating the app into Arabic, and getting it into Middle East is something that I’ve never really put on my roadmap as the next step to do. When they contacted us, they said that they’ve already made bookmarks there advertising our apps to the children in Egypt. That’s really amazing how God takes something and He just does what He likes with it. That was definitely not something in my near-term plan, translating the app into Arabic.
R: Other than Child Evangelism Fellowship and Salem Communications, have you thought about approaching other companies or organizations for partnership?
We haven’t approached YouVersion yet, but we would love to. To an extent, lots of great contents have been created already, but maybe they are in books, in DVDs, or on the web. Children today are shifting to mobile, but we don’t necessarily feel the need to recreate the wheel, so we love to get in touch with partners whose contents we can bring to the digital platform in order for children to enjoy it. Another approach is to bring to digital platform the products of famous children authors, who were popular ten to twenty years ago and whose products today’s parents would have read and loved their stories, so the parents can let their children enjoy the same stories.
To anyone who happens to be reading and would like to partner with us, we have on our website, a form that says “want to partner with us”, and we’re always looking for partnership opportunities.
R: As a believer and entrepreneur, how will you glorify God through your company and be able to sustain and make a profit from this venture?
At the core, I think our ultimate goal is to glorify God, and we believe that everything that we have, even the opportunities that He has given is from Him. I believe that for a company that is making products around the Bible. I can be an entrepreneur doing a completely different company, but I would still believe in that since that’s what I personally believe. I could be making window-panes or bean-bag chairs, and I don’t think the mindset would be different from making Bible contents, because that’s what I believe in the leadership of this start-up.
Something that we believe is that God, not man, will provide for our needs, but we still work as hard as possible. We believe in working as unto God, which is not different for 4Soils or if I am working for a secular company. In one of the parables in the Bible, there is a slave who is working for his master and he is doing field work. His attitude should be working unto God and not for his master. We think about that as we approach the company in general. We work hard and put our hearts and souls into creating a quality product, because we believe that our products are reflecting Him, so when we cut corners, we’re actually cutting corners against God, who is like a high judge. It is like having a boss who’s there all the time, but one who you really want to please and glorify.
Another thing that we do is we think about what is in the best interests of our staff when we work with them. For example, one of our product managers used to work in sales, so when he first came, we asked him to help us do sales and marketing. Soon, we discovered that he actually had a great gift in creative things. He loved writing, but that wasn’t something that he really had the opportunity to do before. He himself didn’t know that, but we started to discover his gift through constantly checking in on him and expanding his responsibilities. Now, he is our secret weapon. We would have never discovered if we had just said that we want to fill a sales role and you just fill this role and do your job. I’m actually picking up on some of the sales and marketing, but that’s fine, because he is doing something that he loves, and when he does that then the whole company or product will be better than if he were doing something else that he just didn’t like.
I think if you follow God’s principles, it is not to the detriment of the company, but, on the contrary, God will bless it if you follow Him. Maybe it won’t be immediately, but we have to act in faith. Many things that we learn in the Bible is good practice in general. We celebrate and take care of each other. When a member is sick, we just really make sure that they are taken care of. In some ways, it is like a fellowship, where we take care of each other, but, at the same time, we have objectives and accountability. It is a mix of family in which we take care of one another and have accountability. This is the same with God, right? You can’t just not do something and not have accountability with God, because he keeps you accountable and He loves you. When you fall and need help, He comes and helps you.
Other ways that we’re glorifying God from outside the company is that I have talked to my classmates and friends about my faith. When we think about lay ministry where a doctor is better at reaching a doctor than a pastor could, I think of it the same way as I think about my classmates. Here in the Silicon Valley, there are few believers. Sometimes, I feel a bit lonely or difficult to live out my faith. It felt daunting at first to very explicitly state what I do and to have those conversations, because I had to get up in front of groups of people and say that I’m making a Bible product even though religion and politics are topics that you are not supposed to talk about.
However, as it is my start-up, I get to explain about what I do and people’s guards are not that high. I’ve actually had amazing conversations with people about what they do, their background, and their ambitions. There are many entrepreneurs here that are asking the question of what at the end of the day is important to you. During your down times, what keeps you going? Having a ready reason for my faith and a platform to talk about it has been great for me from a personal evangelism standpoint.
R: Are there other like-minded individuals at Stanford Graduate School of Business that have the similar mindset to setup companies aiming at spreading the good news of Jesus Christ?
I haven’t found a lot here both at the Stanford Graduate School of Business or in Silicon Valley in general. In the beginning, I was looking for co-founders, and there was an event called Founder Soup, which you apply to pitch your business ideas. The people who are chosen get to pitch at the event, where interested attendees can then talk to you. Very few people came and talked to us, and it was a bit discouraging, because there weren’t like-minded people. It has been harder than a normal start-up, like one that is making the next Instagram for video, but at the same time it is a faith thing for us. Every team member whom God has brought to us has a story. Once each person joined the team, they are that much more passionate and dedicated.
Even though I haven’t come across a lot of like-minded people, it has allowed me to share the reason for my hope to people who are not so like-minded. “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)
R: What other projects or ideas will you work on once this Bible app is completed?
Our first series is Bible Heroes, which has David, Noah, etc. The next series will be on the life of Jesus. We’re hoping to get out four App series between now and Easter Sunday, which falls on March 31, 2013. We want to outline the major components of Jesus and later on do the miracles and parables of Jesus more in depth, but the first ones would be the major milestones in his life, such as Jesus as a boy at the temple. We have already begun working on this series, so we can release it in January, ending with his death and resurrection.