Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, founder of LitHits

Photo of Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

Kirsten is founder of LitHits, a digital reading venture that aims to break down barriers to reading. LitHits is developing an app that fully helps people engage with literature through unabridged, curated excerpts that you can read anytime, any place.

Its central message is: Read wherever you are. Any time spent reading is good time. The app works by providing a sample of the text for the people to select, tailored to how much time they have to read in order to find something good to read for that specific person. It goes beyond recommendation sites, of which there are so many that it can seem overwhelming. It gives you a small sample of a book rather than the whole thing, so you can see if you like it.

LitHits started as an idea created for the first Humanities Innovation competition, in 2017. Working with Oxford University Innovation since 2018, LitHits has successfully pitched for various internal sources of seed funding and is now a registered company seeking further, longer-term investment.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
My background is in English and theatre studies, primarily from about 1830 onwards, and LitHits comes out of my general professional experience of engaging constantly with all kinds of literature. But it was actually a growing awareness of how much time we spend on our phones and my sense that reading didn’t have to be crowded out by that; books and phones don’t have to compete with each other but might instead be combined. This gave me the idea for LitHits.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
LitHits Logo

Seeing an opportunity to create something that can do some genuine good, and figuring out how to get it done. Coming up with new ideas that are viable and that can create positive, socially beneficial activities. In the case of LitHits, it was seeing that there are lots of ways to access full-length books on the one hand, and lots of book recommendation and summarizing sites on the other hand, but nothing in between that provides a guided way to sample books in small, curated chunks.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I started talking to people—my family, friends, colleagues in the university, even complete strangers!—about my idea. The more you talk to people about new ways of doing things, the more useful feedback you get. Colleagues in the Humanities division encouraged me to submit my idea to the competition and that led to a relationship with OUI, and to pitching for funds. I’ve also had a lot of support from colleagues in the Said Business School, which has been brilliant to work with.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
1). Not giving up, perseverance as the top skill
2). Relishing talking to people, constantly: Having a good network of support
3). Open mindedness, being faithful to the idea but open to new concepts and ways of seeing solutions. Getting out of one’s comfort zone is key.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
My favourite parts have been
1) to work in a completely different way from my ‘day’ job
2) getting a new perspective on my field, as LitHits opens up fundamental questions about the nature of literature and reading. We do a lot of research in these areas in order to refine our core mission, and to deliver on our commitment to ‘radical diversity’ in our library of texts. This has led me to read far more widely than I might otherwise have done and is extremely exciting and important.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I have been inspired by the work of Worldreader, which is an organization with an app and a web site that encourages reading and grants access to books in Africa and India through digital means. It is genuinely innovative and inspiring, and they have also established prizes to encourage new writing.

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?

I’d be keen to know how they raised the money to develop and launch their product—always a key question!

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Overall, it has been the experience of working with many extraordinary colleagues, especially my core team, Dr Alexandra Paddock, Dr Daniel Abdalla and David Gilbey. In terms of specific moments, seeing our beta version of LitHits for the first time and winning the innovation award were real high points.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I learned that good things take time to create; and that is a good thing. For example, when I started LitHits I more or less believed all the hand-wringing in the media about books dying and reading being on the decline. But once we started researching this issue in depth, it became clear that in fact the opposite is true: far from declining, there is a real appetite for literature and more and more books being published and consumed. As Leah Price explores in her work on reading, we read hypertextually now, which means that at any time we not only have many things on the go that we’re reading, but for each one, we pause and look things up, or follow a thread digitally to pursue something that intrigues us. In other words, the act of reading is so different now, and its contexts so many and varied.

How have you funded your ideas?
Through seed funding mainly.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Oxford University innovation seed fund in 2018
V-C Innovation Awards 2020, won highly commended award under ‘inspiring leadership’ category
Van Houten Fund
BEP grant

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
There is no question that the university brand and reputation are very powerful to move forward a company or idea. In addition, Oxford itself is thriving with ideas and entrepreneurship. However, we could do more in the way of sharing all that valuable information in a joined-up, systematic way, so people learn from each other’s paths and processes and don’t struggle silently or reinvent wheels. It would also be great to see more Humanities and Social Sciences spinouts being promoted, as the overwhelming emphasis is on science and medicine and the model of success still seems to be primarily financial and STEM based.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I would send them to Enterprising Oxford, which is an extraordinary resource. Also, find other Oxford-based entrepreneurs and learn about their paths regarding what they have learned and how to make their idea into a reality.

An example from someone coming from the Humanities division is John Miles who started Inkpath and Abigail Williams’s WillPlay.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Gender equality has come a long way but even so, and even within Oxford, there are environments in which women face greater challenges than men.

Not yet, working through a university environment has already helped to prevent or stop the gender biases

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
Providing recognition and support through better networks
Recognizing women and the challenges they usually face.

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
It is important to not to try to do everything alone; support is vital. It cannot be up to the individual woman herself to make changes in the culture and this can be frustrating but keep pushing your ideas through and getting your voice recognized. And always call out gender bias or any other embedded inequalities you see.

Any last words of advice?
In many ways, academics are naturally primed for innovation: we have to have an openness to criticism of our work, we have to know how to mount compelling arguments, and we tend to be instinctively sceptical. All of these are typical Dragon’s Den qualities! What might come less naturally is the commercialization of our ideas and the need to be constantly pitching them to people. So I would say build on your university background and environment as an asset, don’t think of enterprise as all that different or alien to what you already do for a living. Also, talk to people and be curious all the time. Do not be afraid to have your idea tested and challenged. It will only get better.