Asi Sharabi, one of the company's co-founders, came up with the idea when he bought a book for his daughter that plugged her name into the role of the protagonist. "I was underwhelmed by everything about it," he said. "Apart from seeing my daughter's name in the book, there was nothing else that made it feel personal. The potential existed but it was executed badly."
Sharabi, who has a background in advertising, called up a few friends and started Lost My Name as a side project. Their first title, called either "The Little Boy Who Lost His Name" or "The Little Girl Who Lost Her Name," features a plot in which kids who have lost their names meet with different animals throughout the book. Each animal they meet restores a letter of their names to them. Parents can chose to depict the book's protagonist as a girl or a boy (the title changes depending on their choice).
The book — available in nine languages — has sold at least 1 million copies in 160 countries and earned Lost My Name interest from investors including Google Ventures. The company has made books for children with 97,827 different names — 64,027 of which were only printed once. A new second title, "The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home," expands the customization by asking parents for their home address, so that kids will able to see landmarks from their own cities and neighborhoods throughout the book.
This kind of product may not be for everyone. Parents who are wary of handing that information over to a company — worried, perhaps, after news that a breach at toymaker VTech exposed millions of children's information — may want to think twice about buying these types of books. Personalizing products always comes with a measure of risk, particularly as hackers seem to find easy targets in toymakers ill-equipped to secure information.
Lost My Name says it is well aware of how sensitive using personal information on children can be, and is "fully compliant with every possible data protection regulation," Sharabi said.
Customers choose what information they want to submit — it's not collected passively — which ensures that they know what's going over to the company's servers, including their child's first name, gender and home address. Lost My Name does retain addresses and order information, Sharabi said, to make it easier to reorder things through users' accounts — but does not sell that personally identifiable data to advertisers.
Some may wonder why tech investors would be interested in a company that, at least from the outside, looks like a pretty low-tech endeavor. But Sharabi said that the company thinks of itself as a sort of tech company in the same vein as boutique glasses seller Warby Parker or clothing retailer Everlane — one that uses technology to improve the process for getting traditional products into the hands of customers.
After all, Sharabi said, the printed book may be ripe for innovation, but it's still a well-loved format.
"We figure there are enough people thinking about screen-based propositions for children," Sharabi said. As a parent himself, he likes having some screen-free bonding moments with his kids — something he's heard from other parents who've bought his book.
"I also love screens — and people are doing interesting things with them. But, culturally, they became more of a digital babysitter or pacifier instead of a shared bonding device," he said. He likes the idea that he can use technology to enable quiet bonding moments offline for kids and their parents.
While Sharabi sees potential for on-demand publishing more broadly in the future, he said he doesn't think Lost My Name is going to expand much beyond kids' books. The parts of the book that make his company's books appealing — the bold, personalized visuals, the small touches to make kids feel special — wouldn't work for more complex literature, he said.
"I don't think personalized publishing is going to scale to other audiences," he said. "I'm not interested in creating books where I get you to be a part of a Dickensian novel or in something like '50 Shades of Gray.' I don't think this is going to scale beyond children."
Not that he has a problem with that.
"This is a huge market," he said. "Everyone says books are dead. That's just plain stupid."