Q&A with Mark Watkins, Founder of The Hawaii Project

By   Jantien Abma 4 min read

We spoke to Mark Watkins, the founder of The Hawaii Project, a new book discovery engine. Mark was previously CEO and co-founder of goby, a mobile recommendation engine for finding fun things to do, and VP of engineering at Endeca, a search platform, since acquired by Oracle. From his home in Hawaii, Mark told us about the motivation behind setting up the new platform, the difference between The Hawaii Project and other recommendation engines and what this means for self-published books.

Image result for mark watkins hawaii1. You’re a tech entrepreneur driven by a deep appreciation for books. In the past you’ve set up a variety of data-focused companies. Is book recommendation a passion project for you, or is there something about books that presents a unique business opportunity?

A constant in today’s life is information overload – we’re awash with information, media, websites, apps… Who can keep up with it all? Books are no exception – there are millions of new books made every year, and the self-publishing approach is making the problem harder on readers. How do I find the best books for me?

The book industry is $30bn+ worldwide. Distribution is mostly settled – you buy from Amazon online, and bookstores offline. But research consistently shows most people still discover new books offline – not from Amazon or other online sources. 

Shaping buying behaviour in a multi-billion-dollar market is an enormous business opportunity. That’s where we come in. One-size-fits-all book recommendations don’t work anymore. Reader tastes are too diverse. We scan what the web’s leading tastemakers about books are writing about, personalise it to your tastes and interests, and deliver it to you.

2. Tell us about how you came up with the idea for The Hawaii Project. What did setting up the company entail?

I kept discovering I’d missed new books by my favourite authors. Some years ago I built something simple that kept track of that for myself. After my last company was sold, I was recuperating on the beach in Hawaii with a great book (tough life, I know). I was seized by the desire to take what I’d learned in my last three companies and create that same experience for everyone – that feeling of reading a great book on the beach. That was the genesis of The Hawaii Project.

3. What about The Hawaii Project do you think will make users check their account on a regular basis?

What’s unique about The Hawaii Project is that we are constantly crawling the web to see what the leading voices in the books world are writing about. So our recommendations are always fresh and relevant to current events. Right now Elie Wiesel’s book Night is “trending” on The Hawaii Project, because he recently passed away. We send regular emails to subscribers with these fresh, personalised recommendations. That’s far more interesting than telling you over and over again, “If you read the first Game of Thrones book, you should read the second one”, which is what most recommendation systems seem to be good at. 

4. How do you make sure that the platform is constantly up to date?

We constantly crawl about 1000 hand-selected sources of high quality writing about books. It’s everything from major news media sites all the way down to niche blogs about subjects ranging from medieval history to green/sustainability topics. So we get great coverage on all kinds of books, and then every night we apply a proprietary matching model that maps your interests and reading habits to the best books being written about now.

5. What are your thoughts on self-publishing? Do you think a model similar to yours might work to connect readers with indie writers they might enjoy?

Absolutely! Our system includes both traditionally published and self-published books. Hugh Howey said it best: The Glut is Good. It’s been a great thing for authors – they can reach the market without having a publisher, and some great books have resulted. But for readers, there’s a bit of a dark side – the paradox of choice. There are so many books now, it’s hard to make sense of it all. We hope to fix that.

6. What is your favourite fiction and favourite non-fiction book, and why?

One of our mantras at The Hawaii Project is “Books Change Lives”. We donate 10% of our revenue to three literacy non-profits because we believe in this so strongly. A great book can have such an impact on your life. 

For me, that book was Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. It’s the story of the battle of Thermopylae – it changed how I think about leadership, management, courage under fire and what it means to be part of a team you love.

For non-fiction, can I name two? I absolutely adored Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson. On one level, it’s about the search for the sunken pirate ship the Golden Fleece – it’s non-fiction but it reads like an Indiana Jones movie – but ultimately it’s about chasing your dreams in life and not settling. And Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, a Zen travelogue about his expedition in the Himalayas, is deeply moving and will cause you to re-evaluate your life in so many ways.