The Inspire a Kid Podcast

0002 Matt Miller- Inspiring Kids to Read with “Marlin & Percy”

September 24, 2017

Hey, thanks for tuning in to the Inspire a Kid podcast. This podcast telling the stories of inspiring kids, kid influencers who are inspiring kids and inspiring adults who were inspired as kids. Today our guest is a great friend of mine, Matt Miller from Stephenville, Texas. He's the founder and president of School Spirit Vending. Howdy there, Matt.

Hey, Scott. Thanks for having me on, man.

You bet. Thanks for coming on. I'm looking forward to our talk today. School Spirit Vending-- why don't you tell the listeners a little bit about SSV, School Spirit Vending?

Well, I started out about 13 years ago with just some simple gumball machines that I was setting up in local area businesses on the side in order to develop some additional income and produce a little bit more stability for me and my family on the income side of things. And over time, that morphed from working in local restaurants with just gumballs to toys and stickers and that type of thing. And back in October of '07, we were able to begin testing an idea that I had along the way where we would do custom spirit stickers for schools and then we would place sticker machines in schools and it was a way to passively raise money for those schools without any volunteers being required. It was also a way to potentially get some kids off the street, so maybe there were fewer out there selling door-to-door, raising money for their school. And had this crazy idea. Had a good buddy by the name of Jeremy Rand, who was an elementary PE teacher and got me an opportunity to give this thing a try in his school down in West Columbia, Texas, southwest of Houston. And so October '07, we placed our first machine and the thing just did incredible. And ever since then, going on 10 years now, we've worked with school after school after school across the country, helping them raise money using stickers and sticker machines to do it. To date, we're in about 42 states, I believe, about 2,500 schools. We're now a franchise, so our franchise team of families around the country work with schools in their local area helping them raise money and never in my wildest dreams, would I have ever thought that this former Air Force pilot would be head of a national, soon to be international franchise raising money in schools.

So you kind of gravitated toward this school angle. Was that just something that just happened, or have you always had a thing for helping kids out? How come schools and not some kind of vending in businesses?

It was a couple of things, Scott. First off, I was already kind of doing business in local area businesses, and it was those kids coming knocking on my door which really crystalized the whole idea to me because I had kids of comparable age-- there's no way in a suburb of Houston I was going to let my kids go door-to-door selling stuff for the local school to strangers. And so I was concerned, as an adult, that these kids were out doing that very thing without any supervision at all. So that was part of it. But to be honest, at the time, a lot [inaudible] too was just figuring out what was going to make most sense financially for me and my family and at the time, I knew-- because '07 and '08 and the market crash had forced a lot of our revenue numbers to drop in our traditional vending locations, we were looking for a way to stabilize things and by being in the schools, having the kids there nine months out of the year, five days a week, we essentially were able to stabilize things rather than new UIs because the kids were always there.

So you've always said, just from our conversations, you've always said that you've wanted to give the kids more than a 50 cent vend. You have a desire to see value added for these kids and for these schools. What are some of the things that you're doing to make that come to fruition?

Well before I answer that, a lot of it really goes back philosophically to what I believe. And that is that our job is to plant seeds. And my job, my goal, is to plant good seeds. And when good seeds are planted, good things happen. And so I look at this glance we got of millions of kids in our schools today as not only an opportunity to raise money for those schools and to raise money for our franchise team but also as an opportunity to positively impact the lives of those kids each and every vend. And so we have intentionally spent a lot of time and invested a lot of capital into providing that value, which will hopefully plant seeds into the lives of many of our kids and have a positive impact on down the road.

One of the things that we've done is with a comic book series that I started about three years ago. I'm not a writer. I'm not an artist. But I found a couple of young guys who graduated from Baylor University - and they had done some graphic novels together - and I hired them to begin producing a comic book series that could be found in our machines in the schools that we're in. And so we started with these little four panel comics of Marlin and Percy. They're a couple of apes that want to be superheroes [laughter]. And we started with these little four-panel comics that were printed on the little cardboard folder that each and every one of our stickers is vended out of the machine in. And slowly began to build up this content so the kids were not just getting a sticker. They were getting a little comic and in many cases, they were getting like a crossword puzzle or a word find or a dot-to-dot or whatever. So once again, adding value to them and their life for the 50 cents that they were spending at the machine.

The goal was for Marlin and Percy to kind of become the Bazooka Joe of our vending machines. Well after a little while, we had done a number of these four-panel comics and they were a part of most of the vends that came out of our machines. And I went back to the guys. I said, "You know what? I was inspired to read as kid reading comics. Wouldn't it be cool if we actually started doing some full-length comics? What do you guys think?" And they're like, "Well, we've never done that before but sure." Fast forward to today. We are just about done with comic book number 10. We have also written two full-length children's chapter book novels. The first is already available online and the second will be available here sometime this summer. And this passion project, this crazy idea that I had three and a half years ago or so has become this thing that is become more than I ever expected it would be. And now it's kind of taken on a life of its own.

That and just recently, you were in Colorado at a school to really give the kids a little bit closer look at Marlin and Percy. Tell us a little bit about what happened there and the response in Colorado.

What I realized is a lot  of adults in the educational system and a lot of parents, don't really see comic books themselves, necessarily, as a key to inspiring kids to read. They don't look at them quite at the level that they look at regular books, right? So we decided why not write some novels that would help us fill in a much more complete story of Marlin and Percy and would also be something that might be more attractive to Mom and Dad. So the very first novel, Marlin & Percy: Beginnings, and we had a school, a middle school actually, called Preston Middle School in Grant-- or, Fort Collins, Colorado reach out to us and say, "Hey, we do something called Preston Reads every year. We would love to have Marlin & Percy be our book that our kids and their parents read together at the beginning of 2017. Would you be willing to do that?" Well, all we had at the time was the manuscript in digital form. So we scrambled, got a good friend of mine to format it all, to get a hundred copies printed, and delivered them a couple days late. But we did finally deliver them to the kids in the program at Preston. For the next month, they spent time reading Beginnings with their parents. And then myself and our author and illustrator showed up at Preston Middle School one evening and had an opportunity to talk a little bit about entrepreneurship, had an opportunity to talk about reading. And then, each of the guys got a chance to talk about writing and art. The kids and the parents just had an absolute blast. And man, to see the lightbulb come on in the eyes of many of those kids was just amazing. One of the things that we also did, Scott, which was kind of fun, was we challenged those kids, as well as kids in a couple elementary schools that we went and read comic books to groups of them at the day before-- we challenged them to come up with characters--

Yeah.

--for Marlin & Percy.

Cool.

And so it required them to get creative writing-wise, get a little creative artistically, as well. And they submitted those characters. For those that don't know, Marlin and Percy are apes, like a said a minute ago. But most of the characters within the novels are animals as well. And so the kids came up with a bunch of animal characters that they thought would tie in well with the Marlin & Percy storyline. We picked the top one from each of the schools and they each won a signed copy of the book. But then the overall winner actually had a cameo appearance in comic book number nine themselves. And then their character in comic book 10, which will be completed here within the next week or so. Their character will actually play a part in the 10th comic. So to get our audience-- to get those kids and have them involved to the point where they're actually adding to the storyline was just--

Oh my gosh.

--really, really cool.

That is cool. That is truly inspiring kids. So what's the character? Can you let that out? Or we need to go ahead a buy number 10 [laughter]?

Well, yeah. I can let it out. A young man, by the name of Cameron, came up with the Honeybadger.

Cool.

And so, the Honeybadger makes their debut appearance here, in comic book number 10, like I said. And Cameron, himself, is in a school scene in comic number nine also, which is pretty cool.

Cool. We're going to have to  get a hold of that. So besides having Cameron come up with that character and offering it to the kids, is there a statement that either you or your artist and writer receive from a kid or a parent that's the most memorable that maybe reflects the best about what this really meant for those kids?

I don't know that there is a specific statement. But there was teacher after teacher that came up to us while we were at the schools thanking us for coming, thanking us for looking at art, and writing, and reading from a completely different [inaudible] that normally occurs in the public schools. And so to come from the comic angle and to show the kids how you could have a passion like Caleb and Tyler have or like me as an entrepreneur and utilize that passion to help and inspire others, it's just really, really, really cool. In fact, we're hoping [inaudible] program here over the summer to where our franchise team, many of whom would love to get out and do work like this in their schools across the country, will have the tools that they need to go in and do comic book readings along with some video footage that we've done to do the same kind of inspiring kids in a classroom all across the country and not just these few schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.

That is super cool, you spreading the wealth, so to speak, giving other people an opportunity to be kid influencers. Your franchisees, a lot of them have been teachers. I mean, your whole organization is super family and kid-focused anyway. So for them to be able to go into a school, that's incredible, and give them the tools to do that, that is really neat. Are the franchisees responding to that?

Yeah. I mean, everybody's got their own situation. They've got their own time that they have that they could devote to something like this. But there are several that, man, when they heard about the program and what we're putting together, could not wait to be a part. One of the guys in the state of Mississippi is an example, just expressed to me the fact that the literacy rate in many of the schools across the country, but in Mississippi specifically because that's where he is, is challenged. And so to be able to do something like this, to be able to bring it in and potentially make a difference for those kids has the potential to be a game changer for many of those kids that we come across in that setting. Once again, and this is another opportunity for us to plant those seeds. We're not responsible to grow them.

Right.

We're just responsible to plant them. And I know, Scott, you've had people that touched you, your life, as you've grown up whether they realized it or not at the time and helped mold you. And I've had the same thing. And if we can just be a little spark to a kid here and there and another kid over here, none of which we'll probably hear from, that makes all of this even more worthwhile.

Well, that kind of is a good segue to really my last question. Since we're talking about inspiring kids, who inspired you the most when you were a kid?

I would say the two that inspired me the most were my grandfathers, Robert Johnston and Ward Miller, my mom's dad and my dad's dad. They were always there. Thankfully that they lived locally. And so they were part of every event, every concert, every play, every athletic event that myself and my siblings were involved in as we were growing up. And just the positive attitude that they always had had the uplifting attitude they always had, the kind word and the encouraging word that they always had, created an environment along with, of course, my parents raising us the way they did, for us to be creative, for us to take some risks, for us to try new things, and for us to strive to be as good as we could absolutely evver be. To live in that environment was a game changer for me. It allowed me to think bigger than the little town of Sikamore, Illinois that I grew up in, could allow me to see at the time. Of course, that encouragement and the encouragement of teachers in junior high and high school, as well, along with my parents, led me to decide to be the first in my high school in over 20 years to apply to one of the service academies. I was blessed to get a chance to go to the Airforce Academy for college, and that began a nine-year career as a pilot in the Air Force. That, of course, led to, in a very roundabout way, to what we're doing today with fundraising and comics, and all that kind of thing.

Man, that's fantastic. Tell the listeners a littel bit how they can get a hold of this Marlin and Percy. I know that there will be some who are going to want to get online and try to find these books somewhere.

Right now there's a couple places they can go. Of course, they can go to Amazon and access any of the comics, and Kindle version of the novel, as well. Just search Marlin and Percy on Amazon. Otherwise, you can go to MarlinAndPercy.com and access the same thing, in most cases, at a discounted price off of the Amazon price. Hopefully, Lord willing-- We'll know here, in the next several days, actually-- It looks like Marlin and Percy may be picked up by a New York publishing house. Within the next six months to a year, they founded bookstores all across the country as well, and have many of our publications available in printed format, as well as in Kindle or eBook format online also.

Fantastic. Any last things you would like to tell the listeners?

I would just challenge each and every one to, in your own way, anything that you can do to make the world a better place for those around you, to do so. In many cases, it doesn't have to be that big of a deal or take that monumental an effort. We've been blessed. I came from a very creative family, so I think about most things very creatively, but I've had times in my life where I've just been a volunteer in the schools, or a volunteer with the kids in church, whether it be with the AWANA program, or Royal Ambassadors program, or with the choirs, or whatever. You never know what impact you might be having on that child. You never know what's going on at home. You never know what they're being exposed to. Being that good example and that person to look up to, there's no way to ever know the positive influence that each and every one of us has the ability to have.

That's right. Great word. Matt Miller, inspiring kids to read, and planting the seed. Inspiring kids to read. That's awesome, Matt. Thank you so much for your time today. You impact kids, you impact families. Great mission.

Awesome. Thanks, Scott. God bless you, man.