Sleepy Owl: Immersive Storytelling and Limitless Possibilities

July 19, 2023

Narrative stories have come a long way from Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure books and the mysteries of Agatha Christie. Imagine reading a mystery book published today. You turn the page and suddenly the words jumble before your eyes, and you must unscramble the text to continue reading and solve the case. If adventure stories are more your speed, imagine reading about a hero trekking through the wilderness when suddenly you hear birds singing, leaves rustling in the wind and the faint sound of a waterfall in the distance.

Mekal Smith in a dark business suit, white shirt, and dark tie
Mekal Smith

This immersive and interactive way of reading is exactly what Mekal Smith, CEO and founder of the Sleepy Owl Company and its two divisions, Sleepy Owl Publishing and Dream CapCha, is developing. Smith, a 2021 graduate of the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, hopes to take the concept of interactive reading as many consumers might know it (Apple’s iMessage effects such as invisible ink or confetti, for example) and apply it to full novels to enhance the reading experience.

Turning Childhood Friendship into a Legacy

Smith was inspired to create Sleepy Owl after the sudden and unexpected passing of his childhood best friend, Clayton Mason, who Smith called one of the best storytellers he’s ever known. Realizing that upon his death, no one would be able to read Mason’s incredible stories, Smith set out to bring his late best friend’s stories to life.

“His stories were so detailed that I wished I could see a visual representation of what he wrote on his pages,” Smith said. “The…Sleepy Owl Company was created to allow authors access to a platform that would grant [them] the ability to write a story or upload completed stories and attach digital media to the words of that story.”

Finding Success on Rocky Top

Smith enrolled in Haslam’s Master of Accountancy program after a five-year career in the FBI. While in the program, he learned about the college’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation and its mission to assist student entrepreneurs. Smith entered Sleepy Owl, then just an idea, into the Graves Business Plan Competition. He won third place and a $2,000 prize. This excitement and reassurance from the judges then led him to enter the Boyd Venture Challenge, where he won $10,000.

Mekal Smith holds up large check with Tom Graves and Randy Boyd.
L-R: Tom Graves of the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Mekal Smith, UT System President Randy Boyd

“I’m the first entrepreneur in my family. I didn’t think that I had the skills to win these highly competitive pitch competitions,” said Smith. “Getting funding early on means the world to a startup, so I was beyond excited to receive funding and start to turn my idea into a reality.”

Growing Sleepy Owl

The Sleepy Owl Company has grown far beyond its roots as a successful competition winner. The company now has two main offerings under its name: Sleepy Owl Publishing and Dream CapCha. 

Sleepy Owl Publishing “makes storytelling a reality for those who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity,” said Smith. It aims to democratize the publishing industry by tackling the pay disparity amongst minority authors. Sleepy Owl Publishing hit a big milestone earlier this year, officially publishing its first book with a few more books in process.

Mekal Smith and McKrell Baier, holding up the book, Growing Up With Kings & Queens
Mekal Smith and McKrell Baier, author of Sleepy Owl’s first book, Growing Up With Kings & Queens

Dream (Digital Recordings of Enjoyable Acquired Moments) CapCha is Sleepy Owl’s immersive and interactive platform for authors. It allows them to embed digital media, such as words, videos, audio clips or graphics, into specific words, phrases or paragraphs within the story. Dream CapCha gives authors limitless options for how they tell their story, breaking boundaries of publishing and writing.

Immersive Reading with a Purpose

Beyond being a new way to enjoy stories, Smith hopes Sleepy Owl’s revolution in reading will improve childhood literacy rates. “Traditional reading appeals to just the read/write learners, but we want to reach the visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners.”

The potential benefits to literacy and the enjoyment of being fully immersed in a story are obvious perks to this new era in reading Sleepy Owl is ushering in, but the best part might be that there are virtually no barriers to experiencing it. Readers don’t need a specific type of device to access stories on the Sleepy Owl platform, so users can use any reading device, such as a computer, iPad or Kindle. Dream CapCha is currently in development with AWS, Amazon Web Services, and is expected to launch toward the end of 2023.

“Everyone’s story deserves to be told,” Smith said. “And everyone’s story deserves to be experienced.”


Brennan Hullett,