For millions of preschoolers, 12 minutes could be all it takes to learn a new word or two.
That’s how long the average tot is spending on Endless Alphabet, the popular app from San Francisco-based mobile startup Originator that’s part of the trio of Endless Numbers and Endless Reader educational games. The self-funded and profitable company of five, which develops and publishes for the preschool set, is led by CEO Rex Ishibashi, who gave iKids a lesson in both analytics and staying ahead of the curve in an overly crowded educational app market.
Your apps have received Apple Editor’s Choice nods, and Endless Alphabet was a runner-up for the 2013 App of the Year. What can you tell us about your apps, and what’s going on behind the scenes in terms of usage?
Our first app, Endless Alphabet, launched more than a year ago, followed by Endless Reader and Endless Numbers. All three are updated with content regularly. These are content containers, so we launch them and then add content to them. Alphabet launched with 40 or 50 words and now it’s up to 60. Endless Reader will soon be up to 300 words by the end of summer. Every word or number takes about three of four days to create, as the words spin, move, and each features unique animations.
Right now, we’re up to five million monthly active users. More than 500,000 unique players engage with our apps daily, and on average they are accessing the apps once every three days. Our apps are mostly played on shared devices, and session times are up to 12-15 minutes, which is high for the industry.
Why do you think session times remain high?
Parents feel less guilty about sharing an experience that’s educational, and we build the apps in a way that kids can have a fun 20-second experience, so if you string those together it hopefully becomes a 10-minute experience. Our Endless Numbers session times, at 15 minutes, are higher than Alphabet; we’re not sure why but it could be because the numbers are moving a lot. Either way, kids like experiences that are segmented.
The educational app market is overwhelming to say the least. Who would you consider your biggest competitors?
If you look at the charts, we end up in the Apple App Store kids education sections. So we’re up against big companies like Nickelodeon as well as divisions of large companies. Toca Boca focuses in our age group and they end up on the charts with us. We do what we are passionate about, so we don’t sit and compare ourselves against Disney’s marketing muscle that’s reliant on brand power. Toca Boca is after an older market with toy-like functions. So we are competing with the rest for family time and parent’s dollars while we just do our own thing.
What marketing tactics have you used to grow your audience?
We’ve spent zero on marketing. It’s all been word of mouth. There’s the benefit of having a lot of attention from Apple and Google promoting your product in their app stores.
Successfully creating apps that are both fun and educational is like the Holy Grail for developers. How are you managing to accomplish this?
It’s all about attention to detail about what’s funny. We have 25 main characters that are delightful, and kids respond to them. The basic mechanic of immediate response and feedback of touching letters and words is huge for kids. Through testing, we see kids are learning words. I have a four year old and it feels good to notice a child learning and knowing the meaning of a word because of an app. Hearing him say the word “gorgeous” and knowing it’s from the app is priceless.
Do you think tech devices are allowing preschoolers to learn words and numbers earlier?
Yes, I do. Mobile devices should not be the only medium to which kids should be exposed, but the intuitiveness of touch interaction is a big step forward not only for kids but also for less tech-savvy parents. Plus, there’s convenience in terms of storing books and apps. I’m a big reader and a believer in traditional books and I read a lot to my son, but I know the power that interactive experiences can bring to a child that he or she can’t get entirely from a paper book.
We are looking at second screen experiences, as in interactive TV, carefully but we are not developing for it yet. Right now, we’re answering the call to educational institutes. The Singapore government, for example, recently contacted us to create Chinese, Malay and Tamil versions of Endless Alphabet. We get requests for Spanish, French, Chinese versions. We’ve only done English so far, but in the near future we will make a decision on what language is next. We have another Endless concept in development, too, that will get more attention by late summer or early fall.