Tinybop founder talks business strategy and app design

With one big app hit The Human Body, which has 4.9 million downloads and counting, its publisher Tinybop is making the move to Plants. Founder Raul Gutierrez talks to iKids Weekly about why there's even more room for paid science-based apps in the kids space.
June 26, 2014

For Tinybop founder Raul Gutierrez, success is in the details. Along with his team at the Brooklyn, New York-based studio Tinybop, Gutierrez launched chart-topping kids app The Human Body that shows our inside-and-out from every angle.

Tinybop rolled out its first app, The Human Body, last August. Since launching, the app has hit the number one spot on the App Store’s education chart in 143 countries, and has been downloaded 4.9 million times. It was also named one of the App Store’s Best of 2013.

The company also recently announced US$5 million in new funding, and the release of its new Plants app. Both apps are highly detailed recreations of their subjects, depicting everything down to the last leaf or blood vessel. Also important, the apps eschew traditional game play. Instead, they focus on open play, with the idea that these subjects – the human body and plants – are inherently interesting and engaging to kids. Gutierrez talks to iKids Weekly about how his apps take a new approach to kid engagement, and how to succeed in a constantly evolving kids education space.

Where did the idea come from for The Human Body app?
I have two kids, and when one of my kids was about to have his kindergarten birthday party he asked me if he could trade his kindergarten birthday for an iPhone. If you know anything about six-year-olds, their birthday parties are the most important thing in their world. Birthday parties are their currency. That moment really made me realize how important this medium was to him.

I started to feel that there was this huge opportunity to build apps that were as beautiful, as interesting, and as appealing as the children’s books that had meant so much to me when I was a kid. I’ve collected children’s books my entire life. These included not just narrative fiction books but also science books. I spent much of my childhood in the library! So over the course of a year, I sketched out several series of apps. The first series is called The Explorer’s Library. Each title in this series covers a big subject we believe every kid in the world needs to know about. Each title is based on physical things I remembered and loved in my childhood. With The Human Body, it was those transparencies that they have in old dictionaries where you can layer a transparent skeleton over the circulatory system over the respiratory system and so on.

In my house we’re surrounded by these old books, but we’re a bit anachronistic. Very few of my friends have good science libraries for their kids and nobody buys children’s encyclopedias anymore. The thinking, I believe, is that with the Internet and everything is “out there,” but Google is a horrible interface for five- or six-year-olds. The results are not contextualized for them. The Internet doesn’t tell kids the things they need to know in a way makes sense for them. So the goal was to create a series of apps where each app covers one subject thoroughly, interactively, where the learning is embedded in the interaction rather than being didactic.

Your app was named one of the App Store’s Best of 2013 – it’s clearly well-liked. Why do you think this format is successful with kids?
One reason is that our interactions are either physics-based or what we call digital puppetry. Our engineers imbue objects on screen with realistic physical characteristics. If you have a tree, and there’s wind that is generated, the tree is moving based on the physics of how trees move through the wind. Pump the legs in The Human Body and the heart beats faster. This kind of interaction seems to connect with kids

In our forest for Plants, if you rub the clouds together, there’s electricity that lives in them and you can spark lightning and burn your forest down. Every forest fire that you start is going to be different. That kind of animation that takes some sophisticated Artificial Intelligence makes thing sticky. It feels life-like.

What is it that really sets your apps apart from others on the market? Is it your lack of gamification? 
Our apps are an argument against gamification. Gamification relies on a set of rewards. Our apps are open-play. We call them sandbox apps. There are no explicit rewards. You don’t get points. There are no level ups. There’s no traditional game play in our apps. Many adults find it confounding, but kids always get it. We believe that the reward is the experience of exploration.

We believe that all kids are intrinsically curious—they’re all explorers. Any idea when presented in the right way in the right context for kids can be fascinating. The primary way we hook kids in is having these appealing interactions that give kids control over the little worlds we create.

The children’s media I loved most as a kid was always little bit weird, a little bit dangerous, and a little bit funny. Titles like Where the Wild Things Are or The Three Robbers became ingrained in my consciousness because of that skewed perspective.

Plants, what kind of area do you see it filling in the kids education space? 
We have a different strategy for Plants than we did for The Human Body. The Human Body was a big monolithic release. We threw everything in and we released it all at once. For Plants we released with one quarter of the total content that will be in the app, at a lower price point. Over the next year or so we’ll be adding new biomes.

We think that in the education market there are a lot of apps about spelling or math or basic curricular topics, but there aren’t very many that cover the big science topics that are really important. We think that there’s a big hole there. Our hope is that as we build our library, the strategy for how they all tie into each other will increasingly make sense to parents.

What’s next? 
We have a bunch of Explorer’s Library apps on the drawing board. And beyond The Explorer’s Library, we have another series kicking off around February of next year. It’s more about storytelling, so has a different focus, but it’s equally fun. Beyond that, we look at ourselves not just as an app company but a content company. So we’re taking the content that we’ve developed for these apps and are developing books and toys. That’s in the 2015-16 time frame. We’re excited about what comes next.

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