In the heart of Boulder, Colo., is one of the cutest startups we’ve ever seen: Ubooly.
Ubooly makes an iPhone-powered, interactive stuffed animal. The startup was founded in 2012 by husband/wife team CEO Carly Gloge, 30, and CTO Isaac Squires, 31.
This is a startup story that has it all: a free app that turns an iPhones/iPad into a kid’s toy; educational scripts written by teachers and comic book writers; two successful Kickstarter campaigns; a well-known VC backer; and early success.
So far, the 2-year-old company has sold 40,000 units, and can be found in a bunch of big brand-name stores.
Best of all is this tidbit: Gloge and Squires knew nothing about making toys when they started. So they created the product by watching videos from the “MythBusters” television show.
“We secretly took classes at night to learn how to sew,” Gloge laughs. “And we watched ‘MythBusters’ videos on YouTube to learn how to cast silicone.”
And the toy is amazing. It’s the evolution of handing your kid an iPhone or iPad to play with.
Married couple and startup co-founders, CEO Carly Gloge and CTO Isaac Squires with an extra-large Ubooly toy.
Gloge and Squires met in college. After graduation, they traveled the world together before settling back in his home state of Colorado to launch a startup in Boulder.
They spent a year teaching themselves how to make children's toys at night, while keeping their day jobs writing software, before launching a company.
They did TechStars in 2012.
First, the company raised $US80,000 through two successful Kickstarter campaigns.
It landed another $US2.5 million in venture funds, led by VC Jeff Clavier (backer of Fitbit, Mint, SendGrid) and early success.
Today it employs 14 people.
The app is a cute voice-activated animal creature that talks, plays games, plays calming music for bedtime and other stuff.
Parents can buy additional add-on apps to teach their kids Spanish, conduct science experiments, imagine travelling to France or to outer space, and so on.
That content is written by experts like teachers, or other professionals, like a comic book writer.
For $US30 or $US60, parents can buy a cuddly case for Ubooly.
This protects the iPhone and iPad if a kid drops it, too.
Just slip the iPhone into the case.
Kids can talk to Ubooly, and it talks back.
They can ask it to play a game and it will issue instructions on how to play.
Parents can customise it and control it. It also encourages them to go outside and exercise.
This child was testing some new features the day we were there. She was playing a dancing game.
Making apps for kids is rewarding but hard. If a kid doesn't like the app, they put it down and walk away. Ubooly wants to change that trend.
'The average amount of time kids play with a new toy is six days. It's pretty sad. The average for a kid's app is four days,' Gloge says. 'Right now, we're at 40 days and that's increasing week after week. We're excited about that.'
The basic app is free and Ubooly also offers special free games every Friday, like an Easter treasure hunt game, and an April Fool's game that lets kids and parents prank each other.
There are a few paid apps, too. There company says there are hundreds of lessons, games, and stories so far, with more being developed all the time.
The cuddly case is sold at Apple Stores, Toys R Us, Bloomingdales, Learning Express, Amazon and in Japan at Softbank.
One big market is the second-generation iPhone. When parents get a new iPhone or iPad, they load Ubooly on their old one.
The pro of teaching yourself toy making: you don't know what you are doing, so there are no rules to follow.
Using their home-grown methods, Gloge and Squires built their prototype and their first batch of toys to meet their first Kickstarter commitment for about $US16,000, instead of the $US300,000 such a project normally costs.
The con of teaching yourself toy making: no one tells you when you're doing it wrong.
The first batch of toys, built in Taiwan, used the wrong stuffing so when they arrived in Colorado, the high-altitude made them puff out and the seams split.
Ubooly had to throw out $US16,000 worth of toy-making tools.
The second batch got held up in customs when some butterflies decided to nest on the boxes, planting larvae on the crates. Customs wouldn't release them for weeks for fear they were an invasive species.
'We had to email all of our customers and tell them their toys wouldn't arrive in time for Christmas,' Gloge says.
40,000 units later, the couple knows what they are doing.
They hired these two artists to create new designs, Levi Parker, creative director, and Ryan Burnett, head of product.
They were working with the silicon mould the day we visited.
Besides Ubooly, Gloge and Squires like other toys, too.
Gloge keeps her collection of 'Game of Thrones' bobble-heads in the office.
Young as it is, Ubooly is expanding as fast as it can. It's got a line of books out and is hiring more teachers and content creators to come up with new materials.
Next up, Ubooly wants to create more apps for kids with special-needs, Gloge tells us.
Seeing a child happily play with Ubooly feels 'like magic' Gloge tells us, and 'can bring me to tears.'
You can download Ubooly from Apple's App Store, Google Play, and you get it for the Kindle Fire, too.
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