Beijing based SmarTots, is a start-up that aims to help connect parents and their children through learning. They attracted a lot of attention after winning the GMIC Early Stage Start-up Competition back in April.
After noticing that children were spending more time playing with the Apple iPhone and iPad, founders Jesper Lodahl and Victor Wong knew that they were revolutionary learning tools but had no idea what their kids were learning, “we can’t help them if we don’t know what they are learning.” Says Jesper. So they set out to create a mobile SDK, that kids educational app developers could embed into their app to allow parents to receive a weekly analytical report about their kids learning activity.
I sat down with Jesper more recently to find out their story and what they are up to.
Danish born, Jesper is a mechanical engineer by education and worked for Nokia for 7 years. In that time he created two patents that have been implemented in more than 1 billion phones worldwide. Jesper was brought over to manage a team of engineers in Beijing and has lived here ever since.
After Nokia, Jesper tried his first foray into start-ups with a social networking site called Club Beautiful in China. Controversially it was a network for only good looking people to be accepted and voted in or out. That venture failed. But that’s when he met his current CTO, Victor Wong, who at the time was consulting on technology for Club Beautiful.
Victor was formerly a founder and CTO of Speak2Me, the largest English language learning social network in China, which was acquired by Lingo Media in 2007. Since Victor has a “rare skill of being a CTO and knowing the education business.”Jesper persuaded him to join him on his next idea, SmarTots.
The birth of SmarTots
Over the Summer of 2010, they raised some angel funds. One of their backers is Casper Johansen of Seravia. Since then, they have developed a prototype which has been in closed beta with a set of key partners.
Just recently they have closed a significant funding round with educational investors from China and America that will be enough to last the next two years. The money will be used expand the team of 12 to 20, by hiring more engineering and product staff in China and marketing people in North America, since that will be their key target market initially. Jesper also has a China strategy in the works.
Helping parents reconnect with their children through technology
Jesper describes SmarTots as the “Openfeint for kids apps.” It helps parents track what their kids are learning on the iPhone and iPad.
“The problem for parents is that they don’t know which apps they should download for their kids, which are age appropriate and they don’t know what their kids are learning on these devices.”
Jesper believes one of the mega-trends happening across the world, is that the more technologically advanced kids get, the less they connect with their parents. So to solve this problem, SmarTots sends the parents a weekly online report card about the kids learning activity and tells them where the learning gaps are. SmarTots will then feed busy parents offline activities and games to help their child improve. For example, Jesper’s daughter likes to spell, so to reinforce her skills; Jesper can play a spelling game in the car with her. “Kids want their parents to be involved when they play and learn; and we are definitely encouraging that.”
Learning activities span across a range of subjects such as language, math, social, art, music, science and body. The focus is on kids aged 2-7.
From listening to parent feedback, SmarTots plans to integrate features like controls over how long a kid can play a game.
Working with developers to make money
SmarTots themselves do not develop any apps, but instead provide an SDK or code for developers to use in their own educational kids apps. “SmarTots provides more functionality than developers can build themselves, such as tracking and reporting function.”
When parents download an app with SmarTots functionality and like it, they can go to the Apple App Store and download more apps from the same developer, effectively helping them up-sell.
Currently SmarTots has an active revenue stream through an affiliate program with Apple, where they get 5% sales commission. “In the future we want to charge developers 15% for incremental sales.”
SmarTots runs on both free and paid apps, however they do not intend to make any money from free apps yet. For the moment free apps are normally a way for parents to try before they buy.
Impressively they have registered half a million downloads since December in closed beta and no marketing. SmarTots plans to open publicly by the end of next week.
The team is also working on a study of educational kids apps to analyze trends over age, gender and location.