Sharing stories about creating apps for kids with iStoryTime founder Woody Sears

Jul 27, 2011
Tech

You don’t have to be a first or even second mover to understand how the iPhone and increasingly the iPad are changing the storytime experience for parents and their young children. As a parent of a 17-month-old (our first!), I’ve been privileged to observe this transformation from multiple vantage points. And one of my favorite […]

You don’t have to be a first or even second mover to understand how the iPhone and increasingly the iPad are changing the storytime experience for parents and their young children.

As a parent of a 17-month-old (our first!), I’ve been privileged to observe this transformation from multiple vantage points. And one of my favorite developers in the space is iStoryTime.

We first told you about iStoryTime last year after the company inked a deal with DreamWorks to develop a companion app to the computer-animated comedy How to Train Your Dragon. Since then, iStoryTime has produced dozens of great children’s book apps around Hollywood franchises among other themes. This week iStoryTime released the official movie storybook for the just-released Smurfs movie.

In this edition of Meet the Makers, we check in with iStoryTime co-founder Woody Sears to discuss how he is taking advantage of seismic changes in the storybook space, the impact of a recent merger with a German-based children’s book app developer, and why he thinks commercial innovations like freemium apps are not yet suitable to his demographic.

Appolicious: Describe what goes into creating a series of apps literally designed for two year olds.

Woody Sears: Besides all the technology steps that goes into it, the main point is thinking like a two year old.

When we first came up with the product idea for mobile children’s books, we just watched how our youngest kids interacted with the iPhone. When we watched our kids, it was like a focus group in action, everything from where they placed their fingers, how they held the device. Of course, we also kept parents in mind as we encourage as much parent-to-kid storytime as possible.

APPO: We are all seeing how smartphones and tablet computers are impacting early-stage reading and educational development. From your vantage point, what are the three biggest innovations in the space driven by touchscreen computing?

WS: First and foremost, it is the exploration that gets kids involved. They want to touch, push, explore, etc.

Secondly is the actual ability of the app… can it be a learning tool, does it have highlighting of text as the words are read? An audio and visual queue combination is essential and really allows for a child to enjoy, but more importantly, learn.

Thirdly, is interaction encouraged? We feel that, while good quality content is essential, how it is delivered is just as important. Does the app offer the ability to have children not only read along, but help turn the pages, interact with the story, read it, digest it and learn from it. Literacy is an enormous part of our overall goal and we believe storytime is an essential learning tool.

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APPO: Talk about your company. How old is it? How many employees? What are your primary sources of revenue?

WS: Our first app was launched in April of 2009 so I guess you could call us ‘veterans’ of the App Store. Earlier this year FrogDogMedia merged with a German children’s book app developer under the new company name of zuuka and our revenue is 100% from the development and distribution of mobile apps for children in the Education and Books categories. The majority of that revenue today is based on iOS apps as that is where the market is today. We have 19 employees in Frankfurt, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.

APPO: Approximately how many apps to you release each month and acrosshow many platforms?

WS: Currently, we have over 100 titles in 80 different countries and are releasing 2-4 depending on the month. We have amazing storybook partners, which is why we’ve received several awards including PTPA Media’s Parent Tested Parent Approved Seal of Approval and the Children’s Technology Review’s Editor’s Choice Award. For instance, we released Transformers Mix & Match and Ben 10 Triple Threat apps this month and have several very lovable character-driven apps in the coming weeks.

Most of our apps are available on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad as well as our Kung Fu Panda 2 storybook recently made available on the new HP TouchPad for their new webOS platform. This week we’ll launch “The Smurfs Movie Storybook” in four languages, including English, German, French and Spanish just ahead of the movie launch which is the only place you can get the story from beginning to end with actual audio and images from the movie.

APPO: As a developer that is very active on iOS and Android, describe both the technical and marketing challenges and opportunities that exist on each platform.

WS: It seams as if everyone has an iPhone so marketing for that platform has been very productive. And now with the iPad becoming a storytime tool of choice, we’re happy to be marketing there as well. However, we see a lot of upside in the Android and webOS platforms and it’s just a mater of time before our app are available on all platforms.

APPO: You are blessed to have several significant distribution partners in the entertainment space. Describe how you collaborate with them to drive downloads?

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WS: Yes, you’re right. We’ve worked very hard to provide a quality storytime experience, and we know that quality is the key to a great relationship with our partners. They know they’re getting an app that is both entertaining as well as useful as an educational tool with literacy so they’re very interested in providing us with as much support as possible. Whether it be working together on social platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, they’re very helpful.

APPO: How else do you drive downloads, both upon launch and over time?

WS: We find that it starts months before the actual launch when we work with our partners, be it the studio, PR consultant, community outreach specialist, etc. We have a very thorough methodology in place that looks at all angles of a storybook’s quality for getting featured by review sites and Apple. We also have worked very hard to create a sense of community with our media friends. While yes, we want to drive downloads, our goal is to create value as we know most of the media we work with are parents so we engage with them on a personal level. We are also very active with our Facebook and Twitter communities. Engaging conversation, creating relationships and providing value are the keys to success.

APPO: What are the three biggest things going on today in the mobile space that are keeping you up at night?

WS: I often thing about the freemium or ad revenue apps and how well those are doing, but it is a challenge with our demographic. We don’t want to take the child away from the experience of the app or the storytelling with ads or upgrades so we’ve come up with some ways that are non-intrusive but I think we can keep refining that program. For the most part, our apps are paid, full-feature apps and we feel that offers a great parent/child experience.

Secondly, I think about all of the platforms and tools to deliver content to make sure we are ahead of the game, specifically HTML5 and the potential impact that could have.

Last night though, it was my 10 month old son, the youngest of three kids who is normally a good sleeper who was awake from 1am to 4am and my wife and I were taking turns comforting him.

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Brad Spirrison

Brad Spirrison is the managing editor of appoLearning and Appolicious Inc. In this capacity, he has sampled and evaluated thousands of iOS and Android applications. He also holds an M.A. in Education and Media Ecology from New York University.

Spirrison worked in concert with appoLearning Expert and Instructional Technology Specialist Leslie Morris while curating and evaluating educational applications.

A longtime media and technology commentator and executive, Spirrison is also a regular contributor to ABC News, The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Bloomberg West and The Christopher Gabriel Program.

Spirrison is married and lives with his wife and young son in Chicago. As his son was born just weeks before the debut of the iPad, Spirrison takes his work home with him and regularly samples and enjoys a variety of educational applications for young children.

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