SmarTots: Smarter Phones, Smarter Kids
An Interview with Jesper Lodahl
SmarTots is taking more than baby steps toward better educational solutions. Smart devices have already changed the way we socialize, do business and express ourselves, and Jesper Lodahl, SmarTots CEO is confident that these devices are destined to improve the way we learn as well. Voice of Game met with Jesper to find out how SmarTots is encouraging parents and children to see iPads as less of a Skinner box and more like a Mary Poppins bag.
The Magical Limit
SmarTots co-founder and CEO Jesper Lodahl comes from a pretty hardcore background. After 5 years as the project leader of a mechanical engineering team with Nokia in Denmark, Jesper was offered an expat package in China, where he would spend two more years in corporate life. Jesper suspects that 7 years is the “magical limit” to making big changes in life, so that is when he took his creativity in a different direction and left Nokia. That led to his first startup, a high-end social network called Club Beautiful, where he spent four years adapting from a corporate environment to a startup one. Ultimately the business model didn't work out, but this didn't slow Jesper down.
Before long, Jesper's daughter became a top priority, and her development was at the very front of his mind. He was blown away by the 18-month-old girl's ability to manipulate his iPhone: She could understand the device to a remarkable level without any instruction. Two things occurred to him when this happened: First, “I have the most brilliant daughter in the world.” Second, that not only are educational games beginning to show alot of promise, but also that technology can be used to bring a family closer together, instead of creating a rift between them. Bringing these two concepts to fruition is the mission of SmarTots.
A Platform for Modern Learning
Jesper summarizes what SmarTots is: “Think 'Fun, Learning, Together.'” The vision is for parents and children to enjoy fun learning, and to share it together, much the same way the smart phone era has brought businesses and social relationships closer together.
SmarTots is the whole package: They seek out the best educational apps around the world, localize them for China, distribute through their own channels, and when they see key content missing in the appverse, they have the resources to develop chart-topping content themselves.
The SmarTots platform has about 40 educational apps right now that all link into a parent app on iOS (they plan to release on Android this month). For now, the apps are focused on three main areas: Apps that cultivate a child's creative mind, such as drawing or music apps, language learning apps such as animated storybooks or programs that teach songs, and apps that sharpen kids' mathematical abilities.
Skeptical that kids are going to go for math games and sing-alongs? Well the numbers show that almost 40% of kids that are already on the SmarTots platform are clocking in at least 30 minutes per session. The same kids that teachers complain can't sit still for a whole 40 minute class are playing these games and learning academically significant skills, whether they know it or not, and they're doing it all because they're having fun.
Technology Does Not Have To Be A Wedge
But just as any good mobile game publisher knows, great content is only half the picture. Jesper believes that if there is one thing young learners need, it's support and encouragement, especially from the family. SmarTots is designed around the idea of using smart devices to bring parents and children closer so that even on busy days, parents can be intimately involved with their child's development.
The SmarTots platform has a reporting system that lets a parent track the child's progress and interact with them from anywhere. Just like you can fire off a quick message to a friend even when you're busy, SmarTots lets parents instantly interact with their children in a smart device-conscious way. It uses integrated, social media inspired features that let children share their creations and accomplishments with their parents, and for the parents to give them instant feedback with tools like the WeChat-style voice chat and virtual stickers. It wraps modern communication concepts in a safe and simple package that even the youngest tots (and least tech-savvy adults) can intuit through.
Beijing: It All Came Together
So why do SmarTots in China, I wondered? Jesper believes that the number one reason for a startup to fail is that they try to start with a single founder. Another very common reason is founder disputes, so it's the team that is more important than anything.
“Once you find that guy that you want to work with and you know you can make a success out of it, then location doesn't really matter.” says Jesper.
For him, that person was Victor Wong. Victor is the co-founder and CPO of SmarTots. He has a background in using technology to educate and, like Jesper, is a proud father of two.
SmarTots began in China as a matter of circumstance in the beginning—they originally planned to do business primarily in the United States, because at the time, the Chinese market was not mature enough. Put simply, there were not enough iPhones for business to be viable. That has changed (…dramatically!), and now Jesper is confident that not only can the platform do well in China, but that it is now an even better market for them than the United States. Smart devices are in China to stay.
Final Thoughts About Educational Gaming
As Jesper says, nobody is going to un-invent the iPad. Instead, we need to take initiatives like educational gaming seriously to give the devices the capacity to enrich our lives. It is still too early to see how technology and education will blend, but the ball is rolling.
“We are still in the infancy of educational gaming,” says Jesper. “But with the internet and streaming solutions, knowledge is becoming an abundance, and access to knowledge is no longer a problem, so making educational games is no longer some kind of super secret sauce. Anyone who has a passion for it now can get access to the knowledge of how to combine education and gaming, and because of that, this could potentially be a tipping point for educational gaming. I think it's all coming together.”
Although they ought to go hand-in-hand, there is a rift between our concepts of what “growth” and “study” mean, just as there is a rift between parents and children—parents get busy on the internet, kids get lost in games and the devices reduce interaction, but it doesn't need to be that way. SmarTots is a comprehensive solution to bring families closer, stimulate curiosity, and help our kids to be at least as smart as our phones.