WHAT'S NEXT: Tinybop Founder Raul Gutierrez Navigates Journey Towards Unlocking Kids' Imaginations
If you're a parent interested in providing some of the best educational software for your kids' mobile devices, you've undoubtedly heard of Tinybop. Its founder and CEO, Raul Gutierrez, has always been interested in software and producing things, but his career followed quite a winding road before his recent success in making imaginative, educational apps for children.
"I used to go to the library and I loved the science encyclopedias. So for me, the first thing I wanted to do was build a library of apps that did that for kids," said Gutierrez in an interview with Latin Post. Reaching back into his childhood, he found inspiration for the first series of apps that would put Tinybop on the map. "So one's the human body, one's Earth, and one's space... in which each of these subjects is presented with real depth, in which we've done real research into how to best present these concepts to children."
"I also wanted to make them beautiful," he added. "And I wanted to make it fun for kids."
In just a few years, Gutierrez's startup has produced a handful of apps for kids that have garnered critical praise, including app of the year more than once. They've been featured on the Apple App Store's front page multiple times, and have downloaded millions of times.
Tinybop and Gutierrez looks at digital games differently, and in a way, it's what he doesn't include in his apps that sets them apart. "I wanted to get away from the apps that over-stimulate kids, so we did something that I call 'designing for quiet,'" explained Gutierrez.
"We looked at good play patterns in which kids are really engaged, and we try to replicate those digitally," he said. "So our apps don't have a soundtrack... we don't have the traditional rewards that a lot of apps do. We wanted the reward to be the journey -- to really allow them to discover things themselves and for the learning to really be embedded in the app."
Gutierrez pointed to "The Human Body" app as an example. When planning it, Gutierrez said he asked himself what the most important thing was for kids to learn about the skeletal system (hint: it's that it holds up the body). "But how do you embed that in an interaction?" he asked. "Well, if we have a little virtual skeleton and you remove the spine, then the whole body should collapse."
That app was Tinybop's first release on iOS two years ago, and it wildly exceeded expectations. "Our goal for the first month was to have 10,000 downloads, which we thought was ambitious. We had 8,000 downloads in the first day." It was eventually named one of the best apps of 2013.
The success may have been unexpected, but it wasn't a fluke. Tinybop pores energy into researching educational strategies, and time into making quality artwort -- not to mention Gutierrez's marketing savvy, which he built through a decades-long career in a completely different field.
Right-Brain / Left-Brain
"A lot of it has to do with things I learned in my Hollywood marketing years," he said. "I've never really had the standard career path, with one thing logically leading to the next," laughed Gutierrez.
"If there's been a constant in my life, it's been that I've always been somebody who's right brain/left brain. I was a kid who loved computers, but also loved art," he explained. "For me, I've always been most satisfied when both of those sides of my brain are engaged."
Born in Mexico, Gutierrez grew up in Lufkin, a small town in east Texas. "It's a very small, isolated town," he explained. "I always used to refer to it being an island, but instead of being surrounded by water it was surrounded by trees."
"The one thing I wanted to do when I was growing up was to get out."
From an early age, Gutierrez had an obsession with computers, after visiting his father's office and discovering an Apple II. "Eventually I was playing with it so much that we got one at home. And I was hooked."
"This was back when if you wanted a game on your computer, you had to write it yourself." In those days, there was a culture of computer magazines that published code for do-it-yourself software projects. "You would have to transcribe it by hand," said Gutierrez.
"I was a teenaged programmer. I wrote programs for local insurance guys... and there was a local stockbroker who wanted to track stocks so I wrote an Apple II program for that. And I wrote a program for our local museum using some very early speech technology," said Gutierrez. "For me, honestly, the entrepreneurial part of it was just so I could buy better computers," he laughed, "Just so I could buy the next, better, faster thing."
"But basically, that's what got me into college." After high school, Gutierrez was accepted by Princeton, where he initially set out to become an electrical engineer.
That focus wouldn't last very long, though. It was the mid-1980's, when the PC revolution was taking off. But Princeton's EE program was still focused on industrial-scale computing.
From Producer to Predictor
Gutierrez would soon find himself in Hollywood, where a friend suggested that he get a fill-in job as an assistant to a big producer at Paramount. "He was this very infamous guy, and within a week the guy who had hired me had been fired," he said. Gutierrez explained that for the producer in question, that wasn't an unusual phenomenon. "So I began to move up through the ranks, not necessarily through good work, but through attrition of everybody else," he joked.
Eventually he became the producer's right-hand man, an experience that Gutierrez credits for much of his entrepreneurial training.
Soon enough, the intensity of the work took its toll, and one day he simply walked away from the job. "I don't know if I burned out or wanted a break, but I felt like modern Hollywood was never going to give me the creative autonomy that I went out there looking for," said Gutierrez.
He stayed connected to the industry, but went back to his first passion. Working for himself, Gutierrez used his coding skills to build websites for movies.
It was the era of the early web, and soon Gutierrez stumbled on an insight that would prove incredibly valuable for Hollywood studios: the predictive power of web analytics.
"I started with little movies like 'Bring It On,'" the Kirsten Dunst cheerleading film he built a website for, "and I mention that because it was the first movie this really started to kick in and I started to understand this."
"It was this little cheerleading movie starring Kirsten Dunst, who was still kind of a child actor and wasn't really well known back then," explained Gutierrez.
"We had built a marketing campaign where everything was connected to the website. And we started to see a ton of traffic, and I realized that this was going to be a much bigger movie than the studio understood," he added. "So we went to the studio and said, 'We're seeing these huge numbers here. This movie is going to open much bigger than you think it is. Maybe you should consider more screens."
Initially dismissive of the web, Hollywood studios soon understood the predictive power of Gutierrez's analytics.
"Sure enough the movie -- which was expected to open at four or five million dollars -- opened at close to $20 million," he said. "Suddenly I had something that was important to them."
Gutierrez then built a successful career on web marketing, ad testing, and analytics for Hollywood, which spanned over a decade.
"I was literally working out of my house and leading probably the best life I'll ever live," he laughed, "Because the pay was pretty good, I bought myself a nice house, and the work was hard, but there was something I knew that nobody else did. It wasn't rocket science but I had a piece of the puzzle that hadn't been figured out by anyone else... it was a comfortable life."
Leaving L.A. and the Lightbulb Moment
But again, Gutierrez would make another sharp turn in his focus: He left the digital movie marketing business, moved to Brooklyn with his wife, and got involved with art again, through a friend's online startup called 20x200. He helped build the site and it quickly took off thanks to incorporating the new (at the time) concept of flash sales.
By 2010, Gutierrez left the company and set his sights on what he correctly saw as the next big thing: mobile.
"That's where the center of gravity was," he said. "I decided to give myself a year off, and during that year I would figure out something in mobile." He studied Apple and Google's distribution strategies, and set fundamental goals for his app, like the importance of having a global reach.
Gutierrez said he still wasn't sure exactly what kind of app he should create, until a light bulb moment hit him, courtesy of his five-year-old.
"During the course of that, one of my kids was about to have a birthday party -- like a kindergarten birthday party," he explained. "And he came to me and said, 'Can I trade my birthday party for an iPhone?'"
"For me, that was a powerful moment because if you know anything about kindergarteners, their birthday party is pretty much the most important thing in their lives," laughed Gutierrez. "That moment really stopped me dead in my tracks."
"Why was it so powerful for him?" became the question Gutierrez began wondering. And worrying over, since as a parent, Gutierrez had reservations about kids and screen time.
But studying all the available literature on kids and mobile brought a different perspective. "These devices are so appealing because they are -- in the words of my kid -- an 'everything machine.' They could be tools, they could be passive entertainment, they could be active entertainment, they could be a game, and they could morph into all of these things," he said.
The devices, themselves, were essentially a multi-dimensional blank canvas.
"The problem that I had was that a lot of the stuff that was created for kids was just crappy!" he said. "It was just terrible. If you looked at the kids' section of the app store, there was a ton of stuff that was just not thoughtful at all. Just disposable."
Fixing that problem, filling the need for imaginative, engaging, quality educational entertainment on mobile is Tinybop's mission. "I wanted the content on these devices to be as good as the best children's books," he said.
Tinybop now has eight apps, broken into two series. The first is focused on big subjects, like its first hit on iOS, the Human Body app.
The second is digital toys. As Gutierrez puts it, "it's built around my frustration with modern Legos," which he calls "basically disassembled toys."
"In my grandparents' house Legos they just had square Legos in just two colors, and my abuelita would say, 'Why don't you build a house or a zoo?' and I would imagine it and build it," explained Gutierrez.
Modern Legos, instead, have specialized pieces and come with a blueprint to follow as you build to a specific endpoint. "I hate that kids are not using their own creativity," he said. "They're learning how to follow instructions, which is important, but it's not the concept of play. You know, figuring something out."
Like old-timey Legos, Tinybop's second series revolves around constructing things. It includes 2015's app of the year, The Robot Factory. "It's a bunch of different robot parts, but we're not telling you how to construct them," he explained. "You can put them together in any way you can imagine."
The most recent app in that series, The Everything Machine, introduces concepts of coding to kids.
"The idea was to turn the phone inside out, to expose all the sensors and components So you can create a face detector that plays a sound whenever somebody walks into the room," for example, "and not only that, you can send it from one machine to another."
Critically praised, The Everything Machine is now being used in some of the best STEM labs in the country to teach programming to kids. Essentially, Gutierrez made a fun app for kids that lets them create their own apps, just like he did back in east Texas with his Apple II.
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