Six years ago Yogev Shelly tried to help his father, who was suffering from dementia, to retain his memories. He developed an app for taking pictures from the family album and turning them into interactive games. Shelly was an animation designer, a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, who taught himself programming. He soon realized that the solution originating from a personal need could also become a business. That was the beginning of TinyTap.
TinyTap enables anyone to develop simple games without knowledge of programming – memory, trivia and spelling games, matching colors, and puzzles, for example. Shelly and his partners, Oren Elbaz and Uri Lazar, assumed that parents would use it to create games for their children, and they advertised it with the slogan “Turn Moments into Games.” They were surprised to discover that it was becoming hugely popular among teachers and communication clinicians rather than parents.
“We discovered that teachers lack niche content,” explains Shelly. “For example, on the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, Prince William visits Israel. Commercial firms that create educational content will choose subjects that suit a broad market, but if the teacher wants to prepare an activity about the events of the day he has to create it by himself. Besides, teachers are smart and creative people and they want to express themselves. It’s enough to look at the Facebook group ‘Morot Mashkiot’ [Diligent Teachers] – which has 56,000 members who post content and recommendations for activities.”
In the past year TinyTap underwent a drastic change – it finally discovered how to profit from the invention. It did so through a meticulous sorting of the tens of thousands of examples of content posted on it, and an offer to the best content creators to lock their content for subscribers only. Users receive full access to the system for $5 a month, along with a system of information and insights that enables parents and professionals to keep track of the children’s progress and to compare their grades to those of their peers who played with the same games, in order to target learning difficulties. The monthly payment is shared 50-50 between TinyTap and the creators of the games used by subscribers that month.
In the past 12 months 140 content creators on TinyTap received a total sum of aobut $100,000 from the company. The five leading creators – who earned between $1,000 and $4,000 a quarter – come from the United States and Singapore. There are also two Israelis: children’s author and illustrator Shulamit Taarfati, and communications clinician Shiri Pinkas.
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TinyTap’s business grew when they realized that its customers were parents rather than teachers. “There’s a consensus that a startup has to focus on those who find value in it,” says Shelly. “We were sure it was the teachers, but investors and friends directed us to sell to parents, for the simple reason that teachers don’t have money to spend on their work, and parents have money to spend on their children."
“Our initial reaction was confusion – we understood the logic, but only about 3% of our customers in 2017 were families. Teachers and communications clinicians brought TinyTap into the classroom and the therapy room, but the parents didn’t adopt the platform for home use. With correct marketing we reached the parents, and the subscription model suited them. They didn’t arrive organically like the teachers.”
How do you sell TinyTap to parents with a monthly payment?
“We see ourselves as a single central point that will accompany the children from the age of 2 and up and provide an almost infinite range of content for different ages and in various languages – at the cost of one workbook. We collected some of the content as learning tracks to make it easy for parents to choose.”
But you have lots of niche content, why should they be interested?
When will you have censorship? What if someone creates Holocaust denial material, for example?
"We have no censorship. We have a system of automatic and human filters that remove porno, hurtful content or hate mongers. But we don’t intervene in content. The fact is that the content is in so many languages that we don’t always understand it."
We skipped the politics of the school system
The development of TinyTap is a very interesting story for entrepreneurs, due to the perseverance in the search for the business model. “We started out by attempting to sell to schools. We tried to sell an annual subscription together with our information systems,” says Shelly. “But schools aren’t motivated by considerations of innovation, there’s a lot of politics in introducing content to established school systems, and the fact that you figured out what to do in Israel doesn’t mean you’ll figure out Croatia.”
TinyTap is mentioned thousands of times on the internet, and in 2014 TheMarker learned about the company in a discussion with special education experts from Issie Shapiro, Israel’s incubator for disabilities solutions, who explained how the app helped in communication with children who have difficulty speaking. TinyTap hears similar stories, but unfortunately it’s not enough for venture capital investors, who measure success by financial parameters and want companies that can yield a high return on their investment.
For years educational technologies were considered unattractive to investors. Shelly and his partners tried almost all the possible sources of funding: the chief scientist, competitions with monetary prizes and a loan from strategic partners - which is converted into stocks in the company during the next round of investment - for whom it developed specific content under a different brand name.
A few years ago TinyTap refused a relatively modest acquisition offer from TeachersPayTeachers, a New York firm that enables teachers to post and sell lesson plans and worksheets to other teachers for a token fee. Hundreds of teachers have earned an income of $50,000 a year from the platform.
TinyTap is benefiting from the meteoric growth of cell phones and computers among children, from the growth of social networks as marketing platforms, and from the public’s willingness to pay for internet content, as a result of the market education provided by companies such as Netflix (films) and Spotify (music). Finally, it also benefits from parental dissatisfaction with the school system.
All the information is available on the internet, so what do the children learn?
The education system is under pressure to remain relevant and to prove its contribution, especially regarding the question: Is teaching the students skills relevant to a career in the 21st century.
In the changing job market, when many professions will disappear due to automation - future workers will need new skills. Parents are already dissatisfied with the school system, which hasn’t changed much since they were children. When all the information is available on the internet, traditional learning methods like memorization are no longer relevant.
This is a global phenomenon, which includes Israel. One proof is the flourishing of home schooling, which today includes over 1,150 Israeli students. Ten years ago only 100 students in the country received approval from the Education Ministry to study at home.
On the TinyTap page of Pinterest there’s an interesting example: A group of children are working together around a table, a girl is giving a lesson she created with the app for kindergarten children. TinyTap is used by teachers who have adopted the leading teaching model in recent years - project-based learning. The students work in groups and together research a subject, accompanied by a mentor, present their discoveries in class and get grades for team work and creativity. This is considered more suitable for the new generation, which is not challenged by traditional frontal learning.