Five years ago, James never thought that he’d be so passionate about reinventing the world of kids’ educational content. Now, a year into building Hellosaurus, there isn’t a doubt in his mind that the future of this industry is interactive, playful, and educational.
Breaking into Startups
James Ruben has always had an intrinsic interest in startups. While studying computer science at Harvard University, he co-founded several companies including Wizzy, Side, and Butucu that won various awards and grants, and even raised venture capital funding. He held roles across design, engineering, and product, which earned him a spot in the Summer@Highland Accelerator program, and led to him being named a Thiel Fellowship finalist.
With such extensive experience building different companies, he had quickly learned that he was more interested in product management than engineering. Going to a large technology company was, at the time, the only way he could fully learn the ins and outs of product management, so he joined Google as an Associate Product Manager post-graduation.
A year later, he met Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, who were working on a video streaming platform called Hype (now HQ Trivia) , he couldn’t resist the temptation of leaving Google to build something new. His excitement to get back into the startup scene, combined with his interest in working on a mobile video app, pushed him to join the company as one of its earliest employees.
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While building HQ Trivia, James quickly learned that the best content for an interactive platform would be the one where there is no fourth wall and people on and off screen can actively engage with each other. This innovative approach is what helped HQ Trivia quickly beat out its competition.Soon, James saw an opportunity to take his learnings to a new industry.
Kids media seemed like the perfect industry for interactive video. He thought about how in most children’s shows, characters are always asking the kids to sing, dance, move, or find things on screen or around them.While there was technology available to encourage kids to interact with content, he couldn’t find an example of a company taking full advantage of interactive video software’s potential for collaboration, a vital skill to teach young kids.
Like many others, James was also displeased with the way in which children consume video content today. He compares it to how adults binge watch shows on television for hours in a zoned out, zombie-like state of mind. Despite the fact that smart devices have become more affordable and available to consumers across the world, existing video platforms are not leveraging the features these devices have to offer like the camera, multitouch screen, or microphones to engage the viewer.
Based on research, he knew that children learn best through first-hand experiences —which requires them to use their senses and begin to convey thoughts and emotions — and wanted them to be immersed in activities that would help them build empathy, learn about their world, gain exposure to different people and different ways of thinking, and ultimately, develop their global competence.
But building an interactive video content platform for children comes with its own set of challenges. James and his team quickly realized that developing a product for which the person discovering and purchasing the product (the parent) is different from the person actually using the product (the kid) can be extremely onerous. Unsurprisingly, parents and children do not share the same views on what makes a product great thus requiring them to think creatively about how they can create an experience that will satisfy both.
James was surprised that his background in consumer software would later make him a great asset in the kids educational content industry. His product-oriented mind combined with his constant desire to learn and cheerful personality would make him the perfect founder for this venture.
“I’ve often been told that I have never lost my joy, wonder, and curiosity so often found in kids and they know that I’d still rather be at the kids table at any dinner party. That, combined with a personal passion for all things “edutainment”, ultimately made founding Hellosaurus an obvious move for me.”
HQ Trivia was both a production studio and a software company. Those are two businesses that don’t operate or scale the same way, but the team stayed in regular communication so they were able to complement one another. James knew that he could take a similar approach in the kids media space where there were exceptional creators looking for better ways to write and shoot interactive content.
James had not only identified a pool of creators looking for production tools to create their interactive content, but also an opportunity to help them monetize their work outside of YouTube —which was the main platform used at the time.Within this new pool of primed content creators, he spotted an unusual kind of customer that had the potential to take advantage of all that Hellosaurus had to offer.
“Another group that we're just starting to go after is folks that actually aren't in the kids media world, but want to be. They are creators of different types, whether they are celebrities and actors or their creators on different platforms. And they're starting to have kids themselves, or they're very involved in kids’ brands and companies. And they want to create kids' content but don't really know how to do it, or where to do it. We're a really great place for that kind of one-off interactive story for a creator to start figuring out how to develop kids’ content.”
For years, YouTube had been the main platform creators used to release their work for children. The company had always maintained that they were a platform for users over the age of 13. Eventually, they were caught and fined for millions of dollars, which required them to change their policies around monetization for kids’ media and, as a result, strip away an income stream for thousands of content creators that leveraged the platform.
So James decided that he also wanted to build a platform that was fundamentally different from YouTube by allowing creators to earn on a user and subscription basis rather than ad networks. James found that this approach was not only more lucrative but also transparent, and did not subject young children to unnecessary advertisements.
The mobile app, now available for download on iOS, offers families play experiences that support kids' cognitive and social development tailored to the touchscreen generation. While the toolkit for creators allows them to move beyond developing passive video into immersive, interactive content that actively engages the user.
Fundraising through the On Deck Founder Fellowship
When James joined On Deck and Y Combinator, he was a solo founder who had just started working on his idea. He had spent years exploring the interactive video space, however, the children’s entertainment world was still foreign territory.
Like many founders, he joined On Deck with two key goals in mind: to grow his team and to find investors. The fellowship allowed him to meet people that either understood the media space and kids' technology or knew great people that did. On the other hand, the YC Demo Day helped him increase exposure for Hellosaurus across different investor networks.
James also leveraged the program to push forward his fundraising efforts. He first got a commitment from The Runway Fund, who’s stamp of approval got him in front of other institutional investors and notable angels. But it was ultimately a combination of the Y Combinator and On Deck networks that helped him raise a $3.5M seed round led by General Catalyst.
With this capital, Hellosaurus was able to grow the team to 15 full-time employees and refine the product. One of their primary goals was to launch in the App Store and bring on a few hundred families to test the single session experience as well as longform content. Another goal was proving that third party creators saw the benefit from working with Hellosaurus. By signing up several YouTubers and traditional kid content creators they were able to test the efficacy of their formula.
Partnering with The Wiggles
In just a few months, Hellosaurus had made significant headway in the kids media space. Companies, parents, and creators alike had realized that there was a large opportunity to get children actively engaged through a different learning experience.
James’s unique approach to content creation for children had even sparked the interest of longtime kids entertainment property, The Wiggles, which was excited to tap into the technology capabilities of Hellosaurus in order to expand their digital presence.
“From a creative perspective, traditional television properties see a way for kids to get actively engaged in the content rather than being TV zombies —which is what they’re so accustomed to seeing. They also see an opportunity to evolve their format into one fit for the 21st century and beyond, and create something that’s entirely different.”
James is reinventing kid’s content for the digital generation by giving them the tools they need to be anyone or go anywhere from their touchscreen. With Hellosaurus, he’s creating a world in which technology is more commonplace in a kid’s education both at home and in the classroom, and a future where kids are actively using devices to develop critical skills that will prepare them for a lifetime for adventures.
“Our goal with Hellosaurus is to provide a safe and fun space where kids can pretend to be whatever they want today, so they can develop the skills to become whoever they want to be tomorrow. Through a pretend play lens, children will be able to learn about the world, different opportunities, and topics while also developing critical skills like creative thinking and communication.”