Three years ago, Caroline Hu Flexer saw how appealing her iPhone was to her then two-year-old daughter. But at the time, Apple’s App Store was just getting off the ground and there were few apps for children, much less young toddler and preschool-aged children.
Inspired by their kids, Hu Flexer (pictured, center), her husband Michael Flexer, and friend Nicci Gabriel started Duck Duck Moose, a Palo Alto company that develops iPhone and iPad apps for young children.
Their first app was “Wheels on the Bus,” a musical interactive storybook. Set to the popular toddler tune, it flips from page to page. Touch the doors on the bus and they will open and shut. Press the horn on the bus and it goes “beep, beep, beep.”
“Wheels on the Bus” remains a top seller among educational apps, even as the App Store has grown to more than 350,000 apps and big brands such as Disney and Nickelodeon have introduced their own apps aimed at youngsters. “Wheels on the Bus” was even featured in one of Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ keynotes.
Today Duck Duck Moose has expanded to offer seven iPhone and iPad apps. With the iPad, they’ve found that the larger screen is better for young children whose small fingers are still developing coordination and fine motor skills. There’s also been an unexpected development: young children with special needs have used their apps at home and with their therapists.
Interested in starting your own iPhone/iPad-focused development shop? Here are four tips from Hu Flexer, a former product manager at Intuit, for running a mobile app startup.
1) Stay small and lean — Duck Duck Moose has been profitable from the beginning since it keeps expenses low. The three founders pretty much do it all — even the singing and the music production for the apps. Being a small company also allows it to be nimble and flexible. They can change direction on a dime, even in the late stages of development. It also helps them be creative. “Bigger is not necessarily better or faster in designing and developing apps,” Hu Flexer says.
2) Partner with people who have complimentary skills — Flexer has marketing and product management experience, her husband is an engineer, and Gabriel is an artist and illustrator. The trio’s combined experience gives them everything they need to run the company.
3) Know your customer — It helps that their children and their friends are the company’s customers. “We spend a lot of time working with children, observing how they play, and testing our apps with them during our design process,” Hu Flexer says.
4) Refine your product — “Our process is very iterative, which is the secret sauce to coming up with good ideas,” Hu Flexer says. The development cycle is fairly straightforward, she says: Observe children, brainstorm, design and build a prototype, test with children and parents, learn and refine. Then repeat all the steps again and again.