Garnet Heraman e-mailed me in December and told me that I really ought to talk with Krissa Watry, an Air Force Academy grad, U.S. veteran, and former rocket scientist, now the co-founder of a very exciting tech start up. Well, as I don’t get to talk to rocket scientists too often, never mind rocket scientists working on an app to allow kids to talk to Santa, I thought it was a great idea. But it was during the holiday craziness and we had house guests to host and parties to attend, not to mention ballet recitals, so I thought I’d put it off until the new year.
Happy 2017! I finally spoke with Krissa on the phone and I was really impressed with her: she’s intelligent, well-spoken, full of big ideas, personable…and very good at explaining what she’s trying to do and why. Pay attention, world…she’s going places! Here’s what we talked about.
The NewsWhistle Q&A with Krissa Watry
Date: February 7, 2017
Hometown: Beavercreek, Oregon (just outside Portland)
Current town: Charleston, South Carolina
So, tell me a little bit about iOKids, how it works, what’s innovative about it?
What we are doing is novel. We are creating a way for the under-13 market to connect into the digital world, and to do it in a safe manner. A lot of applications and devices are off limits to kids under the age of 13 in the United States, due to the Childhood Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Many apps require a credit card transaction at the time of consent, and it’s onerous on brands to get that consent. Fitbit, Facebook, Instagram: they’re all for over 13.
We’re allowing these brands, that are kids’ brands, but that have limited their play experience (or that are claiming that they’re not a kids company) to connect with kids. Fitbit doesn’t sell to kids but they know they are worn by kids…people use workarounds.
Sure, my daughter is ten and she has a Fitbit. I think I just entered in a birthdate to make her older when we signed her up.
Exactly. That’s what a lot of people do. But we allow brands to legally address this market to them. And it’s something that brands are interested in doing.
What is the youngest age that you are trying to reach?
Age five is our lower end; that’s when they’re first getting their own device, and going social. Five to twelve is our primary age group. But really, we’re creating a family network. We’re allowing kids to connect with toy companies and entertainment companies. Transformers are for kids of all ages. Toy and entertainment companies want to see our platforms, so that the uncle is connected with the nephew, and the cousins with each other, and mom and dad, and they can all play a game together.
Do you get the criticism here that people think that kids are too plugged in these days? That they’re already getting too much screen time? So that maybe it’s not a good idea to encourage younger kids to be joining a kids’ network or platform.
We definitely got that kind of pushback at first. But now, I think it’s clear that digital is not going away. Digital devices are used at school and at home. We believe that when you connect kids with technology, you are giving them critical skills to help them find success. My uses of technology helped me graduate at the head of my class at the Air Force Academy and get a full-ride to MIT.
And, the more technology that exists around kids, the less it will actually be on a screen. One question is how can we basically be spurring this industry, so that kids aren’t staring at a screen the whole time. The toys are smart, and the things around them are smart.
That’s true. The Amazon Echo (Alexa) doesn’t have a screen. My sister bought us one and my kids love it. They ask Alexa about the weather, have her play songs for them. The thing tells jokes. And my daughter also has a BB 8 Sphero…that thing doesn’t have a screen either.
Amazon Echo and Sphero: those brands say they are for 13 and above. It’s been a challenge.
Really? I had no idea. Wasn’t the Sphero an educational toy, originally? I thought it was meant as a teaching tool before they did the Star Wars tie-in.
Our local library has a few of those little droids and it lends them out to kids. Maybe they didn’t read the fine print! I wonder if they know that it’s supposed to be for age 13 and up.
Well, there’s a space for toy safety. There’s no lead on your toys. Nobody wants toys that are dangerous. And there are toys with digital content that is inappropriate for kids…it’s the same thing. The industry just hasn’t caught up with this particular kind of safety issue.
We are trying to solve it, and be the solution.
Kids do know how to use all that technology. But Alexa can’t use skills that are for kids. (Skills are what they call new applications/processes for the Amazon Echo.) For Alexa, if you are writing a new skill, they wouldn’t allow a developer to release an under-13 skill. All of their content is for adults, or 13 and over. Again, it’s just to highlight the space, most people don’t realize that’s the case.
I certainly didn’t.
Is the purpose of iOKids primarily social, or educational, or entertainment, or is it some combination of all of those?
All of those things. We are basically trying to be the easy method for parents to control who and what their kids connect with online, and do that by allowing adults to verify identity, create logins for kids, have kids creating a social network to take into other apps and games. They can have a social experience this way that they don’t get otherwise…they don’t have a Facebook friends list, but they can have a kids contact list with iOKids list. The social element is, I believe, the key part for the growth of our platform. It’s the ease of use that’s key for the parents, and for the brands, their value is access to the demographic.
Say you’re My Little Pony, a Hasbro brand: you can create a community inside of iOKids, and be able to have a conversation with the under-13 market. Just like Instagram does for over-13, they can have a similar conversation with under-13. What colors do you like? Kids can chime in and provide content.
If you’re a toy company launching a make your own jewelry toy, there’s no way to share it. YouTube is for 13 and over. There’s YouTube kids, but you can’t comment on it…that conversation is only one-sided, so they are looking for us …they can post jewelry ideas, kids can post on them, and they can build on it, and have a conversation in their app. Or they can find ways to engage their user base.
Is iOKids popular so far? What has been the expectation vs. the reality?
So we did kind of a little push with a beta app, we haven’t launched yet. We launched the consumer-facing part for kids to chat with Santa, a quick way to onboard some users. We got a thousand downloads two weeks before Christmas, and now we are rolling out new features. Our responsive website (which is Facebook like) so kids can go on to the web and the mobile app, add their friends, chat with their friends, and parents can communicate with other parents (and they don’t have to be Facebook friends to do it). We’ve started MojiTalk…that’s emoji with sounds associated with them. Watching kids use our apps for texting with that…pre-readers are using the app, with Siri to talk into, and with text-to-speech technology, with talking emojis combined…to make it more fun. We are launching all of that, and the next step is our big brands: we have toy companies, cruise line companies, sports companies, and small brands, things like children’s museums, aquariums, wearable companies, that will be rolling out later this year. Our brand integration starts in April.
Is it looking good so far?
Lego just put out their social network, it’s like Instagram, but they hide behind a mini-fig and kids can only send canned messages. But kids want to take selfies, and communicate with their friends. The brands are getting it only halfway. Parents are okay with it, if you provide an engaging experience, AND you let them know what you are doing.
Does your network seem to be more popular with boys or girls? And is it for far away friends/pen pals, or for the kids they see everyday?
Both, we are targeting being able to make friends through groups and communities (with parental approval) but really, it might open up the idea of pen pals again. The parents will still be connected. Kids can be communicating with the kids on their sports team, their friends from school.
As for friends in different places….absolutely! My nephew on the west coast sends me a text message, and I love it. Bridging the borders. It’s kind of fun, he’s connected. I think that there’s an interesting play that can happen with connected family, that you don’t have today. A social platform with grandparents, aunts, uncles, a safe network. Sharing activities and growth and fun and entertainment.
We have a pretty equal spread of boys and girls on the platform. Our initial customer set was from our marketing blitz. Girls and boys like Santa. Brands might change the dynamic. So far, though, it’s a pretty equal spread. A pretty dense network because the parents onboard the siblings all together. The parents add in the adults, and the kids, and then you get a dense network effect.
How many users do you have now?
We have a couple of hundred people. It’s still pretty small, but we want to keep it there until we launch our new user interfaces at the end of this month. That’s when it will get really exciting.
So, what is the “Internet of Kids”?
It’s a play on the internet of things…connected kids! Pronounced I-O-Kids!
What else do you have in mind for Dynepic?
iOKids is our primary platform, but the MojiTalk feature got so much excitement that it is being rolled out on other social platforms, like iMessage. It all came about because of kids, an adult platform wouldn’t have stumbled upon that feature, but it turns out that it is fun for adults.
Go figure! I understand you have a background in the military, and in space exploration…how does the work experiences you’ve had inform your current project?
Aerospace was a trajectory I was put on to be stationed with my husband. I launched satellite, designed cutting edge, horizontal launch vehicles, nano-satellites, and led teams working to figure out how to land large payloads on Mars. But I liked watching my products here on Earth. I love watching my products in the hands of users…I couldn’t do that with space, it wasn’t tangible. The internet of things is the next big wave. Kids understand technology in ways adults don’t get. There’s a lot to be learned skill-wise for kids to get ready for their own future. How can we utilize technology today and allow them to be prepared for tomorrow, and invent their future? How do we do it safely? We were funded through the National Science Foundation to do an educational toy line. But it was too complicated from a technology platform for toy companies, they aren’t technologists. Toy companies –they’re marketing, distribution, sales…they’re not technologists. They can’t build software products. And kids are getting left out of technology, because of privacy laws. So that’s how it started, feedback from parents, feedback from brands.
We need to have parents on board, kids enjoying using it, building a social network with parents involved, and bringing big brands in…these are the big ideas which we are trying to pull off. I think we have enough that we should be able to make it all happen, but it is a challenge.
Is this a unique product or are there similar services for kids? Do you have a competitor in this field?
No, the closest competitor is probably something like if Disney opened up their user base and said that another brand could leverage their user base in their app. They don’t have a social platform with the open API though…the closest thing to what we’re doing would be like Facebook. This is really a kids’ version of Facebook. Similar in manner, trying to target that under-13 market and build a company the size of Facebook.
In a few years I’m going to be able to say I knew you when. And maybe they’ll be making movies about you!
Now, how did you end up working in this field? Was it something you’d planned to do for a long time, or did you fall into it?
I think we found a gap in the market. I could see the internet of things taking off, and no one else was focusing on kids. We thought we’d tack in through toys and products, but it is the software side that is really the enabler. We’ll be a platform for toy companies, but all these brands…Fitbit, Under Armor, Chick-Fil-A…they will all need a solution. They could do it themselves, but they should leverage someone else’s platform. Hopefully, ours.
What has been your best experience so far working in this field?
Best so far is trying to figure out how to solve this big challenge. This is a huge challenge and a huge opportunity. From a business standpoint, but also from an ability to impact how kids interact in the world. We want to change the world, and for the better. Make life easier for parents, and more engaging for kids, and solve key issues for brands. How can they engage their customers?
What are the concerns that parents have about your platform and how are they being addressed?
We’re trying to do more of an informed process. A lot of companies bury the information. Google for example…we have a challenge sourcing our vendors. What data are they taking? We vet that, and it is challenging. It’s challenging for us and this is what we do!
Is it musical.ly?
Yes, that’s it! I haven’t even looked at this thing yet.
It is 13 and over! But yes, our goal is to integrate kids with apps like musical.ly and make it safe. They could be safe in their own private account, you can lock it down, but they can still go and open it up…because right now, it is a 13 and over app.
At the ages of five, and at ten, parents should be involved. And when they get older, they’re trained, you’ve had teachable moments…you can’t say this online, why did you friend this person? You teach them and then they can do it when they’re 13 and more responsible. Now it’s all or nothing.
Well, some parents I know really have those lessons to learn about what not to put on social media! Sometimes I read things people post on Facebook and I wonder what on earth made them think it was a good idea to tell 583 people that!
Wouldn’t it be cool to make it just fun?
I think so! (At least for some people!)
So, on a less technological note, what’s a book everyone should read?
I think I would recommend The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. It is about the simplicity of design, and how to think about things in the world. I’m a designer, and I think the best designs are as simple as possible, and communicate how they’re to be used without the need for instructions. That resonated with me when I was growing up. It’s an older book. Well, from about 1988!
That’s when I graduated high school. I guess it was a long time ago!
I was class of 98!
And what’s your favorite movie?
My favorite movie is GI Jane. That shows the feminist side of me. I watched right before I joined the military. I’m so happy that women finally can do most jobs in the military.
That was with Demi Moore, right?
Yes, Demi Moore, and she shaved her head. Blended in, and it shows you, it’s not all about the physical side, it’s not a complete physical game. I was number one in my mechanical engineering class…we fight with our brains.
You were in the Air Force academy, in Colorado Springs?
I had a lot of friends in the ROTC program in college (it was about ten percent of my graduating class) so I used to know a lot of people in the military. The Berlin Wall came down when I was in college, though, so some people ended up with a free ride and didn’t have to give the time back due to the cutbacks. I still have some friends in military service, but most of them aren’t doing it any longer.
I got a full ride from MIT, and then a graduate degree, three years in space command. Congress was downsizing then, and they let me out. So, to the taxpayers…thank you for the free education!
My husband’s still a reservist and a Southwest pilot. I am currently flying up and down the west coast for free courtesy of Southwest because he is a pilot.
Someone I knew in the Air Force out in Colorado, this would have been back in the early 90s, was working on GPS technology before there were commercial applications for it. So he told me about it, I knew it was coming, and I was just waiting and waiting for GPS! I have a horrible sense of direction and GPS, now that’s in cars, and on devices, and on phones, has changed my life so much for the better. I don’t get lost all the time.
I do pretty well with directions if I have a map in my head.
I don’t think my head does maps! If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?
Oh man, great question! But that’s a hard question! I don’t know if I would do much over. Life is a journey and an evolution. I’d tell myself to relax! Everything went, one to the next. We didn’t launch the toy, and that led to a bigger platform. I’ve faced hurdles throughout my entire life. I had to get out of the military, because I couldn’t get stationed where I wanted to, but it always led to the proper place for my life. I’d go back and tell myself, just enjoy it! It will all be okay.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
The best advice is by my old CEO. I’m a technologist. People say I should get an MBA. I went back to my old CEO, I said, you know me the best…I managed space programs. You know what I’m trying to do. Do you think I need a CEO? He said that all good companies are where the vision is held by the CEO. The person in charge has the big vision. His best advice was to believe in myself, and be my own CEO. Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t the best to execute your own vision.
And so far so good.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in life?
I think quitting my six-figure job and starting on this road of entrepreneurship, and trying to launch such a big idea. I spun off a side company…that stuff sells. I put no time into that company and those products, because I think this is the big game changer, and I am trying to pull it off, and get people behind me to pull it off. How much of my life do I sink into pulling off this big idea? My husband has taken on the financial burden, as I have been raising capital to launch this. It’s a huge risk…being an entrepreneur isn’t doing something safe. I like a challenge, and this is definitely a challenge.
Last but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
I think we’ve covered it. The bigger pitch is that we’re trying to get kids safely connected into the technology world, and make parents feel okay, and recruit the brands to be on board…
Our beta social app is still out there, and will become better at the end of this month. The first brands are integrated in April. Right now parents are helping us with the features and getting it all working properly. They’re involved in giving us ideas about features and design and shaping the network…so if you want to be involved in how to shape a network, then you should get on the platform. Give us critical advice.
April is our big rollout for engaging in a safe manner. We don’t want to ruin the experience…we don’t want to disappoint. We’re still in beta. The full feature is coming.
ABOUT LAURA LaVELLE
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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