How to Bring a STEM Toy to Market: Q & A with iQube's Joshua de la Llana
How hard is it really to bring a STEM toy to market? iQube's CEO Joshua de la Llana lays it out for TDmonthly Magazine in the following interview, from navigating safety concerns to staying positive when business seems shaky.
Q. What career path did you originally envision for yourself?
I was always interested in understanding how stuff works. I envisioned a career in R&D or product development at a big company. In the middle of working on that goal, I realize I wanted to create my own product instead of working on someone elses. Hence the IQube was born.
Q. Did you ever anticipate working with children's products?
Not specifically. We had known from the start we wanted to build a product for teaching electronics, but it was by (a very lucky) accident that it morphed into a children's toy. Kids are a more gratifying customers as they won't tend to feign interest nor happiness.
Q. How did your company come up with the idea for your first product?
My experience from my previous job got me to work with a lot of university engineering professors. With that I gained full understanding of their pains and needs when it comes to the tools they use to teach electronics. After hearing this common set of issues from everyone, that's when I started pondering if this is something I can solve.
Q. How long did it take to go from the original spark of an idea to actual production?
18 long months. Sure I know how to prototype things, but building not only a fully functioning consumer hardware/software, but also something that is safe for a child to hold and play with is a completely different ball game.
Q. How much money did you need to create the first prototype and come up with a business plan?
$20 for the first prototype. We literally made it out of cardboard to see if this is something people will be interested at. Before we are able to release our product to our first few customers though, we spent roughly $18000.
Q. How did you raise it, and how long did it take to raise it?
We managed to qualify for an tech incubator program in the Philippines called Ideaspace and got the first $12000 from them. When that money ran out. When that ran out, we went to our personals savings and credit cards.
Q. What aspect of the toy industry most surprised you when you first started?
The amount of safety regulations and certifications needed for toys. Sharp edges and small parts mainly. And how much of these requirements dwindle down for age groups 8 and above.
Q. What were the top two or three best pieces of advice you received, and from whom?
From a Medium post by Brett Martin, Identify your top three priorities, throw away numbers two and three. From another Medium post, If you have a good product, one way or another it all turns out right. By one of our investors, make sure you have three months of cash left after implementing any major strategy. So that if it fails, you are still capable of fixing things up.
Q. The worst pieces of advice?
Nothing specifically stands out. I'm a firm believer that all advice and opinions have parts founded on good foundation.
Q. What were the top two or three most significant obstacles you had to overcome to achieve success and how did you do it?
Building a team that can work together, harmoniously, reliably, quickly and of superb quality. On we had to start identifying what values do we value in the company, and what character traits are negotiable and non negotiable.
Knowing absolutely nothing on building a product or starting a business. On this we are continuously hurdling it through grit, listening to our superb mentors, doing tons and tons of research and reading, and in a little bit, some luck in googling.
Q. Where did you grow up?
Manila Philippines. A very friendly place.
Q. Where and what did you study?
Mapua, one of the famous engineering university in the country.
Q. What hardships did you have to overcome during your formative years and how did they help you persevere as a business owner?
I have lived independently since I was 14. This has taught how to rank life priorities and not to make those high priority decisions haphazardly. I've always been very competitive, which has exposed me to people far smarter, stronger, and better than me. This has taught me that grit can sometimes take you longer and farther than just pure innate skills.
Q. What is the most disappointing thing that you have to live with in business?
The company is in a constant state of falling apart. You are jumping from one problem to another, and one wrong decision can collapse everything you, your team and everyone who believed in you worked on. Yet you can't worry publicly. It will demotivate your team, alienate investors, and anger your customers.You are pretty much alone during those heavy depressing times.
Q. If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
I wouldn't focus too much time working on anything else than building a ridiculously good product.
Q. How do you hope your product/s will affect children's lives?
We hope it will get them interested in STEM in general and electronics specifically. Yes there is a plethora of STEM toys out there specially in the field of robotics. We believe electronics is a foundation level knowledge needed to appreciate these concepts and the available toys focused on this is boring and quite lacking. We want to change that.
Q. Where do you think the industry is headed?
Apps and tablet based interactive toys. Whether we want it or not, these are devices that kids these days are heavily familiar with even at a very young age. The industry needs to adapt to these changes in children's play behavior and environment for it to stay relevant.
Q. What one unique quality makes your product better than your competition?
We invested heavily in the strong connectivity between the toy and the app. We believe leveraging on a technology children today starts interacting with by 2 years old can give them a very powerful and fully immersive play and learning experience.
Q. What one piece of advice would you offer to someone just starting out in the toy industry?
Mind the play experience. Design the toys such that it won't get thrown and forgotten in the first 15 minutes. Focus on the long term impact the toy can create in a child's life.
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