Björn Jeffrey on Why Toca Boca Won’t Be Selling to Schools

by Lee Banville
March 21, 2014

This post originally appeared on


Bjorn Jeffrey

Björn Jeffery: “For me, complaining about App Store search is pointless because it is what it is. This is the environment I am going to place myself in and if I don’t like it than I probably shouldn’t be in there.”

Toca Boca has emerged as one of the most significant kids producer in the mobile app space. The Swedish-based company has about two dozen apps that have been downloaded 65 million times — and those are paid downloads.

The company has found a sweet spot building consumer-facing apps for children that can be sold across the world.

Despite their prowess in the App Store, the company is not eyeing the American school market.

“If I were to try and do it by the book at a state level, it would require four or five or six times as much work and I would be cutting off 50 percent of my total market. I would be losing all the other countries because Saudi Arabia doesn’t teach the same way as Nevada does,” Björn Jeffrey, the founder and CEO of Toca Boca, said.

Listen to the full conversation:

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation. What are the big things you will take away from SXSWedu?

Björn Jeffrey: I think one of the big things that comes across at the conference is how many people have it as synonymous education and children. They are almost completely the same thing in this context almost ignoring the rest of childhood in a way.

They’re a lot of references to education being the solution to all of children’s problems in a way…

I would have thought there would be a bigger sort of take on how technology, or how adults in general, can help children develop, not necessarily only educate them…  Is that something that you run into even in what Toca Boca does. I mean, you get asked is what you’re building educational, is it a learning game, is it just a game, is it a digital toy? It sounds almost semantic, but how important are these issues?

Björn Jeffrey: There’s an element of semantics to it, but I also think the phrasing of it… It frames the question a lot. So when I say, “I make apps for children.” Then they say, “Oh, you make educational apps.” That’s the first comment. And actually they’re not educational necessarily.

The assumption here is anything for children would be educational and, if not, why not? Why wouldn’t it be educational because that would obviously be better.

My argument would be: education is great and it has its place, but there are other things we can do for children other than just educate them.  Just looking at learning from a broader sense, there are things you can learn, and that you can teach for that matter, that are not from a strict curriculum perspective — things like collaborating or using your imagination or being creative. There’s a place for that in an educational context but they are also things that can be just learned from doing completely different things…

Even in the App Store, all the apps are in the education category because that is where parents look for children’s products. Now are they, then, educational because they are in the education category? Not necessarily and looking at most of the apps, most probably not. This creates a very confusing environment for everyone. What am I actually getting?

I think most parents just look for – I want something that my kids like and I wouldn’t mind if it were something that was good for them either. But distilling exactly what’s what there is a very confusing thing and I think the labels of it is one part of the problem… Have you seen an evolution in the way your customers think about it?

Björn Jeffrey: There are some who have been using apps for several years they are getting a little bit more used to what to look for…

It’s quite difficult still with discovery broadly – how do I find a great app for my kids, no matter what I am looking for – educational or whatever? How do I find a filter or an editor or a curator or something like that that can point me in the right direction? And at the moment it is almost only the platforms themselves…

In general, if you are looking for great apps which are not awful – which seems like a reasonable question to ask – your options are pretty limited. Is your strategy to say, “Rather than to have one or two giant hits, I want to build a regular audience that looks to me as almost like their curator because they know me as a producer, they know me as a brand?”

Björn Jeffrey: We made a bet on a brand as opposed to a single product which means we make smaller singular experiences that are under the same sort of umbrella. So they are all Toca something – Toca Hair Salon, Toca Kitchen, Toca Store. And now we have this wide portfolio of different kinds of themes and play patterns, but they’re all under the same Toca Boca umbrella. They’re named in the same way.

The reason for that is once parents find something that they really like, finding something new – again based on the discoverability issues – is really hard… A lot of them just search for Toca Boca and see what’s new from them because that was good the last time and that solves a lot of it.

Searching for a brand and then finding a wide range of things, akin to how an uncle or an auntie are like, “I’ll buy something from Lego. That will be great.” What in the Lego catalogue is almost less important. It’s more like Lego is normally good. That’s a safe bet… I can trust it.

What’s good about that is it’s good for consumers because it is an easier way to distill what’s good or not. It’s good for developers because it keeps us on our toes because if you buy something from us or from Lego that’s really bad than you are going to think twice before going back. So that means the pressure is on that every product that you make has to be as good or better than the expectations of your customers. Did this strategy evolve or was it how you planned to operate?

Björn Jeffrey:  This was actually planned. It was planned because we spent several months both looking at exactly what kind of product we were going to do but also studying the App Store.

So, Toca Boca is a company designed around the App Store which is different than a lot of others that had a product maybe on a CD-ROM before or had it on the web… and then decided maybe we’ll make a mobile version of what we already have. Now we took that in a different direction to saying, “If we were to design children’s products for the App Store today, how would they need to look? How would they need to be branded?” All of those sort of questions came up from an App Store perspective.

For me, complaining about App Store search is pointless because it is what it is.  This is the environment I am going to place myself in and if I don’t like it than I probably shouldn’t be in there. So instead we tried to play that to our advantage. Have you looked at freemium? Are there alternatives to the Toca Boca strategy?

Björn Jeffrey: We’ve looked at it because you have to. Everything is going to freemium, especially for adults. The perceptions of adults going to the App Store and buying something for themselves also highly affects how they view children’s products. I do think parents are generally speaking a little more generous to their kids than they are to themselves – they are willing to spend more money for their kids apps than for their own.  But when you know the level of quality app you get for free for yourself that changes your perception of what’s worth paying for then?… The perception from parents changes things a lot so you have to be aware of what you are doing anyway.

I think there is a good and a bad way of doing freemium for children. I think it is possible to do it well. It is not something we are going to be doing but I think there are developers who are doing it in a nice way.

A few sort of guidelines for me anyway is not having consumables, so buying add-on packs as opposed to virtual currency. I think virtual currency is quite a deceitful way of playing with children’s perception of money. Arguably a lot of adults have trouble deciphering how 100 gems is actually worth, but kids certainly do. So that is one thing: no consumables.

Placing sales outside of the game play and selling it in a separate store. And then having the right sort of parental locks and things in place.

So I think given those pre-requisites, it’s possible to do but you need to know that being successful in freemium is something very different than being successful in the paid market. The people spending a lot of money in freemium – and given the caveats I just listed – how much is left? How much money can actually be made from freemium?

It’s not you just add an in-app purchase to your app and the money starts flowing in… Being successful with freemium almost requires that you to design from the freemium model from the beginning. It’s not something you can apply later. I’m starting with freemium and then I am building a game on top of the freemium business model. That’s when you are really successful.

The mistake I have seen done many times is people have a game in the kids space or in the adult space and then they add freemium as an afterthought and then you are just left with basically no business model at all. It’s free so you’re making no money up front but you’re also not selling anything in it. It’s a very tricky thing. Is too much being made of making educational games for the classroom?

Björn Jeffrey:  …The difficulty with the original software or the educational software is although it is technically correct from a curriculum point of view, it’s not very fun. The kids don’t like it. Even if it does what it should be doing, if kids don’t use it then there is no educating being done. It becomes almost a hypothetical idea then, if they were to play this game all the way through then yes, indeed, the outcome of that would be that they had learned X,Y and Z. But then you have to be a little more pragmatic. Well, do they play the game all the way through? Does anyone want to play this at all? Does this muster any enthusiasm?…

You’ve got to build a really, really good game or a really, really good toy for kids to really like it and engage in that. If there is not engagement and there is no usage than there is no educating anyway and that, I think, a lot of people here miss. They are so focused on the game being super correct from an educational standards that you almost forget about the kids…

I don’t think it is a misguided discussion. I think it is a fair point to make, but if you are more pragmatic and you generally care about kids actually learning something you cannot reduce that component. If kids don’t like it then it doesn’t work. It’s as simple as that I think. How would you have to change if you were really going to embrace the formal school market?

Björn Jeffrey: I don’t see us as an educational company. I see us as a company that makes apps for children or digital toys for children or more simply products for children, but it is about the children first. If they can be used in an educational context great, but that’s not the intent…

If we were to take on education and do it that way, partly we would lose all our international business. That’s number one. We sell in 160 countries and I am quarter Norwegian, a quarter Swedish and half English living in America. Trying to figure out the American educational system and realizing that even from state to state there are differences. It’s very complex. If I were to try and do it by the book at a state level, it would require four or five or six times as much work and I would be cutting off 50 percent of my total market. I would be losing all the other countries because Saudi Arabia doesn’t teach the same way as Nevada does…

We made some very intentional design decisions from the beginning in order to be an international company, for example reducing all language and all text so it’s all based on gestures, symbols, animations to lead children from one place to another. That was also so we did not have to have a lot of extra localization…

As soon as you go into learning state capitals or learning algebra or things like that actually varies quite a lot about how you do it and also when you do it – when is it appropriate for kids of different ages? If we were to go down that road I would basically have to completely start from scratch.