Today is a special day. Three years ago, on October 16, 2012, Toywheel won the inaugural hy! Berlin startup competition, launching us on the journey to where we are today. I wanted to take this opportunity to look back on how it all started, summarize how our company has evolved since then, share some of the lessons I’ve learned in the process and explain where we’re headed in the future.
How it all started
On the stage at hy! Berlin, I gave a short presentation on Toywheel’s vision of equipping kids with roots and wings (inspired by J.W. Goethe). The jury, which consisted of Jörg Rheinboldt, Ulrich Schmitz and Thomas Madsen-Mydgal, were immediately sold. However, they correctly pointed out that our team was still looking for a way to translate our vision into reality:
Yeah, Awesome vision. I’m very much in your target group, and also really sold. But, I’d love to give you the feedback that I’m not clear what I’m sold on, but I’m sold on it (audience laughs). But you know, the team, business model stuff – all details, who cares at the end!? - Thomas Madsen-Mydgal
How we evolved
Over the past three years, we’ve been attempting to work out those details. Like any startup, we came up with tons of ideas and ran countless tests. In the end, our company went through three main iterations:
2012: DIY content and online shop
We started with an online platform offering educational DIY activities for parents and kids. We planned to make money by combining the DIY content with an e-Commerce shop, but in the end we weren’t able to create a viable business. The key problems were the high cost of acquiring new customers, parents’ lack of time and kids’ love of digital. A lot of the companies we partnered with during this phase, including Tollabox, Exploribox and Wummelkiste, experienced similar issues and ultimately went out of business or changed their business model
2013: Augmented reality game studio
Instead of trying to bring kids offline, we decided to build online toys that had the same positive effect on their development as physical toys. We called these “transformable, reality-aware toys”. The first examples we developed were a pair of augmented reality (AR) driving apps called Toy Car RC and Toy Drive. The apps were featured globally by Apple, received several awards and have been downloaded over 150,000 times. Despite this success, the size of the AR games market was still quite small. In order to break out of this niche and create a sustainable business, we would have needed to make a substantial investment in new content. Given the highly competitive, hit-driven nature of the mobile games industry, this wasn’t a bet investors were willing to take. So we decided to stop producing our own content and focus on building a scalable, technology-driven B2B business model
2014: Platform for creating adaptive, interactive content (Gamewheel)
To build our new business model, we took our team’s expertise in tech, design and gaming and packaged it into a tool that allows other people to create their own content. The new business model was much more attractive to investors, allowing us to raise substantial seed capital from Seedcamp, Crown Ocean Capital and various angels. To stay true to our roots, we’re committed to providing free access to Gamewheel to any educational organization that wants to use it to teach game design or interactive content creation
What we learned
Being an entrepreneur means learning new things everyday, and I could easily write a much longer post about the lessons I learned over the past three years. But since we’re in the marketing business now, I decided to condense them into a list of six easily digestible bullet points:
- Doing the right thing and striving for good brings great people together – this is ultimately what we need to change the world
- Having a big vision is necessary, but a big vision isn’t the same as a sustainable business model
- Building a startup is the best way to learn more about yourself and focus on doing what you really love
- The startup approach isn’t the best solution to every problem, especially when it comes to the education sector in Europe
- Mentoring and advice can distract founders, but if you listen carefully they can also prevent you from making mistakes
- The simplest advice is often the hardest to implement, e.g. “Make something people want” – Paul Graham
Where we’re headed
The first version of our content creation tool is aimed at the digital marketing industry, where the lack of a good solution for creating personalized, interactive content is a real pain point for advertisers. We’re solving this problem with a SaaS tool that makes it fast and simple for brands to create ad games. This may sound a long way from our original vision of equipping kids with roots and wings, but we see it as a logical extension. In the end, we’re empowering people to become creators in the digital world. If you’re interested in learning more about our vision and plans for Gamewheel, check out our blog post. And if you’re ready to try creating your own game, you can sign up for a free account any time.
Millions of thanks
Last but not least, I want to use this opportunity to personally thank all of the amazing people I’ve met on this unique journey – without your contribution, assistance, inspiration, support and belief in me and our team, we never would have gotten to where we are now. Thanks to Michel Aloui, Sandra Schürmann, Hans-Ulrich Ender, Christian Rathgen, Martin Sinner, Tobias Schlottke, Jan Lühr, Inken Petersen, Jana Baum, Aydo Schosswald, Hans Raffauf, Rupert Hoffschmidt, Rainer Scheerer, Julian Koch, Richard Hylerstedt, Pia & Werner Thole, Christoph Raethke, Bianca Praetorius, Marcel Poelker, Verena Vellmer, Fee Beyer, Peter Borchers, Dylan Arena, Sebastian Deterding, Verena Pausder, Jörg Rheinboldt, Béa & Oliver Beste, Stefania Druga, Ibrahim Evsan, Lora Kolodny, Philippa Pauen, Mark Shillitoe, Eric Mahleb, Hannes Diedrich, Constantine Karlis, Adrian Sennewald, Brendan Donovan, Marjan Ploederl, Tanja Hirsch, Christian & Andreas Schön, Christian Bittler, Esther Verhouc, Tom Sadowski, Lasse & Peer Rheinboldt, Kerstin Bock, Carolin Lessoued, Anett Gläsel-Maslov, Matthias Greiner, Franziska Krüger, Moritz Kreppel, Peter Gräser, Evan Weintraub, Vivid Savitri, Jed Hastwell, Carlos Eduardo Espinal, Reshma Sohoni, Konstantin Stoyanov, Ian Hannigan, Unai Garcia, Eva Delincakova, Stefan Kaiser, Ilker Aydin, Danielle Reid, Matthaus Krzykowski, Pierre Yurow and many more (sorry if I forgot to mention your name here, this list is probably not exclusive).
Thanks to the following organizations – Projektfabrik, Thousand Network (previously Sandbox), hub:raum, hy! Berlin, Metaio (acquired by Apple), Apple, Betahaus, Openers, Tech Open Air, Colonia Nova, Seedcamp, Crown Ocean Capital, German Entrepreneurship Circle (GEC) – part of the German National Academic Society (Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes) and my band, Timid Tiger, for playing this legendary and, to-date, last show during the 3rd hy! Berlin.
Finally, I’d like to personally thank my parents Irena & Dmitri Kouris for giving me the “light” & warmth and investing all the time & energy to bring me on my way, my sister Iana Kouris for objective advice, and of course, my love, Verena Walther, for understanding the roller-coaster-startup-way, all the support and just for being such a beautiful Mensch.
Co-Founder and CEO Toywheel & Gamewheel