Filippo Yacob founded Primo Toys in 2013. The mandate? Find a better way of introducing 21st century skills like computer programming to his 3 years old son. 3 years later came the Cubetto Playset. A tangible, screen-less coding toy for girls and boys aged 3 and up, the most crowdfunded educational technology invention in Kickstarter history, and the most awarded coding toy of 2016 (Red Dot, Cannes Lion, Junior Design, and more…). Today Cubetto is enjoyed by curious little minds — and curious adults — in more than 90 countries, and is considered the golden standard in early learning and coding across the world.
Helping children see technology as a problem solving tool will drive new generations to become creators of technology, as opposed to consumers. Filippo and the Primo Toys team are on a mission to create the best educational toy company in the world. A company focused on helping children explore and reach their full potential through programming and creativity.
In this interview we dive into the company’s philosophy, history, commitment to innovation, child-centered iterative design processes.
What gave you the drive to start an educational toy company?
I’ve worked in design and technology my whole life. I’m a designer by trade, not a programmer, but I always collaborated with creative technologists and computer programmers around the world to bring mine, and other’s ideas to life. I’ve always admired how coding promotes a creative relationship with technology as opposed to a consumptive one. Computer programming is a new 21st century literacy, one that should be taught alongside reading and counting, starting at pre-school level.
I noticed the systems children used to engage with programming were all screen and language based, and not suitable for pre-school children between the ages of 3 and 6. I wanted my son to learn about computer programming and computational thinking without missing out on physical play, social interactions, hands on learning. I wanted to give my son age appropriate tools to develop these 21st century skills, all the while playing, exploring, creating, and enjoying all the things that make early years great. I teamed up with a childhood friend to make this happen, and 3 years later here we are.
So are you an education, technology, or toy company?
The three are not mutually exclusive in our opinion. We’re driven by the desire to build the best educational toy company in the world. This means combining, and striving to be great at all three. Connected technologies have given us flexibility to focus design on meaningful experiences, and make toys come “alive” while hiding the technology within. Sound early learning pedagogy on the other hand serves as a north star, making sure our products really do fulfil an educational purpose.
Learning isn’t a “goal”, learning is a process, an attitude with limitless development potential. If we make it fun, accessible and age appropriate, we can help a child develop learning as a lifelong passion. The tools we interact and learn with as children are toys, so making an educational tool for a young child means making a toy. We could never achieve our goal if we saw ourselves as just a technology company, or just a toy company, or just an education company.
Coding toys are popular, who’s driving this?
We’ve seen and supported amazing educators, in more than 90 countries, keen to implement coding in their early years coding curriculum. The problem with education however, is that it doesn’t move fast enough. Parents on the other hand, can make quick decisions on investments for their children. After our 2016 Kickstarter campaign, we realised more than 80% of our customers were actually parents looking to take their children’s coding education into their own hands.
The majority of the parents we work with don’t come from a technical background, but clearly understand preschool coding education is important. We saw an opportunity to accelerate the uptake of computational thinking in early learning by bringing parents and children together over hands on play with Cubetto. The simplicity of Cubetto, suddenly allows parents to spend more quality time with their children, without the burden of learning a new skill. Adults are learning to play again, and children are learning to think of the world around them in a different way.
What made you choose to make your toys screen-less?
The primary reason was to provide a natural, age appropriate play experience for children ages 3 to 6. We’re big believers in kinaesthetic learning and wholeheartedly embrace hands on Montessori learning principles. When we experience the world around us through more than just sound, or the touch of a cold screen, we form stronger memories. The learning experience is more complete, richer, alive. Hiding all of Cubetto’s tech under a tactile material like wood makes the experience magical, especially when the child realises his physical blocks tell the robot how, and when to move. It’s an empowering surprise.
We often explored introducing a touch screen into the experience. Touch screens are, after all, an inevitability of modern life. But every time we tried, we simply found more reasons to keep screens out of this early learning equation. No screens means no isolation, keeping experiences inherently social and active. The breadth of objects within the Playset, the board, the blocks, the map, the robot, give children multiple object to think through, and focus on as they play. Introducing a third party device would be a compromise as far as early learning pedagogy is concerned. Of course using tablets could help us record data, but harvesting information from our users is not something we agree or believe in.
Speaking of pedagogy, what makes you different or even good?
We think a lot about education at Primo Toys. We research and analyse all early learning methods and doctrines. We study their genesis, and how they’re implemented today, so as to predict where they may evolve in the future. The goal is to apply proven learning principles of old to teaching children the skills of tomorrow. We’re building an incredible education team at Primo Toys, made up of former teachers, anthropologist, psychologists and design thinkers with real experience in the field to make this happen.
We stay tethered to education by investing a lot of our time interacting with the schools in our community. Understanding educators is as important as understanding children after all. Cubetto is fun by itself. Give it to a child, and they intuitively know how to play with little direction, but help an educator (or parent) understand all the great design choices behind Cubetto, and it becomes a resource head and shoulders above all others. When teachers use Cubetto to its full potential, they become more confident, students learn more, and we benefit from great reviews. Win win.
You won some of the most significant and globally recognised awards in design, how important is design for you?
We obsess over it. We see it as a habit, a way of thinking, and a process, which ultimately drives quality in everything we do. When it comes to product, our design process is what allows us to first and foremost frame the brief and hone the challenge. Design is about asking questions. What problem are we trying to solve? What created the problem in the first place? Are there other products trying to solve this problem? How do they work/not work, and why?
Design is about asking questions. Just as a sculptor chips away at stone to reveal a fine figure within, so the designer chips away at a problem, methodically carving a fine solution out of answers. The right questions lead to answers that lead to more questions that lead to answers. You follow the breadcrumbs of truth to a place where all your answers combine into a result greater than the sum of their parts.
Teams make or break startups, how do you go about building yours?
The company evolved from an extremely personal project, into a clear mission anyone can appreciate and follow. We want to be the best toy company in the world, and everything we’ve achieved to this date confirms we can do it! When your whole team strives for excellence, achieves it, and everyone sees their hard work paying off with global recognition, you’re motivated to do more and better.
We’re a family friendly company. We focus on results rather than time in and time out. There’s a lot of trust and freedom to influence the business within the team. Every team member is here to do the best work of their lives, and cares about high standards. When we make mistakes, and there have been many, we recognise them quickly, and work hard to rectify them. We’re not a perfect company, but we work at it, every single day.
You’ve had 3 successful crowdfunding campaigns, one broke a record. Why crowdfund?
Kickstarter allowed us to create something new and deliver it straight to those who wanted it in the first place. Standard distribution channels work fantastically well when you can cashflow the process, and when you move enough volume to make thinner margins viable, but for small companies with little funding it’s just impossible. Kickstarter allowed us to cut straight through that middle layer of commerce.
In the early days of Primo Toys funding was an issue. Hardware is outside the comfort zone of most investors, and the idea of an educational toy company that doesn’t use smart-phones or tablets just seemed outright crazy. We knew our thesis was right though, and Kickstarter allowed us to prove this. The biggest upside of it all, is the passionate community you build around a crowdfunding campaign. You allow people in. They become part of your story.
Any plans for the future?
Right now, the goal is to have a Cubetto Playset in every one of the 2.4 million early learning education centres worldwide, and in just as many homes. It’s an ambitious goal, but we have an even grander plan to have 1 billion children in the world receive exposure to computational thinking in early years by 2020.
We’re working on new blocks, new maps, and new stories that will allow the world of Cubetto to come alive. We’ll release these extensions gradually throughout the next 12 months. Mid term, our design and engineering team is working on new toys and tools that will extend our programming language. We’re excited about the future.