If you’ve got kids ages 8 and under, chances are that they are logging significant screen time — at least two hours a day, according to a nationwide survey by nonprofit Common Sense Media — playing games, watching shows, even learning languages. And someone’s got to be making all that kid-approved content.
Portland, it turns out, is home to a growing cadre of people developing apps for kids and parents, and many of those innovators are moms and dads themselves, filling a niche they’d identified. We get the scoop from three developers finding their own way in this ever-expanding market.
Peekaboo, I See You
For Nat Sims, it all started over a game of peekaboo.
The Portland father had recently founded a company, Night and Day Studios, to develop interactive media for museums — a natural fit after having worked with his father on several science and history exhibits for the likes of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
But there he found himself one day making little cow and sheep noises with his 1-year-old daughter, right after Apple’s now famous app store opened its virtual doors in July of 2008. The light bulb went on and just four weeks later Sims and his colleagues had built Peekaboo Barn, one of the first ever kid apps for the store.
The game is simple: An animal emerges from barn doors, makes its appropriate noise, then retreats back behind the doors, much to the squealing delight of the child. But at the time, few people had heard of apps, and even fewer knew how to make money developing them.
Sims also admits that nobody was making, let alone buying, apps for tots. “Who is going to hand their $600 iPhone to a 1-year-old?” he asks. It was the Great Recession, his company ran out of money pretty much immediately, and he was forced to lay off almost his entire staff. By 2009, he found himself on the brink of collapse.
But in the background, thanks in part to minimal competition, Peekaboo Barn began to sell — and just as quickly as he’d run out of money, he had a serious success story.
Pretty soon, Peekaboo Barn boasted a few sequels, including Peekaboo Forest and Peekaboo Fridge, and Sims watched as the app store went from a gold rush mentality to “serious business,” with plenty of competition for apps geared toward young kids.
Night and Day Studios has since developed board books, plush toys, stationary, dozens of apps, and a board game, and says a TV show is on the horizon. Peekaboo Barn, which has been a top 25 kids’ app since 2009, has been downloaded more than 3 million times and played more than 100 million times.
“The whole universe has changed around this like five times in the 10 years we’ve been doing this,” Sims says. But he’s managed to stay competitive by developing a diverse range of products, and credits Portland with being a great place to raise his daughter while running a successful start-up.
“This is one of the best software development towns in the world,” Sims says. “Even when I started Night and Day 11 years ago, everybody here was talented. And people were the same age with similar skills, flexible schedules, and it was affordable to live here. It was this mecca for software businesses.”
Ever wished you could pay your kids for household chores just by pulling out your phone instead of bills from your wallet? Hundreds of parents across the country are now doing just that through a debit-connected smartphone app developed by two fathers from Portland.
Piggybank: Personal Finance lets parents and caregivers assign chores, mark when those chores are completed, and pay for those chores through same-day online transfers.
Oscar Godson, the software engineer who came up with the free app, moved to Portland to work for the online banking company Simple a few years ago, and decided he wanted to update how parents conduct banking transactions with their kids.
After about a year in development, the app officially launched in November of 2017. Jakob Knightly, the original investor who now oversees Piggybank out of his home base in Portland, has been having some fun running the initial numbers.
Looking at the $7,000 worth of transactions during that first month of November, he says his team ranked the “top five weirdest chores,” some of which turn out to be a bit snarky in nature. For instance, chores aren’t always assigned to kids. One adult earned $5 for making a sandwich, a teen earned $25 for photocopying 400 Thanksgiving invitations on orange paper, and someone else finished the family quilt — for free.
“It’s definitely fun to watch,” Knightly says.
Since its launch, the app is strongest in New York, Atlanta, and the Bay Area, with more than 4,400 users and growing. Not surprisingly, kids from higher-income areas can sometimes be paid a lot for their chores, with one in New York earning $15 for simply taking out the trash, which turns out to be the most common chore. Washing dishes is another popular one, with kids in those markets typically earning $4 to $5.
Piggybank isn’t the first app to jump into chore management. ChoreMonster and FamDoo are among a growing crop, and iAllowance uses bank transfers to make payments. But Knightly says that Piggybank is different, in that money is paid to a Piggybank account directly through the app. While it can be transferred from there to other bank accounts for spending, “The purpose of the app is working at saving money,” Knightly says.
There’s a strong visual component, too, as kids can take pictures of their work and include that content when they check off a chore as completed. Parents, in turn, can upload their own pics to demonstrate how to do something, or make a comment on how a chore was done.
“It’s basically your Instagram for chores,” says Knightly, who was drawn to Godson’s idea because it rewards specific chores instead of automating allowance. And with so much banking now done online, it’s a chance for kids to learn about not just money in general, but how to interact with money digitally.
By having an online piggy bank, Knightly hopes that kids will learn the value of leaving their money alone and watching it grow. In the next two quarters, he says, they’ll likely add interest accrual to the accounts. “It’s special to have a few weeks or months go by and you suddenly see $30 or $40 in there,” he says. “Parents want to see their kids save money.”
Lost in Translation
Jessie Marquez knows firsthand what it’s like to be fluent in English, yet sometimes feel stumped by the language of academia.
The daughter of a father from Cuba and a mother from Portland, she spent her first few years in Puerto Rico speaking both Spanish and English, and says her family always nurtured her love of languages.
But even though she is fully bilingual, Marquez, whose background is in music and producing interactive media, says she, and probably many others, can find themselves in situations having to “deal with language that’s a little outside their wheelhouse.” For instance, when she hears words like “health insurance deductible,” even though she can define the words, “A little barrier comes up, almost an imperceptible tightening. I have to brace myself to deal with this language that I don’t always understand.”
The mother of three who lives in Portland has spent the past few years developing a bilingual app called STEM Familia for Eugene-based company Influents Innovations. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, the goal is to help native Spanish-speaking elementary-age students and their families learn and practice using academic vocabulary — in both English and Spanish — that they might not use frequently at home, and that will help them become successful in STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math) fields.
“This project is based on a real need that’s been well documented,” Marquez says. “Academic vocabulary is really important, and English language learners are seriously disadvantaged in school because of lack of familiarity with it. And it’s not systematically taught in school, so it’s really hard for students whose families aren’t using academic vocabulary to learn it.”
Marquez, who has worked on dozens of NIH-funded projects over the past decade, secured funding for the app in September of 2017, and is working on producing video components and motion graphics aimed at 4th and 5th graders and their families to teach vocabulary in context. Students will play games to learn and then practice academic words, and receive individual feedback through emojis and messages.
STEM Familia is scheduled to be piloted with 40 ELD (English language development) families in Oregon by the end of the 2017/18 school year. A randomized control trial would follow, and the app could become available for download as early as 2020.
Marquez describes a “tension” she sees in many first-generation immigrant families where kids going to school in the United States “can very quickly lose contact with their native languages,” and the parents can have a hard time helping with homework. “And it can be painful,” Marquez says.
She thinks that, “In addition to having an impact on the very concrete skill of learning academic vocabulary, (use of the app) could also potentially have some impact on the relationship between parents and children.”
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is a freelance journalist and piano teacher in Portland. She has written for National Geographic, CNET, Wired and more. In her spare time, she loves to bike, hike and climb with her husband and their two young daughters.