Interview: Semira Rahemtulla, Founder, PlayTell

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Semira Rahemtulla v.2

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How did Semira Rahemtulla, Co-Founder & CEO of PlayTell come up with the idea to build an App for young children and family members to connect when they are apart?

In this interview, Semira will talk about how she determined this was the ONE idea to pursue, finding a Co-Founder through an accelerator, understanding how her target audience used the product, getting seed funding from the first investors in Skype and bringing a product to market.  If that isn’t valuable enough, her insights into entrepreneurship and what the everyday struggles are enlightening.

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Rachel: Hi. I’m Rachel Olsen, founder of Best Mom Products, where mompreneurs share their adventures in business. Today, I’m talking with Semira Rahemtulla, the CEO of Playtell, a new tablet application that combines video chat with ebooks to connect with young children, ages 3 to 7, with their family members while they’re apart. Semira has over eight years of product management experience, a computer science degree from Stanford, and a Masters of Education from Harvard. Today, she’ll share her journey from idea to getting funding from the first investor in Skype, finding the right co-founder, and bringing her vision to market. Semira, it’s great to have you here today.

Semira: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

Rachel:  Can you describe your product a little bit more because it is a new concept?

Semira: Yeah, absolutely. So Playtell is basically, in a nutshell, it’s taking Skype and Facetime to the next level. It’s a tablet based app that combines video chat with activities that you can play, read, and do together while you’re inside a video call. So it’s basically taking this communication platform that exist with video chat and enhancing it to make it a lot more like what we do when we’re in person together, which is read and play and take photos and that sort of thing.

Rachel: What’s your target market for this?

Semira: The target market is families with children ages 3 to 7 years old, who will play and read inside of Playtell with their parents while they’re traveling or with their grandparents who live far away, and even with their friends and cousins while they’re not in the same place together.

Rachel: How did you come up with the idea?

Semira: Yeah. I have a nephew who lives in Seattle and one who lives here in San Francisco. My nephew here in San Francisco I get to read and play with pretty much every week when I’m over at his house, but my nephew in Seattle I only see a couple of times a year. The idea really came about when I had just come back from a trip from Seattle. I had bought my nephew this pile of Dr. Seuss books that he loves, and it was so fun. I got to read a new one to him every night. Actually, we read multiple ones every night at story at bedtime. Then when I get back, we went back to our regular Skype calls, which was just after like that cuddling and that reading and laughing and playing together experience that we had when we were together, it was just . . . I mean it was great to be able to keep seeing him, but just not the same.

I’ve been in the software business for over 10 years now, and it just sort of struck me as ridiculous that we don’t have tools that facilitate a much deeper interaction because the technology exists. Moreover, it exist for companies, like WebEx and GoToMeeting. These are communication tools that we use all the time to have deeper working relationships, so that we can be productive together while we’re apart.
That’s great. But why, I mean, it really begs the question: Why doesn’t something like that exist for consumers, and more to the point for families, where arguably it’s the most important for us to have really deep relationships even though we live far away?

So that’s where the idea was born. It was just a really simple idea. Why don’t we just split the screen and have Skype like video chat on top and a book, a shared view book below it. I mean, even that would just be far and away better than just Skype by itself. So that was sort of the seed of the idea from which Playtell was born.

Rachel: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting because I remember, we had talked previously and you said something that totally resonated with me that one of your friends too, when you get on Skype with the grandparents. The kids are kind of going crazy because they don’t really know what to do or say, and they’re not at an age where they can sit still necessarily and just have an adult conversation. So the grandparents want to interact with the kids and talk with them, but they’re too young to really have that level of maturity. So it kind of is an awkward moment for the parents too. So can you tell me a little bit about that? I think that was interesting.. That struck me as very real.

Semira: Yeah, totally. All of our communication tools today are really good at facilitating an adult conversation, which when you’re 3, you’re just not ready to do it and you’re not interested in doing. You want to play. You want to read. So yeah, the kids are running around. They have a really short attention span for just sitting and chatting. Grandma and grandpa don’t really know what to do to keep their attention. They might know a couple of nursery rhymes. They might know a couple of things, but that will get you maybe like one or two extra minutes with them on Skype before your three minutes Skype date is done. Then mom has to sit there and facilitate the conversation. “Oh, tell grandma about what you did at school today, or tell her about your new train set.”
I mean it’s not because kids by definition have a short attention span for anything. We know, you put an iPad in front of your kids, and they will be in it for hours. So it’s just a matter of finding the right activities, any activity for them to do together so that they can go deep on something together.

Rachel: You have a computer science background and a Masters in Education. When you had this idea, what was the first thing that you did?

Semira: I talked to a couple of my friends who are parents just to make sure I wasn’t on crack. As an entrepreneur, when you’re rolling through a number of different ideas, you can really fall in love with your idea pretty easily. You’re like, “Yeah, the world totally needs this.” Then you’re just in a world of hurt after you’ve spent a bunch of time building it and putting it out to market and nobody actually wants it.

So I just sort of like let the idea marinate a little bit and talked to three of my closest parent friends and then also my sister of course and my mom. The reason that I really felt like I was on to something was because consistently across the board and then even beyond these three families, when I asked people, “What do you think of this idea, just as an idea,” the response that I got, it wasn’t even, “Oh, that’s a great idea.” It was, “Wait, that doesn’t exist today?” So it’s not even like this like bright new future that we’re all envisioning. It’s just sort of like, “Wait, why doesn’t that exist today?” Yeah, it should.
So that was step one, was just talking about the idea and flushing it out with a lot of the target user.

Rachel: Once you realized you were on to something, this is the idea that you wanted to pursue, where do you go from there? Did you find a co-founder? Did you write the code? I don’t even necessarily know all the right questions to ask from a technology perspective.

Semira: That’s okay. Yeah. So I wrote the code. So I basically threw up a working prototype. It was hideously ugly. I am both hoping that we have a screenshot of it somewhere for posterity and also hoping that like there’s no record of it because, I mean, it was hideous. It was literally video chat on one side and then this book, “Little Red Riding Hood” that I had gotten from a free online website, just the picture and the words and you could turn the pages, and the pages would sink. This was on a desktop browser, like on Chrome and Safari, that I built. Just because that was the easiest way to get it up and running, because again, it’s one thing for people to say, “Oh, that’s a great idea. I’ll totally use it,” and quite another for them to actually use it.

So I built that. It probably took me three to four weeks, if I remember right, to build it, partly because I had to re-teach myself to code. I built it in a couple of programming languages that I didn’t know at the time. I was sort of learning Ruby on Rails and learning sort of deeper JavaScript and HTML5. But having a grounding in computer science, particularly from Stanford, they just teach you how to learn languages. So like that was something that I knew how to do. So, yeah, a handful of weeks, maybe a month to get it up and running. Then I just went back to those three, actually it was five families at that point and just put it in front of them, had them do a call with the grandparents, and just sort of observed.

I wanted a co-founder. I didn’t have . . . I was sort of mining my network for someone. There wasn’t someone that I had in mind to start a company with. But I knew that I wanted to find a partner to do this with, because a couple of months in, I still felt like I’m really on to something here. The kids were really, really engaged, particularly the ones that loved to read. What I found that kids sort of bifurcate into, and this isn’t true for their whole lives, but at that point in their lives, they either love to read or they want something more interactive and more engaging. The kids that loved to read were just enraptured by. . . is that even a word? They were just completely wrapped up in the story, and it was so great for grandma and grandpa to get that much time with their kids.

Rachel: Right.

Semira: I was doing a lot of user testing and sort of tweaking that prototype that I had put together. This is actually where Women 2.0 came, and one of my really good friends, Shaherose Charania, who started Women 2.0, we were having coffee, and she had sort of been following me in my startup journey and asked me how’s it going. I was like, “I really think I’m on to something here with this startup idea.” It wasn’t called Playtell at the time. “But it’s lonely. It’s actually kind of not that fun. I really thought I was just going to love everything about it, because it’s so creative. It’s so just like very blue sky and like exactly what I love, creating product. But it’s just, I mean it’s lonely. I wake up every morning, and I sit in front of my computer and I send some e-mails and I write some code. I don’t know if that’s what I want for quite a while.”

She had started this program called Founder Labs as an offshoot from Women 2.0, which basically just brought together like-minded entrepreneurs, for five weeks, who wanted to start a company but didn’t have an idea or didn’t have a team necessarily. You apply to get in. There are 25 people. She was like, “Why don’t you just do it? Who knows. Who knows who you’ll meet?”

She caught me at exactly the right moment. I was actually sort of down on accelerators a little bit, for no particular reason. But she caught me exactly at the right moment. I was like, “All right. I’m in.” And thank goodness because I found my co founder, Jason DePerro there. He is this phenomenal designer. He used to work at Apple, sort of in the days of the early iPad. So he worked on iLife and iWork numbers for desktop. But he was there right like before they had released the iPad, and he was part of the team that was loosely exploring what apps would look like on the iPad.  So I mean, he knows, and I knew that like the tablet was the right platform for Playtell.

Rachel: How did you know that?

Semira: Because of the touch screen. My brief career is as a designer and then as a product manager. So I’ve done a lot of just designing product for different platforms and understanding what works when for whom. But actually, you know what, you don’t even need that experience to know that like the iPad is every kid’s favorite toy. Even if they’ve never played with an iPad before, the very first time you put it in their laps, somehow they know to look for Angry Birds, and they know how to open it no matter how young they are. There was a 14-month-old that we did a test with, just sort of in passing. Never used an iPad before. Picked it up, knew how to slide to open. It’s amazing.

And that’s actually why the time has come for Playtell. The technology has actually existed for a really long time. Video chat, it’s actually been around for 20 years, even though it’s just catching on sort of in the mainstream. But it’s that there is now a technology device that really young children, as young as 2, not only know how to use, but love to use and feel comfortable. And likewise, for the other end of the age spectrum, we’re targeting baby boomer, but even for the elderly, it’s not just the touch screen. It’s that the iPad is so simple to use.

So that’s really what sort of unlocked the demographic that we’re targeting.

Rachel: Can you talk a little bit about, and I didn’t even ask you this last time, monetization? Do you know what that looks like right now?

Semira: Yeah. We haven’t turned it on yet. But the app is free to download. So it’s what we called freemium. So it’s free to download, free to use. You’ll get one book and one game, maybe a little bit more, that you can use for as long as you want for free as many times as you want. Then, when you subscribe, each month you get more books and more games and more lessons that you can do and play together. You’ll most likely be able to buy the activities a la carte as well. So if there’s just one book that you really love and you want to read that over and over, you can do that. So that’s the primary revenue model.
There’s another one that we’re going to be experimenting with a little bit, which is you can take photos and you’ll be able to record video clips of each other reading and singing nursery rhymes and playing together while you’re in there. You can imagine, yeah, they’ll be so heartwarming. I mean having a video of grandma singing a nursery rhyme with my little nephew.

Rachel: You officially launched in December of 2012. Is that right?

Semira: Yeah. So we went into a closed private beta in June of 2012.

Rachel: Okay. What does that mean? Can you explain how did you get your beta users, what kind of data did you get, and did you make any changes from that?

Semira: Well, I had done a bunch of user tests with my really ugly prototype, and we had been iterating on a prototype. When Jason came along, it got a lot prettier and a lot better to use. But even still, there’s a difference between when you go to someone’s house and put something in front of them and observe them using it versus just saying, “Hey, you have the option to use it,” and see if they actually do. So we’ve taken this really methodical approach to vetting all of our hypotheses along the way in the startup. So the point of the private beta was not to see how many people we could get to use it, but just to make sure that when people were picking Playtell up to use it themselves that they really did find an engaging experience in it. The proxy that we used for that was Session Links.

Rachel: Okay.

Semira: So, after about two months, a little less than two months into our beta, we mined all of the data that we got from it. We weren’t tracking many metrics, but the one in particular that we were tracking like a hawk was how long is each session and how often are people coming back. So that Session Links, what we found was that average in the first 5 weeks of the beta was 17.5 minutes, which was just, I mean it just blew us away. It totally blew us away, especially compared to the like three to four minutes that maybe you’ll get on Skype or on Facetime. So that was awesome. It’s gone down a little bit over time as we expected it to. But I thinks it’s still hovering around 115. minutes, which even then, I mean I was going to consider 7 minutes a success.

So the way that we got the people on our beta, we just sent it around to all of our friends. We really only felt like we needed 50 people to really vet that hypothesis. We quickly got that. We sent it out to more than 50. We got less than 50 to sign up. But then, like I think each person told a friend or I don’t know how it happened. We got to this point where I’d say the number of the people that have signed up, I know maybe 30%, 35% of them personally, and then the other 65%, 70% are friends of friends because I think the idea just really resonates with people. How can you not want a deeper relationship between your kids and your grandparents?

Rachel: You got seed funding, right, from the initial investors in Skype. At what point did that happen, and can you talk a little bit about how that happened?

Semira: We are talking about serendipity, which I don’t think any startup has a success story that doesn’t involve some luck and some serendipity. So this is, in my mind at least, what the chain of events was. I’ll start actually even at the most outside. So there was this conference called Launch, that Jason Calacanis puts on in March, and it’s basically for startups that want to come out of their private beta or sort of launch to the world. You do it on stage. There are a bunch of investors on a judging panel and the audience. It’s a great opportunity for early-stage startups, and we were so excited to be accepted as one of the companies that was going to launch on stage.

Then, I don’t know. In true to life start-up luck form, like our one and only developer developed sort of an issue that made it such that we were not going to reach our deadline to actually have our app up and running by that point. So it was heart wrenching, but we decided not to launch at that conference.
Three months later, we were just about to open up our private beta, and we learned that Jason was going to put on another conference called Launch, particularly for education and kid focused startups. So I reached out to him, and of course he was great. He let us in. So we presented on stage there, and it wasn’t the same as the original conference. No investors. There were some investors on the judging panel, but it wasn’t really to get you funded necessarily. It was the first time that he had done this type of conference.

So we did our presentation. It was really well received. There were a number of judges that voted for us as their favorite startup. That was wonderful.
PandoDaily, this awesome blog for those of you who don’t know this awesome tech blog, was there and gave us some great coverage, and it was our first press coverage. I mean we’d never really reached out for any PR, because we had sort of been stealth and been working quietly to make sure that . . . we wanted to build that business that we thought we wanted to build. So they gave us this great coverage, video as well as a write-up, and we put it on our AngelList profile. Also, sort of separately, we had had one of our mentors just mentioned in passing, “Oh hey, you should put a link. You should put up an AngelList profile, one, if you’re presenting at this conference, and two, just put a link to it on your website on your homepage.” So we did that. It sort of took a few minutes. No big deal.
Index Ventures reached out to us very soon after that conference. They weren’t there. They sort of said, “Yeah, we’ve been following you for a little bit, and we saw your PandoDaily coverage and would love to meet you.”

Rachel: Most people work so hard to get funding and to open up all those doors.

Semira: Just to be clear, like we had also been talking to. It’s not like we were just sitting quietly and all of a sudden a VC came and knocked on our door and was like, “Here, please let us give you money.” No. I mean we had been talking to investors. We had been honing our pitch. AngelList has created this marketplace where, if people are interested in you, they can reach out to you. So I don’t know that it’s terribly . . . I don’t know that it doesn’t happen often that often these days because AngelList exists. It’s not like Index was like, “Hello, we’d like to fund you.” It was just like, “Hi, we’re really interested in sort of what you’re doing. We’d love to talk.”

Rachel: Right. What do you think as an entrepreneur, what are some of the traits that keeps you going?

Semira: I think perseverance is one of the most important ones. It’s interesting. I read a lot of blog posts before I started a company that talked about this exact topic. I found what I would do is I would read the list and I’d say, “Well, do I have that? I don’t know if I have that. Gosh.” But really, I think what it takes is just being willing to get up every day and just keep trying. I don’t know if it sounds easy, but that’s actually one of the hardest things when you know [they’re set]. There are high highs and there are low lows, but you’ve got to just be willing to roll through all of them.

One of the hardest things about startups, I’ll tell you, is managing your own psychology and managing the psychology of the people that you’re working with, which sounds, I know, a little bit esoteric, but I really believe that. It’s not like I ever am not sure what needs to be done next. It’s clear. It’s clear that okay, our sign-up process, it’s a little bit too long. It needs to be shorter. It’s clear that we haven’t finished raising all the money that we want to raise. We need to reach out to a couple more investors to get the round. I mean it’s not . . . I don’t know. It’s familiar enough for me. The hard part is forgetting that the investor that you talked to yesterday said no and reminding yourself that doesn’t mean that the investor that you’re talking to today is going to say no as well. They have nothing to do with each other. You know what I mean?

Rachel: So I want to thank you. You’ve been so open and candid, and I think it’s a great product. I’m excited for you and for what Playtell will bring. So I appreciate you being here.

Semira: Thank you. Likewise. Thank you so much, Rachel.

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