kids_coding

Learn code, and learn it early. That’s the mantra among many in the entrepreneurial set, and there’s no shortage of apps and initiatives designed to help breed a generation of young coders, from Code.org’s “Hour of Code” to the children’s iPad app Hopscotch.

What makes Kandu, an until-now stealth iPad app funded by Betaworks and operating in closed beta, different is that its makers don’t want you to think of it as an education app. With a team that includes an ex-President of MTV and an ex-President at Nickelodeon, Kandu is being pushed as pure entertainment, designed to compete against YouTube videos and Angry Birds for children’s precious time, not other learning apps. After demo-ing the app for a couple hours at Kandu’s headquarters in Manhattan, I can attest that the app is a hell of a lot of fun. If any of our readers are the right age and temperament to have been obsessed with Mario Paint for Super Nintendo like I was, that’s the closest thing I can compare it to, only this is social and has far more options.

Kandu is a platform that lets kids built their own interactive animations or games and then share them with peers. They start by placing characters or images on a canvas, then applying physical properties to them like gravity or momentum. They can also apply actions to the images initiated by time or touch. One of the most creative “Kandus” I saw from the young beta users included a game where the player must move space debris around the screen in as few moves as possible to clear a path for a rocketship.

Although the game doesn’t teach programming languages, it does show kids the fundamentals of object-oriented programming where different classes of actions and attributes are applied to images and concepts. A blue monster might explode when it comes into contact with a octopus. Or gameplay might end after a user drags a ball into a hoop. It also teaches kids how to organize all of these actions in a clean way, promoting best coding practices before even teaching a line of code, says Kandu CEO David Bennahum.

Again though, the educational benefits of the app are secondary to the team’s mission statement, which is to build a fun entertainment product tailored to children’s digital tablet-friendly consumption habits that also encourages self-expression and connectivity. At Nickelodeon, Kandu co-founder Gerry Laybourne put shows like “You Can’t Do That on Television” and “Double Dare” on TV, spending a great deal of time with kids and thinking about their consumption habits. Later she worked on Disney Imagineering to imagine “what an interactive world would be for kids.”

“Disney didn’t get it,” she said, adding that the company thought porting Mickey Mouse to a website was all it took to engage kids online. But with games, TV shows, and YouTube videos all attracting kids’ attention on their iPads, it takes more than talking Disney princesses to keep youngsters interested. According to Common Sense Media, 3/4 of all US children have access to a mobile device at home, and 10 percent of kids under two have used a smartphone or tablet. “They love these devices,” Laybourne says. The trick is “to convert that usage into actual creation.”

To determine how to make this creative “hacker”-style of building fun, they recruited young testers from anywhere they could, including public schools, nonprofits like Girls Who Code, and the team’s own family and friends. Board member Sara Levinson, ex-President of MTV, says she was riding in a cab one day and recruited the driver’s child to be part of the test group.

So far, Kandu has raised a $2.4 million seed round led by Betaworks. Other investors include ex-Discovery president and former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale and Akamai chairman George Conrades. It’s also in early talks to possibly raise a Series A round.

In terms of turning that investment into revenue, Bennahum has a three ideas: The first is a freemium model plus in-app purchases of premium features like, say, the ability to free-draw an object. In-app purchases on children’s apps have been a source of frustration for many parents, but Apple recently made it easier to get a refund for authorized purchases made by minors.

The second way is through sponsorship. Advertisers could sponsor a contest to make the best Kandu — like a virtual hackathon. Bennahum is also intrigued by a model of sponsorship where the elements kids use to build their Kandus are branded in some way, not unlike the LEGO model where sets are inspired by popular movies like Star Wars and the Avengers.

The third revenue grab is a very long-term but fascinating model. Bennahum thinks that some of the children’s creations will be good enough to sell. Kandu would help get the most inspired creations on the App Store then take a cut of the apps’ sales in a traditional revenue-share move. That would not only turn Kandu’s users into an army of mini-entrepreneurs, it would also turn Kandu itself into a sort of YouTube for apps, giving everyday app-makers a powerful distribution platform.

“We want kids to make something in Kandu that could put them through college.”

That achievement may not be reached for a long time, if ever. And indeed Kandu’s goals are nothing if not ambitious. But to its credit, Kandu accomplishes what’s most important and elusive for any app, educational or otherwise. It’s fun. I was not ready to put it down when we left the meeting. I could see some kids getting frustrated with the app which, despite its attractive user interface, does present a great deal of potential complexity. But Bennahum, Laybourne, and Levinson said most of the kids’ frustration centered around legitimate bugs that the Kandu team continues to work through as it prepares the app for primetime.

Again, any children’s app faces some tough challenges: Children’s tastes are notoriously fickle, and despite the fact that it’s quite fun, Kandu requires a significant creative buy-in from kids. But from her years at Nickelodeon, Laybourne is confident that going against conventional wisdom will pay off, just like it did when everyone told her boys would refuse to watch a show with a female lead (“Clarissa Explains It all” obliterated that piece of wisdom). And if Kandu works, it will do something much more impressive than the litany of organizations and apps that claim to teach kids to code — it will teach kids to code without them even realizing they’re learning.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]