TabTale blends the technical with the creative to turn children's books into profits

By Nathaniel Mott , written on November 26, 2012

From The News Desk

Hordes of presents. Pine needles, glass bulbs, and hours of un-tangling twisted lights. Daddy's special egg nog. Everyone has their own favorite part of the holiday season, from the mounds of snow to the hours spent gathered around dining room tables. Since I became an uncle three years ago, my favorite part of the holidays has become spending time with my nephew, reading stories, and remembering what it was like to believe in Santa.

While we've spent plenty of time with brittle-paged books held together by tape and maybe just a bit of Christmas magic, both my nephew and I share a special affection for my iPad. Reading a picture book is fun – but reading a "book" that ships with games and moving elements is that much better. This sentiment hasn't escaped publishers, and TabTale, an Israel-based company with more than one hundred apps to its name, believes that it has found a way to compete in a powerful – and, potentially, powerfully lucrative – market.

One of my nephew's favorite things to do while reading a book (or watching a movie, or looking at a picture, or riding in a car...) is to point at everything he sees and ask what it is. This goes double for Christmas stories, where he is content to poke a picture of Santa and either question whether it genuinely is jolly ol' Saint Nick or proudly declare that, yes, he knows exactly who that is. TabTale has combined this love of exploration with some simple animations, games, and storylines in apps like "Christmas Tale," "Super Santa," and "My Christmas Week," some of its most popular apps.

To add a bit to the irony of an Israel-based company's most popular apps being Christmas stories, the company says that Saudi Arabia is its third-most receptive country. If there's a better example of multiculturalism than a company in a predominantly Jewish country becoming immensely popular across the world, and especially in a largely Muslim territory, with apps concerning a Christian holiday, I've yet to stumble across it.

Founded in 2010, TabTale has released more than 100 apps in five languages and draws from a global talent pool to rapidly release new stories and games. The company has reached profitability with little marketing and says it is in talks with US-based venture capitalists to raise money for future expansion.

CEO and co-founder Sagi Schliesser says that TabTale is about combining "the left brain and the right brain," or the technical and the creative aspects of building children-specific apps. This philosophy manifests itself through TabTale's app development process. The company employs and contracts illustrators, designers, engineers, and voice actors from all over the world to give each new application a unique "voice." TabTale keeps tabs on which people are best for a specific role and pairs these people together in small, generally self-sufficient groups.

Not to go all "lean startup-y" on you, but dividing the company's workforce into multiple groups and applying strict deadlines helps TabTale ensure that there aren't any workers who wander around the virtual water cooler and get paid for lounging around. The company expects results, and recognizes that the best way to encourage speed is to keep as many balls in the air as possible.

All of TabTale's apps are built on top of a shared back-end that allows the company to rapidly evolve its products without having to dig through each app's code individually.This is important when, say, a new version of iOS is released or the company decides to add support for more languages. Rather than having to tinker with hundreds of apps (on top of developing hundreds more), TabTale makes a few back-end changes and all of its apps are automatically updated. The company has essentially built its own development-by-numbers infrastructure, allowing it to develop many apps without wasting time coding and re-coding core assets.

This strategy allows TabTale to maintain a breakneck pace while keeping an eye on quality, consistently releasing new apps and updating its back catalog to build a rapport with its customers. The company currently offers apps on a freemium basis, but Schliesser says that it is considering moving to a subscription-based model next year. Because the company has spent so much time trying to do right by its customers he feels that more people would be willing to pay for unlimited access to all of their books without feeling like they had gotten cheated in the process.

For a sense of how much this consistency matters: TabTale plans to release roughly four new apps every month next year. That, combined with new platforms being released – the company is currently deciding whether it will bake support for Windows 8 into its stories – and constant updates to existing applications is one hell of a workload. Without building the technological framework and business practices to support this rapid development, the quality of apps could easily fall, and the same goes for the creative and artistic talent the company employs. Schliesser's "right brain, left brain" metaphor holds: Without both aspects of the business working in unison, TabTale would quickly fall to competitors.

And believe me, TabTale has some powerful competitors. Like McDonald's and every fast food "restaurant" that includes a toy with its kids' meal, publishers have long known that the way to a person's wallet is through their children. Disney, Random House, and other large publishers are all fighting for the same dollars as TabTale, and their pockets are considerably deeper. Despite playing the David to these companies' Goliath, TabTale continues to carve a niche for itself in this market.

As I wrote above, everyone has their own favorite aspect of the holidays. For me and millions of people who have downloaded TabTale's apps, reading (and playing) a "book" with my nephew will probably top the list.