Kicks and Stomps trades the Lean Startup playbook for Hollywood-style development

By Michael Carney , written on April 5, 2013

From The News Desk

We’re meant to be in the era of lean entrepreneurship, where technology is built iteratively, and with an eye on capital efficiency and product market fit. But apparently, not everyone got the memo. Kicks and Stomps, which launched yesterday, is an immersive, animated content experience masquerading as a $2.99 children’s reading app for the iPad that has more in common with a Hollywood movie, in terms of its development, than it does with a typical ebook.

The interactive app is one part book and three parts cartoon. In it, the reader follows a group of talking shoes from the closet where they meet, through the rescue of a trapped puppy, and through the adventure of leaving the house for the first time, then trying to find their way back home.

This is the atypical story of how Kicks and Stomps came to be.

When Victor Kearney partnered with project creator Lucie Jourdan, it was a simple idea that began everything. “What if there was a world where shoes could talk?” was the big a-ha that convinced Kearney to put his money behind the ambiguous project. With that single nugget of creative spark, and the beginnings of a screenplay in the works, Kearney engaged RED Interactive Agency, the same 110 plus employee digital agency that at times represents LEGO, Ford, Adidas, POM Wonderful, BBC, Paramount Pictures, and ESPN, among other global brands, to develop the product.

RED was given full creative license, and a multi-hundred thousand dollar starting budget to turn Jourdan's concept into something tangible. That meant everything from deciding what format the content should take, to illustrating and animating the characters, to creating a branding and marketing plan that would appeal to kids, parents, and Hollywood. Initially, it was unclear what the end result would be, but Kearney simply wanted guidance in bringing Jourdan's idea to life.

So, with no regard for lean development principles, RED spent a full month in strategy and concept development. It wasn’t just some lackie account manager heading things either. The project was headed up by RED President Donny Makower and his top creative team. Kearney’s company Kingston Productions – which is little more than a legal structure for his creative projects – gave input along the way, but RED was the product development gun for hire and ultimately a partner in the project.

The group eventually arrived at a go to market plan that began with a rich media app and extended several years, and several million dollars through the creation of a movie franchise, a line of branded products, and an entire catalog of digital content. Such is the big thinking of a global digital agency.

So with a roadmap set, RED set out to design the youthful and magical world of Kicks and Stomps. The creative team spent several weeks and dozens of iterations designing nothing more than the look and feel of the lead characters, a pair of well worn high top sneakers from Brooklyn New York. It was important to Kearney and Jourdan that these characters strike the perfect the fun and irreverent tone for the young audience.

After perfecting the size and shape of the shoes, the length and drape of their untied laces, the placement of their eyes, and the way their toe opened to reveal a toothy grin,  the design team used these as the foundation to construct the remaining characters within the app. This group included Gene and Norma, the cowboy boots from Texas, and Bruce and Sheila, the Ausi hiking boots.

It struck me, as I was hearing this explained, that RED’s creative process is not unlike that of Pixar, which is notorious for obsessively honing an idea before the outside world ever sees it. Given the ultimate goals for the project, this may make sense, but the contrast to typical startup methodologies is stark.

Nonetheless, with the characters set, the world of Kicks and Stomps began to take shape.

Not surprisingly, given the resources and attention to detail that had gone into the first phases of Kicks and Stomps development, creating the world surrounding the talkative footwear was no small task. RED created a custom physics engine that governs swipe-based transitions between scenes, ahem pages. The experience is both dynamic and entirely unlike anything I’ve ever encountered previously, combining a sort of Ken Burns effect-like pan and zoom with what can only be described as “bouncy physics.” With every swipe, the characters and the other objects on the screen fly through the air, tumbling, bouncing, and finally settling in their next scene.

Viewers have the option of a “lean back” experience in which the animation runs uninterrupted and the story is read aloud by the characters and a narrator. It is also possible to navigate manually, by clicking on each individual character in a scene to hear only their dialogue and view their activity in isolation. Finally, the sound can be turned off and the users can read the story themselves using captions. The variety of consumption modes are designed with curious children in mind – the app is rated “4+” – and will presumably be mixed and matched during each viewing session. The result is something that parents could enjoy without wanting to commit harakiri after the 300th time.

At launch, Kicks and Stomps is a fully interactive, animated ebook app with an accompanying community website and trailer video. With the app priced at $2.99,  it’s actually on the low end for the children’s entertainment category, where iPad apps often range between $4.99 to $7.99. The total cost of production to date is “a few hundred thousand dollars” according to RED’s Makower, who declined to specify further. The question then becomes, what does the app have to accomplish for the project to be deemed a success given the investment?

“I’m just really passionate about creating consumable content experiences,” Kearney says. “Once I heard this idea, I simply had to see it come to life. It’s already a success.”

That said, it might be difficult to justify the expense if Kicks and Stomps was destined to be only a mobile app. But it’s is already becoming more than that. Kingston Productions is in talks with William Morris Endeavor (WME) and certain entertainment companies about turning Kicks and Stomps into a larger entertainment property, such as a kids’ TV show, Makower says. The Hollywood mega agency headed by Ari Emanuel is an investor and strategic partner of RED's, making the digital agency uniquely positioned to develop transmedia projects like Kicks and Stomps that live in both traditional and new media realms.

Kearney and Jourdan already have a working draft of a screenplay written, which the producer and financier describes as “shoes meets Cars,” and a dossier of 99 shoe characters created that will appear in everything from the movie to future digital issues (err, episodes) of the Kicks and Stomps book app.

The process of creating Kicks and Stomps was anything but typical. Kearney and Jourdan walked into the RED offices (where he was already a client) with a faint notion of what they wanted to create. Less than six months later, and a few hundred large spent, and it’s looking like a legitimate cross-platform content franchise. The methods scream Hollywood and fly in the face of everything we’re told about software and product development in Silicon Valley.

The results, at least at this initial stage, seem to justify the expense, but I doubt this is the future of how all digital content will be developed. There are plenty of “two guys in a garage” teams that won’t have the cash, or the faith to plop down mid-six figures sight unseen for a piece of content. But kudos to RED for the final product. Apparently this is how a digital franchise is born in the big leagues.