Over the course of my work interviewing founders in the education space, I’ve noticed that many entrepreneurs build businesses when they run into a personal problem and work on finding a solution. Such is the case of Filippo Yacob, a 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneur, founder, and father.
When Filippo Yacob became a father, he invented Cubetto, a wooden robot that teaches children as young as three-years-old the basics of coding without the use digital means.
Today, Primo Toys claims the largest edtech crowdfunding in the history of Kickstarter, raising nearly $1.6 million from backers in 96 countries. And, Yacob hasn’t stopped at that number.
In 2017, the Kickstarter team invited Primo Toys back to produce two new Adventure Packs that would expand the world of their flagship-coding toy for Kickstarter Gold. In total, Primo Toys has raised $2.4 million from backers in 100+ countries via Kickstarter.
The company now has 16 employees, and has built and shipped more than 20,000 Cubetto units. Their units can be found in homes, schools, nurseries, coding programs, and STEM classes worldwide. Programming in early learning is a global issue, and by making the play-set language and culture-neutral, they have managed to find an instant solution for parents and educators all around the world. Cubetto is now an early learning and coding standard in more than 100 countries and counting.
Robyn Shulman: Can you tell me about Cubetto?
Filippo Yacob: Primo Toys’ first product, Cubetto, is an award-winning wooden robot that teaches children the basics of computer programming through adventure and hands-on play. The Cubetto Playset includes a physical programming console with a set of 16 colorful coding blocks, a designed map, and activity book.
Shulman: And the product doesn’t require screen time?
Yacob: Correct. We have stripped back learning to a tool without screens, that is developmentally appropriate and fun to use, and we aim to help children understand that technology is not just for entertainment. Technology is something they can use to create and manipulate the world around them.
Shulman: What was your motivation behind building Cubetto?
Yacob: I’m a designer and entrepreneur by background, and I love gaming. When I found out I was going to become a father, I knew I wanted to make tech toys for my son and other children that would help them unlock their full potential.
Shulman: What did you do to move that forward?
Yacob: Around this same time, I met up with Matteo, an old friend, and he was already working on toys and games as part of his design studies. Programming, computing and tech toys for children was a growing industry, but neither of us were satisfied with the educational toys on the market.
Shulman: You built a business?
Yacob: Yes, the timing seemed right for us to create a new type of educational toy company. We decided to launch Primo Toys as a way to do something we both loved and to make a positive contribution to the world. Our mission is to become “the best toy company in the world.”
Shulman: Tell me about Kickstarter. Why did you fund your company there, and how was that experience?
Yacob: Kickstarter feels like a second home for us. It’s a place where we can connect with a supportive community of forward-thinking people and backers.
Shulman: How did your relationship begin with Kickstarter?
Yacob: We first came to Kickstarter in 2013 when Cubetto was a raw prototype. At that time, we raised under $100,000 from 651 brave backers to develop our concept into a viable, scalable product. In 2016, we returned to Kickstarter to launch a new, improved Cubetto. In this second round, we raised $1.6 million from backers in 96 countries. Cubetto became the most crowdfunded education technology invention in Kickstarter’s history.
Shulman: And you’ve continued to work with Kickstarter?
Yacob: Yes, in 2017, the Kickstarter team invited us back to produce two new Adventure Packs that would expand the world of our flagship coding toy for Kickstarter Gold. In total, we have raised $2.4 million from backers in 100+ countries via Kickstarter.
Shulman: How about recently?
Yacob: On April 10, 2018, we announced the Cubetto Super Series, a set of short, 14-day Kickstarter campaigns offering collectible themed Adventure Packs. Each of the Adventure Packs is exclusive to Kickstarter, meaning once the two weeks are over, the items won’t be made available again.
Shulman: What has been critical to your growing relationship with Kickstarter?
Yacob: Staying true to our maker roots, we love that Kickstarter provides a straightforward and transparent way to share our new ideas and creations directly with the community. The Kickstarter community has been so supportive, and we are excited to be back with the Cubetto Super Series.
Shulman: What is one major challenge you’ve faced so far, and how did you overcome it?
Yacob: In 2016, Primo was on the brink of bankruptcy, and we had run out of money in order to develop a product and had none left to launch it. We had some support from small angels, including Randi Zuckerberg, but no VC or institutional investor was willing to back us. People just didn’t feel there was any real demand for Cubetto, or perhaps they didn’t believe in teaching coding in early years through hands-on play.
Shulman: What did you do?
Yacob: We turned to the crowd, and in 2016 Cubetto became the most crowdfunded ed-tech invention in Kickstarter’s history, overtaking Kano Computer as the previous title holder.
Shulman: What has been your biggest win so far?
Yacob: The impact we’ve had is by far our biggest win. Depending on whether Cubetto ends up in a home or in a school, a single unit is played with by between 2 and 2,000 children in a single year. On average we know that 50 children are exposed to coding and computational thinking for every Cubetto unit distributed.
Shulman: How many kids have you reached with your product?
Yacob: We’ve introduced computer programming to more than 1,000,000 children around the world to date, and that is a tremendous achievement and impact given how few people worked on this project. In a way, a big win has also been the sheer amount of copycats created by companies big and small, because that also demonstrates impact.
We have changed the way the industry looks at STEM education in the early years forever, and that’s something we cherish deeply as a team.
Shulman: What is one critical lesson you’ve learned as an education entrepreneur?
Yacob: I’ve learned that while it’s good to always listen to “good advice” it’s better to trust your gut instinct. If you do what other people tell you, you will regret not doing what you wanted, and if you fail on other people’s advice you will never be able to fully own your mistakes. Do what you believe is right, and never compromise.
Shulman: Any future news?
Yacob: I’ve been hard at work on a new fin-tech venture called Pigzbe. We focus on financial education for children ages 6 and up, and we’ve done so by designing a part physical, part digital piggy-wallet for children that empowers families as micro-financing networks built on blockchain.
Shulman: And, did you launch Pigzbe due to a personal issue you wanted to solve, too?
Yacob: Yes, as with Cubetto, I designed Pigzbe because I couldn’t find a good digital piggy-banking product out there, and wanted one. I believe financial education is an issue these days with many young adults entering the world without a full understanding of how to manage money and finance, and it should start young. So far, we’ve skipped our Series A entirely and financed the project through a token sale.
Shulman: Where we can follow your work online?
Shulman: Best of luck to you.