From the Drawing Board

December 20, 2013 5:53 pm

Harvard MBA start-up thrives in the Christmas market

Stuck for that last minute Christmas present? A group of Harvard alumni may have the answer. A first-year project designed to teach MBA students the whys and wherefores of developing new products, has resulted in a pre-school toy that is wowing aspirational parents.

Tiggly Shapes brings together a traditional physical toy – the shape-sorter – with a 21st century gadget – the iPad. But those who came up with the Tiggly idea, did not set out with the aim of establishing a successful toy company.

The Tiggly app was the brainchild of a group of six Harvard students, generated as part of their Field 3 project, in which teams of MBA students have three months in which to develop a microbusiness. “It [Field 3] is designed to teach rather than build a business,” says Phyl Georgiou, who graduated from Harvard earlier this year. However, the app was voted the best product idea to come out of the Field 3 project and Mr Georgiou, now chief executive of Tiggly, decided to stick with the idea.

Although others in the initial team went on to more traditional jobs, Mr Georgiou was joined by a fellow classmate in the Tiggly project. Bart Clareman, now chief operating officer, says that when he saw the app it felt like a big idea. For him the concept is more than a toy. “We want to be a learning company rather than a toy company.”

Tiggly Shapes works by getting pre-school children to match the cookie cutter-style shapes against images on the iPad screen. According to the inventors, young children need to manipulate physical objects in this way for brain development and to develop motor skills. “More and more kids are playing with tablets,” points out Mr Georgiou. “We wanted to make sure traditional toys did not get left completely behind.”

The technology to enable this is relatively simple, but the product was designed to keep down costs, says Mr Georgiou – the shapes package costs $30.

Mr Clareman believes the product will persuade parents to let their children become more involved with iPad technology in much the same way as Sesame Street made TV viewing acceptable to parents of pre-school children. “I think we’re both really excited about the opportunity. We are going to be more and more digital in the next few years. We have to make the technology safe and appropriate for kids.”

The inventors have been relatively frugal in their fundraising ventures so far, having raised just $700,000 for the project. As well as fundraising, they have also put their Harvard business knowhow to work in sourcing a manufacturer in China and marketing the product to Apple, which now sells it through its stores.

However, so far, neither of the two founders have children of their own to test out their product ideas. As Mr Georgiou says, “If either me or Bart had kids, we probably couldn’t have afforded to consider this.”

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