In the advanced tech world of computers, tablets and smartphones, what’s the trick to getting kids off their screens and outside playing? According to Picoo co-founder and CEO Iris Soute, the answer is simple: technology.
In 2001, fresh out of completing her degree in mechanical engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE), Iris Soute did what any burgeoning engineer would do – she went looking for a job in the industry. But after serving a few years as a software engineer at Philips, one thing was clear. “The industrial side of engineering just wasn’t for me. Philips is great it was cool to see all the machines moving with nanometer precision,” says Soute. “But it really didn’t appeal to me. I missed the human element.”
Looking to get back to working with and around people, Soute opted to shift back to academia where she enrolled in TUE’s PDEng program for user-system interaction, more commonly known as user experience (UX). It was in this program where she received a design project challenge that would change her professional trajectory. Her task: to design and create something that people could actually use. One stipulation, however, she only had ten weeks to complete it.
Colonist of Catan
Teaming up with two other students from the program, the options seemed limitless. But quickly the group focused in on their project. “We decided we wanted to try to transform the game Colonist of Catan into an outdoor game for children,” explains Soute. “But no child wants to go outside and just play a board game, our goal was to give the game a modern spin and find a way to really put technology into the mix.”
With a tight deadline, Soute and her team were focused on keeping the design simple but, more importantly, fun. By using paperboard to build mini boxes embedded with a small processor and a flashing light inside, the game was designed for kids to run to the various stations to electronically collect the raw materials on their handheld batons, before returning to their base stations to build their castles. The first team to complete their castle wins.
While it would take some time – a PhD in industrial design further designing the game system, two kids and a few years of teaching ICT and Media Design at Fontys – it was this experience of working and testing with people that would drive Soute to be a business owner. “I long had the idea that I would like to start my own business, but I didn’t know how exactly to make the jump. One day, while at lunch with a colleague of mine, Daniel Tetteroo, he mentioned he was interested in starting a business but didn’t really have an idea for a product,” recalls Soute. “Well, I already had a product idea and had spent several years developing it, but I had no real idea how to get started. That’s when we decided we were going to jump in together and launch our own business, called Picoo.”
Even with years of development experience, Picoo got off to a slow start. Having spent her PhD writing code for games and developing prototypes, the products were just that, prototypes. Pieces of paper board held together with duct tape. She and Tetteroo knew that further development was needed, but the newly founded company was lacking one major resource – funding. “We really struggled to get a viable business plan in place. We were academics, without any real business expertise,” expresses Soute. “We knew we wanted to create a game platform for kids, and we knew we wanted to sell it. But that’s certainly no business plan, and without a clear vision on the problem Picoo was solving, it was difficult to attract investors.”
Soon after, however, Picoo finally caught a big break. The young startup set up a stand at the Dutch Design Week and attracted a lot of interest. There was one person, in particular, that was keen on their product’s potential. “I remember he came up to us and said he was really interested in Picoo,” describes Soute. Her response: “Ok, great! But why?” The visitor owned a business throwing children’s parties and was looking for something for a broad age range of kids. Bounce houses were great for kids up to seven, and laser tag was fun for kids over 10, but Picoo offered him a solution for all ages, and he offered them the idea for their first solid business plan – and soon after, the company found a launching customer who was willing to pre-finance his order.
With a launching customer, Picoo also gained interest from investors. And, after winning a Sports Innovation Award in 2016, the company finally had the funds to really develop its product. But, with only a three-person skeleton crew for a team, Picoo had to look for outside help. “Essentially, we had to hire out everything. We found a company who could do both the hardware and the embedded software for us and separate from that, we worked with Van Berlo for the design,” illustrates Soute. “During my PhD, I had already written code for the various games in C++, but the Arduino prototypes and the low-level programming needed a complete overhaul, which was a lot more than we could handle.”
While partnering with outside experts certainly made things easier, inexperience with the business world definitely left its mark. “We’ve learned so many lessons and made a lot of mistakes in the process. One of the biggest lessons we learned was how important it is to communicate and have all parties on the same page,” Soute points out. One of the early slowdowns came when she worked independently with Van Berlo and the electronics expert. “With Van Berlo, we closed in on a sleek hourglass design that was cool and easy for anyone to hold but didn’t take into account the electronics. When we took the finalized design to the electronics partner, we were met with wide eyes.” Their first words: “These are going to be some very expensive PCBs.”
Despite these fallbacks and slowdowns, Picoo launched its first-generation game system in 2018. Using RFID technology for communication between the handsets, the system works over large outdoor areas where kids can play games like Colonist of Catan, tag, spy hunter, zombie apocalypse, where the handheld batons vibrate or light up to determine who’s ‘it.’ Partnering with local schools for testing with children, Picoo received rave reviews and started getting a lot of calls from interested parents.
Soon after, though, the Corona pandemic hit, putting an end to school visits. While it did present a big obstacle for the company, it may have been a blessing in disguise. It just took some nimble thinking and a tweak to the business plan. At that time, everything sort of came to a standstill. Just like the rest of the country, they were working from home, with children running around in the background, trying to figure out what to do. That’s when during a team meeting, one of the developers suggested renting Picoo units out to parents to encourage kids to go out and play.
“The idea took us all by surprise. It was something we had never really thought about, but it made perfect sense,” highlights Soute. “We started a program for rental, and every one of our units was being sent out.” Even better for the young startup, it gave renters the option to pre-order the second generation of the product, which resulted in a conversion rate of nearly 40 percent. With this added income and its business plan holding strong, Picoo has now grown to a team of thirteen, with its in-house software developers busy with developing the new product, expected in August 2021.