Computerworld

Australian startup snapshot: Shiny Things

Bring intuitive technology into maths classes
  • Adam Bender (Techworld Australia)
  • 02 June, 2014 14:43
Monkeys help children learn in the iPad app Shiny Circus. Credit: Shiny Things

Monkeys help children learn in the iPad app Shiny Circus. Credit: Shiny Things

Shiny Things is a Sydney edutech startup that develops mobile maths apps for primary schools.

Founder Mat Peterson spoke to Techworld Australia about the startup’s success following a two-week vacation to New Zealand, his first holiday since he began the company two-and-a-half years ago.

The company recently celebrated a milestone of 1.3 million app downloads on Apple's App Store.

The pitch

Peterson said he discovered the problem he wanted to solve 15 years ago, when he was still in school and Australia’s laptop program was rolling out.

“At that point in time, technology was seen as the solution to the classroom, but in the end it actually made things a lot more complex,” he said.

Some subjects didn’t translate well to laptops, he said. “Mathematics has never worked very well on computers, even though they’re actually mathematical devices.”

Peterson said he aims to rectify the problem: “What we’re looking to do is to make simple solutions that are designed for teachers so that we can enable them to properly access the capabilities of technology.”

Shiny Things has 12 people on staff, including two educators focussed on content, three designers who come up with ideas for presenting that content, and four engineers who translate the concepts into working apps.

The startup specialises in mathematics for ages six to eleven, and its most popular app is Quick Maths with nearly 400,000 downloads globally, said Peterson.

What makes Quick Maths different than the non-intuitive computer math programs of old is that users use actual handwriting on the tablet screen, he said.

“You’re continually reinforcing the same muscle memory you would use for pen and paper, which of course all exams and tests are done with pen and paper still.”

Starting up

Shiny Things founder Mat Peterson bootstrapped his startup using money from a previous venture. Credit: Shiny Things
Shiny Things founder Mat Peterson bootstrapped his startup using money from a previous venture. Credit: Shiny Things

Today, Shiny Things has 10 apps on the Apple app store. There are three more apps in development that are expected for release in the next two months, said Peterson.

All the apps are sold for $2 or $3 in the Apple store. While teachers and parents are the ones buying the app, Peterson said serving students is an important priority as well.

“It is a unique juggling act. We target parents and teachers at the same time that we have to build the products for the students.”

“The students have to love it and the parents have to see the value in it.”

To strike that balance, Shiny Things has spent a great deal time meeting with parents, teachers and students. The startup is constantly collecting feedback and releasing enhancements to the apps, he said.

Peterson invested $2 million of his own money in the startup. He said much of that money came from a previous venture – a software company started in 2003 that made media tools for Macintosh.

Shiny Things has received a few government grants, he said. It has received money from the R&D tax incentive and the Export Market Development Grant (70 to 80 percent of Shiny Things’ revenue comes from other countries).

Next page: Going global and views on Australia's startup scene...

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Going global

From the start, Shiny Things wanted to capture an international market, targeting about 12 countries, said Peterson. But the company was surprised to find another 130 countries downloading apps as well, he said.

While an Australian company, Shiny Things has received the most downloads from the United States.

With apps sold in many different countries, Shiny Things pays close attention to localisation issues. Math is fortunately a universal language, he said, but that doesn’t mean the same app can be rolled out to every country.

“It adds a whole interesting set of conundrums. People write numbers slightly differently in other countries.”

Even among English-speaking countries there are differences—in the US, for example, Quick Maths is sold as the singular “Quick Math”, he said.

The startup works with a third party to handle language translation “and we do a lot of research internally to work out which areas are going to trip us up so we can work on that and make sure we’re prepared for it.”

Shiny Things has not opened offices in other countries, and has no plans to move from Australia, Peterson said.

“It’s always a consideration of moving to Silicon Valley, but I would prefer to remain in Australia because I think our tech industry is very helpful.”

The road ahead

Quick Maths is the most downloaded app by Shiny Things. Credit: Shiny Things
Quick Maths is the most downloaded app by Shiny Things. Credit: Shiny Things

Peterson said the startup is considering new pricing models, such as making apps free initially to schools and parents and having the school pay later on. Schools have been receptive to the concept, he said.

While Shiny Things apps are only available for Apple devices at this time, Peterson said he would like to expand to other platforms in the future. However, Shiny Things does not have the resources to do so at this time, he said.

“It’s something we’ll look at in two or three years’ time.”

By then, more schools will have bring-your-own device (BYOD) models and there will be a greater mix of devices in the classroom, he predicted.

Startup scene

“Australia is set up nicely to be a digital exporter,” said Peterson.

“It’s a 14-hour flight to get to San Francisco, but when we export digitally that’s instantaneous and anyone in the world can access it.”

However, Peterson expressed mixed opinions on the startup scene in Australia.

“I am opposed to the idea of a startup for monetary purposes. I like the idea of a startup for pushing new ideas and trying to create change.”

“I don’t see that happening very much in Australia,” he said. “I see a lot of people going into it for money.”

The brain drain of engineers has gotten worse over the past decade, said Peterson. “It’s very, very easy now for an engineer to travel to California and get a job there. It’s incredibly easy for Apple, Facebook or Twitter to poach someone.”

At the same time, fewer and fewer people in Australia each year are graduating with ICT degrees, he said.

“The world’s becoming smaller and Australia seems to be losing out.”

Previous startup snapshots:

The Search Party
Bluethumb
CoinJar
Kicktone
Bluedot
WeTeachMe
Drivelist

If you’ve got a startup or know about a cool new Australian business, please email Adam Bender at adam_bender@idg.com.au or on Twitter (@WatchAdam).

Adam Bender covers startup and business tech issues for Techworld and is the author of dystopian sci-fi novels We, The Watched and Divided We Fall. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Techworld Australia on Twitter: @Techworld_AU