Imagine an augmented reality (AR) globe that not only acts as a 3D atlas but also tells you about different cultures and cuisines or a physical-cum-digital board game platform that uses physical figurines to drive digital gameplay on screen.
These engaging and immersive AR experiences have been created by PlayShifu. Founded in 2016 by Vivek Goyal and Dinesh Advani, the company encourages early science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills.
Having known each other for over 15 years now, the founders are also graduates of IIT Kharagpur.
Once they completed their graduation, they both went their own way, but the desire to collaborate and work on their own startup always egged them on. Speaking to The Better India, Vivek says, “We explored different verticals and after some research, we zeroed in on wanting to build a consumer product. At the same time we wanted something that would be impactful.”
This was also around the time when both Vivek and Dinesh were raising toddlers of their own and felt the need to have more products to engage their kids.
“While most of the toys that we found in the market were just for pure play, we found a gap in games that could enhance cognitive skills. This is the market that we wanted to explore further,” he says.
Speaking about the startup’s name, Vivek says, “We did not want an identity that sounded preachy and were leaning towards something playful. Taking inspiration from the Shifu character in the movie Kung Fu Panda (2008), we named the brand PlayShifu. ‘Shifu’ in Chinese means ‘Master’.”
When toys go digital
“While the US markets seemed to have enough toys to engage young minds and help hone their cognitive and thinking skills, we found a gap in the Indian market,” says Vivek. They were so convinced of their idea that they quit their jobs to work on bridging this gap.
What started as a single idea in 2016 has now turned into a thriving business. Initially, the startup was bootstrapped. The duo agree that the only way to have ‘skin in the game’ is to seed fund your own ideas.
Venturing into a new space meant finding the right people for their team while also developing a product.
The duo zeroed in on the final product after several rounds of iteration. They engaged with several stakeholders — parents, child psychologists and teachers — to understand the market and realised that they needed to attract kids to the digital medium, even while retaining the physical form factor of the play to get the best of both worlds.
“With kids spending so much time on various screen devices, we were sure of wanting to build something around it. It was critical for us,” says Vivek. Working with technology that helped merge both the physical and digital was the crux of the early years of the business. “Creating early learning experiences, which are extremely playful in nature with a tactile component and a deep research-based digital content to keep children engaged was the motto that we worked on,” says Vivek.
What’s on offer?
Today, PlayShifu has three primary product lines — Orboot, Plugo and Tacto.
The first flagship product, PlayShifu Orboot, which was launched in 2017, is an AR globe, which when used in conjunction with an app, throws up a lot more information on countries and regions, including maps, cultures, monuments, inventions, cuisines and animals.
PlayShifu Plugo is a gaming board app that makes learning science both fun and engaging. “The physical consoles bring alive the alphabet, math, engineering, music, steering and more,” says Vivek.
The third product, Tacto, is its first-ever phy-gital (physical plus digital) board game platform. Tacto uses physical figurines to drive digital gameplay on screen. It focuses on bringing board games to life using the power of touchscreens. Speaking about it, Vivek says, “We all love board games. Tacto replaces that static board with a sensory-rich interactive pad, which is your iPad or your tablet. Seeing the game come alive is a completely different experience.”
While the business started and flourished in India, PlayShifu is now present globally in the US, Canada, UK, Russia, Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Hong Kong, South Africa, the Middle East and Japan.
Taking feedback seriously
In a span of two years, the company has managed to double their sales – from selling 2.5 lakh units in 2019 to touching 7 lakhs in 2021. Along with this, they have also expanded their presence to 35 countries from 15 countries in the same time frame, with the USA being their largest market. While the company has managed these numbers, it did not come without its own share of challenges and hurdles.
“Being an Indian company with global aspirations was not easy. We did not have any precedent to follow and all the mistakes and accolades we garnered were on us completely,” he says.
They credit their growth to one factor – their customers.
Speaking about how they go about getting feedback for their products, Vivek says, “Pre-COVID, we would visit a few international schools in Bengaluru and get children from various classes to test the product and give us real-time feedback. Each session would have about 100 kids test the products and we would observe how they would use the products and what glitches they faced while using it.” At every stage, a prototype is sent out for testing to ensure that the final product that hits the market is one sans any glitches.
“We have had parents, during the testing phase, tell us about a character in the game they found violent. Since these changes are brought to our notice early on in the development stage, we are able to rectify them then and there,” he adds.
One particular incident that left the team feeling proud took place in the US where a doctor who runs a mental health clinic used the PlayShifu products and found that it kept her patients engaged for more than an hour. Vivek says, “She mentioned how despite using various tools, keeping the children and adults with ADHD engaged for beyond 10 minutes always proved to be a challenge. However, after using the PlayShifu products, their attention on the game remained focussed for an hour. She also went on to buy multiple PlayShifu products for her clinic.”
It is perhaps why investors have shown interest in their company. With their first investment to the tune of $1.25 million dollars in 2017 to the more recent investment of $17 million – PlayShifu is dominating the AR technology-based games space for children.
With more than 10 products in the market, the company is now working towards getting that number up to 25 within the next 18 months. “We are actively working towards building a community with our existing parents,” Vivek signs off.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)