The idea came, as many great ideas do, right before bedtime. Natalie Rebot and her 4-year-old daughter Chloe were reading stories together, using the flashlight on a smartphone to create shadow puppets of the characters.
Chloe loved it, which inspired her mother, a software engineer, to create Moonlite, a device that uses the flash from your mobile phone to project HD images on the wall or ceiling. The corresponding app (developed by Small Planet) adds sound effects and shows the words from the story as you turn the story reel, making it easy to read while projecting the images. The experience mixes classic parent-child story time with a little digital magic.
Natalie’s massively successful Kickstarter campaign raised almost $350,000 to help bring Moonlite to life, with plans in the works to sell through major retailers by the end of the year. We talked with her to find out more about the philosophy that guided Moonlite’s development, and the many hats worn by a tech entrepreneur.
Small Planet: You had tremendous success with your Kickstarter campaign, what do you think hooked people when they first saw Moonlite?
Natalie Rebot: It was definitely the video, prior to launch I shared it with family and friends. I wanted to test the waters to see what they’d think, I had no idea what would come of it. I wanted wild enthusiasm, but I was bracing for polite smiles.
I remember the first night I shared it, I got a few immediate reactions and went to bed. I woke up the next morning and there were already 70,000 views. It had that personal element to it, I think people were like “maybe this is like me with my child.” Getting such positive feedback from parents with kids in this age range, not just from people I knew but from complete strangers, was amazing. Even investors I talked to casually would reach out months later, saying they’d thought a lot about it and it seemed worthwhile. The timing was right, the people were right…it all just came together after that.
SP: It sounds like you’ve had to wear a lot of hats getting Moonlite off the ground.
NR: Absolutely. When you’re a startup, and this is something you’ve started on your own, you try to be as scrappy as possible, you really need to wear every single hat. I was the scriptwriter for the video. I was the web designer. I was even the story writer for the first few stories we used. You have to really push yourself into areas that you’re not so familiar with. I handled all the PR and outreach, press kits, cold-calling media contacts.
All you’re dealing with all day is product, and bringing fresh eyes to everything was a major hurdle. So much goes into what it looks like, the experience, the content…every fine detail is combed over because you want to make sure that it’s perfect. Even the video, I got so stressed out about the script!
SP: You realized early on that no one’s going to care as much as you do about your creation.
NR: Exactly, and the day-to-day can vary wildly. You’re going to have really high highs. Many days you think: my idea is incredible, the business is going great, everything is happening. Then, all of a sudden, you have low lows. You start asking “What did I get myself into?” How you recover and maintain an even keel during all of it is so important. I remember when I got my first prototype, I called a major publisher to try and acquire content. This is before I had a video, before I had anything. Essentially the response was “Unless you pay hundreds of thousands of dollars up front, there’s no way you’ll get any licenses for titles.” I was pretty discouraged, thinking there was just no way I could move forward.
SP: What do you think was the turning point?
NR: What was interesting is that after the Kickstarter campaign, all of these publishing houses were reaching out to me, and suddenly the barriers of these huge advances disappeared and there were many more opportunities to work together. Just pressing forward changed things. The Kickstarter numbers really helped prove that the interest was there.
I think Moonlite disrupted the typical publishing industry dynamic, where you have an author who writes a book which is published in paper or as an ebook, and that’s the way they sell it. Moonlite is like a hybrid between the two, there’s no real category for it. In the publisher’s defense, nobody really knows how to work with a product like this because it’s brand new. You need time and effort to show that there’s demand for a format like this. Once you can show that demand, and that Moonlite is here to stay, the conversation shifts to how can we work together.
SP: Did you receive any interesting advice when you started, good or bad?
NR: Initially, the advice was coming from my friends or the network I had built in the tech community. A lot of them were pushing me down the path of the typical tech startup: get a ton of funding, build out a huge team, keeping getting more funding, and so on.
Even though it’s a technology product, Moonlite is still firmly in the toy realm, and there aren’t many crossover products that are both tech and toy, it’s a fairly new category. I think a lot of people were pushing the tech angle of it, missing the experiential, toy element of it.
SP: Do you have a philosophy that helped guide Moonlite’s development?
NR: To make reading an amazing experience for both children and parents. This has always been about storytelling and getting kids engaged. Making reading as exciting as any video game or any other piece of technology out there.
I don’t like just passing off a device to children. I think there’s something to be said for parent-led activities involving technology. One of the biggest risk factors when introducing kids to technology is isolation. Kids can really get sucked into technology, it’s great that they are observing and learning, but you can see how they can quickly not be in touch with the world around them.
SP: You wanted to create a user experience for everybody involved.
NR: Right. Having a device on a phone that a parent can use to read to a child, it keeps the parent involved in that screen time and in-the-know about what their children are doing with that technology. It also creates something special, a bonding moment.
The design philosophy from day one centered around putting Moonlite on a parent’s device, since children that young don’t have mobile phones, and making this a communal activity for the parent to do with the child. Something that involved storytelling and getting kids excited about reading, but also fostering that bonding between parent and child.