Accelerated: Inside Pixowl’s Decision to Focus on Parents Rather than Schools

After months of work, Pixowl decided to target the consumer/parent audience rather than the school market.

After months of work, Pixowl decided to target the consumer/parent audience rather than the school market.

A lot can change in two months. When we talked with Pixowl in late May, they had just finished their first test of their educational game Sandbox EDU in a Bay area classroom.

Now, they are a few weeks away from launching their app, but their target market is no longer teachers but parents and kids.

We had this game and we had this vision of having more teachers using it, but as it turns out I think this was a little bit too ambitious of a vision compared to the constraints of that market and all the preparations it requires in terms of documents, curriculum alignment, training, writing lesson plans and all that.
Pixowl co-founder and COO Sébastien Borget

The company still conducted testing in four classes and was pleased with what they found,  co-founder and COO Sébastien Borget said.

“We were quite surprised that the kids did not need a lot of training and we did not need the teacher [professional development] exercises to show them how the game would work in a lesson,” he said.

The results were so promising Pixowl used the classroom tests as a video case study for the product, producing this video:

Making the Shift

So why not create Sandbox EDU for the classroom?

Borget said the company realized first that the logistics of reworking the game to fit into the classroom, where the typical lesson may last only 20 minutes would be a daunting challenge.

“We thought it was … too ambitious to re-write 200 exclusive levels for use in the classroom. We’ve been thinking what is already educative in the game and to make it much more accessible to parents and to teachers,” he explained.

But their decision also has to do with the cold calculations of the market. It was go after schools or expand the learning product overseas.

And the math was clear.

“NewSchools Venture Fund was explaining the market is growing, but it is still a small part of the pie to be shared between a hundred or a thousand entrepreneurs and most of the billions of dollars being spent are going to a small number of companies like Pearson,” he said.

“So if you do your pure mathematics, you say, ‘Hmmm, I’m doing all that and at best, if I am the first app in the App Store I may make $100,000,’ but it is growing and it is sustainable revenue.”

Screenshot of Sandbox EDU

Pixowl plans on launching The Sandbox EDU, a new app based on its most successful game, in mid-August.

By not focusing on state and national standards, the Pixowl team was free to view learning as a less structured curriculum and more a series of lessons. This also meant the game would translate more easily into other languages and be marketable in other countries.

“Sandbox has been popular may places, not just the U.S. and so it would be a shame to limit Sandbox for Education to only one country,” Borget said.

Getting the Most Out of co.lab

Borget said the co.lab experience has done more than just clarify how the company hopes to position The Sandbox EDU, saying the accelerator helped connect the company to leading game designers and marketers.

“Those mentors work in Zynga as a senior game designer or in charge of monetization or marketing. Overall it gives you a very good picture of the whole industry… You are talking to the best,” he said.

As the companies in the accelerator near the end of their run, co.lab has also worked to connect them to the critical distributors.

Today, the Apple education folks were headed to co.lab and Pixowl was readying a presentation that could help get the new educational version noticed when it is launched in mid-August.

“The education version will be a premium download for probably $2 without in-app purchases and with very little tracking of what the players are doing,” he said. “The goal is to get into the top 10 of education games or, at least, physics games.”

And it seems to already being paying off. The company has garnered solid reviews from companies that may help the educational game find new customers.

“The Sandbox is one of those fun and super engaging games that gets kids of all ages excited about important skills like design thinking and problem solving,” said Sam Levine of the educational tablet and curriculum firm Amplify.

The company sees the marketing of this game as a bit different. Until now, they have worked within the freemium model, but now they hope this time to build a steady stream of paid downloads.

“I am not expecting incredible sales like we have had with the general apps, but I am seeing this as a very mid-term to long-term strategy, that if we can get the trust of the parents and early adopting parents we can stay for a long time,” he said.

Focusing on the Core

As Pixowl nears the end of co.lab accelerator, Borget said the company has learned much about how to create games that teach, but he is quick to add it has not transformed the company into an educational publisher.

“If it’s not our DNA to do pure education and transform classrooms, then we were not doing it the right way. Some companies here [at co.lab] are not about gaming, they are really about transforming the classroom and they are really focused on how we do the curriculum matching and write those lessons,” Borget said. “The incubator is blending the two worlds and it enlarges your vision. It doesn’t turn you into an educational company if you don’t want to be one or did not intend to be one.”

Borget gives enormous credit to co.lab, saying the program changed the company in a profound way, but really only expanded its mission.

“We are, at the core, first a gaming company… we want to build a galaxy of programs that expands on our niche of games that are world builders. Sandbox for Education is one of those products,” he said.

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Lee Banville Lee Banville is editor of Gamesandlearning.org and editorial director of the Games and Learning Publishing Council. He is also an Associate Professor of Journalism at The University of Montana. For 13 years he ran the online and digital operations of the PBS NewsHour, overseeing coverage of domestic and international stories.