The next move for the Italian startup Timbuktu? Maybe moving to New York City from San Francisco, where it has currently its headquarters. NYC’s investors and tech professionals understand businesses that are focused on contents and media better than their colleagues in San Francisco and in the Silicon Valley. Besides, with only a six-hour time difference it’s easier to work from the US with Italians. And – hard to believe but true – renting an apartment in NYC is cheaper than in San Francisco.
But there are many more new things going on at Timbuktu, the digital magazine for kids and maker of “mobile toys for creative learning”, which won the title “Children’s Magazine of the Year” – together with BBC’s Cbeebies – at the last Digital Magazine Awards in London.
Last week Elena Favilli, the founder and CEO of Timbuktu, was in NYC for the Tribeca Film Festival and I met her on April 26 (exactly one year after we had met in San Francisco, at Mind the Bridge, for the presentation of the book “Tech and the City” that I wrote with Alessandro Piol: what a nice coincidence!). Timbuktu was one of the digital game makers participating in the three-day conference Games for Change (part of the first-ever Tribeca Innovation Week) and showing its games on iPads at the Tribeca Family Street Fair that Saturday.
«It was a fantastic opportunity: there were so many families with children at the Street Fair and our brand got a lot of exposure for sure – told me Elena. -We were invited thanks to Zynga, which at the end of last January became one of our investors and was one of the sponsors of Games for Change».
In fact Timbuktu’s US team – made of Elena, the creative director Francesca Cavallo and the front-end developer Trevor Lundeen – now works inside Co-Lab, which is an accelerator launched by Zynga.org and NewSchools Seed Fund “to support the development of high-quality educational technologies that improve academic and social outcomes for PK-12 students using the power of games.”
“Last summer we had a meeting with NewSchools Seed Fund and they told us to apply in order to get into the new Co-lab – explained Elena. – We are among only six startups that were accepted and are very happy about it, because now we have access to all the resources of Zynga: from game designers to marketing guys, we can ask for advice and help to everybody. And this is a very interesting time to be working with them, because they are themselves still a startup with a lot of problems (the founder Mark Pincus has just left), trying to restructure their business and diversifying in new directions, including educational games. So we can learn a lot from their experience”.
Besides Zynga and NewSchools Seed Fund, the other investors in Timbuktu are mostly Americans, including Mind the Bridge and angel investor/venture capitalist Alessandro Piol. The Italian investors are H-Farm, Nana Bianca and Atlante Seed. In all, the startup has raised $600,000, it has 200,000 active users per month, 80% in the US, and its apps have been downloaded 600,000 times.
After the success of Timbuktu Pizza, the last app that has just been launched is Timbuktu Pasta. Now Elena & co. are working on series of web episodes: Dooper School or “the first animated training program for kids”.
The last piece of news: “We’ve just signed a contract with the publishing house De Agostini to create a series of books, both in paper and digital – announced Elena. – They will be out in October and we’ll give a preview at the International Book Fair in Turin, May 8-12. De Agostini is Italian but with a strong international activity, and we’ve been in touch since our very beginning in 2011”.
Timbuktu moved to California in January 2012, recalled Elena, keeping a base in Milan where a designer and an animator work. “Getting into the 500 Startups Accelerator Program in Mountain View was crucial to us – she said. – It was a great showcase that introduced us to investors and the community of tech education. That’s the advantage to be in the Silicon Valley: how quick and easy it’s to get into the network you need and to learn from mentors and peers. On the other hand, the Valley’s and San Francisco’s culture is only centered on tech, and many times we were afraid that our products were not really understood. So one reason to move to NYC is that the Big Apple is the US capital of media and the home of so many content creators, and at this point it may be the right place to be”.
Living costs come also into consideration: a studio (“monolocale” in Italian) in San Francisco costs $2,600 per month, while in NYC you can find a nice one bedroom with that money (one room, plus kitchen and bathroom).
The worst mistake to avoid when you build a startup, according to Elena’s experience? “You cannot avoid mistakes – Elena pointed out. – Of course startups make a lot of mistakes. But the most frequent and dangerous one regards hiring. Initially we had a tech guy who was just the wrong person for us, and it took us too long to realize that and to change. When you are only a bunch of people, three of five, struggling with constant uncertainty, you need that each member of the team really believes in what you are doing”.