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In Conversation: Gauri Nanda, Founder of Toymail

A playroom favorite in Home for the Holidays is Toymail – the toy that offers a safe and secure way for kids to send messages while avoiding “big kid” devices.  Adorable “Talkies” send voice messages to a grownup’s phone or another kid’s Talkie. We’re so intrigued by the potential of the techie toy for tots, we chatted with Toymail’s founder, Gauri Nanda, about her inspiration behind the beloved device, and what’s on the horizon.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got your start.
I was a student at the MIT Media Lab, where the focus is the intersection of design and technology. For a class project I created “Clocky,” an alarm clock that runs away from you. This was about ten years ago – a very early, pre-Kickstarter time. The project I made for class ended up going viral over night, so I designed it for manufacturing, marketing, and sales. It was a product that had so much buzz about it in part because people sort of “get it” right away, so it made it very easy to sell.

As a follow up to Clocky, what was your inspiration for Toymail?
All of my ideas have come out of a personal need. I realized that messaging is so huge, but it doesn’t always apply to kids because security is a major concern. Most kids under 10 years of age don’t have their own device, because security is a major concern. When I shared the idea with people, I gauged their initial reaction to see if its something really worth pursuing, and parents really responded to the idea.

Outside of the friendly animal faces, what are some of the benefits that Toymail offers that an “adult” phone or laptop may not offer?
A few things. On one side  of it, we’ve created a device that parents can feel good about giving to their kids. Parents always struggle with screen time, and how many hours their kids should be able to use devices. If you give a child a phone, it can be difficult to take it away from them, there’s always period when you’re negotiating. But you can give a Talkie to your child and the parent doesn’t have to worry about it. We’ve really considered the parents’ viewpoint. Kids can stay connected to parents, and family and friends without the added stress.

From the child’s perspective, they are bringing a toy to life – it’s beyond messaging. When we looked at the success of the tamagotchi, it was really powerful because it taught kids to take care of their material possessions. We’re doing a similar thing. Parents will soon be able to unlock certain components on the app as their kids grow, and there will be additional suggestions of content based on how the kid is using their Talkie. We build upon it every day, and there are always new reactions from the toy, so it never becomes dull.

Why are we drawn to anthropomorphized gadgets?
Clocky really resonated with an older audience because its something that’s funny and it relates back to a personal need. Making gadgets funny or giving them a personality is something that human beings can connect with on a deeper level. Right away, you have this emotional response to a product, and if it’s positive, you want it in your life. Children automatically do that with objects in their life. They create a whole world with objects in their life. With Toymail, we bring that to life with technology.

Outside of the friendly animal faces, what are some of the benefits that Toymail offers that an “adult” phone or laptop may not offer?
A few things – on one side  of it, we’ve created a device that parents can feel good about giving their kids. They struggle with screen time and how many hours can use things. If you give a child a phone, its difficult to take it away from them, theres a period when you’re negotiating. You can give it to your child and the parent doesn’t have to worry about it. We’ve considered parents’ viewpoint. They can stay connected to them and friends and family. From the child’s perspective, they are bringing a toy to life – it’s beyond messaging. Different use cases – with Tomagochi it caught kids to nurture, it taught kids to take care of material possessions. We’ll be doing a similar thing – parents can unlock it as they choose on their app – a new feature, more child uses their toy, the more it comes to life. More messages will get back. Enabled. The toy evolves. You unlock features, They can unlock different features as the child grows.

Additional suggestions of content. More child uses toy, more different and unique messages it gets. We can enable new messages everyday. Character to toy. We build upon it everyday. New reactions, new emotions from the toy. It never becomes dull.

We’re also working with Amazon Echo, so that kids can surf the web and get information on their own, even if they don’t know how to read or write yet. It’s the first time they can ask a question and get an answer back. Enabling children the opportunity to have access to information and content is huge, and it’s something we’ll be integrating into our toys.

In your experience, what’s the key to turning an idea into a physical product?
There are so many things! There are so many products and apps out there, but we knew we had a great concept because we talked to parents about it and they loved it and wanted one. But once we knew that, none of the work had been done. From there, it’s been three years of making sure the product experience is great, and that takes learning, testing, and then going back to drawing board and refining it. The first thing you have to do is get product right, and then engage customers so that they are part of helping you build a new brand. And along the way, I had to learn how to find investment money. The process involves constant learning and constant evolving. At the root of everything is one lesson: perseverance. The longer you stick with something, the better you know it.

What’s one thing we can’t learn about you by googling?
Even though I’m involved in this tech field and that’s my life, I actually prefer to spend my time without technology – no phone, no computer. I try to get away from it, as much as I’m building something in it. Also, I recently learned how to SCUBA dive, so I’ve been doing a lot of that.

Favorite spot in NYC?
I love soup dumplings, so Shanghai Cafe is great. And there’s always something about walking over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan that’s fun to do.