It should come as a no-brainer that a child’s rate of literacy success is significantly impacted by how often parents read to their children, how often a child reads on their own, and the availability of reading materials they can get their tiny hands on. As a former educator and longtime iOS developer, Owen Mathews recognized a major problem – the importance of storytelling through quality book apps for children weren’t stacking up to what they should be.
Over the last four years, Mathews has worked tirelessly to create tapStory, an iPad app that allows children to create, animate, record, and playback their own stories – a technology that could positively impact a child’s ability to read, and ignite their imaginations through customized story creation.
We recently sat down with the founder to find out what got his digital pages turning to launch tapStory, features of his recent app redesign, and how startup life is treating the former CNN engineer.
Can you give us an overview of what tapStory does?
TapStory brings creative play to picture books on the iPad. Kids animate characters with their fingers and read the story out loud, then play back their renditions. This turns a book into a custom animation that uniquely reflects each reader’s imagination. Young creators can also make their own stories by combining illustrations from all the stories they’ve purchased and adding their own text.
How did you come up with the idea for tapStory?
I’ve been an iOS developer for quite awhile and I’ve had multiple app ideas over the years. I was a teacher at Lovett for eight years, mostly in the middle and upper schools, but I had interactions with younger kids too. I knew the state of kids book apps on the iPad, and I thought I could add something valuable. Then this idea came out of nowhere—I remember sitting at the dining room table when I was visiting my family. I mentioned the idea and everyone said, “you should do that, it’s a really good idea.” It just popped into my head but I’m sure it was seeded by being a teacher, interacting with kids and having the background in iOS development.
How can kids interact with the app and create their own stories?
When you first download the app, it comes with two stories for free. On the home screen are all the stories you own, as well as those that are available as in-app purchases. When a story is purchased, it downloads to the app.
When you select a story to read, it automatically starts recording both audio and actions. None of the items on the screen do anything by themselves; you get to imagine how the story should be animated, and provide your own narration and sound effects. You can animate each scene in the story by using your fingers to move, resize, rotate and flip characters. There are controls to play back the animation and audio for a scene or re-record it. You can also save the recording to play it again whenever you want.
The editor is a separate part of the app. You start with an empty screen and then browse through all the artwork of purchased stories to select characters and scenery. You can also add text with the keyboard and customize its font, color, and size. There’s no limitation on the number of scenes. Once you’ve finished the story, you can save it to read and animate just like all the others.
With these books, what was the process for integrating them into the app?
I’ve been working with really great illustrators, so this is all original content – nothing on the app has been published elsewhere. The way we typically work is to start with a story concept and move from there to storyboards. Once we are done with the storyboards, we use them as a basis for the final scenes. Almost everyone is working digitally and that makes things really easy. To add the story into the app, the illustrators will export the layers into individual images and send them to me. Then I take over to process all the images into tapStory’s format, arrange them together into the scenes in the story, and bundle everything up for distribution.
My aim is to have a pipeline of 2 new stories a month by next year, and I think that’s achievable. I have a set of 10 stories right now and have 6 projects underway and another couple people who are about to get started. Almost everyone I’m working with is either a SCAD student or a recent graduate which has been great. They’re very talented.
What is the intended age range for tapStory?
At the low end, 2 or 3, and at the upper end I would say maybe 7. These are picture books, so there’s not a whole lot of text on each page because you don’t want to take away from the images. Really young kids will enjoy animating and reading with their parents. I think what makes the app especially appealing for older kids is the ability to create their own stories. The nice thing is that every story they buy adds all of its characters to their library, which means the stories they create can be cooler. Kids can pick and choose whatever images they like and make a mash-up of different stories. Or, I can imagine kids who really get into it creating their own fan fiction based on their favorite stories.
You recently went through a redesign of the app. Can you talk about the upgrade details and how the app has been received since then?
My fiancée convinced me that it was really important to upgrade tapStory’s UI before I did a hard launch. The basic layout and feature set was fine, but it looked like it was designed by an engineer (which it was). I hired a very talented UX/UI designer, Claudia Monroy, and she really worked wonders. I learned a lot about the design process as we went through the steps from the color scheme and font choice to icons to the workflow of the app. We worked together to really refine the app and it looks much more playful, inviting and friendly as a result.
I also had the unique opportunity to work with a team of UX students from General Assembly. The whole class was doing capstone projects at the end of their 12-week course, and three of them worked with me on tapStory. They really went above and beyond with their feedback and design ideas. In the end, I was able to make a significant improvement to one of the key components of the app, and I also have tons of great ideas on my list to consider for the future.
I’m in the early stages of my launch, and I have a four-star review from smartappsforkids.com which I’m very happy about. I’m anticipating some more coverage soon, and I’m hopeful that I might get on the radar of the App Store editorial team this summer—it’s all about creating something that will surprise and delight users, as Apple is fond of saying, and I think I’ve done that very well.
How has the transition been from working in iOS development at CNN to an entrepreneur embracing startup life?
It’s been very freeing. It’s been almost four years of working in my spare time to get to the point where I think it’s ready to turn into a business, so it’s really exciting to get here. When I first started the app and put it into the app store, it had only one story and that wasn’t enough to be a compelling project. Over the last year is when I developed most of the content and refined the interface. Now it’s ready to go and actively launch into the market.
Excitement is pretty high for me right now, so I’m feeling very motivated in my work. On the other hand, being an entrepreneur, one big thing is you have to manage your own time. All of a sudden no one is telling you, “okay, this is what we are doing next, here’s how you’re going to be spending your time.” I have this huge array of things that need to get done. At any given moment I could be writing code, I could be researching new features, I could be working on marketing, I could be writing blog posts, I could be responding to emails—and all those things need to get done, it’s just prioritizing everything.
Why have you decided to launch this in Atlanta? How has the community supported your dive into entrepreneurship?
Atlanta’s my home—I grew up here and I love living here. So it made sense to create my company, Playful Art, in Atlanta. I’ve had a lot of support from everyone around me—friends, family, the iOS development community, colleagues. They’ve offered advice and encouragement, provided great testing and feedback (my youngest QA tester was one-year-old and found a bug that I’d been pursuing longer than she’d been alive), acted in videos and have been wonderful cheerleaders.
I recently joined Switchyards Downtown Club as a part-time member and I couldn’t be happier about doing it. They’re also a great community to have around me as I start down this road. I’ve met some really cool people and learned a lot from them, and I think that will continue.