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StoryToys CEO Barry O'Neill

Ten million downloads and counting - inside a Dublin games studio with a difference

How do you convince parents to buy apps for their kids? StoryToys has found a way.

IN THE DIVIDE between the addictive games today’s children want to play on touch-screen devices and parents’ desire to see their kids learn, there is what Irish games-industry veteran Barry O’Neill likes to refer to as the “sweet spot”.

And it is that zone of “parent-child consensus” that the CEO of Dublin-based StoryToys has aimed to hit with its series of 3D interactive storybooks and gaming apps, which have totalled over 10 million downloads since its first release five years ago.

“We really like to say, OK, let’s look at entertainment first, because you need to engage a child, a child can’t feel that they’re being forced to learn something, and then have a gentle learning underpinning that,” O’Neill told

You are targeting the parent on the app store for sure – how do you target a two-year-old? We tried to get into an application niche at an early stage and tried to differentiate ourselves based on quality, and our reach to a wide audience of parents.”

From pop-up books to caterpillars

The startup began life in 2008 when it was founded by twins Aidan and Kevin Doolan, who built a digital platform for children’s pop-up books.

However its products have since taken on a more game-oriented twist with O’Neill joining at the helm.

Its offices now span three rambling stories above a shopfront in the Dublin city centre, where scenes from children’s classics like Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar play out across the battalions of computer monitors set up for its 25 staff.

O’Neill, who sold a previous venture he co-founded, Upstart Games, for €11.5 million in 2006, said StoryToys had very deliberately aimed at creating apps for a narrow group – children aged three and seven.

“Particularly if you’re a startup, you need to find a focus,” he said.

I think we felt that there was a strong opportunity with the iPad because touch kind of changed everything in the learning space – no one knew what a barrier the mouse was to a child interacting with a screen until it was taken away.”

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No replacement for books

Its apps vary from the strongly educational, like the counting-based Farm 123, to games based on BBC’s Chuggington series, one of several licences the company has managed to secure.

In the case of Carle’s 1969 favourite, O’Neill said StoryToys didn’t set out to replace the original book – rather to create something new based on the much-loved concept.

The book is probably the best version of the original story. But chances are parents will already have the book so do they want the same experience again on the screen? We try to give them a different experience.”

In March the company took home the digital award at the Bologna children’s book fair, the world’s top event for the industry, for its My Very Hungry Caterpillar app.

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It has so far raised €2.25 million in venture capital from backers including Enterprise Ireland, the AIB Seed Capital Fund and Leaf Investments, the technology-financing arm of Irish education publisher Folens.

O’Neill said StoryToys was now looking to expand its products to cater to a wider range of age groups as part of a platform that families would use over several years, rather than making one-off app purchases.

With that in mind, the company plans to raise more money and set up UK and US offices in the coming year.

We are at the start of an industry shakeout as happens when you have too many content providers targeting too few consumers – we have started to see some consolidation in our industry… thankfully we’ve been doing pretty well,” O’Neill said.

This month, as part of’s ongoing startup and small and medium enterprise (SME) focus, we are looking at the parenting industry.

To view other stories from our collection, click here.

READ: These will be the boom industries for European startups this year >

READ: 4 things anyone can learn from the brains behind these little bottles >

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