In Berlin, we interviewed Bea Beste, the founder and Chief Creative Officer of Tollabox.
Bea talks about the idea behind Tollabox, its business model and corporate strategy, as well as about the development of the educational market. Bea also shares her advices and learning for other (first time) entrepreneurs.
The transcript of the interview is uploaded below.
Martin: Hi, today we are in Berlin with Tollabox. Bea, who are you and what do you do?
Bea: Hello, I’m Bea, I’m the founder and Chief Creative Officer of Tollabox and I do this box. That’s monthly subscription box for families with children between 4 and 10 years. It’s actually like a 3D magazine. It comes once per month, it has a special theme and it brings you material and ideas. Now I’ve got it open, it’s still full, you know. It brings a lot of material and ideas to create playful, educational experiences. This one would be about healthy food, and it brings you a couple of things where kids learn together with it, they would make their own ice cream.
Martin: So you always have this theme for each box?
Bea: Yes. Each box has the theme like healthy food, or animals, or planets, or whatever and you’ve got material and ideas inside to have educational experiences with your kids, to tinker it, to experiment, to do a lot of things around. And, it comes together also with a story, and this story is about four little fellows from a star, very far away from the Earth, which are… Well, here’s one, here’s another one. They’re visiting kids on Earth and learn about life on Earth and whatever happens.
Martin: Bea, what did you do before you started Tollabox?
Bea: I was a school founder. I created a couple of, well, actually, 9 bilingual schools across Germany, in Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg and so on. These are schools for kids from 3 to 18, so the whole range of the school, with kindergarten, primary school and secondary school and it’s a very entrepreneurial school. This was the idea of creating something that boosts the whole educational system.
Martin: Ok, so I understand. And now you’re taking the online educational business?
Bea: Yes, it’s online and my pain point with schools was that schools are limited. Schools are limited to a certain area where people can come to the school, but this is nothing you can spread across the whole country or something like that. And I wanted to create something that everybody can afford, or almost everybody can afford and that is not regionally limited. So that’s why I created the box.
Martin: Bea, let’s talk about the business model. How’s the current business model working?
Bea: Well, the business model is subscription e-commerce. So, people get to know about us, via different media, and then they come to our website and they subscribe to product. And we send them each month a box with a certain theme, and they pay either per box or per three month or per half of the year.
Martin: And when they get a box, they have some educational stuff they can learn, but in addition, they have some other content types that they can use and learn.
Bea: Well, the idea is, you see here physical product. I mean, whatever you have in the box are things where you put your hands on and you learn about that. But, the idea is not to limit it to a physical experience, but to give the kids impulses and starting points to learn, in the way their natural curiosity, and then, each thing we put in that box is a self-developed content, that will lead them to further experiences. So, we offer online, in our blog, additional content like videos, like recommendation for apps, like other things to do that are tight in with the monthly theme, so that the idea is to give them something to hook their attention on and for them to move further, that’s how good learning works. And this is also how learning should work in the digital age.
Martin: Ok, great. And can you tell us, walk us through the process of creating such a box. I mean, you have to think about what is this theme of a box, where I get all the suppliers etc.
Bea: Yes, and I have to say this is the real fun. This is something I enjoy really, really deeply together with my whole team. So, what we do? We start, we have, of course, a plan and a kind of database of different content ideas, but then we go, we have also a play curriculum. It’s something that is very sound; we work on that with experts, so we have something that hostess in a holistic way the whole personality of the child. So, it’s not only about the things you learn in school, it’s also about own personality, social learning, and things like that. So, this is our basis. We start from there and we say what do we need to deliver in terms of curriculum, and then we brainstorm on monthly themes and then once we have an idea of this is going to be the theme for the next month, like for instance this box was about healthy food, we would start to see what kind of already existing ideas do we have, and we create new ideas. I have a design thinker on the team, my co-founder Sarah is also participating (she’s also a mum), and also other people on the team, we have also a lot of interns, designers who are working with us. So, we have the first ideas. Once we have them, we restrict that to kind of four-five ideas for box that could work, and then I start to call my educators. We have some experts, and then I go on the phone, and I have a school leader, and a kindergarten person or another educational expert who is also constantly in the KiKa, the most important children channel in Germany. So, I go on the phone with them and ask them: What do you think about that? And then they make suggestions, they make also improvement ideas, and once we have that, we develop a prototype, and then we have families coming in our office and testing that. And whatever is pedagogically fantastic, but not working with kids, we kick it out and try to do something else. And, when we have said “Ok, the prototype is fine, everything is fine, than the procurement starts. So that’s mainly Sarah’s job, Sarah is my co-founder, and she starts to work with different suppliers to get everything that we need in term to make it the good experience and the quality product. And once we have that, we need to package it, and we’re working with Mosaik. It’s a special garage to pack it together, and we’re working with disabled people. So, this is packed together by disabled people, it’s a very special atmosphere there,…
Martin: Social element…
Bea: But there is a social element in it. It’s a good thing for them.
Martin: And, in terms of the boxes, are they conditional on any factors like age, or gender, or something else?
Bea: Actually, no, not yet. We target the box to be for 4 to 10 years olds. So younger kids would experience it together with their parents and the older kids are doing it on their own. But we are now analyzing a little bit our market and working with our clients together. Maybe we will have a split, we don’t know yet.
Martin: I understand.
Martin: Let’s talk about the corporate strategy. I mean, there are several other competitors’ in Germany, Europe and maybe even in the US. How do you try to position yourself and what are the main drivers for your future success?
Bea: Lots of questions in one. Let’s start with the differentiation point. There is one big player in the US, it’s called Kiwi Crate and also in Germany we have a couple of competitors like Wummelkiste or Explory box. I think our main differentiation point is our play curriculum and that our product comes from an educational idea. It’s also, it’s not a copycat, I developed it with an educational purpose, and once you open it, probably it gives you also very playful experiences, so that the customer does not really notice this is educational stuff inside, but the effect is bigger. And, additionally, there is something inside that really differentiates us, it’s – each box comes with a story. So, it’s not only about having those things to tinker and to experiment, it’s also about these four little fellows from another star, the Tollas…
Martin: And you wrote it and developed it by yourself?
Bea: Yes. And we have in each box a story for the kids, and it comes also as an audio book. It’s a lot of work to do that, but that’s how we can transport also our educational idea or social learning to the kids. And this is also, well, our branding and what ensures us in terms of strategy, the loyalty of our customers, because kids get in love with those Tollas, and they want to learn about their next adventure. So, it’s not only stuff, it’s also storytelling.
Martin: Sure, understood. And what do you think are the major drivers for your future growth? I understood what the unique value proposition is, and now the question is how do you want to try to position yourself into the marketing growth further?
Bea: The idea is first of all to get known, to get awareness about our brand. It’s a product that is not easy to understand. It’s a box, it has a lot of things inside, so people have to get a notion about what it is. Since boxes like Glossybox or Sciencebox or something like that are out there in the market, there is also a misunderstanding in there, because people sometimes think we’re repackaging products from toy suppliers and that’s what we’re not doing. We’re content company, we’re developing everything ourselves. So, people need to get this idea and the notion. So, strategically-wise, we’re trying to create a whole media, a holistic media experience, so we reach our customers via TV, via online, via social media, so we try to get more entry points into the market of parents with kids in that age, and to create the awareness and the readiness to purchase the product. This is actually basically what we are working on, there are lot of marketing channels that didn’t work in the beginning, we’ve tried a lot of things and they didn’t work. And now, I think, we are on the way to have a good compendium of things that work and reach our parents and create also not only purchases, but the idea is to have a long life of our purchases. Customer lifetime is really key to our product, so if they just come buy one box and say this was fantastic, that’s not helping, we need to increase the customer lifetime and this is a mix between marketing, reaching the right people, who really want this experience, who are not trying to get just a box the cheapest way possible, but to stay, to retain to stay with us and to value also the educational experiences, it’s very important for us.
Martin: And tell us of market development. Can you tell us a little bit more about online or offline entertainment or edutainment market?
Bea: Well, edutainment, let’s say the education market. It’s growing, it’s getting more interests, the idea of education as a key success factor for our society is increasingly noticed by all the companies that are outside. I think there are a lot of educational products out there and even from my perspective as a school founder, there is a huge attention on whatever is there in the market of education. So, this is growing and I think I said it once that energy and education are the key success markets for the future of the society.
Martin: Ok. With energy you mean like the oil or…?
Bea: I mean the oil and everything, because that’s part of the society and the most important resource that society has is actually whatever they can burn in terms to create life and motion and so on and the brains of their children, because that is something that…
Martin: They are creating the future.
Bea: Yes, they are creating the future. So, you asked also about online and offline, I think. Online is, of course, a very highly grown business, and that it’s going to be more and more in this market.
Martin: Ok, great.
Martin: You started some other companies in your past. Can you tell us a little bit more about your major learnings, or maybe also from learning, when you learn from other entrepreneurs? What are the key takeaways that you can share with us?
Bea: I’m not a serial entrepreneur, really. I’ve just founded two companies. But, I’ve learned a lot.
- One of the most important things is to keep the courage and to not be too afraid about what might happen, but just to take it step by step and to say “Ok, I’m going to solve one problem at the time and it’s going to be good”. And so, this old entrepreneurial idea that an entrepreneur is somebody who jumps from a cliff and builds a parachute on the way down, it’s helpful to think in these terms because then you don’t worry too much about everything.
- The next point is to get on the team people who are smarter than you, and that’s something I believe. I can’t do everything, I’m not able to do everything, and I think I’m not good at everything. So, teaming up with people who are different than you are and maybe also smarter than you are, that’s a very helpful thing.
- And, well, I have also another thing about this courage idea, and that’s really very concrete, because sometimes it’s you need a lot of courage to do things and sometimes thins come up where you get afraid about things. So, I learned I had my ten fingers – scale. And whenever something comes up that frightens me I start to think how bad it is, on a scale from 1 to 10. 10 considering that this is about death or war or something like that. And once I start to think about it, and go like “Ok, maybe it’s now 4 or 5”, then I get calm and I can solve my things better. So that is very practical.
Martin: Thank you very much, Bea, for your time.