Interview with Arunprasad Durairaj, co-founder & CEO: what we're learning about early learning.
What are some of the broader trends you’ve noticed in early childhood development and how does Flinto respond to them?
In the last decade, the fabric of the Indian family has dramatically changed from a child’s point of view. This is true across the 25 big cities in India. Parents are hyper-ambitious for their kids but moms are out working, grandparents, aunts and uncles are less a core part of kids' lives, cousins often don’t live in the same city and of course screen time dominates. And actually given how Indian cities are developing, there’s very little outdoor time, kids are no longer climbing trees or crossing bridges. Pre-schools are also becoming a second home for kids in those early years. We see these as opportunities where we can have a big impact on a child's social, motor, emotional, cognitive skills and cultural knowledge by letting them do what they do best – playing. And while theoretically everybody agrees that play helps children acquire such skills, it’s still considered ancillary to learning. This is a radically different approach in India where many still believe that the best learning happens when kids sit still and follow directions. By flipping our approach around, we’ve designed a scalable early-learning system based on the science of play. We have a subscription solution that brings play back into family time at home as well as an “airbnb for play schools" for teachers.
What prompted the product diversification from home to school?
Teachers did. Many of our subscription service customers were actually pre-school teachers who wanted a syllabus style solution. In some ways perhaps it was a solution they’ve always been looking for. In fact an interesting side effect of the business has been empowering women running pre-schools in their communities. Our goal here is to create a platform that allows a neighbourhood school to quickly and efficiently ramp up its curriculum, training and assessment. As we began to dig deeper into the opportunity, we saw that 90% kids aren’t enrolled in preschool in India. And while parents increasingly want to send their kids to branded schools, there just aren’t enough schools to keep up with the demand. To put that in context, 46 million kids are enrolled in preschools in China and only 3 million in India. It’s early days still but we’ve seen costs of opening a pre-school down by 80% and income generation up anywhere between 50 - 80%.
Has it been hard to convince parents and teachers of the benefits of a play-centred curriculum?
Children are happier. They look forward to going to school. Back at home, they read more, are more curious about discovering the world around them, communicate better – all vital signs of brain development. Our curriculum heavily promotes cooperative play –– using make-believe situations to achieve common goals together. We’ve also started tracking immediate benefits within the classroom via observational data and seen a 90% increase in attention spans just because kids aren’t bored. Kids are visibly more independent and self confident, better at making decisions, negotiating and adapting to new situations. That word gets around. Parents and teachers have actually been the ones to share this information with their family and friends and advocate our philosophy for us.
How does Flinto bring fresh inspiration to the box every month?
Our starting point is different so we end up in a different place. Psychologists and designers observe how kids learn, play, grow at the R&D centre which functions as a play lab. We just let kids play and think – how can this idea be turned into a product? We watched a kid waiting outside the centre play a video game on his mother’s phone and actually thought, why not make a physical product from this game. Then we watch the kids play with the product prototypes. The goal is make the design age appropriate from a first hand understanding of how kids play.
The other point to make here is that this is the only centre observing Indian children’s behaviour. Research in the Indian context is what makes Flinto different. As we build out our back-end, our AI, what you’re going to be able to do is essentially, if you have a particular product that a child likes, let’s say they like mechanics, we will send more mechanic inspired products, but with different approaches, different takes which are age appropriate. We’re starting to learn what their habits are, what their likes are. We’re also seeing opportunities to create more regional and language specific content that takes local wisdom and tradition into account. We recently integrated yoga into our play-school syllabus. No education company from India has made a global mark and we believe we can have an enormous impact in this area around the world.
What’s next for Flinto? Where do you see things going in the next 12-18 months?
We’ve seen incredible growth this year—introducing Flintoclass, expanding the team and opening the R&D centre a few months ago. One of the big pushes we’re making this year is into retail. We believe experiential retail is one of the best ways to build the brand over the long term. We recently launched our box at a local retailer and it flew off their shelves. So we’re seeing this as a big area of focus that emphasises our commitment to widening reach and access in a way that reflects what we stand for.
A project that I am personally very excited about is at The Zero Fee School. This school is based in a rural location about 150km north of Chennai and catering to children from low-income families . The school literally charges ZERO fees to children and every little thing of the school is sponsored/provided by corporations that specialize in that area. The school has an amazing infrastructure for being a zero fees school - they've got internet, projectors, labs etc. which looks better than private schools. We’ve rolled out the Flinto curriculum at the school to provide early learning tools for 300 kids. It will also provide valuable evidence as to whether a low-cost, play-based model in the earliest years prepares the kids better for the next decades in school, as well as the jobs of the future that will require a hybrid set of skills from a variety of subject areas that will change several times over their careers and which will include a mix of hard and soft skills.