Interview: “We don’t create for kids, we create with kids”

Noel Donegan, who co-founded Zulleon with his wife Luz, discusses the incredible rise of Ooks, their unique digital property where every child is an author and time spent in-app has welcome consequences in the real world

Written by Rhys Thomas

Posted 14.10.2019 | Entertainment

Interview: “We don’t create for kids, we create with kids” thumbnail

Noel, tell me about the team behind Ooks.

The team behind Ooks are a cohort of incredibly talented individuals comprised of producers, animators, illustrators, game designers, developers and background artists. They are an extremely hard working and dedicated crew – however we have been told that the bribes of donuts and cream cakes help. Of course we have to give a mention to our incredible investors who make all that we do possible. Luz and I, founders and co-CEOs, lead the troops. 

Ooks is something a little different to the norm – what inspired the idea?

Luz and I spent 15 years working as inventors and IP creators for the global toy and  Games market. We created many successful products that went on to achieve critical acclaim for their great play values and educational content. I mention this by way of demonstrating that we have great instinct for product and have always had our finger firmly on the pulse of trends and fads within the industry.  

Some time ago, those instincts told us that children in ever increasing numbers were turning to digital for their play experiences. While most parents accepted that this was the future – that the genie was well and truly out of the bottle – nonetheless they were concerned that digital play was being enjoyed far too often at the expense of real-world play, education and social interaction.

We saw this problem as an opportunity to create a unique play experience that would appease these well-founded parental concerns, while at the same time offering a truly great play experience for children. Luz and I have always known that the best way to convey education to children is on the back of a wonderful play experience and so we set about creating Ooks to do just that. 

Kids’ app stores are hyper-competitive places. What makes Ooks stand out from other apps in the marketplace?

Ooks apps allow children to truly stamp their personality on the play experiences by allowing them to create their very own personalised Ook, with over 65 million different possibilities. As Ooks are books brought to life, it’s as simple as that: these wonderfully engaging characters whose very DNA is ‘Story-Stuff’. 

This means that wherever the child engages with them, be it through the apps and creating their very own ultra personalised book of which they are the named author, playing with real world toys and games, wearing Ooks apparel or through viewing our animations, they are engrossed in a world that is all about books, reading and storytelling. This will instil in them a love of reading, writing and storytelling that will stay with them for a lifetime. How incredible is that? 

And what do the kids think?

Throughout the entire process of building our first app we engaged regularly with both kids and parents whose feedback help shape the brand. This will always be a part of our business model. Feedback from kids is that they love Ooks and they want more content, and we’re so excited to be delivering this with the roll out of our new suite of apps and animated shorts. 

The animation is a recent development and you just launched the first epsiodes. Tell us a little bit about that.

It’s an extension of the Ooks brand and a new way for kids to engage with the main characters, the Ooks, and the supporting characters, the Critters. Children across the globe have already created hundreds of thousands of Ooks through our apps and this will soon run into the millions. This level of character engagement and immersion into the world of Ooks has built familiarity with the brand that will transfer across to our animated shorts. The fact that children have also created their own personalised Ooks provides a unique connection between them, the world of Ooks and a real appetite for our animated series. 

You’re making a commitment to releasing animations every month – do you have any broadcast partners on board yet?

Our shorts have been one of the most fun development projects we have been working on this year, as it has given us the opportunity to really showcase the wealth of characters we have created and highlight the potential for a full OOKS tv series. We have been speaking with some potential broadcast partners and distributors and look forward to continuing these conversations in the coming months. 

You’ve had some great download numbers to date – what do you think kids’ are enjoying about the characters 

We have a saying at Zulleon: “We don’t create for kids, we create with kids.” Building a successful children’s brand cannot be left to chance and so we engage with children to ensure we are giving them what they want and now what we think they might want.  

Apart from adoring the characters and the World of Ooks, children truly enjoy being able to control a narrative, being provided with the opportunity to be creative and they simply adore showing off the fruits of their labours. They absolutely love creating Ooks. We have learned this from the app, but to then have them realised in ultra-personalised books, filled with their story choices, their artwork, with a bio about them as the named author is, for the child, a magical and very rewarding experience.  

As if that was not enough, that book can then seamlessly be purchased as a real world book or downloaded as an e-book and delivered to the child anywhere in the world. All of this made possible through playing with our app.

Where do you get your ideas from to keep the characters and visuals fresh and unique?

The children’s creative space is unique, and by that I mean adults have to not only to create and design for kids but also get into the mindset of kids. It requires the ability to tap into your inner-child and then let it run riot. Once we created Ooks and understood how they came into being and the wacky Ook-iverse they inhabit, it was simply a case of letting our imaginations run riot and imagine what other fantastical and ridiculous creatures would inhabit this world.

For example an ocean in this world would never have been created in the conventional way, it would of course have been created by an enormous whale who drools a lot. So we created the Whale Drool Ocean, its obvious, isn’t it? We encourage our entire team to contribute to our creative sessions – and it has surprised us how many children posing as adults we have working for us! 

Ooks is also available on Kurio devices for kids – what do parents like about the brand?

Parents know that they can trust us. From our Made for Mums approval award to our Good App Guide trusted stamp, we make sure all our apps are 100 per cent safe environments for kids and purchases of any kind are behind a parental gate. Parents also understand that an Ooks play experience is a beneficial play experience for their child.  

We encourage digital and real-world interaction. So kids go from creating a book in the digital world to receiving that hardcopy through the post in the real world. That encourages them to unplug and share their real creation with family and friends. Ooks is inextricably linked to books, and parents understand and appreciate that – after all, what parent does not want their child to love books?  

So what are your bigger ambitions and plans for licensing and consumer products?

We believe that all children’s brands and their play experiences should encompass the very best that digital play and real-world play has to offer, and that one does not have to be enjoyed exclusively at the expense of the other. Luz and I created Ooks so that digital products like our apps and animations would always point to real-world products at retail. Our real-world products in turn will always point back to our digital play experiences, ensuring a full 360-degree experience that is truly engaging and beneficial on all levels. 

Have you presented the brand to any retailers at this point?

We have already signed up a non-exclusive license with games manufacturer Value Add Games, who are already selling Ooks branded board game into Smyths Toys. They are also currently developing two new games to add to the line. 

We’ve just closed the book on BLE this year. How was your experience at the show? What did you come away with?  

Ooks was fully represented at BLE by our licensing partner Weird Lime, who are doing a wonderful job engaging with an ever-growing list of licensees and potential licensees. The feedback we received from the show was incredible. Licensing partners think we are spot on with the art direction and marketing as its pulling in the numbers, especially on the webisodes and high app engagement.  

Taking Ooks to BLE was a phenomenal success, every pre-arranged meeting had a positive outcome along with other licensees we caught up with at the show, and we couldn’t have asked for a better reception from the industry. This follows the electrifying response we had from consumers too at last month’s Blog On.

Coming away from the show, we are in an exciting position. We have respected licensees and broadcast partners currently in the review process as we speak, so very hopeful to make many announcements soon.

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