John Joyce, director of Seoige Technology, talks about children’s online game Savvybear.com and his experience getting through the Dragons’ Den.
The popularity of online gaming has been growing from strength to strength and games which offer a safe space for children is important to parents everywhere.
Irish tech entrepreneur Joyce saw the potential in this area, particularly from the online game Club Penguin, which was acquired by Disney in 2007 for US$700m.
“The likes of the Club Penguin game, which I’ve been studying for the past year or so, has 26m kids on the game every month, with 200,000 Irish kids,” said Joyce, pointing out that his own kids were fans, too.
As a result, he came up with the idea for Savvybear, a virtual world where children between 5 and 12 can take on animated teddy bear avatars and take part in a variety of activities.
Players can take part in games, talk to other gamers and gain virtual clothes, homes and accessories. The game also includes a virtual school, where children can learn subjects they currently learn in their own class.
“The unique selling point is that there’s a little school in the game and if the child wants, they can go into the school and they can learn English, Irish, maths, history, geography and science,” said Joyce.
“If you’re an eight-year-old girl, you can click on the eight-year-old’s door (on the school) and you can do what you’re doing in school right now.”
While the service is ad-free, it includes a subscription fee to access certain parts of the game.
“Seventy or 80pc is completely free, but there are membership areas and subscriptions cost €4.95 a month,” said Joyce.
“The trick is that you’re trying to get thousands and thousands of people to pay this, which is not a lot of money, and there’s also a six-month subscription option and an annual subscription.”
Savvybear.com has been online for nine weeks with almost 9,000 players active on it from 46 countries around the world.
Getting it up and running wasn’t easy and Joyce was aware they were short on certain resources to make themselves heard.
“Building the game, we knew that at some stage, we needed to start selling this product,” said Joyce.
“I’ve been an IT guy for the last 20 years, my wife handles the finance end of the company and we have other IT staff in the company so we were kind of weak on the marketing side.”
Joyce decided to go onto RTÉ’s Dragons’ Den, because he believed a Dragon could “pretty much sell you anything.” I asked him about the experience of standing in front of the Dragons on national television pitching the concept of the company.
“It was the most nerve wrecking thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.
“It’s just overwhelming when you walk in. They don’t allow you into the room before you do your pitch and when you do walk into the room, it’s massive. There are camera crews and directors and you’re standing there on a piece of sellotape in front of five Dragons.”
However, it went quite well for Joyce, who ended up getting three of the Dragons fighting over the chance to invest in the idea.
“The experience was really difficult to do but really enjoyable, especially when it turned in a positive way for me. We had Gavin Duffy, Niall O’Farrell and Norah Casey, who offered me €80,000 each.”
In the end, he accepted the deal from Harmonia CEO Norah Casey, who took a 24pc stake in Seoige Technology and Savvybear.com for €80,000.
The essential factor for any online space made for children is safety, and Joyce believes they combat this by not providing the opportunity for malicious parties to be able to talk openly to young members.
“The difference between us and some of the others is that they have an open chat policy where you can chat if you want and they have people employed to monitor the chat,” said Joyce.
“However, we spent two weeks on security trying to filter out every bad word in the English language and every street number in the world, because the last thing you would want is some sort of not-so-nice person trying to meet the child.
“So while you can chat in our game, you have to pick from selected words. There’s one button called ‘chat’ and we’ve 100 or so phrases.
“It’s only pre-typed text chat, there’s nowhere you can type ‘do you want to meet me in real life?’ You just cannot do that,” said Joyce.
Savvybear.com also provides phrases in several other languages, including Irish, French, German, Polish and Russian.