Startup Spotlight: Unruly Studios
Startup Spotlight: Unruly Studios
Meet Bryanne Leeming – Founder and CEO of Unruly Studios, a company that creates interactive experiences that empower children with critical STEM skills!
GH: What is Unruly Studios?
Unruly Studios creates interactive experiences that empower children with critical STEM skills while stimulating creative problem solving through physical activity and social engagement.
Our first product, Unruly Tiles, teaches kids between the age group of 6-12 years to code and develop creative problem solving skills while perfectly balancing screen-time and play-time. Unruly Tiles is a set of programmable electronic floor tiles that light up, make sound, and sense when they’re stepped on like buttons. Kids can run around and jump on the tiles to play games and they can program their own experiences into them.
GH: What was your Eureka moment: how did Unruly Studios get started?
I started Unruly Studios at Babson College during my MBA program. I have worked a lot with kids through babysitting and as a summer camp counselor and had seen the changes in how they play with the introduction of more and more screens. Kids today get over 6 hours of screen time per day and less than 1 hour of physical activity. It has always been important to me to engage kids with STEM and problem-solving at a young age, especially with how crucial technology is and will be in the future. And for me growing up, the best way to learn was always when I didn’t realize I was learning because I was so engaged by a project or experience or by creating something. So I wanted to see how we could teach kids about problem-solving with technology and coding through active play, which had never been done before. I thought of it originally as an electronic playground that kids could program, and the idea spun out and grew from there.
GH: How did you build your team/how are you thinking about building your team?
The Unruly team has been built by adding people who are passionate about our mission to engage kids with interactive real-world STEM experiences. Most of the team so far has grown through my network and through people seeing what I’m doing and connecting me to people who are passionate about the mission.
GH: What is your company philosophy driving your company culture?
We like to tie things back to the name Unruly in everything we do. We try to make sure we aren’t always following the rules because that is what kids need to learn in an fast-paced, always changing world. We make our own rules when we need to.
GH: Startup life is full of failures and ‘make it work’ moments – can you identify how you bounced back from one of yours?
It wasn’t exactly one moment in time for me, but I think something I’ve realized so far in starting the company is the need to keep the momentum going no matter what is happening with the company. Sometimes it seems like we should be laser-focused on one thing, but it is important not to lose track of everything that goes into building a great company. At some point I have had us focus more on the business side, and sometimes more on the technology and product development, and it’s important to keep momentum going on both. I have come to realize that certain key hires and people we have around us can start to own pieces of the momentum and keep things moving through tough times.
GH: What did you learn from your first customers?
We have tested our product through 9 iterations with over 2,000 kids and parents, and have learned a lot from our early users. Some of it comes from interviews with kids and parents, but a lot comes from just seeing what they do with the product and how they interact with it. We learned early on that the more space we could offer in our play experience, the better, which led to a decision to make the product modular and connect wirelessly instead of one large structure.
GH: What has the Boston ecosystem provided you?
We have been able to work with multiple networks in Boston who have helped us launch. One is through Babson College and Olin College, who were both crucial to our early company formation, idea-testing and prototypes. I built the first prototype myself with help from the community and some amazing people at the Artisan’s Asylum, a Maker Space in Somerville, MA. The Babson WIN Lab was a great experience for me to work alongside other female founders. Most recently, we joined the LearnLaunch edtech accelerator program and have benefited a lot from the mentors there and the content they provide that is specific for companies like mine. The content that Bolt and Dragon Innovation present at any of their events or blog have been great resources for us as a hardware founder. The best contest we participated in was the Brandathon last summer where we were a finalist and won the prize of being re-branded by a creative agency, GPJ.
GH: What is the Boston ecosystem lacking from your perspective?
From my perspective, Boston is very focused on B2B software companies and could benefit from more resources and ecosystems around B2C hardware companies as these technologies become more accessible.
GH: What’s the best/worst piece of advice you were given along the way?
The best advice I have received is to trust my gut as a founder. When you start a company, especially as a young founder, people give advice left and right. While I do try to listen, I have benefitted from really deciding who to listen to based on what expertise they bring and whether they have been successful in the area they are giving advice about.
For instance, a lot of startup advice in general is geared towards software companies. Some of the advice for software companies is the complete opposite of what works for a hardware company like mine. When you launch a hardware product, it is not possible to make quick changes to the product when it’s already in a user’s hands like you can with a pure software company, and the speed to market mentality cannot be followed in the same way with a hardware product.
GH: What was the best thing that happened to you last year?
We participated in two Maker Faires last year for the first time. In Boston we were part of the Boston Mini Maker Faire where we tried out our fully-functioning prototype for the first time. There, we were endorsed by the Boston Children’s Museum and invited to a follow-up meeting to discuss future collaborations. From there, we participated in the NYC Maker Faire where we won a Make Magazine Editor’s Choice Award because of the buzz and activity we had at our booth.
GH: What does the future hold for Unruly Studios?
Our first step is bringing Unruly Tiles to market, and from there we have already started thinking through our next 5-10 products. We aim to change the way kids play and learn through our unique, memorable experiences.
Learn more about Unruly Studios!