Playing Safe: Toca Boca

Jonas CarlssonFor parents out there, Toca Boca may be a company that needs no introduction.

But for those who dont know, the Swedish childrens app developer prides itself on offering gender-neutral games – not blue boys toys or pink for girls – that are all ad-free. No doubt a relief for parents who are still paying off the bills run up by their kids making accidental in-app purchases.

Toca Bocas games, which include titles like Toca Pet Doctor, Toca Band, and Toca Builders, have seen 66m paid-for downloads to date in 169 countries worldwide. And like other game developers out there, the company has now gone real-world with the launch of the an online store in October that sells physical products, including wicked t-shirts.

We spoke to Jonas Carlsson, VP of brand and marketing at Toca Boca, about the companys success since it launched in 2010.

MM: So why did you guys opt to build gender-neutral games? 

JC: “Its our belief that children should play with whichever toys they want, rather than those that society deems appropriate. We remove stereotypes from our apps to make sure we don’t exclude any kids that might be interested in what they make. We test all our apps with kids – both boys and girls – to ensure that they are simply as fun as possible for everyone. Designing toys is a responsibility that goes beyond selling products.’’

Where does the idea of gendered toys come from?

“Gendered toys are generally in fitting with, and a symptom of, entrenched gender stereotypes in society. The controversy surrounding gendered toys is usually nothing to do with the nature of the toy itself, but rather the way retailers and toy manufacturers promote certain toys as only suitable for either girls or boys. Gendered toys are not a new phenomenon however once advertising platforms increased – with the onset of the internet, satellite TV and social media – promoting toys in relation to gender stereotypes became a risk averse way of increasing sales by creating a market.”

Is this an idea that people around the world are buying into? Is this the future of toys?

“The fact that Toca Boca has achieved over 60m downloads is an indication that people are buying into the idea of gender-neutral toys worldwide and we are optimistic that this trend will continue. There should be alternatives for parents to choose from so that children can develop their own personalities through play, without preconceived notions of what a girl or a boy should be and the toys merely confirming it.”

Does the ad-free model work?

“Our apps are sold for one up-front cost and do not include in-app purchases or advertising. Not only have we been profitable from this model, but its also one thats fundamentally important to us. The ad-free model works because it helps us build a brand that’s trustworthy and value-driven; qualities that our customers appreciate significantly.’’

What are their thoughts on in-app purchases and ads in kids’ games?

“When a parent purchases an app they shouldn’t have to worry that their child will rack up enormous bills or be exposed to adverts that disrupt play. We want to create a safe environment where children can play and explore free from distractions, roadblocks and monetary traps.”

Do you still collect data?

“We collect the minimal amount of anonymous data needed to help us learn from the ways in which people are using our apps, but we adhere to strict rules and regulations and work with an FTC-approved Safe Harbor and we’re COPPA compliant. Our main priority is to ensure that parents and kids feel safe when playing with a Toca Boca app.’’

Whats the startup environment like in Sweden?

“The startup environment in Sweden has developed significantly over the last five years. Sweden’s strong design and engineering background helped lay the groundwork for the emergence of a great mix of interesting startups, all at different stages of their growth.

“The growing number of startups has also attracted intuitive and talented people, plus a healthy number of investors. The country has brought in more venture capital relative to the size of its economy than any of its European neighbours over the past five years. The startup scene is still evolving but the significant growth that we are witnessing means that it is quite an exciting time for us at the moment.’’

How is the company funded?

“Toca Boca operates like a startup but is fully owned by the Bonnier Group, a privately-held Swedish media company founded in 1804.’’

Is Toca Boca expanding?

“In the past three years, Toca Boca has built a significant market share and has now achieved more than 60m downloads in 169 countries, which is impressive since only two years ago we were on 5 million downloads. We are also hiring more enthusiastic and creative people at our offices in Stockholm and San Francisco.’’