Catching up with Caribu: A story of pandemic-fueled demand and exponential growth
By Nancy Dahlberg
Launching a web application. Expanding the product line significantly. Marketing to two new – and huge — channels. Tripling the team.
All during a global pandemic.
That was Caribu’s spring and summer, topped off with a Twitter shout-out last week from Apple CEO Tim Cook lauding the Miami ed-tech startup’s success and job growth.
“Unfortunately, so many people did not see what we saw, which was this incredible opportunity and incredible growth. Families’ first priority is to stay safe and their second priority is to stay sane, and we fit so squarely into that second priority for people and families,” said CEO Maxeme Tuchman, who co-founded the startup in 2016 with Alvaro Sabido. “And we grew in ways I don’t think we ever expected.”
It all started in mid-March, when Caribu saw usage grow 10X literally overnight.
Virtual connections, of course, became more important than ever. Caribu’s activity-centric video calling solution brings kids together with their friends or relatives to read and draw together, solve puzzles, play games, and even cook together.
Some of the new milestones Caribu reached in record time were already on the roadmap, while others were opportunistic moves that paid off. Work on the web application was already underway, but being able to launch it during the pandemic opened up availability to many more people – and classrooms.
All of a sudden, virtual experiences were the only way grandparents could interact with their grandchildren, and some seniors much prefer using a desktop to a phone or tablet. And as schools began opening back up virtually, Caribu saw an opportunity to offer teachers a virtual library, where they could use Caribu in a shared screen video call.
Tuchman said the move makes Caribu the world’s first multi-platform interactive video experience that is specifically designed for children. Caribu is available on iOS/ Android phones, tablets and now the web.
At the same time, Caribu expanded its content – and aged-up its offerings, now serving children up to age 12. Caribu partnered with America’s Test Kitchen Kids to give kids recipes to do together in a Caribu Call and brought on more than 75 fan-favorite titles from DC Comics for its growing older population.
The startup has also been adding to its games collection – and more are coming this fall. Its library, with thousands of books and activities in 10 languages, also includes educational anti-racism and pandemic-related content for the times we are living in.
Military families and traveling parents as well as grandparents were early adopters of Caribu, and lately more professional sports stars have been using it in their bubbles to share time with their kids. But the pandemic has also unearthed two new markets: Schools and employers. Caribu is offering a free subscription of Caribu Unlimited for teachers to use in their lessons or as a supplemental resource through June 2021. Teachers can sign up at caribu.com/education with their professional email to help students achieve reading goals, promote social-emotional skills, and a love of learning, Tuchman says.
And who knew virtual babysitting would become a thing? When the pandemic spread, “all of a sudden there were no more traveling parents but now work from home parents could use Caribu,” Tuchman said. “We just never expected to grow this way.”
Tuchman said she got notes from parents about how Caribu was a life-saver keeping their kids occupied during an important business calls. That spurred Caribu to pursue partnerships with employers to offer Caribu as an employee benefit. If family members aren’t available to engage them on Caribu, kids can also hear celebrities like LeVar Burton and Kevin Jonas read their favorite books to them in Caribu’s on-demand Read Aloud video library. Goldman Sachs and other companies have expressed interest in the employee benefit, Tuchman said.
Caribu was free for consumers most of the spring and summer, thanks to a grant from AT&T, a Caribu investor. Tuchman says the conversion to paid ($9.99/month or $99.99/year) is going well. Investors are also showing more interest in Caribu: “Investors are starting to realize this world we are in is going to be video calling,” said Tuchman. She was one of the first Latinas to raise more than $1 million in venture capital, and has since raised more than $3 million. Investors include AT&T, Rise of the Rest, Toyota, Miami Angels and, most recently, the crowd.
Growing 10X of course brings 100X more challenges, said Tuchman. At the same time, pandemic layoffs meant incredible talent was available. In five months, Caribu has grown from 4 employees to 12. Hires have included a web developer and two mobile engineers, as well as marketing, sales and customer support.
“I’m so excited that 67% of our team are people of color and 50% are female. So here we are creating jobs and helping our families and we’re doing it in a super diverse way,” Tuchman said. “We’re keeping people employed in a very difficult time.”
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