Meet the doting dad whose educational toys teach tiny tots in 15 countries

PlayShifu Co-founder and CEO Vivek Goyal with his son Dhruv
How do you get a three- or four-year-old to tell you what seven minus three is? He hasn't dived deep into numericals yet, and worse, at a time like this, he can at best get a limited dose of his daily lessons online, if at all.

While the Covid-induced lockdown has only exacerbated the problem of teaching really small children at home, educating the tiny tot was always an issue, pandemic or no pandemic. This is something Vivek Goyal, CEO of PlayShifu, discovered back in 2016. That was when this father of a five-year-old set up his firm and began designing toys for a niche market. His startup, Goyal claims, is the only one in the country to offer a ‘phygital’ learning experience -- one that combines digital with tactile learning tools.

The early years

After graduating from IIT-Kharagpur in 2008, Goyal joined Procter and Gamble for three years in operations and management. He left P&G to do his MBA from Stanford. "It was here that I got a chance to explore the Silicon Valley culture, the highly contagious passion for tech and for start-ups. In the first year itself I got completely sucked in by the way people think about start-ups and technology per se," says Goyal, who claims he worked with several professors in Stanford on various start-up projects.

In fact, he even set up one on his own called RentZeal while still in the US. Goyal claims, the enterprise was a great experience especially when the first 10,000 customers paid for something his team created. RentZeal was essentially a market place for consumers to rent a range of products such as furniture, electronics, upholstery and practically everything one needed to set up a home. He sold the startup to a senior in order to join eBay for a year. "I did this so I could learn product management grounds up at one of the bigger companies before I relocated and started something on my own in India," he explains.

Starting PlayShifu

Goyal says PlayShifu was something that came naturally to him and his co-founder and friend from IIT-Kharagpur, Dinesh Advani. Before joining him, Advani had had stints at Delhivery and P&G, with roles spanning across business development, project management and operations. "We both have kids in the same age group, and felt there was a big gap in the market. Early learning is predominantly through play and is not something that comes naturally to children because the market is deprived of a lot of toys. The kids have screens all around them...their classrooms have them, their parents use them, so they are naturally attracted to screens. But early learning and childhood development happens more through hands-on experience and that's why tactile is so important to cognitive learning," Goyal explains.

Goyal and Advani spoke to several parents, child psychologists and teachers to understand what's happening and realised that they needed to attract kids to the digital medium even while retaining the physical form factor of the play to get the best of both worlds--physical and digital.

Goyal adds that PlayShifu does not have any real competition in India, as his is a very novel site, with deep-tech knowledge and digital content that have worldwide appeal. Most of PlayShifu's competitors are well-established global names such as Osmo, Wonder Workshop, Kano, Sphero of the US and Tech Will Save Us from the UK.

PlayShifu products

The toys offered by the firm are typically designed to enhance the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills of the child apart from providing him with cognitive lessons on a host of other subjects.

PlayShifu has essentially developed three platforms, the first of which is Orboot series, which consists of Augmented Reality (AR) globes to discover new cultures, eras, space missions, geography, culture, history and even palaeontology.

The second platform, Plugo is an AR-powered gaming system that builds STEM skills through story-based challenges. The 'seven minus three' problem, for instance, is presented to the child in the form of a jungle tale involving a fox that needs seven stepping stones to cross a river but has only four in place. The question then posed to the child is: How many more does the fox need to get to the other side? Now instead of allowing the child to press the number three on the screen, he is encouraged to choose the digit from a tactile set provided to him in the toy box. The parent or teacher can monitor the response on the AR screen and intervene where necessary.

The third platform is Tacto, which the company claims is the first-ever phygital board-game system that turns any tablet into an interactive board game to play with real figurines.

Over the years, PlayShifu has developed 16 products which it sells on its own website and also through Amazon, Hamleys, Toys"R"Us and other channels. Goyal claims the company has catered to over half a million customers in as many as 15 countries.

Says Karthik Prabhakar, Executive Director and Partner, Chiratae Ventures: "PlayShifu is targeting the multi-billion dollar AR industry with its unique proposition of enriching the learning environment for kids...Vivek and Dinesh, along with their team, have built a solid product roadmap to capture a significant market share in this segment in the US and European regions."

Future plans

When it started off in 2016, Bengaluru-based PlayShifu, had just six people on its rolls including Goyal and Advani. Its human asset base has risen steadily over the years and currently stands at about 110. Goyal says, plans are to ramp this number to about 200 by the end of Calendar 2021. 

The company, which also has a set up in Wyoming, US, raised a seed round from IDG Ventures and Parampara Capital in November 2017 and followed it up by a Series-A of $7 million led by Chiratae and supported by Bharat Innovation Fund and Inventus Capital Partners in July 2019. It hopes to initiate a Series-B round next financial year.

In 2020, PlayShifu made it to the league of 10 at the Nasscom Emerge 50 Awards. The four-year-old startup has also won the tech-enabled Digital SMB of the Year-2019 award by Amazon, awarded by Jeff Bezos and Amit Agarwal.

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