By Nancy Dahlberg
This startup story starts with a birth. The birth of Gustavo Rodriguez’s son, Nico.
“It was one of the most exciting moments of my life but at the same time it was absolutely terrifying because I was starting to realize how little I knew,” he said.
“I’m a numbers guy, I started researching what I was getting into. It was mind-blowing. I don’t know how many people realize how important early development is. 85 percent of our brain is built in the first three years.”
He also started reading about how connections are so important in early childhood development, connections that can come from play.
The story: BabySparks is a Plantation-based startup that created a personalized activity program that supports a child’s early development through meaningful play, and it sprang from a need for an innovative mobile solution rather than another book because every child develops differently. “It’s not for the average 7 month old, it’s for your 7 month old,” said Rodriguez. (He and his wife now have two sons, Nico and Luca, who currently stars in some of BabySparks’ materials.)
Also, it takes a village to raise a child — parents, grandparents, teachers, nanny, siblings, etc. Rodriguez and his co-founders wanted to build something that they all could use to support that child.
How the product works: With BabySparks, a child gets 5 to 8 meaningful play activities each day, each taking about 5 minutes to complete. After each activity, the adult overseeing the play will be asked if the activity was too easy or too difficult so that future activities will be customized. Each activity has a video for the family member or guardian to learn how the game works, and then they do it with the child.
A checklist shows what has been completed and is still in progress at a glance, so a babysitter, for instance, can pick up where a teacher or parent left off.
There’s a dashboard to track progress, indicating areas where the child is excelling — or falling behind. “We give you very simple graphics that show where your child is, so you can decide whether you want to talk to your doctor or not,” Rodriguez said.
BabySparks has developed a professional edition for teachers. Last year, the startup launched a pilot with United Way locally. The BabySparks product is being used in United Way’s early childhood learning program, which involves more than 500 children in classrooms from disadvantaged communities.
The schools have a dashboard, too. That allows teachers to drill down and be more laser focused on children that are following behind. They can also share it with their parents. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” said Rodriguez.
BabySparks has other partnerships in the works, including with a hospital in the Midwest and a pediatricians office in South Florida.
Since launch in December 2016, BabySparks has registered 3 million downloads. And up until early this year, the growth was completely bootstrapped. Investment in the company: just $25,000 and streams of sweat equity.
Here comes the investments: Rodriguez started capital raising last year. At first it wasn’t going so well, and the former investment banker with JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch wasn’t sure why. BabySparks was gaining significant traction, and his presentation was loaded with facts and numbers, what’s not to like?
Too much information. There wasn’t a story. He needed to sharpen his message. That’s what he learned going through 500 Startups Miami’s Road to Series A accelerator last year.
“I was telling the story with numbers. 500 was more like ‘you have to fall in love with the story and the team.’ That’s when we started getting traction.”
Things have gone a lot easier since. Local venture fund Ocean Azul is leading its round. Miami Angels, South Florida’s largest angel group, was an early-in.
“We love founders who are scrappy, who try to solve problems, who are capital efficient and Gustavo ticked all the boxes,” said Miami Angels Managing Director Rebecca Danta.
Today Baby Sparks supports users in 150 countries, with the U.S., UK and Australia being the biggest markets. The product, on iOS and Android, is in English and Spanish with more languages to come.
“We are hiring. When you are bootstrapping you wear many hats. Now I want to build an organization that can run in a more professional way.” For its director of marketing position, BabySparks had 250 applications, Rodriguez said.
Another goal for the year is to triple sales.
“But helping a mom take care of her baby, giving her a real-time picture of her baby’s development and adapting to each family’s case, not just the standard — that I put a product into the market that does all that is what gives me the most satisfaction,” said Rodriguez.
“We are so proud to be a South Florida startup.”
Management team: Co-founders Gustavo Rodriguez, CEO, and Juan Pablo Mejia, CTO; Jose Bernal, COO.
Employees: 8. Plans to grow to 15 to 20 in the next year in a half.
Launched: First full version released in Dec 2016
Business model: Subscription model. Consumer facing apps with subscriptions by month, year or lifetime.
Recent milestones: Graduated from 500 Startups Road to Series A accelerator in Miami. Won the Latin American Track of the Global Edtech Startup Awards in Monterrey, Mexico, and the popular vote in the world finals in London. Kairos Society in New York named the company to its K50 list of “50 startups that are changing the world.”
Financing: Ocean Azul and Miami Angels are investors, and round is still open. “We think we will reach close to $2 million,” Rodriguez said.
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