Near the end of 2015, Ed Barton and Ben Kidd founded Curiscope. Created around their core product of an educational augmented reality (AR) t-shirt, which displayed the anatomy inside the human body when viewed through an app. It engaged kids brilliantly with educational science and led to even more products being developed. As a first venture for the two founders, Curiscope encountered rapid growth as the popularity of their product soon soared.
We sat down with Ed to chat about the Curiscope journey through its various stages which ultimately to an exit.
The growth of Curiscope
“Once we created the concept, we then wondered, just how do we monetise this now? We had never raised funds before so we touched base with some friends who’d used Kickstarter crowdfunding and thought that would be a good solution for us. That process became really challenging. It was a hard process to run but became a good training exercise for running a business I think. You have to be really clear on the vision of the product you want to deliver, we learned that quickly. And, we really wanted to make sure we did actually deliver it to customers. Being a kid’s product and in educational technology, it was something we had passion for.
We definitely encountered our challenges though. Delivering for our first Christmas, everything that could have gone wrong, did.
That’s the nature of e-commerce sometimes. We took on way too much to achieve by that Christmas season. We were trying to deliver our products and fill all the orders and at the same time, we signed a contract for a book and a game as well as raising more funds – all happening at once. I have a vivid memory of being at my parents’ house with 1,000s t-shirts trying to pack and send to places like Tasmania to make sure they received the product in time for Christmas. It was a lot.”
The funding journey
“In 2017, after our initial crowdfunding through Kickstarter, we raised just over $1m with venture capital from Local Globe and a number of smaller investors. At the same time, the book and the game came out but we could see that the t-shirt was the dominate product. It felt like we were running several businesses all at once. With our staff of 12 at that time, things were starting to feel very difficult. We ultimately decided to doubled-down on the t-shirts. Fast-forward three years, we launched our next product, an AR poster, at the Science Museum at the end of February 2020, just before the pandemic took hold.
We found that VC funding for direct to customer (D2C) in e-commerce, naturally puts you on a treadmill.
You will need to keep getting funding every 18 months or so. We didn’t regret the funding we secured, it certainly allowed us to do the things we aimed for with the business. And, we were one of the more notable success stories in the VR/AR industry, but we weren’t able to break into the business mainstream in the end.
With Covid and all the challenges that presented, and the fact that we were burning out from spreading ourselves too thin, and knowing the funding we would continually need to raise, it felt like the right decision to consider an exit.”
What would you have done differently as a start-up?
“We tried to do too many things – that is what I would have done differently, focus on one product, be ambitious with it as we underestimated how our t-shirt would perform.
So, my recommendations:
- Focus – don’t spread yourself too thin, focus on one key product at a time.
- Bring on someone with logistics expertise soon. When we finally did, my life became infinitely easier.
- Make sure you wholly and explicitly understand your unit economics and your product contribution post-marketing expenditure.
The main lessons learned for us, and advice we would give, particularly as an e-commerce business is to be clear on the path you’re intending to go down. Look at VC investment in more detail to understand understand the positives and negatives, particularly how this impacts your specific business type. Hard for us perhaps because we were a game studio, an e-commerce D2C brand, ed-tech, immersive tech – some of which would be a fit for VC, some of which wouldn’t.
Demand forecasting and supply chain were other big learnings for us. We sold out in our first Christmas and that was super frustrating.
If I was doing it again, I’d have done print-on-demand so this didn’t happen. Ultimately, things depends on your industry and business but having a greater level of control and mobility would have been better for us. . We made a decision to prioritise quality but this definitely hindered our manoeuvrability.
Equally, a lot of businesses get caught up in paid marketing and it can work for some business models. But I think there are lot of businesses that kid themselves about the expected volume of reorders etc. to validate their marketing costs. I think there’s a challenge, possible inherent flaw or unknown with that model so we didn’t really get too deep into that. Again, it depends on the product, for example, it can work with subscription-based businesses but consider those costs carefully.”
A successful exit
“An educational tech distributor ultimately bought Curiscope and it was a safe home for our business to go to. I felt like it was a good finish and exit for us. It became an opportunity to recoup some energy. There will always be that part of me that wants to continue as an entrepreneur, I would definitely love to start something else again in the future.
Every start-up hopes for a big financial exit. This wasn’t that but I’m very lucky for what’s it has done for my career.
Relative to rest of the market, we punched a bit above our weight which reflects well on what we accomplished.
I’m now working as COO at Moshi Kids, one of the original start-ups in the UK and I am part of team rebuilding the brand. It’s a very different business model. It’s nice to have a break from the e-commerce industry and good to do different things from a learning perspective. Working on kids products is fun. Unbelievably hard, but, it’s a fun job to be in And it was made possible by the experience of founding Curiscope.”