VentureOut – Highlighting LGBT leaders in business.
Powered by StartOut. Written by David Duran. The following article was originally published in The Bay Area Reporter.
Brian Backus, president and CEO of Kidlandia had a very interesting childhood. Growing up, his aunt lived next door to Theodor Seuss Geisel, widely known as children’s book author Dr. Seuss. He was fortunate to have spent Sunday evenings with the author on a regular basis. This served as a huge inspiration throughout his life and with his business. Backus, who went on to become a biologist and studied evolutionary theory, later went to film school. The mixture of science and arts was something that always appealed to him. As a child, having lived in northern Nigeria, he was always obsessed with maps and would draw what he referred to as “little monsters.”
His next stop was children’s digital media producer for Disney Interactive. His move to San Francisco in 1999 sparked him to indulge in his inner creative side and take art classes. That led him to create fantasy maps for children. The maps were completely personalized for each child and would become the inspiration for Kidlandia.
“This was the child’s family tree, represented as home decor,” said Backus. “The maps served as a fantasy kingdom where it flips the hierarchy and the child is actually the ‘king’ or ‘queen’ of their kingdom, but in a completely safe environment because they are surrounded by loved ones.”
Demand for his maps were more than he could keep up with because parents were excited and now had a context to bring a child in to the world of family history.
After his friends in Silicon Valley convinced him to develop his ideas into a software format, Backus’s idea really took shape.
Kidlandia launched in 2009.
“We built a platform around it and began to sell personalized goods and we always knew when kids got a hold of our software, they would just play, and play and play,” he said.
Backus, 47, came out while in college. He is single and raising fraternal twin boys, who are 7.
Backus has developed his business so that it can sell personalized products through places like Wal-Mart and Walgreens online. Kidlandia also works with licensees such as Disney, Nickeldeon, and Pottery Barn since the concept is brand diagnostic. It works with any character and can be formatted to comfortably sell in any market.
By modeling their platform with his own characters, “it was easy to demonstrate to other potential partners how this could work for their own brand and character association, and really engage a child in the ‘story of you’ and do it with their brand,” said Backus.
The shopping portion of the website has been live since 2010 but the interactive game portion is in open beta, meaning it’s live and Kidlandia gets feedback. Backus expects the game to be out of beta in July. The website is now virtually a digital theme park. It is chock full of educational games and others that are purely fun. A child can go on the site and personalize his or her own world. With parental permission, a child can interact with online friends and their created worlds. Parental controls are extremely high on the site and parents can grant permission and also block access to certain features. Currently Kidlandia is made up of 12 full-time employees in San Francisco – five engineers, three to four artists/animators, and product- and business-related personnel.
The company is a private, venture-backed C corporation. Backus raised capital first from “angels,” then from three venture firms, two locally and one in Los Angeles. Its financial information is confidential.
“It took about four months to raise each round,” he said of the funding.
Kidlandia’s board consists of two investors, Backus, and two “observers,” he added.
StartOut has been a great support for Backus and Kidlandia from every aspect.
“From business development to funding to having a social network of like-minded people that provide support,” said Backus, noting he met his first angel investor at a StartOut event. “And they provide each other mentorship and each person has a different form of expertise. It’s a really incredible group of people.”
When asked about the importance of the LGBT aspect of StartOut, Backus said, the truth about Silicon Valley is that it’s an “old boy’s” network.”
“It’s not homophobic, but we don’t all play golf together,” he said. “Having a group that is like you and like-minded is helpful. It’s important for our community to have a professional network.”
He also had some advice for would-be entrepreneurs.
“It’s very simple,” said Backus. “Go to a StartOut event. There are people who just started companies, people who are starting their third or fourth company, people who have had very successful companies and are there because they want to support other people.”
Start-ups are all about obstacles, said Backus.
“The trick to surviving a start-up is realizing that you are going to have great triumphs and great setbacks,” he said. “You can be lifted into the clouds with just a single event and tossed to the ground by a single event and you cannot let it affect your sense of well-being.
“No one really knows what they are doing when it comes to their first start-up, and the trick is taking action and doing it,” said Backus. “To paraphrase, the secret to success is to fail quickly, often, and without a loss of enthusiasm.”