Smart Teddy is an internet-connected plush teddy bear that engages kids while teaching them and helping them to develop good habits. Smart Teddy’s exciting features include teaching toddlers ABCs, numbers, educational games, and more than thirty daily routine activities and stories. Smart Teddy even helps kids learn how to manage their emotions and communicate.
Svetlana Zakharenkova is the co-founder and CEO of Mishka AI, the startup company behind Smart Teddy. Svetlana has a background in marketing and advertising and launched the Mishka AI startup in 2017. The company has a mission to develop solutions and create a platform for smart connected toys. This platform comprises a chip, cloud infrastructure, and the content. This technology can be adopted by a variety of toy production companies. Smart Teddy is essentially a showcase that demonstrates this technology, developed by the company.
Svetlana recently discussed her career and startup via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get interested in marketing and how did that lead you to develop an interest in technology?
Svetlana: I have always been interested in marketing communications. The world of brands is magical – how ideas can be outlined in precise expressions and how brands become a part of our life. When I took the position of Brand Experience Director for Samsung mobile products, I enjoyed my work even more. Working with a product where communication is built not mainly about lifestyle and emotions but about technologies and innovations changing our lives was a great pleasure. It was an exciting experience. I’m grateful for this experience and my marketing experience in particular. It has taught me to understand the audience and the essential skills for managing projects.
MM: What field did you enter into first, the toy industry or technology?
Svetlana: When I was invited to join the Smart Teddy team, I was still working in the marketing field. So, I ended up in the tech and toy industry simultaneously. I had to figure out the technology, product development, and toys straightaway.
MM: What gave you the idea to help co-found a company focused on creating technology-infused toys?
Svetlana: When I heard the idea of Smart Teddy for the first time, I was impressed by the thought that innovations were happening in every area possible. I also realized that the preschool market mainly remained the same. The idea of creating a companion for children who would be a helpful friend for kids was fascinating.
MM: How tough was it to launch a startup company and then keep it afloat?
Svetlana: There were a lot of difficulties, and every founder faced them. They are not new: how to involve experts and professionals in the team and provide the company with funds. The most challenging thing about the product was this: since we are a hardware project, our way from the idea to the first customers took about two years. Of course, we were showing the prototype to families with children, and these families were sharing their feedback, but reviews from real customers feel different. It is a potent source of inspiration and motivation for me. Reviews, better than any focus groups, can better tell you what’s good about your product and what needs to be improved. It helps me to remember that the work our team is doing is valuable and necessary.
MM: How did you get the idea for Smart Teddy and how long did it take to develop the technology?
Svetlana: My partner came up with this idea. He saw a movie where the boy dreamed that his teddy bear would become real and remembered himself playing with toys and talking to them. He realized that this dream could be turned into reality because of modern technology, and it is possible to create an alive plush friend. It was quite a long journey: two years from the start of work on the prototype to the first produced Smart Teddy.
MM: What are some of the features you’re most excited about with Smart Teddy?
Svetlana: I like the “Activities” feature and how it works. If you want kids to brush their teeth or remove scattered toys, you don’t have to repeat it over and over again. It is enough to decide what you want, click the proper icon in the app, and Smart Teddy will motivate children to take useful actions. And it really works! But the main thing is that it doesn’t replace the parents. Smart Teddy helps to explain to children why something is necessary to be done, and he speaks in a playful form. We developed all the scenarios with psychologists and educational experts. Smart Teddy takes over the work, and you can enjoy just being with your kids. Smart Teddy is not a substitute for a parent; he is a real helper. Another thing I really love is our updateable software, thanks to which all new features or content updates are available for all our users. This allows you to receive everything our team works on: Smart Teddy learns something new, like fun facts, games, and activities every week. And all the new features we are developing, which will appear this and next year, are automatically available to those who bought Smart Teddy earlier. All they need to do is to connect the toy to Wi-Fi once. Due to this, Smart Teddy continues to be new and exciting to the kids for months and even years.
MM: Smart Teddy tells stories and you now have some professional authors working with you! Can you tell us about how these collaborations came to be?
Svetlana: With our author and curriculum developer Bruce Goldstone, we were introduced by our investor. We were talking about the content in the demo, and it turns out he has a friend who writes kid’s books. Bruce has written over a dozen children’s books, and The New York Times named “Great Estimations” an Editor’s Choice. He is constantly creating new educational materials for children of all ages. Bruce also adapts fairytales for Smart Teddy and comes up with content like games and activities. In general, when you do a project that you are passionate about and talk about it with a lot of people, it is incredible how people react to your ideas, share valuable contacts with you, and introduce you to talented professionals who add something great to your product.
MM: When you designed Smart Teddy, you kept parents in mind, too, not just children. What does Smart Teddy do to help parents make daily tasks easier?
Svetlana: Being a parent of a 2-5-year-old kid is exciting and challenging at the same time. Parents have a lot of tasks, and sometimes they need 15 free minutes just to drink their coffee hot, and apparently, they need help. This understanding motivated us to create a product that would solve various tasks. If you need to keep your kid entertained and not feel guilty about using a tablet, there are audio fairy tales handpicked and customized by professionals. Smart Teddy motivates kids to do a wide range of activities, from picking up toys to washing hands. “Activities” work great when you don’t have the energy to repeat over and over again the importance of, for example, brushing your teeth. With Smart Teddy, this process turns into a game. At this age, kids go through a stage when they answer “no” to any question or request of a parent, and here Smart Teddy acts as an excellent tool, indirectly motivating the child. This functionality seems to me especially important because it includes the tasks the parent faces daily. Here Smart Teddy’s support can be especially vital. With educational games, learning becomes a game, and it is easier for parents. And besides, there is no need to spend energy and time researching or preparing.
MM: What has been the best feedback you’ve gotten about Smart Teddy so far?
Svetlana: We try to talk as much as possible with our users, which allows us to improve the product or fix something. I can especially highlight two feedbacks: in one case, parents noted that their 3-year-old daughter began to think and analyze, as Smart Teddy does after telling a story. The second example is when the “brush your teeth” task was actively used and stopped after some time. The kid has instilled this skill, which means we have done our job. It is very inspiring to keep working and developing the product. Also, I need to mention that we have many users who bought Smart Teddy on the recommendation of their friends.
MM: Will Smart Teddy be appearing at Toy Expos in 2023?
Svetlana: Yeah, we are planning to appear at Toy Expos. And it’s also important for us to participate in the Consumer Electronic Show in January 2023.
MM: How do you hope your career and company evolves over the next five years?
Svetlana: We will continue to develop Smart Teddy, both product and the brand. It will become more innovative and recommend content based on the kid’s age and preferences. And we are looking for opportunities in tech development for big toy manufacturers and content owners such as Hasbro and Disney. For example, if “Frozen” was filmed today, Disney could bring “Smart Elsa” to market with our innovation inside the toy.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for Smart Teddy’s future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
Svetlana: We believe that we are building a company in a significant domain. Smart Teddy was designed especially for preschoolers to turn the world discovery process into a game. It helps to develop the way kids think. And they are our future engineers, doctors, and scientists. In our users’ feedback, parents note that interaction with Smart Teddy expands the kid’s vocabulary, as well as intelligence, memory, and emotional abilities. We’re at the beginning of our journey. We want to share the solution for raising healthy and happy kids that will turn into intelligent, conscious, and fair-minded adults one day.