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23/01/2017

How one mum’s online safety crusade turned into a thriving business

Stella James, founder of Gooseberry Planet, explains why she decided to develop a game to teach children about the dangers of cyberspace

The internet may have dramatically changed the way we all interact with the world. But for children especially, staying safe online – in an era of tablets and smartphones – can be a real worry for parents.

This was the thinking behind the creation of Gooseberry Planet, an internet safety teaching tool designed to be used by children to educate them on the many perils of cyberspace – from sexual exploitation to grooming, radicalisation and even the dangers of in-app purchases.

We spoke to its founder, Stella James, on why she decided to create the Gooseberry Planet apps, her travails to get the product into schools and the future direction of the award-winning business.

How did Gooseberry Planet come about?

Back in 2013, my eldest son was starting secondary school. I went online to find something to teach him about online safety. I hunted high and low, but couldn’t find anything that I thought was engaging enough. He is a bit of a cool dude, so I couldn’t just stand there and tell an 11-year-old what do as he would have been like: ‘yeah, right mum’.

I found that there was a load of information for parents, but nothing that was directly teaching children. That shocked me as it should be the kids who we are teaching, not the adults. It was then that I started thinking about what I could do. I decided to create an app, which would be interesting and entertaining, that kids could play. That was how I came up with the idea of the Gooseberry Planet game.

Was it easy to develop?

I originally launched the B2C product in January 2015 with my own money. I then went to a few schools to see if the app was engaging enough and to ascertain whether it was too easy or difficult to play. The teachers, especially, really liked it and wanted to use it in lessons. And straight away, we had two 10-year-old girls having a discussion about the game’s main character and whether it was okay or not to take a ‘selfie’ and post it online.

So, I could see immediately that it could help start conversations around online safety. It was then that I thought it could be a real success and I used my background in sales and marketing to try to attract angel investors to the project, as I had by then run out of my own money.

I initially raised £150,000, which allowed me to develop the first schools product as it is now and also to get it out into the marketplace, which we achieved in October 2015. Already, we have 14,500 students registered in that short space of time and we’ve also just made our first sale to a French school. I am beginning to realise that safeguarding is huge and that I’ve just come along at the right time.

So, how does the game work?

It has three platforms. One is a game for children, which has different levels for different age groups. They go through different scenarios, so they are learning through a consequence of what they should and shouldn’t do. Then there are items to collect and a leader board.

Then we have the teacher who sits alongside this game and can actually see how the child is playing and responding to each scenario. We also have workbooks and resources to help educate the teacher on online safety. And finally, we have the parent who can also monitor the child’s progress; allowing the parent to then talk things through with the child.

We aim to connect all three together through technology. We are also developing a new platform around safeguarding, which is now a statutory requirement for schools in the UK in that every single member of staff in a school needs to be trained on it. This will be launched in September.

Has it been hard to get your message across?

No, it hasn’t and my impression is that there is very little “noise” drowning us out. Online security is something that all parents are concerned about and we don’t have any real competitors at the moment. There are some charities, but we are the only ones, with our three platform approach, who are joining the whole school community together.

But it is more of a challenge to get into schools, as it is a tough market to crack. I have come from a background of software sales and if I had put the amount of effort I have put into Gooseberry Planet as I had to a software company, then I would have turned over a million pounds by now.

What was your first breakthrough?

Getting to market with a live product was probably the hardest thing. Raising the money – we’ve now raised £250,000 – was also both difficult and stressful.

How do you see the business developing in the next five years?

We are very ambitious. Not only do we want to be the market leader in UK, we also want to take the product to international markets. We are already talking to other countries. My ultimate goal is to sell in 2020 – hopefully we will be bought by an education publisher, an internet service provider or a security company.

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