Interview: Susan Magsamen launches Curiosityville

Susan Magsamen, CEO and founder of Curiosityville, a new online learning website for children ages 3-8, holds some of the website's characters.
Susan Magsamen, CEO and founder of Curiosityville, a new online learning website for children ages 3-8, holds some of the website's characters. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Can 3-year-olds learn online?

Susan Magsamen believes they can, with moderation and careful monitoring by a mentor or parent. And she's building a company to prove it.

Last month, Magsamen launched Curiosityville.com, a company that focuses on online learning for children ages 3 to 8. The Cockeysville company has raised $2.3 million from investors and has struck several partnerships with some major children's learning brands, including National Geographic Kids and the Goddard School for Early Childhood Development.

Magsamen has spent years studying early childhood learning and is also an adviser for interdisciplinary partnerships at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her experience in the field helped shape the approach she's taking with Curiosityville.

She and her team have designed rich, colorful characters for children to connect with when they go online. But Curiosityville also collects information and data on how well a child engages and learns, and it shares that data with parents. The site offers a way for parents and children to play and learn together, and for parents to get reports on their child's progress even if they are apart.

Magsamen recently spoke with The Baltimore Sun about Curiosityville and what it takes to build a website for helping young children learn.

How did you get interested in helping young children learn?

My first job was at Maryland Public Television, in an educational capacity. I worked on the children's programming side. In those early days, I was exposed to the notion of interdisciplinary learning.

Curiosityville is your second startup. What was your first?

I started Curiosity Kits. We made hands-on learning materials for kids. It grew into a $16 million-a-year business and it was acquired, in 1998.

So how did the idea for Curiosityville begin and evolve?

In the last five years for Curiosity Kits, I had started an early learning brand. I was very interested in early learning. I had been doing a lot of research in how young children learn, and that was where the action was. I learned how young children learn at a biological level. I really wanted to understand the science, and the science was changing a lot. What was the optimal environment for a child? What are the concepts and constructs that the brain is able to understand at a certain age?

Curiosityville has a lot of tools for parents to work and play together with their children. What's that about?

I became interested in the relationship between the primary caregiver and child. What happens when the child has that role model? That one person might change, but in [a] relationship we learn best. How do children learn? Through character, and context, and mentoring.

Children who join Curiosityville are introduced to several characters (Pablo the painter, Ruby the teacher, Joe the gadget guy, Rosie the scientist, Jack the policeman and Olive the dancing chef). How did you develop them?

For the first five years, we did a lot of framework building and starting to build the archetypes with the characters. We worked with educators and psychologists. We took them [the characters] to kids, and everything changed. We listened very, very carefully. The kids built the characters, the kids built Curiosityville. We've been very excited the way the characters came to life. We see that kids are playing equally with the first three characters. They gravitate to the characters.

You've sought money from investors?

I formed the company in 2007. We tried to raise money in 2008, but then the market dropped. We spent two years developing it on paper, building our storyline and our pedagogy. We really put our heads down, and tested and retested. We received a first round of $300,000 and a bridge round of $2 million.

Who are your competitors?

There's a lot of people talking about it. Online activities for children come in different groups. There's the entertainment group, like Club Penguin. Then there are intervention sites, where there's a need for the child to remediate, such as Sylvan Learning. I think the properties that we think of as complementary and competitive are PBS or "Sesame Street," things that embody content learning and character development. We don't have a straight-up competitor. We're doing something that's never been done before. We're trying to build the future of early learning.

What's the ideal screen time? What would you recommend to your own customers?

For a 3-year-old, it's 20 minutes a day, and it goes up to an hour on the older range. We're trying to look at media literacy for families. We have a screen time [notification] that drops down in a game as a reminder for kids to go out and play. Everything in moderation.

You launched last month and already have some big strategic partners. What's your strategy in getting the word out on Curiosityville?

We were able to secure National Geographic Kids, the Goddard School for Early Childhood Development, the Association of Childhood Museums and Johns Hopkins as partners. We're partnering with children's museums and learning organizations. Museums reach 35 million families across the country. We provide an early learning resource for working families.

Is Curiosityville ultimately a way to help students adapt to the new reality of school learning that's increasingly going online?

I do think the role of the educator is changing. They serve as a guide and a mentor and a motivator, and understand how each child can learn. I think the teacher is going to become more of a specialist. There'll be great marriage of technology and human interaction. You can have 20 kids in a class working on different things, because you can.

So what's your revenue model?

We're a subscription-based model for now. There's some traction to support that, but we're pivoters. We're launching a store that allows us to recommend products. We're $79 a year. That's a pretty low cost option for helping to get a child ready for school, if you compare that to other things parents might be spending money on. Right now, our focus is on moms. We're getting a lot of interest from mommy bloggers.

Has anything about your experience with Curiosityville so far surprised you or blown you away?

Well, one is how elated families are, the parents are, to have a tool like this. We knew we were onto something, but we didn't know the level of relief the families would have.

Has this been harder than you thought?

When you bring programmers together with educators, it's messy. It's really messy. It takes more time. You're not on the same page, but you're working toward a common goal. We have been working for two years to get our process down. I didn't expect it would be so difficult