I was recently introduced to Catriona Wallis, founder and CEO of the Milan-based startup Colto which develops educational mobile games for preschoolers around the world. What I found immediately interesting was the fact that she is a woman in Tech as well as a foreigner, two characteristics that are very rare in a country such as Italy.
Catriona Wallis moved from Sidney to Milan in her early 30’s, at a time in her life when she was single, working long hours while most of her friends were getting married, having babies and hosting housewarmings. When I interviewed her, I decided to start my questions from that very moment in time.
I am curious to know what made you decide to move to Italy from so far away?
“I needed a new challenge in my career and a breath of fresh air in my personal life so I went to Milan to study Italian — hoping to also learn how to dress and cook! I promised my sister on departure that I wouldn’t date any more Italians. 2 weeks after my arrival in Milan, I met and fell in love with my future husband!”
What is your background?
“After graduating from College, I had a 5-year career as a TV News Reporter and Presenter before working in business development for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and the National Bell Shakespeare Company for 8 years. In Italy, I completed the Cambridge CELTA course for teaching English to foreign language students and started teaching adults and kids while my husband and I started a family.”
What does it take to establish a successful startup in Italy?
“For the most part, I think it takes a combination of the same ingredients it does in any country: perseverance, passion, grit and time. The main difference between Italy and countries such as the US where there’s a strong startup culture is there is very little funding and investment in Italy. There are very few investors in early stage companies in Italy so startups need to have traction or revenue before receiving seed investment.
“One particular trait you need in Italy is patience when setting up a company with the bureaucracy and time wasted on filling in copious amounts of forms and submitting documents to receive fiscal benefits and complying with work safety regulations. Patience is a virtue I’m still trying to learn!”
How is it to be an Australian and a woman heading a tech business in Italy?
“After 14 years in Italy and 11 years married to an Italian, I’m just beginning to understand the Italian mentality… ha! No seriously, I think the typical Australian personality is to be more bold and courageous than most Italians. Italians tend to be more conservative. They have difficulty understanding firstly how a young Aussie girl can leave her country to live on the other side of the world from her family and then be crazy and bold enough to start her own company – in her 40s during a recession!”
You have many prestigious US strategic partners, how did you get them?
“When we decided to create partnerships with major global kids brands, we drew up a list of the top kids brands we wanted to target. The list started with me asking my kids, who were then in our target age group, what was their favourite TV show. My youngest son said without hesitation ‘Paw Patrol’ on Nickelodeon, so that became the no. 1 brand on our target list. More than 18 months later, after presenting game demos of potential apps to Nickelodeon in Milan, London and New York, we’re signing a contract to create 2 apps in partnership using their famous kids brand Dora the Explorer and a new hit TV show called Nella the Princess Knight.
“A couple of years ago I also started attending conferences with kids brands and in 2015 I met the Digital Director of the giant US kids magazine publishers, Highlights for Children at a conference in Frankfurt. Being English mother tongue makes it easier for me to create closer relationships with Americans. Highlights asked us to present some game ideas which we did and they loved them but told us they weren’t ready yet with their global digital strategy. We stayed in contact and 6 months later their Digital Director contacted us to say they were ready to move forward with a partnership to develop apps for their preschool market.”
How do young children play with technology nowadays?
“2-5 year olds are in the phase where they’re discovering the world around. Through play, children learn to resolve problems, develop thinking and reasoning skills, socialize with others and develop the gross and fine motor skills needed to grow and learn. Given that kids from the digital generation are drawn to mobile devices, we create play experiences for pre-schoolers that help them develop these key skills. The brains of 2-4 year olds are at one of their most rapid periods of growth and elasticity. Therefore it’s fundamental to stimulate their minds during this phase. If pre-schoolers play with technology that is unintelligent and not stimulating, they risk becoming addicted, irrational in temperament when the device is removed and miss important opportunities to develop their brain.
“Another difference with pre-schoolers playing with technology is online safety. Parents are concerned about young kids’ online safety so they like our games because they’re ethical and contain no third-party advertising. Being a parent myself I’ve always chosen an ethical revenue model. With mobile apps, being ethical means only selling educational content in apps and not selling consumables such as gold coins.”
What do kids like about your apps?
“Children like our games because they’re fun and imaginative and they encourage them to explore and think without being forceful with the educational content. Our games are designed to let the child take control and discover the learning rather than the other way round. Our game designers always give precedence to the fun and playability of our games, because if kids aren’t engaged, they won’t continue playing and the educational value becomes worthless. During development of an app we watch kids playing the game weekly until we see them playing intuitively. During the user testing we learn from the kids how to make the game more fun by watching things they try to do but can’t and observing which part of the game they find most engaging and listening to their suggestions.”
How is it like to work with Italian engineers and artists?
“I come from a family of Engineers and my husband is an Engineer so I find the mentality and language of our software Engineers familiar. I was introduced to Davide, our CTO by his Professor after asking his Professor if he could introduce me to the best student graduating that year. He and our 2 other programmers have brilliant minds and I admire their analytical approach to problem solving.
“I’ve always loved working with Artists and Game designers as my first passion in life, before having kids, was contemporary art. I love the diversity of working with people whose brains think in different ways to mine and I love being part of a multicultural team with people who approach tasks from different angles. When you put these minds together to brainstorm new ideas for kids’ game concepts, it’s magic – creative and analytical at the same time.”
Do you think you will stay in Italy or will you have to move like many other startups before you?
“We will stay based in Italy for the moment but we’ve been told by the investment fund we’re currently negotiating a round of seed funding with that if we attract international investors in a further round of investment they’ll likely ask us to move to the UK or US. This is due to the tax advantages for early stage companies in the UK and US.”