When it launched in late 2013, Hopster had both parents and little ones in mind. For 2- to 6-year-olds it wanted to deliver storytelling-based learning. For parents of preschoolers, it aimed to provide a worry-free experience, for a monthly subscription fee, with no ads or in-app purchases, accessible on as many devices as possible. Five years later, the platform has expanded outside of its home base of the U.K., inked deals to be bundled into a raft of consumer-electronics devices and moved beyond licensed content into original series, while also extending its offer to include music, games and ebooks. Founder and CEO Nick Walters talks to TV Kids about the Hopster mission and reveals his growth aspirations for the service.
TV KIDS: Tell us about the Hopster journey so far.
WALTERS: Before starting Hopster, I worked in TV. I was at Viacom and spent a lot of time working at Nickelodeon. Back in 2012, you could begin to see kids turning off the TV and moving into a world of digital products. Our now 9-year-old was just beginning to discover that world herself. As that shift played out, it felt like there were opportunities to do better things, to take the essentials of a kids’ TV channel and turn it into a much more interactive and stimulating experience, something that is completely safe, ad-free. A digital world that parents would feel as good about as kids. That’s what we set out to do.
TV KIDS: Did you have to course correct, as it were, at any point as you were building out the platform?
WALTERS: [Laughs] You constantly learn and course correct every day. There were things we thought would work but didn’t. One of these things was launching globally. We thought there would be a percentage of every market that we’d pick up without having to do too much work, but we later realized that this percentage is very, very small. To build scale and a presence in any territory, you have to invest in that region, spend time there and build a marketing and distribution strategy around it. There’s no place in the world where you’ll grow organically and sustain a subscriber base without investing in it. That’s just one thing we came to understand over time.
TV KIDS: Tell us about your recent deal with STV in Scotland. Do you see that as a model you’ll pursue going forward?
WALTERS: It’s such an interesting deal. STV in Scotland has an online streaming platform, STV Player, and they made our content available on it in a dedicated Hopster-branded area. They have second-to-none brand awareness and audience reach in the region but didn’t have a particularly large kids’ offer on the Player. To upgrade it and make it more premium, it made sense for them to partner with us. As part of our agreement, they will be offering marketing and sponsorship for us across their portfolio of services. What’s interesting is that there are more and more digital platforms like STV that are aggregating content to build their service that way. In the past, if you wanted to distribute content you had to go to TV channels or pay-TV operators, but now it’s all changed. This shift allows us to set up some fantastic partnership deals, like this one with STV.
TV KIDS: What were some of the things you needed to do to prepare to launch outside of the U.K.?
WALTERS: You have to prepare some big global content agreements to go international. We’re still working with some of our core launch [suppliers]—DHX, Nelvana, Millimages, CAKE—who have been great partners throughout our international experience. Later, we signed deals with independent producers specific to one market or territory. In Iceland, for instance, where we have a partnership with Vodafone and are distributing to tens of thousands of households, we have six titles that are locally originated. We have a similar story in France and we’re looking to do the same in other territories. So we start with a core selection of global deals and then look around on the market and add content that we think is relevant in that specific territory.
TV KIDS: What’s the Hopster programming ethos? What sorts of content do you look for?
WALTERS: There are a couple of big things. One, our mission as a platform is to help kids learn through the stories they love. All of our content has strong stories and great IPs at the core, so they are fun to watch. But we also want kids to learn something new every day. So the second big thing we’re looking for is learning opportunities. We have an early learning curriculum that drives most of our content decisions, so before we license a piece, we evaluate whether it fits into that. Sometimes it can be teaching kids about relationships in a family or managing emotions, which a show like Peppa Pig does really well, but it might be something more explicitly educational, such as Sid the Science Kid. Lastly, we’re always on the lookout for what you might call socially conscious content. We’re a gender-neutral platform and are committed to encouraging diversity. One of our favorite shows is Punky, a beautiful Irish animation of a little girl who has Down syndrome. It does a nice job of showing kids that we’re all different and it’s great. It’s really important to us that diversity is celebrated across our content.
TV KIDS: When did you decide to expand beyond video to also feature music, games and books?
WALTERS: We wanted to have games from day one as we thought it was a really important part of delivering our learning mission. We have certainly developed the range and extent of interactivity of our games over time. The most recent game we launched teaches preschoolers the fundamentals of coding, but we also have a game designed with kids on the autism spectrum in mind. Music has also been important to us from a very early stage. Initially we started with nursery rhymes and then added fun children’s songs from performers like Nick Cope and Caspar Babypants. Books arrived on Hopster in 2017 when we launched a selection of HarperCollins Children’s Books.
TV KIDS: What are you doing in the original-content space?
WALTERS: Over the last few years we’ve seen the distribution landscape completely change. Netflix started and YouTube got big. The TV industry got shaken up but [the digital platforms] still had little impact on the production side. The new players like Amazon and Netflix are still commissioning content in a way that is very similar to the old linear model. But we wanted to do things a bit differently. We’re working with independent producers and are focusing on short-form, fairly low-volume and low-budget productions. This means that we can bring shows to the market quickly—instead of it taking three to four years, we can produce series in three to four months, then take the learning and iterate from that. We launched our first slate of original productions last year, including Clever Brenda, our STEM-focused animation, and Two Minute Tales, based on Grimm’s fairy tales. We’ve greenlit our second slate of series and started working on an exciting new animation about social and emotional literacy called Saturday Club.
TV KIDS: Building an OTT service is generally seen as a cash-burn endeavor. How have you and your team been able to create a financially sustainable operation—without running through all of your funding?
WALTERS: We have supportive investors who I’m super grateful to. We initially had private investors, then a venture-capital fund called Sandbox and now most recently Sony Pictures Television. We couldn’t have done it without these investments. That said, we’re focusing on growing without having to put billions into marketing. The STV partnership is a good example of how we can reach thousands of families in Scotland without the need to spend millions on advertising campaigns. We have tried to be smart and strike those kinds of partnerships where we can build our brand and our partners get something in return as well.
TV KIDS: In the next 12 to 18 months, what are the initiatives you’re going to be most focused on as you drive the business forward?
WALTERS: You’re going to see us doubling down on original content production—that’s video, games and books. We’re pleased with how our originals are performing so we are going to do more of those as quickly as we can. You’ll also see us push pretty hard on distribution. We announced the STV deal recently and an SVOD deal with TalkTalk in the U.K. where we’re bundled in with their Kids Boost subscription. We have a full business-development pipeline with a good chunk of deals that we’ll be announcing in the second half of this year. And we’re also trying to keep pushing the pace on our platform and products. We launched our first companion app, Hopster Coding Safari, recently and we’re excited to keep developing these projects.
TV KIDS: You said Scotland was a market that was important to you. What are some of your other key territories?
WALTERS: The U.S. is important. We launched there in 2016 and have been steadily building our user base. We launched on Apple TV 3rd generation recently, which has been good for us. We will have some significant announcements in the U.S. in the next couple of months. We’re looking very closely at some opportunities in Australia and New Zealand at the moment, and in Europe and the Middle East. It’s a pretty rich world out there right now.