An interview with startup founder: Sophie Deen of Bright Little Labs

Sophie Deen is the Founder/CEO of kids’ media company, Bright Little Labs. They make cartoons, games, and toys to promote STEM, critical thinking + equality for all kids aged 3+. BLL has users in 100+ countries and raised Series A investment with Warner Media/Cartoon Network in 2018.

Sophie believes in the power of storytelling to inspire all kids into 21st-century skills. A former lawyer, techie, and children’s play therapist, Sophie has worked alongside Code Club, Google, and the Department For Education, to help introduce the new coding curriculum in primary schools in England. 

She was named as a GBEA Creative Industries Entrepreneur of the Year’ in 2020, one of Computer Weekly’s ‘Most influential women in UK IT’ in 2019, 2018 + 2017, as well as London Tech Week’s ‘Changemaker’ in 2018, and the Barclays/EveryWoman ‘Startup Founder of the Year’ in 2017.

What was the inspiration behind launching Bright Little Labs?

I started Bright Little Labs because I was fed up with a few things. Firstly, the negative stereotyping in kids’ stories – particularly around gender and ethnicity. Secondly, there is a lack of STEM role models for females and ethnic minorities and I wanted to create something which could encourage kids of all backgrounds to pursue a career in STEM. I was really inspired by Sesame Street – it was accessible to everyone and featured kids from diverse backgrounds. Kids who watched Sesame Street achieved the same numeracy and literacy standards as kids who attended pre-school, but at a fraction of the cost ($5 per child compared to $7,600 per child for preschool) and for a time was watched by 95% of preschoolers in the US. This highlighted how leveling mainstream media can be. I want to create Sesame Street for the digital age.

It all started when I was working in a primary school in London. I noticed my kids never saw people like them in their stories. In 2018 a UK study showed that only 1% of children’s books have BAME main characters. I went on to help introduce the computer science curriculum in primary schools in England and realised how important digital skills were, but now there was this huge digital divide that was exacerbating social divides. At the end of the day, I really wanted to normalise tech – it shouldn’t be a geeky, gendered, or nuanced aspiration. Asha and the Children’s Spy Agency came to me one night when I couldn’t sleep, and here we are. 

We started with a Kickstarter campaign, the international press picked it up, and our message was starting to resonate with people. And while not all kids want to be coders, almost all kids want to be spies! We found kids were inviting their friends and siblings to join our Spy Agency, and we started to become famous in playgrounds. We now have agents from over 100 countries completing spy missions.

I never wanted to start my own business, but have always been very driven towards our goal to change mainstream media. And I never knew how hard starting a business would be, with so many highs and lows! We’ve been lucky to work with an incredibly talented creative team and have the support of friends and family (who have all sat in our (leaking!) office helping us pack spy packs) and people who believe in our mission. We’ve always dreamed of us being in mainstream media, and in 2018 Bright Little Labs was delighted to secure Series A investment from Warner Media. There are two more books in the works in the Agent Asha trilogy, a Children’s Spy Agency app (available on IOS and Android), a cartoon in development, and we’re working on a second franchise aimed at younger kids. So, fingers crossed!

Why is digital literacy so important especially for kids? 

Without coding, there wouldn’t be spaceships, the internet, or the ability to tweet through your fridge. Everything in the digital age is built on code, so learning digital literacy is essential to understand the world around us – similar to other literacies, like reading and writing. We don’t necessarily need our kids to grow up to be Shakespeare, but we need to ensure they can read and write.

The economy knows it too. Coding is the #1 sought-after skill in employees and it’s estimated that by 2050, 50% of today’s jobs will be automated. We know that technology is shaping our future and has so many emancipatory possibilities, so it’s important that children from all backgrounds can take part.

How do you use technology at your startup?

We use technology to bring the world of Asha and the Children’s Spy Agency to life! We want to create immersive experiences for kids, and to reach them wherever they are, whether they are in front of a TV, on a tablet, on the sofa with a book, or at the supermarket with their parents. So we start with the experience. As a small company, we spend a lot of time on the user experience (UX), have a great team of people who think about that, and think of media from a gamers’ POV, which is naturally more interactive, rather than a passive media experience. Then we add a sprinkle of fart jokes to make sure nothing’s too serious.  

From a day-to-day perspective, we’re currently an 80% remote team, due to local pandemic restrictions. This has meant that we’re relying ever more on technology to ensure we keep up the momentum – using tools like Monday, Slack, Zoom, and a large serving of Google Drive to get work done.  

What’s the best thing about working in a technology company? 

We’re a company that lives in the intersection of media, entertainment, and technology. While technology has been disruptive across all industries, I particularly love how quickly it’s helped to disrupt the landscape of media. Old business models are flipping, new stories are emerging, and we’ve seen this accelerate even more this year as more people spend time indoors, in front of screens. In a sense, it’s been quite a small industry, and a lot is about who you know. 

But then the rise of VOD and platforms like YouTube have turned everything on its head – kids are given way more choice, and creators have more routes in. In some ways we’re seeing more democracy – content is king. 

Importantly, diversity on and behind the screen is on the rise. We’ve still got a while to go, but this is going to give rise to stories that haven’t been told yet, and it means kids are seeing themselves reflected in their stories, and therefore all the inspirational messages are for them too. All of this is enabled and powered by technology! 

If you could do any Fire Tech course what would it be and why?

I’d love to do the week-long Video Game Design course if I had the chance! Getting stuck in and creating my own video game featuring Agent Asha and the Children’s Spy Agency is something I’d love to see happen in real life, so this particular Fire Tech course might help me bring that to life in a very tangible way!  

Bright Little Labs social media links: 
Instagram: @BLittleLabs
Facebook: @BLittleLabs
Twitter: @BLittleLabs



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