Brothers Gregg and Evan Spiridellis made a name for themselves by posting an animated satirical video of Bobblehead-like versions of George W. Bush and John Kerry lyrically duking it out to the tune of "This Land Is Your Land." The video instantly went viral and was streamed 80 million times—"in a pre-YouTube world," notes Gregg, who along with Evan appeared on The Tonight Show to discuss the video, and were named People of the Year by Peter Jennings.
"This Land" effectively launched the brothers’ Internet media company, JibJab, which relies on the same clever animation and wry humor used in the Bush-Kerry video to create personalized e-cards. Why send a Hallmark greeting when you can insert your best friend’s face in the Gangnam Style video and email it on their special day? (JibJab still makes parody videos in the form of their annual Year in Review short, but more for fun than anything else.)
Gregg, who’s 42, describes JibJab’s sensibility as "pretty juvenile," which may explain why the company’s latest pivot isn’t quite as counterintuitive as it might sound. Now, in addition to courting humor-loving adults, JibJab is trying to entertain—and educate—3- to 7-year-olds through their new product line StoryBots. The collection of personalized apps for iOS platforms and the web allows kids (or kids with their parents’ help) to insert their faces into learning videos and stories. Or they can just download quirky shorts like "Hooray for A!" which dutifully runs through a series of words that begin with "A," but with an ironic wink and nod for the sake of parents. (The robot in the video says: "This is the part of the song where I talk about the letter A and list things like ‘apples’ and ‘antelopes’ and ‘anteaters’ and other stuff like that.") A learning video about the solar system contains a joke about Uranus that will only be funny to the post-kindergarten crowd. Since launching StoryBots last year, the learning videos have been viewed 18 million times.
"We wanted to create new formats of storytelling that weren’t just linear video and that would really engage kids in fun learning exercises, but do it in a way that creatively appealed to parents as well. Because if you look at the pre-K and kindergarten content out there, most of it, you want to bang your head against the wall. It’s terrible. It’s just not cool in any way," says Gregg.
He describes StoryBots as "Sesame Street for a connected generation" and adds, "We’re trying to provide parents with a whole one-stop shop with a whole sweep of products"—StoryBots apps are available through a monthly membership of $4.99—"where we can be the trusted brand. The same way our parents could put us on the couch in front of Sesame Street and feel really good about that."
As to how two web geeks who once penned lines such as, "You’re a U.N. pussy, and yes it’s true that I kick ass!" (Bush to Kerry in "This Land") found themselves pondering the best way to explain shapes to toddlers, the answer is: They grew up. More than a decade after founding JibJab they were suddenly married with kids, and found themselves facing typical parental conundrums: needing to entertain their young ones while they performed a mundane chore or took a shower. But when they grabbed their iPhone or turned on the TV, they were underwhelmed with the Dora the Explorer-type options.
The real aha moment came one morning when Gregg woke up one Saturday and found his two kids "sitting in their pajamas with their iPads watching two different cartoons on Netflix. And I thought, ‘This is not the way I grew up watching Saturday-morning cartoons.
"And it was just this idea that these devices are completely accessible to kids. Not only that, they can put them in their hands, but that they know how to use them, because they’re so much more intuitive than a 400-button remote control. That was a real eye-opener."
He also noticed the way his kids responded to JibJab videos. They loved them, especially the fact that, with a few point and clicks, they could insert their own faces into them.
As to how they built a business in which they had very little professional experience, they called on childhood development experts, who work with the company’s creative teams to write songs and produce content that is safe, age-appropriate, and educational.
Even so, the driving force behind of StoryBots is ultimately no different than that of JibJab: to be funny.
"We have an incredible team here," says Gregg. "But at the beginning of the production line is my brother and I thinking about things that make us laugh. I think the context is different from when our sole creative focus was JibJab and we were in our late 20s and early 30s. Back then we were saying, ‘What can we make that will make us laugh?’ Now it’s like, ‘What are the things that will make us laugh with our kids?’"