Apple’s iPhone is so easy to operate that even a 3-year-old can use it to do things like watch YouTube videos or listen to songs on Spotify.
Marcus Stahl and Patric Fassbender believe, however, that not all parents want to hand over a smartphone to their children at such a young age. That’s why the two entrepreneurs are convinced their Toniebox audio system will soon be a familiar sight in children’s rooms - just as Lego and Playmobil are today.
In June, the two founders of the Düsseldorf start-up Boxine will be introducing their electronic cube for kids ages three and older into department stores such as Germany’s Kaufhof as well as toy stores.
The Toniebox is innovative, according to the purchasing department of VEDES, the German Association of Toy Retailers. “The new type of audio story cube and the lovingly-designed story figures make digital content tangible and with its intuitive operating concept, the toy is ideal for children ages three and up,” the group said in a statement.
Last year was really fantastic. Ulrich Brobeil, Managing director, German association of toy retailers.
The heart of the system is a 12-centimeter (4.7 inch) cube wrapped in fabric. The cube includes all kinds of electronics hidden to the children. All they need to do is place a story figure, a so-called Tonie, on top of the cube and listen to a story. The tale they hear depends on which Tonie they choose. Choices include Socke the Raven, Benjamin Bluemchen the talking elephant, little witch Bibi Blocksberg and many more.
Children can easily operate the Toniebox. The device can be turned on and the volume level regulated with two small ears on the cube. The kids can tap the side of the cube to jump backward and forward in the audio story.
The box needs a wireless Internet connection to download stories, and can play back stories for seven hours. A chip in the 5- to 8-centimeter-high toy that tells the box which story to play. Magnets hold the Tonie in place on the cube.
The Boxine firm isn’t disclosing the production numbers planned. While some toy retailers look forward to the toy's launch, others are skeptical.
Stephan Schusser, a partner in the corporate consulting firm Keylens in Munich, warned the device might have been designed too much from a parent’s point of view. He noted that children today are growing up with iPods and smartphones and can just as easily listen to stories on them.
“Kids might consider the tox to be old fashion,” said Mr. Schusser.
Mr. Fassbender, 45, and Mr. Stahl, 48, worked on developing the digital cube for almost three years. From the beginning, the former adman and the engineer sought professional support and brought strategic investors on board.
That’s how Paul Kraut, the former owner of Schleich, a medium-sized company known for its detailed toy figures, became involved as a partner shareholder. The Kraut family owns a toy figure factory in Tunisia, which will produce the Tonies.
The Düsseldorf law firm Arnold Ruess also came on board. The lawyers are responsible for intellectual property and registering patents. Another participant is the publishing house Oetinger, which produces, among others, the children’s book series The Olchis. The media group has the know-how to secure additional audio book rights and hopes, with the toy, to open up a new sales channel.
The Boxine founders left their regular jobs and invested their savings in the company. During the development phase, they didn’t want to use venture capital or become dependent on banks. But that will change, Mr. Stahl said, pointing to the need now to finance production.
Mr. Fassbender and Mr. Stahl are entering an attractive market.
“Last year was really fantastic,” said Ulrich Brobeil, managing director of the German association of toy retailers. Sales in the toy business shot up by 6 percent to €3 billion, or $3.3 billion. Customers are spending a fifth more on toys than five years ago.
Thanks in part to new products like Toniebox, “2016 will be another good year,” Mr. Brobeil said.
The audio cube is expected to cost €80. On top of that, every Tonie, or every story, adds another €12 to €15 to the costs. The Toniebox system is attractive to store owners because customers are likely to return when they want to buy a new story, according to retail expert Daniel Ohr.
Mr. Stahl and Mr. Fassbender have over a dozen Tonie characters to offer including some based on popular German children’s books such as “The Trip to Panama” and “Conni on the Farm.” More than 50 figures will be available by the end of the year, the company says.
Buyers and their families can also play their own stories over the box. All the kids, parents, or grandparents need is a smartphone and the company’s app. Special figures, so-called Creative Tonies, also make it possible to send news, songs and stories from afar to the mini stereo system.
Joachim Hofer covers the high-tech industry and IT sector for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]