Tech firm on mission to make online data privacy kids’ stuff

Marketing platform SuperAwesome is a bridge for brands to reach children safely

SuperAwesome co-founder Dylan Collins: “Most of the stuff we build and invest in doesn’t make society better. Hand on heart, I can say Super Awesome does.” Photograph: Alan Betson

SuperAwesome co-founder Dylan Collins: “Most of the stuff we build and invest in doesn’t make society better. Hand on heart, I can say Super Awesome does.” Photograph: Alan Betson

 

“Somewhere along the way it became a mission.” Dylan Collins says. He is talking about his work with SuperAwesome, the kid-tech company he founded in 2013.

Tech companies “on a mission” isn’t an unusual thing; what is unusual is that, in this case, it might actually be making the world a better place. It’s hard to argue with a company that puts making the online world a safer place for children at the heart of its business model. Yet that’s what happened.

The company has just been named the fastest-growing technology company in the UK by the Financial Times, which isn’t bad for a firm that had a hard pitch to make.

“I’m trying to maintain a straight face,” says Collins.

The serial entrepreneur was, he says, laughed out of plenty of meetings in the early days of SuperAwesome, because people simply didn’t understand the importance of what the company wanted to do.

“When we were pitching in the early days, even though I have a track record and some of the others did too, so many people didn’t get it,” he says. “They thought kids were too small as a space. They didn’t get how zero data is going to be a thing.

“Our whole view was that ‘You’re thinking about today’; we were trying to think about five years out. There’s only going to be more kids using devices,” he says.

“It’s probably the toughest company I’ve been involved with in terms of having to deal with people saying ‘No’ and ‘You’re wrong’ for long period of time. Now, when people see stuff about us over the past year, they’re ‘Oh, you guys are geniuses’ but it didn’t feel like that in the early days. It was very counter to what was seen as normal.”

The company was swimming against the tide. At a time when handing over private data to companies in exchange for free services was the norm, the idea of a zero-data company was completely alien.

Demonware

But it’s not the first time that Collins has been leading the way. Prior to SuperAwesome, he is probably best known for Demonware, the company he founded with Seán Blanchfield.

Established in 2003, just as Collins and Blanchfield were finishing college, Demonware was one of a small number of companies specialising in middleware, the software that powered online games on both the Xbox and PlayStation platforms, working with companies like Ubisoft, Atari and Sega.

At the time, the indigenous gaming sector in Ireland was in its infancy and the dotcom bubble was bursting but Collins and his business partner saw potential in linking players online. Essentially, Demonware’s online gaming technology was used to connect players on consoles in some of the biggest games in the world at the time.

With the Celtic Tiger driving rapid uptake of consoles in the Irish market, the company thrived before it was sold in 2007 for a reported $17 million to Activision Blizzard, which used the technology to underpin some of its most popular games, such as Call of Duty and Guitar Hero.

Collins went on to found online games publisher Omac Industries. It became Jolt Online Gaming after acquiring that business in 2008, Jolt developed, licensed and published online free-to-play games that could be accessed through a web browser.

In 2009, it was acquired by games retailer GameStop, becoming its online gaming division. Collins, not yet 30, stayed on as chief executive until 2011.

His co-founder in Jolt, Richard Barnwell, stayed in the games business and went on to found Digit Games; Collins dabbled a little in the kids space with Fight My Monster before setting up SuperAwesome in 2013.

Alongside his interest in SuperAwesome, Collins is also an investor. He is a co-founder and partner in Hoxton Ventures, a backer of SuperAwesome but also of other companies, including Deliveroo.

Data privacy laws

There were good reasons why Collins saw the opportunity for the kid-tech firm. In the United States, tough laws around data privacy for children made it difficult for web companies like Facebook, which is data-driven, to offer services to children. Initially, SuperAwesome started out as an advertising platform, but a few acquisitions later it expanded and started on the path to the company it is today: a suite of tools that ensures ads aren’t tracking personal data, enables parental consent and a social engagement platform that is child-appropriate.

“It created sort of a vacuum. That’s why we started SuperAwesome – to build the technology that was going to be used there,” he says. “It turned pretty rapidly into a very deliberate technology play. If you think about today, all the hundreds of tools and platforms you can use if you want to build a website are tools for adults.

“Our view is that there has to be the same kind of ecosystem for people building digital services and digital content in the kids space. There was absolutely nothing. So we said we would build it.”

With offices now in London, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and Singapore, the company now employs 130 people, and Collins makes it clear from the start what the firm is about.

“How do you feel about forgetting everything you’ve ever learned? That’s usually the first or last interview question. It’s quite an interesting shift,” he says. Most interesting were the answers that led him to realise they believed Super Awesome was an opportunity to actually do something good.

“I think in general it’s quite dangerous and usually wrong to claim you’re doing something good when you’re building a company,” he says. “Most of the stuff we build and invest in doesn’t make society better. Hand on heart, I can say Super Awesome does.”

Now based in London, Collins is originally from Mullinahone. There isn’t a trace of a Tipperary accent though, a side effect, he says, of spending so much time in the US and needing to moderate his accent to make himself understood. “I get accused of being Canadian with very strange frequency,” he says.

But his heritage is very important to him. “It was the village that taught me hurling, football, and I have the very best memories of growing up,” he says. “I went to secondary school in Kilkenny, which led to massive conflicts of interest in terms of hurling team support. But I’m Tipperary all the way.”

He was studying business at Trinity College when he met Blanchfield. They set up a web-based texting business, Phorest, before the pair, with Blanchfield supplying the technology know how, moved on to create Demonware.

These days, he spends most of his time commuting between the US and London, with an occasional stop-off in Ireland. His marriage to Karen O’Donoghue, chief executive of health food firm The Happy Tum Co, recently ended, but amicably.

“We speak every couple of days,” he says. “It’s tough being married to a founder who is building companies. You have to put everything into the thing you’re doing. It takes a toll, there’s no doubt about it.”

Although Collins’s company aims to protect the privacy of children, he doesn’t have any of his own. That could actually be an advantage, he says, as it allows him to look at the issue from a different angle.

“It was an investment decision. I think sometimes, if you’re emotionally very close to a problem, it makes it hard to be objective about the strategy around it or the size of the problem,” he says. Children, he says, have essentially become the fastest growing audience on the internet in the past five years, and that is a trend that is likely to continue. But with Silicon Valley creating products for its own needs, no one was building an internet suitable for children.

“This is not Facebook being evil or Google being evil; this was always their core business model. They just never realised kids were going to be there.”

The only misjudgment has been in thinking that they didn’t have to deal with kids, Collins says, describing it as just another challenge that we all have to get on with and fix and deal with.

He sees the next looming battle as home technology. Smart homes and devices such as Amazon’s Echo smart speakers and Google Home are trying to establish a foothold in the market. But that requires a different approach from manufacturers.

“The battle for pockets and screens has kind of been won,” he says. “To win that, you have to win kids; to win kids, you have to win the trust of parents. That’s a really hard problem to fix. You don’t fix it quickly. You can’t change their behaviour or business models overnight.”

That trust has been damaged somewhat by various privacy scandals over recent years, including the Cambridge Analytica debacle that hit Facebook, where data on millions of users was improperly shared.

Digital age of consent

Collins sees it as somewhat of a victory that, in Ireland this week, the digital age of consent was set at 16 years in Ireland instead of 13, over the objections of the ruling Fine Gael party. It’s not about restricting children’s access to the internet, he says. It’s about keeping companies that are tracking their users from exploiting their data.

“If you’ve got an opportunity to protect children, why would you not take that opportunity to have more protection for children online rather than less. I defy any politician to sit in front of me and answer that question, where 13 is the answer,” he says. “It’s not cutting off anyone’s access. Advertisers can offer services without capturing data.”

With that in mind, the future looks bright for the kid-tech company. There has been talk of a possible London listing for SuperAwesome. But that isn’t the focus for the firm just yet.

With the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulations – and the ones governing children, GDPR-K – the idea of a zero-data company seems to make even more sense. SuperAwesome was valued at $100 million earlier this year after the company turned a profit for the first time in the final quarter of 2017.

Figures from the company indicated a 70 per cent jump in annual revenue run rate to $28 million. It is targeting a near doubling of that figure this year to about $50 million.

The business, which claims to reach more than 500 million unique users each month, raised $21 million last year in an investment round led by Mayfair Equity Partners, bringing total funds raised to date to $28 million.

It’s only the start for the company, which turned five years old this month.

“Too much tech is built without really thinking about it, but it can be hugely beneficial,” he says. “Kids are only going to be exposed to and engage with more digital devices services

“There’s a lot more transformation coming down the line. We’ve got to make sure it’s being done properly,” he says.

CV

Name: Dylan Collins

Age: 38

Position: Founder and chief executive of kid-safe marketing platform SuperAwesome that operates as a bridge for brands to reach those aged between six and 16.

Home: London

Something you would expect: He is passionate about privacy, particularly for younger internet users, and backs the idea of the digital age of responsibility being set at 16.

Something you might not expect: Back in his Demonware years, the hard-charging young businessman doubled as a rap DJ in his (limited) spare time, with a stint on Jazz FM, and still plays a bit now.These days, while his work focuses on the cutting edge of the consumer internet, he is also interested in ancient history, specifically the Pleistocene and pre-Pleistocene era – that’s Ice Age to the rest of us.