Caroline Hu Flexer: "Solve a Problem You Personally Care About"
The cofounder of an educational games company discusses great advice, tough lessons, and why doing right by kids is key to her business.
Caroline Hu Flexer is the CEO and cofounder of Duck Duck Moose, a 16-person company based in San Mateo, Calif., that makes educational mobile games for children, including apps that let kids drive a fire truck, create an animated comic book, or interact with the infamous “wheels on the bus.”
Flexer, originally trained as an architect, founded the business with her husband and a friend in 2008. They bootstrapped the business for four years and in 2012 raised venture capital from Sequoia Capital and others. Today the company counts more than three million paid downloads. Flexer talks to us about the downside of too much process, and what happens when the real world and digital world collide. She received her MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2001.
In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?
Empowering children to learn, create, and explore.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was leaving for college, my late father told me that it was important for me to study whatever I was most interested in, rather than do what many people do, which is to plan their careers first and study whatever will get them there. I could never have anticipated the path of my career. I started as an architect, then worked as a product manager, and then worked at IDEO before becoming an entrepreneur. Duck Duck Moose is a culmination of all of my past experiences in design, technology, and business. I never would have been able to plan that route for myself as a young student.
My father emigrated from Hong Kong when he was in high school. He worked in Silicon Valley as an engineer for many years before becoming a marketing director for Sun Microsystems. He believed in taking advantage of opportunities that came along and following your interests rather than just making a living.
What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?
Each personality on a small team can make a huge difference in swaying the dynamic of the entire team. On creative teams it is really important that there is no drama. It shuts down creativity. Our company works collaboratively, and is modeled on some of the things I learned at IDEO. Teams are small but interdisciplinary, and often include people from marketing, product, design, illustration, etc. In my experience, the best ideas come from anywhere, not from one single person dictating direction. Everyone needs to be resilient because when we are creating a new game, we try new things every day, and the pace of change is rapid. Our process is iterative and messy, incorporating feedback from everyone on the team as well as from children in our testing room, kids’ homes and classrooms. Sometimes that involves conflict, but when it’s done right and is constructive, it can bring about a magical experience.
We start with the customer and iterate as we observe how kids play. We brainstorm as a team and ask everyone to come to the table with new ideas. For this to work, everyone has to be free and open. Then we prototype, test, rethink, and redesign. The kids are brutally honest. That feedback pushes us to change.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?
Solve a problem you personally care about. We founded Duck Duck Moose based on our passion for kids’ education, technology, and music. I believe the people who touch and use your product will know if the people behind it are mission-driven. My husband codes and plays the cello. Our kids have done some of the audio recordings.
What inspires you?
The kids! We are constantly observing kids to learn how they play and what makes them happy or frustrated. We are always surprised. As an example, we began working on a new app called “Draw and Tell.” The inspiration came from my kid’s preschool, where kids at 3 or 4 years old would use a big paintbrush to draw a big squiggle and then say, “It’s an octopus going out to lunch!” and the teacher would write that on the back. In our app, kids could record their voices on a drawing to explain what it is. As the app evolved, we added different paintbrushes and crayons and stickers.
What is your greatest achievement?
My kids. I am so grateful for their natural curiosity and questions, like: “Why is the sky pink today?”
What do you consider your biggest failure?
My biggest failure is fearing failure earlier in my career and giving up when it looked like something wouldn’t work. As a type-A, straight-A student, it was difficult for me to learn that sometimes you have to fail [in order] to learn. In a startup, we have to fail all the time in order to learn.
What values are important to you in business?
Doing right by kids. Every day we need to make decisions, from product design to marketing, that can impact kids. For example, in-app purchases are common in our industry. We made the decision early on not to do that even though it would be a more profitable business model. We want to create an experience that is great for parents and safe for kids.
What impact would you like to have on the world?
I would like to inspire the next generation of artists, inventors, and explorers. There are negative perceptions of “screen time,” and many parents worry about this, but I believe technology can be used as a powerful tool to provide kids with information and experiences they couldn’t otherwise obtain.
How do you become an entrepreneur?
I never planned to be an entrepreneur. I always loved creating things, as an architect, at Intuit and IDEO. Becoming an entrepreneur was something that came out of being inspired by my own kids. In 2008, the iPhone came out. I watched my daughter pick it up and swipe through photos like a book the first time she ever held it. I saw then that even young kids can use technology in meaningful ways. That looked like an opportunity.
What was your first paying job?
Playing the violin for weddings in a string quartet when I was in school. My parents taught me to save the money for college.
Do you think there is such a thing as balance? How do you achieve balance in your life?
We are attempting to build a culture at Duck Duck Moose that helps working parents have really fulfilling careers as well as flexibility to be active parents. There are talented working parents who want high-powered careers. I think it’s OK to be home for dinner with my kids and finish my work later. There is no face-time requirement here. It’s just about getting the work done. We do have to work fast because we are a startup, but we also want to create a place where people are aligned with our mission. Personally, being an entrepreneur and the mom of two young girls is hard. I am not going to make it sound easy. I’m leaning in. But I don’t know that anyone has the answers. My daughter still does not have patches on her Girl Scouts sash.
What is the best business book you have read?
Creative Confidence by IDEO founders David and Tom Kelly. You don’t have to be an artist to be creative. It can be developed and learned.
What businessperson do you most admire?
Steve Jobs. It is amazing that a 1-year-old can use an iPhone.
What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at Stanford?
The friendships I developed through experiences like “Touchy Feely” and my Women in Management group.
What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?
The iPhone and touchscreen technology.
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