Juana la Iguana had been a TV celebrity in her day, entertaining kids in Latin America. But she was asleep for awhile, and recently awakened into a digital, hyper-connected world.
Tania Gilinski, Amanda Quijano and Anita Katz are the founders of Juana la Iguana, winner of the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge People’s Pick and third-place winner in the judged competition. Gilinski, a journalist and marketer, created Juana the character more than a decade ago in Venezuela, where the kids’ educational television program had grown a following and begun expanding to other countries. But doing business in Venezuela and growing the company from the bottom up — negotiating with each media outlet separately — proved too difficult for the small team.
Team members went off to other endeavors. Gilinski had moved to the United States and was raising a family, but she still always had Juana in the back of her mind.
“When you are so passionate about something, it’s always there, but I didn’t think the time was right [before]. But now it is. Technology is a wonderful tool for learning,” Gilinski said. The founders have teamed up with Rokk3r Labs, a cobuilding company that partners with startups on all aspects of developing the product, marketing and execution.
New company, new team, new strategy: Juana the sequel is all digital. The lovable character will star in a series of educational and entertaining apps in Spanish targeted at kids up to age 5, with plans for other platforms. The team launched the first app in the Apple store last month, called Juana la Iguana en la Granja. Another is due out in early summer, and 18 more are planned over the next four years, said Gilinski, the CEO.
The character also has undergone a transformation: Juana is younger and more athletic. “When you are magical, you can do that,” Gilinski laughed.
The first app, now available for free and later for $4.99, focuses on life on a farm, introducing lessons through matching games with animals, fruits and vegetables found in Latin cultures. The next one will be a game about cleaning up the beach, aimed at teaching lessons about marine life and protecting the ocean.
All of the apps will include activities that parents can do with their kids, and the kids get “presents” through the apps — beloved Latin songs. “Juana’s message is if you want a better world, everyone has to be a better human being,” Gilinski said.
Downloads so far are mainly coming from the U.S., Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico (where Juana already had climbed to the top 100 apps last week), but there have also been downloads from other parts of Latin America as well as Russia, China, Australia, Japan and Europe, she said.
“It’s a profound but also powerful and ambitious play on content designed for toddlers. We are initiating with a set of games in the app store, but we see clear spinoffs in other content outlets such as TV, print, music and merchandising,” said Germán Montoya, co-founder of Rokk3r Labs. “Juana not only focuses on entertaining and skill education, her whole magic is based on inculcating citizenry and values that help us get along as humans in an ever-complicating and fast-moving world.”
The new company is focused on three pillars — “fun” learning, positive values, and a proud connection to Latin culture — all presented in an interactive way, said Gilinski, a mother of four.
Nuret Sheinberg, director of Research and Evaluation for the Mailman Segal Center for Human Development at Nova Southeastern University, who advises the company on content and format, said there are many educational programs and applications, but most of them only emphasize traditional school reading skills such as letter recognition and numerical concepts.
“Juana la Iguana does a wonderful job emphasizing the socio-emotional component of development. The educational platform supports the creation of positive interactions, empathy, respect. It promotes caring for others and the environment,” Sheinberg said. “Studies have found that these are the skills that children need in order to be successful in life.”
The market is large — and growing. In the United States, there were more than 5 million Hispanic children under 5 years of age and 12.6 million Hispanic moms, according to the 2012 Census report. About 1 million Hispanic children are born in the U.S. every year, according to Census figures. Worldwide, the number is estimated to be 8 million.
Besides the three founders, the Juana la Iguana team includes Charles Walter at Rokk3r Labs, who leads Juana la Iguana’s operations and marketing, as well as a developer and a designer at Rokk3r and other illustrators, educators and advisors. Quijano‘s experience is in creative direction and production; Katz is a musician and early-childhood educator.
The entrepreneurial journey is never easy; you have to listen to others but also trust your gut, Gilinski said. “Early on, a prominent producer I respected said, ‘An iguana? It will never happen.’ I said, ‘I think you are wrong because the most beloved character of all times is Mickey Mouse and a rat is the most despicable animal.’”