Car rides with kids can sometimes feel endless. Especially when the Benjamin Blümchen radio play plays through the speakers or the parents' cell phone for what feels like the hundredth time. This was also the case with Carl Taylor, founder and father of three children, who longed for a mobile Toniebox on one of these trips with his then two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “I never take them with me. My daughter loves it and uses it all the time at home, but it's not a real solution for on the go.” Because the music cube is actually too heavy and unwieldy to carry. However, Taylor is skeptical about distracting children with a smartphone instead. Not just because his daughter has accidentally pushed away important calls. “My children always get really nervous and unbalanced when they have too much screen time,” says the Munich native.
Taylor thought about his own childhood: putting on the Walkman or clicking on the Tetris game on the Game Boy used to make him feel happy. For Taylor, this moment was the “initial spark” for his idea: wireless, foldable headphones for children, onto which colorful buttons can be pressed on the outside and audio stories can be played immediately. The perfect combination of Tonies and Walkman for him.
He told his friend Adin Mumma about it at the 2019 New Year's Eve celebration. And the industrial designer, also a father of three children, didn't think twice. In spring 2020 they both founded the startup “Kekz”. The name came to Mumma when he was standing in the kitchen with his son and the then four-year-old asked his mother for cookies. A candy for the ears that children also enjoy consuming – that's what Kekz is supposed to express. Immediately afterwards, the founders started looking for investors with their MVP. Taylor's connections in the music industry proved helpful: The Munich native had previously worked for Sony Music as a brand manager for 15 years and helped artists such as Fanta 4, Silbermond, Pink and AC/DC with the marketing of their albums and accompanied them on video shoots . To this day, Taylor still has a special connection with Peter Maffay – he won him over as the first investor for his project.
Cookie Crew: Founders produce their own radio plays in Peter Maffay's studio
“He was the perfect business angel for us because, on the one hand, he is a well-known personality with whom to tell a good story,” says Taylor. Children still know the musician from Tabaluga – that's a little kite that Maffay invented with Rolf Zuckowski and music lyricist Gregor Rottschalk. Maffay dedicated several albums and a musical to the mythical figure. “On the other hand, he is a father himself. “He also recognized this problem because he had a young daughter himself at the time,” Taylor continued.
Maffay is not just a financial sponsor: In its recording studios, the startup now produces its own audio stories of the self-invented “Cookie Crew”, a gang of cookie-loving animals who discover the world together and travel to different countries. “We are creating an independent radio drama brand alongside Kekz that we can build on,” says Taylor. The founders are not ruling out going to platforms like Spotify in the future.
Co-founder Mumma, who originally comes from Philadelphia in the USA, currently maintains important contacts in Asia. Kekz now produces its headphones for children there. The designer came to Munich ten years ago to set up his own product division for Westwing. In Shenzhen he produced and procured product samples and brought them to Germany. Mumma then developed decorative Bluetooth speakers with a friend in his first company – his transition into the tech sector. The design of the hardware and software of the Kekz listeners also comes from him.
At first glance, the blue and red headphones look like ordinary models that you place on the outside of the ear cup. However, they differ on the left side in that they have a circular depression in which a magnetic contact field is installed. Children click on the radio play buttons, which are equipped with an NFC chip. The chip works like a key: the data stored on the listener, i.e. audio stories from Bibi Blocksberg, Conni, Fireman Sam and Co., is unlocked and played immediately – without the need for an internet connection.
On the right side, children can control playback: press once to go to the next track or fast forward to the last track by clicking twice. The volume can also be regulated in three levels using a switch, whereby it always remains below 85 decibels.
Bernhard Junge-Hülsing from the German Professional Association of ENT Doctors explains that 85 decibels are too loud as continuous sound for children. He classifies: “However, especially with radio plays, there are not continuous sound levels, but only sound pressure peaks like 'Törööh'.” According to the expert, these should not exceed the limit when they hit the eardrum.
When you remove the Kekz chip, playback stops abruptly – just like with the Toniebox. “It's very intuitive. We convert the stop button into a physical movement. That’s what makes the magic for children,” says founder Mumma.
So far, 300 albums have been pre-installed on the listeners. According to the founders, around 100 chips with radio plays for children between the ages of three and seven are currently available on the market. The audio library on the listener can be expanded in the future through updates. For example, through a self-played “miracle cookie”, which the founders introduced based on the Kreativ-Tonie. In general, Taylor emphasizes: “We have all the licenses that Tonies has – including Disney.” The startup works with a total of 24 German book publishers, including Carlsen, Oetinger and Der Audio Verlag. Taylor's experience in the licensing business is also paying off for the entrepreneurial duo here.
Kekz stands out from the competition
According to Mumma, there are two reasons why the technology behind Kekz is quite simple. On the one hand, it's about only adding technical features to a hardware product for children where they make sense. The founder says: “Many people are addressing the topic of artificial intelligence and developing electronic devices for children. But the question is not whether we can, but whether we should.” The American rejects the idea of connecting children’s headphones to the “Internet of Things” so that they can interact with other smart devices. On the other hand, the startup wants to offer an affordable price with its headphones.
A pair of Kekz headphones costs around 70 euros, the corresponding chips around twelve euros each. In addition, the competition in the market is still manageable: Tonies offers headphones for around 35 euros that can be connected to the box via cable so that children can listen to music even in silence. It's still not ideal for on the go. It's a similar situation with competitor Tigermedia from Hamburg, which has set up a kind of Spotify for children. Using the app, children can stream radio plays and songs on their cell phones or insert them into a music box as audio cards. For quiet playback, there are also wireless headphones that cost just under 50 euros and can be connected to a smartphone, tablet or Tiger Box via Bluetooth. The Dutch startup Pogs has also developed a similar model. However, these headphones do not work independently of other technical devices.
Mumma and Taylor therefore see Kekz as a “new medium”. The founders also want to offer better sound quality than their competitors. Says Mumma: “Good sound means that the articulation of voices and conversations is clear. Then children don't have to turn up the volume very much.” In contrast to other headphone providers, their system would not turn down the sound of audio files from above, but would start at the bottom when mastering. ENT doctor Junge-Hülsing still advises parents to only use electronic toys such as headphones for an hour at a time and not to use them for more than two hours. “Breaks from noise are important, this also applies to long car journeys from Nuremberg to Rimini,” says the expert. In addition, the following applies: “The longer the period of use at a time, the louder the sound is, both for children and adults.”
Playmobil invests in headphones for children – and paves the way for retail
Two years after the market launch, the founders have sold around 80,000 headphones and 218,000 audio chips. The company recently had high hopes for the Christmas business. In keeping with Black Friday, the founders launched an online campaign week with discounts. “Shortly after the launch, we received shopping carts worth 200 to 400 euros,” says Taylor. Because Kekz offers a product for on the go, customers would always order a lot when the holidays were approaching.
In addition to Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays are among the periods with the highest sales, says Taylor. The entrepreneurs sell their products not only through their own online shop and store in Munich-Haidhausen. They now also offer their headphones on Amazon, toy retailers such as MyToys, baby outfitter Babywalz, the bookstore Thalia, drugstore Müller and in large supermarket chains. These include Coop in Switzerland and Interspar in Austria. Another strategic investor helped the startup get into retail: The Brandstätter Group, which produces Playmobil, has been investing in Kekz since the end of 2022. Says Taylor: “We didn’t want to bring in VCs or banks like other startups do. We don’t owe anyone any money.” He and Mumma still hold 60 percent of their company.
In order to achieve international expansion into Europe and later the USA, the founders are relying on more presence at airports. On the one hand, by offering their headphones in duty-free shops. On the other hand, the startup has designed its own headphones for Lufthansa, which are available in the lounge for families at Frankfurt Airport. In the licensing deals that Taylor is concluding today, he is already making sure to secure sound rights beyond the DACH region. Next year the founders want to focus on the trilingual region. Expansion to Italy, France and Great Britain should begin in 2025. Radio plays are particularly popular in Germany. “The problem of keeping your children entertained while traveling doesn’t end at national borders.” Kekz is not yet profitable. The big goal is to end 2023 without high losses and finally reach profitability in 2024, explains Taylor. The Munich Tonies could even be ahead of the game on this point.