An Interview with b.labs Founder & CEO Arman Rousta on the Launch of the Kidcoin App
After tireless effort on the part of Kidcoin's development, design, and advertising teams, the Kidcoin app has launched in the iOS and Android Stores. Arman Rousta—Founder and CEO of Kidcoin's parent company, b.labs—was interviewed by b.lab's own Chad Sanderson on the app launch, the history of Kidcoin, and the future of the venture. Arman offered guidance for entrepreneurs as well: both those who aspire to launch a business, and those already in the game.
The interview in its entirety can be viewed above, or accessed through the following, unabridged transcript:
CHAD SANDERSON: So today we have Arman Rousta here, Founder and CEO of b.labs. A lot of exciting things are coming for the brand. This week, the launch of Kidcoin!. How are you feeling today, Arman?
ARMAN ROUSTA: It's surreal, to be honest. We've been working on this project for such a long time and it's gone through so many pivots, so many ups and downs that I almost can't believe that we're finally launching our product. But we took our time! We wanted to make sure that what we put in front of parents and kids—put in front of the market—felt good to us, and will be a good representation of what the intention of the company is. So I'm feeling great and just laser-focused and excited for the grand launch. I'm 48 years old now, but back in college, going to a good school, getting a degree, coming out of school, living in the big city, living in New York, and having to pay rent and bills for the first time, that's really where the vision for Kidcoin was born.
I have this great education and this great degree, but no one taught me the first thing about how to balance a checkbook, how to manage and pay my bills on time, how to save money properly, how to invest in markets, how to understand all of that. You could take classes here, and obviously you watch what your parents do, you talk to your friends. So that's really where the idea was born. It was my struggle in the first few years out of college trying to keep my own finances afloat personally. And I just felt that there was a gap. If there was no solution for me, there was probably no known solution for others. And at that time, and even at this time, 20-plus years later, the same struggles and challenges exist around people falling into debt, and not understanding how to manage their own bottom line. So that's where the concept and the idea came from originally, and that's what we've been working on all these years.
CHAD: Yeah, that's awesome, and I'm sure a lot of people can relate to that. You know, I personally relate to that as well. I'm sure some people wish they had the tools as a child to learn financial literacy, because it's an important topic these days. And on that note, a lot of people would like to know if Kidcoin is considered cryptocurrency.
ARMAN: Yeah, the name Kidcoin obviously lends itself to crypto and blockchain. I'm personally a big supporter and believer in blockchain and crypto, and this kind of financial revolution, if you will. Like any new product, any new asset class is gonna take time. It’s gonna go through its own ups and downs. There's regulatory issues. So we do have designs, we do have ideas for Kidcoin to eventually become a cryptocurrency and have different blockchain, different NFT features, different components . . . That's not the product we're launching initially. We felt that that would be a little too complex to build and develop and support, compliance-wise. So it's a catchy name and the name could have a lot of applications, but for our initial launch we're calling it a virtual currency, not a cryptocurrency. But eventually we will be going down that road.
CHAD: Nice. And I can imagine that those things take time, laying the groundwork. So how long have you been working on this project in general?
ARMAN: As noted before, I had the idea out of college, so we're talking 25-plus years ago where the concept originally came to me. I was a young entrepreneur at that time, just coming out of my first startup. We had an exit and then I had this idea and I said, I'm gonna do this. We called it something different. At the time, the initial brand was 401kid. We launched a successful product for 401kid, back in 2003, but it was a different product. We kind of got, I would say—I don't know if sidetracked is the word—but there are so many spokes to this problem. With 401kid, the vision was similar, but it kind of went down the one spoke in the wheel, which was saving and planning for education. So it became more of a savings and advisory tool for parents.
It was a good tool, a good product, but I found that it wasn't really resonating with me deep down for what the original vision truly was, which was to help not just the parents but the kids. And that savings tool was helping the parents save money for the kids, but it wasn't teaching the kids the values, the financial competence and literacy that we aimed for. So we kind of put the project on ice for a number of years. And in 2017 when we came back to it, that's when the concept, the brand concept of Kidcoin was born. And we said, “Well, this does need to be more for the kids, not just the parents.” And so Kidcoin acquired the predecessor 401kid. We still have those designs to help kids plan and save with their parents for education, learn about investing, and all of that.
But that happens when you're a little bit older: 13, 14, 17 . . . What do you do for the five-year-old, the six-year-old, the seven-year-old? My son who's seven—that's where Kidcoin comes in. It's a baseline financial education tool. And I would even go a step further and say, not just financial education—this is really a parenting tool. It's for the parents and the kids to learn how to communicate, how to negotiate, and how to come to agreements to help the kids build good values and good habits. It's a habit tracker, and we have features that we'll get into and talk about. But it's not just about the money, right? So if someone says, “Well, I don't have a lot of money, we don't make money, we're in debt,” it's still a perfect tool for you and your children, you know, to use because it can help them. And you learn how to negotiate and budget for the resources you do have and maybe how to come up with a plan to increase your resources over time.
CHAD: Nice, nice. On that note: regarding the parent/child dynamics, what are some of the key features of the product that assist with that?
ARMAN: Sure. So, when you launch an app, one of the first questions and challenges is, are you launching a web app or are you launching an app store app? And there's differences, which I won't go into the whole thing there, but part of that is there's a lot of restrictions obviously to protect younger children from using apps. Like a lot of these video games, right? Kids are playing and there's all these in-app purchases. And if a parent has their credit card in an iPad— and it's happened to me, it's happened to almost every parent I've talked to—what happens with all these charges coming in if you don't lock that? So there's a lot of reasons why there's some protections, as there should be. We decided on how to deal with that: since our app is really geared towards kids of all ages, starting from four or five years old, parents should be the initial customer.
So our app has a different interface for parents and kids, where parents sign up and then they add their kids, and then they give their kids a passcode on their device, on the parents' device, where the kid could get their own view. Or if the child has their own device—like young kids usually don't have phones, but they have iPads—the parent can set, install the app on the iPad, and then the kid with their code can get in. So it's really a companion app between parent/guardian and children, and then other family members can be invited to participate too. And on that note, some of the key features are allowances. The parents can give allowance to the children: whatever they wish on whatever frequency. They set the chores for the children and then offer them (if they wish) a financial incentive to fix your bed, do your homework, clean your room . . .
And you could be very creative about that. And we have a marketplace of the most popular chores; what other families are doing. And there's a whole community component that can help people see what the best practices are, so to speak. But parents always make the choice. They set the rules at the end. There's a goal-setting component, which I think is very important. I’ve always been big into goal-setting. It's always helped me on my journey. And most people that are successful in different walks of life talk about the importance and power of goals. We want to teach that to kids from a young age so the kids can actually set their own goals (like a bucket list) and then have their savings (like save the Kidcoin that they're earning from allowances and short completion in their bucket list for goals) and set deadlines, and even request other family members to support them in those goals.
So that's another key feature. And then the last one I'll talk about—because we have many things coming down the pipeline—are micro scholarships, which I haven’t seen much of anywhere else. And that, for short, is “micros.” So there's a micros tab in the app where sponsors or humanitarians or anybody—individual or organization, school, nonprofit, government—can offer these micro rewards for children that achieve something good, whatever that may be. It could be for getting good grades in school, it could be for just showing up and attending a special camp. It could be for any kind of achievement that the sponsor deems worthy of a micro reward, which could be anywhere from $10-$100 worth of value. And that reward could be given in cash, it could be given in Kidcoins, or it could be given in an actual physical product.
So let's say a brand—a food company—says, “Here's a $50 dinner ticket receipt or coupon,” that could be the reward. So the sponsor gets to determine the amount of the reward and how many they're willing to give. They could be very specific about what type of child can qualify. Is it boys, girls, everybody? Is it an age group? Even ethnic groups, right? So, like scholarships, the sponsor could be very targeted on who they want to support and for what reason. And so that's going to be available in the Micros tab. I'm very excited about that feature.
CHAD: Awesome. As you mentioned before, the app does launch this week. But why in Jersey City and more specifically, why the soccer field?
ARMAN: That's a great question. You know, as a younger entrepreneur—and even now—there's always this vision that you want things to go global. You want to be a national success and you want everyone to have access to this. And of course we do. Anyone who launches a company or an application like this has a wide and broad vision. But what I've learned and where a lot of my sensibilities have gone recently is, “prove it locally.” Whatever it is you have, if your idea is solid and sound, it'll be fleshed out in your local community. And I think we've gotten into such a kind of a globalist mindset with a lot of the products we use that we expect to go from one city to another and see all the same shops, all the same companies.
And something about that has become a little less personal, instead of, “What's the local business? Who's the local milk brand over here?” Right? It's food brands, different brands. Instead of seeing the same brands nationwide, there's something that I like to support. And even our parent company b.labs has a vision to support and launch businesses that really support communities. And so that's why we're starting it in one particular community. And what better place than our own backyard where we're headquartered and based, where I'm a parent. I have a child that goes to public school in this community and plays in the local soccer league. So that's why we want to be outside. We want to be in front of parents, in front of kids in the community that we belong to. And if we can prove that this has utility—and that parents and kids in Jersey City, and then of course neighboring cities like New York, the boroughs—find value here, then we have a great blueprint that we could expand and scale to the nation. And then when you talk about going global, you have to talk about changing the language, having multiple languages in your app. There's a lot more investment and technical complexity to going beyond one language, one country. But of course that's in our view, but I think that's maybe a year or so away.
CHAD: Awesome. I love that “Start at Home” concept for sure. As far as the Golden Square brand, where does that fit into the mix and what role does b.labs specifically play?
ARMAN: Sure. So the Golden Square is an idea we came up with, again piggybacking off this local concept, this kind of community enrichment. b.labs is the parent company for Kidcoin, and there's eight other ventures in total in b.labs, and they all share this ethos of community-driven family values, and focus on how to help children and young people build core values that they're typically not getting. They're getting a lot of education, but we're looking to build these core life skills and core values. That's the ethos within most of the b.labs companies. And specifically this Golden Square is a group of companies within b.labs, of which Kidcoin is one. They're not just sister companies. They're twins almost. It's like you have these triplets or quadruplets; these four companies that are different, that have different offerings, but they support each other. And when you take them together and you launch them in a community as we're doing, they form this powerful group of companies that really support each other. Like, Kidcoin has connections with our health food company Blend FC, right? And there'll be these micro scholarships offered from Blend FC in Kidcoin and vice versa. It could be one of the chores to eat healthy or one of the goals in Kidcoin to eat healthy, by possibly either enjoying our smoothies, or other smoothies . . . it doesn't necessarily matter. But we wanted to make these offerings, and most of these companies are launching at about the same time within at least the same year, so that we can have the power of this kind of connected group of companies, not just individual companies in a different silo, all in one financial portfolio, but these companies can actually make each other better as they succeed. And as you gain customers from one, those are parents and kids that you can now cross-promote and introduce your other brand. And that's the network effect that we're looking for with Golden Square.
CHAD: And I'm sure you're super busy with Kidcoin and the other brands, but I'm also sure you're still looking in the future and planning ahead. So on that note, in terms of next steps and features and the partnerships, do you have anything in the pipeline right now?
ARMAN: We absolutely do. You know, it's taken this long to get to this point. And as I said before, it's almost like I have to pinch myself. I don't believe it until it actually happens, which is in two days. So it's always a battle as an entrepreneur—at least in my experience—between the vision of all these things you want to do and the things that need to get done right now, for what you have in front of you. And as I've talked to our developers and designers and other entrepreneurs, it's like we keep having this wrestling match between, “Oh, if we can just add these additional features,” because we have so many features. I would say this app we're launching is gonna be a very quality product, and yet it's only, I'd say, 5- 10% of what we have in our minds, but that other 90% is probably gonna cost us several more million dollars and take another year or two to put into play.
So the answer is, “Absolutely, yes.” We have some very exciting things. I won't talk about all of what they are, but I would just hint that deeper integrations and APIs with other already known popular apps and products, as well as some of the new products we have, like within Golden Square, are in the pipeline. The cryptocurrency direction that we talked about is certainly in the very near pipeline, and I would just say NFTs are coming up very soon within our immediate future. And with all of that, I envision some major partnerships with other big brands and sponsors, like the micro scholarships and other features as well. So a lot of exciting things to come. We wanted to get this launch done in 2022, so we have at least a whole quarter to introduce the product to the market. And 2023 should have a whole series of new announcements and backlog features that we introduce each quarter, if not each month.
CHAD: Awesome. Excited for you and the brand for sure. So, last question for you, some parting words: do you have any advice for upcoming entrepreneurs and startups in the game right now?
ARMAN: Sure, absolutely. First of all, I love working with entrepreneurs, with startups. As you may know, we have an agency that's two decades old that I'm very fortunate to be a founder of: Blueliner marketing, which is more than just marketing. It's really “Blueliner” because we have the technical, the design and the communications capabilities. And we were one of the early agencies in New York City, as a digitally-focused agency. We’re so proud to still be largely affiliated with Blueliner and have a really skilled team, having been the core team to develop this app and the marketing plan for Kidcoin. But I bring all that up to say in Blueliner, we work with a lot of entrepreneurs and it's not just my product. So, I've sat across the table as the consultant, the agency, and the advisor, and I love it.
I love sitting with entrepreneurs, talking to them, helping them really flesh out their vision . . . My advice would be for aspiring entrepreneurs to spend a lot of time on brainstorming and vision. Try your best not to get too fixed too soon, because as I talked about here in this conversation, there's a lot of pivots you have to make. I mean, look at this long road we've been on for 20-plus years. A lot of people might have given up by now. And you know, I've heard it a lot of times, “Oh, you ran outta capital, this didn't work out. Oh, you're gonna pack it in now. What are you gonna do next?” And I'm not saying there's not a time to quit. Sometimes there is a time to say, “We gave it our best. Maybe we should move on, try something else, come back to this later.”
And even for 401kid—we put that on the shelf for quite some time, but I always felt in my heart, we're gonna come back to it at some point. So I would just say it's a long road. If you're really committed, if it's something you really have the vision for: stick with it, talk to other people, take in feedback. But ultimately, you have to make the call. Everyone might tell you they don't like your idea, and that doesn't mean you stop. You have to really, at the end of the day, find your own grounding and voice for what's going to guide you in that process. Because there's gonna be ups and downs, there's gonna be failures, there's gonna be financial challenges. I would say financial challenges is the number one thing that puts entrepreneurs out of the game and keeps potential entrepreneurs out of the game.
It's like some of the conversations that I've had with yourself and others: “How do I even get this thing started? Am I cut out to do this?” And I would say some people are more cut out for it because you have to have a tolerance for risk. You have to just get comfortable with being uncomfortable and not knowing things. What's the script for this kind of conversation? “All right, here are some guiding questions,” and then let's just talk about it and flush it out. So I think as an entrepreneur or aspiring entrepreneur, you have to work on just being fluid in your life, and in the way you think and the way you feel. So it's a bit of a spiritual practice. I mean, for me it is. And it's learning how to be flexible, and continuing to be positive, continuing to take notes and learn. And whatever plan you had is going to change.
You have to keep rolling with the updated plan. Don't let what's happening run you. You have to keep revising. I'd say at least twice a year, if not quarterly, come back to whatever your business plan is, whether it's in a PowerPoint slide or a Word doc. Hopefully it's not just in your head! It's good if you're that confident, but you have to put it on paper because you're gonna have to share it with other people that you're going to hire to work for you or that you're trying to raise money from. Even just your customers need to know, “What is your product? What's coming up?” So you gotta put things on paper and then you have to keep reviewing that.
And the last thing: you need to be optimistic all the time, but sometimes over-optimism to the point of . . . It's not even “optimism”: it's unrealistic expectations! A lot of people might have saved (let's say) $10,000 and they come to our agency and say, “Well, build me an app.” Okay, so this is your budget. Okay, with $10,000 we could build one feature. Maybe you might have 10 features. So that’s it! And I try to help people on that level. And of course I try to look in my own mirror and reflect it to myself to say, how do we stay positive, but be realistic with what the milestones are? What does success mean? How long is it gonna take? So most entrepreneurs, when they start, are very unrealistic about how long it's gonna take to get their initial product to market, get it good enough, and how much money they're gonna need to invest and spend.
And then they get discouraged very quickly with the initial failure, so to speak. And that can just take you out. So I try to coach them or give feedback, and this is something I gotta tell myself all the time too: how to have a measured approach, how to keep balanced and grounded through the process, because there’s gonna be wins and losses, like a football season, like any kind of sports team. But you gotta trust your preparation and continue your preparation. Like what we're going through: the big day to come, the big launch. We don't know what's gonna happen. You might get good feedback, you might get bad feedback, but something's gonna happen, you know? The curtains are gonna come up, and the show's gonna begin with the bright lights, and it takes a long time to get to that point, to be ready for the bright light.
So give yourself enough time, enough preparation, and just be ready for the long haul. Like I told one of my business partners who was an aspiring entrepreneur 13 years ago, 14 years ago, when he came to me with a great idea; I looked him in the eye and I said, “This is a very good idea if not a great idea, but that's not what matters the most. Are you ready to spend the next 10 years of your life doing nothing but this as the top priority?” And you have to look that entrepreneur in the eye. And he did look me in the eye and say, “I'm ready. Let's do this.” And only then I said, “Okay, you know, we'll help you, and we'll partner with you and help you do this.” But that's a tough question. And 10 years is a long time. And it doesn't have to be 10 years exactly, but it's going to be most likely longer than you think, in part of your mind. So that's a long-winded answer, but that's my speech and my advice to current entrepreneurs that are in the journey, whatever phase you're in. And aspiring entrepreneurs as well.
CHAD: Awesome. Awesome. Thank you for that, Arman. Congrats on the launch.