I watched a lot of TV as a kid, from mindless cartoons to educational content. I also found that the latter was the most effective learning method for me while being very enjoyable. There’s also a huge market for this kind of content, and reception will take off if it’s done right.
Sinan Ismail will know this as a fact, as he’s been making educational content for children for almost 10 years. As the CEO and co-founder of Digital Durian, he’s published titles like Didi & Friends and Omar & Hana.
Since launching Didi & Friends on YouTube in 2014, it’s achieved about 5 billion views, sold over 800 types of merchandise, and hosted carnivals along with concerts for Malaysian families.
Now, the entrepreneur of 13 years is moving on to bigger things. His new goal? To build a tech startup, Durioo, into a version of Disney and Netflix for Muslim children.
Holding onto a dream
Building Digital Durian to what it has become today was a long time coming for Sinan. In 2008, Sinan founded a multimedia company that began providing photo and videography services for weddings in 2010.
But behind the scenes, Sinan held onto his dream of one day making animated cartoons.
“I grew up loving cartoons like Transformers, ThunderCats, and Care Bears. All of these cartoons had a big impact on me,” Sinan shared.
“What influenced me most and built my love for animation was definitely Toy Story and Pixar movies. The visuals are amazing, the storytelling is superb, and most importantly, there is always a good message to be learnt.”
Growing up to parents who were both lecturers, Sinan knew that he wanted to create cartoons that could instil positive values in children.
Following one’s heart
So, pursue this dream he did. As they grew, Sinan and his team participated in Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC)’s Intellectual Property Creators Challenge (IPCC) competition 3 times, the first time being in 2009.
That pitch failed, and so did the following one in 2010. In 2012, Sinan submitted Didi & Friends: The Science Explorers.
Armed with the lessons learnt from the IPCC 2009 experience, Sinan was more prepared this time around. “I rehearsed, recorded myself, and edited my pitch on the laptop. When it was ready, I played [it as an] MP3 version for 3 days,” Sinan described, recalling that it birthed the best pitch he’s ever given.
Sinan was later invited to the IPCC 2012 announcement ceremony at the Cyberview Resort ballroom. With an empty stomach and a pounding heart, the MC announced Didi & Friends: The Science Explorers, as one of the 10 IPCC winners of 2012.
Soon after, Didi & Friends was submitted to Cradle for an investment programme. Though the application was rejected in 2011, it was finally accepted in 2013.
At the same time, Sinan shuttered his wedding services. While it was hard to part from his team members and friends, he believes it was the right thing to do since his heart was no longer in it.
“We got our small breakthrough in animation and the best thing to do was to focus,” he stated.
Getting it on air
From there, the journey of getting Didi & Friends broadcasted began. While the show originally intended to teach science, repeated feedback and rejections from local and international broadcasters suggested it change.
Coincidentally, Sinan’s 1-year-old son was exposed to nursery rhymes. He realised such content could generate millions of views on YouTube. Sinan even spoke to an early childhood specialist to realise that early childhood was important in shaping the future of a child.
“Which also means if we can reach millions of children, it could shape the future of a generation,” he added.
This led him to find a gap for children’s songs in the Malay language. While they existed, they lacked interesting animations but were still garnering hundreds of thousands of views. Even Google search trends were recording 10K searches a month for the exact thing.
Hence, the team switched their content to Didi & Friends: Kids Songs. The first episode was published on YouTube in May 14, 2014, hoping to get at least 1 million views that year.
Much to the surprise of Digital Durian’s team which only comprised co-founders, Sinan, Hairul, Zai, and Iman along with a few interns, Didi & Friends managed to reach 5.5 million views in its first year.
From there, Sinan signed with Astro as co-producer to broadcast Didi & Friends on Astro Ceria in December 2015 up until this day.
Exploring bigger things
Come 2021, the founders of Digital Durian came together to discuss the future of the company. While Sinan wanted to focus on content with Islamic messages, his partner wanted to create cartoons for the masses.
Because having the same aspiration and end goal as co-founders is essential for any company, it was a straightforward decision. “I took Omar & Hana and he took Didi & Friends and opened a new company,” shared Sinan.
While Digital Durian produced animations to be placed on YouTube or sold to broadcasters, Durioo is imagined as a tech startup producing animated Islamic content (Durioo Originals).
They will be published on its own subscription-based streaming service (Durioo+), accessible through phones, tablets, Smart TVs, Android Boxes, and so on.
“[For example], instead of celebrating Halloween or Easter, the kids in our shows will be celebrating Eid, and instead of saying hello, they would be saying Assalamualaikum. What we want to do is instil the good values and virtues through the lens of a Muslim,” Sinan shared.
To add, Durioo will also be publishing its own educational mobile games that teach Islamic values.
“There are over 400 million Muslim children around the world, but there are too few high quality Islamic [educational] animations and games, which children love to watch and play. When they look at it, they will be able to learn the beauty of Islam,” Sinan justified Durioo’s potential.
Currently, the team consists of 38 staff who were also part of the Digital Durian team. In 10-15 years, Sinan hopes to grow the team to 500-600 members while also collaborating with other animation studios, production houses, and game companies to produce more content and games.
The subscription plans and tiers for Durioo+ will differ based on the regions they enter. Beyond subscriptions, Durioo hopes to find ancillary revenue streams by working with sponsors, licensing, merchandising partners, and hosting experiences (in-mall theme attractions) and events.
Currently bootstrapped, Durioo is now raising pre-seed funds and will be raising its seed round in March 2022. Sinan told Vulcan Post that they’re already seeing interest from international investors in the UK, US, Dubai, and Singapore.
“This is only the start. Yes, there have been rejections, yes, there has been frustration, but all of this is part of the journey,” Sinan concluded.
Featured Image Credit: Sinan Ismail, CEO and founder of Durioo