She’s Mom, Incorporated: Catriona Wallis

Catriona Wallis is the Founder and CEO of Colto, a developer of mobile games that teach language to kids. We caught up with this globe-trotting mother of two to find out how she transformed her background as an English teacher in Europe into an entrepreneurial adventure in mobile technology. 

MOMINCORPORATED: Where are you from originally? What motivated your move to Italy?
CATRIONA: I was born and raised in Sydney, Australia. After a 10 year career in television, then working in business development in the Arts, I became seriously ill at 32 and had to stop work for 4 months. During my recovery, I decided to do what my heart had been telling me for the past few  years and move to Europe. I sold everything and used the funds to travel to Italy to study Italian, eat pasta and drink red wine while I regained strength in my life. I was interviewing for career jobs in London at the time but in my heart I was falling in love with life in Italy.  Then I met and fell in love with my now Italian husband and never considered moving to London again!

MOMINCORPORATED: How did you transition from English teacher to mobile apps developer/entrepreneur?
CATRIONA: I completed the Cambridge University English language teacher training course and started teaching English in Milan. Being a mom and mother tongue English teacher living in Italy, I was constantly asked by friends how they could improve their children’s English. At the same time I was observing the huge impact that games on my smart phone and tablet had on my own kids from when they could walk.

I started researching new digital teaching methods and read inspiring publications and discovered revolutionary and highly effective teaching methods for young kids learning through games and having fun.

Then I started playing different educational games on the App Store with my eldest son. I found almost all of them lost his attention after a short period of time as they were what I call digitalised taxtbooks. So that’s when I decided to develop my own language learning game that would capture and hold kids’ attention.

MOMINCORPORATED: Why do you think mobile apps make good educational tools for kids?
CATRIONA: Educational Psychologists agree that mobile game apps have the potential to be powerful learning tools for kids. There’s a gaming concept called ‘being in the zone’ which happens when a great game totally absorbs a player and transports them to another world where they lose track of how long they’ve been playing. Educational Psychologists call this same concept ‘flow’ and say it’s the optimal learning state, where learning just ‘flows’.

The mass popular appeal digital games have on learners is because they are truely engaging. It makes sense then to use this popular appeal to motivate kids to learn.

Video games have also proven to teach kids valuable life skills such as creative problem solving, quick response times, exercising control in challenging circumstances, persistence and attention to detail.

MOMINCORPORATED: How did the idea for Dodo Ladder Chase come about?
The idea for Dodo Ladder Chase first came about after long discussions about the impact of technology on English language learning with Graham Stanley, author of the book “Digital Play: Computer Games and Language Aims.” I had originally planned Colto as a more serious (and in retrospect boring) educational game. After discussing the project with Graham and researching the motivations of why kids play video games, I realised we had to create fun games that would not lose the players attention, otherwise it would defeat the purpose of using games to teach.

MOMINCORPORATED: How does the game work? What languages are included? CATRIONA: In Dodo Ladder Chase kids learn new words in English by associating them with images as well as hearing the correct pronunciation of words and letters. An intro video to the game draws the player into a story about an evil Dodo bird set in an adventure world of floating islands joined by ladders. The player goes on a mission to chase the Dodo up the ladders and encounters obstacles such as evil flowers and creepy spiders on the way and has to solve mini word tasks in order to continue climb in. The points, prizes and collectible coins kids win in the game capture their attention and keep them playing and learning new words.

The game has been localised in 7 languages; English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Dutch. This means the games’ buttons and instructions for the mini tasks localize to these languages when they are the default language of the iPad or iPhone .

MOMINCORPORATED: How did you manage 3 months at the accelerator in Estonia and being a mom?
CATRIONA: To be honest, the 3 months in Estonia came at a cost to my family. Our  beloved nanny of 7 years decided to move back to the Philippines 10 days before I was due to leave for the program and my Italian mother-in-law told me in no uncertain terms that a womans place was at home with her kids and she wouldn’t help me with the kids while I was away. My husband supported my decision to go and so we found a new nanny to live in our home with the kids for 3 months. I travelled back and forth from Tallinn to Milan each week apart, from 2 weeks school holidays when the boys came to stay with me in Tallinn.

It was difficult for both the children and I with me being away as I am the mom  who follows their daily routine of schoolwork, sports activities, playdates, reading to them and putting them to bed. At the end of the program when I returned, it was such a pleasure to be able to take them to school in the morning!

Family time

MOMINCORPORATED: What have been some challenges you’ve faced starting a mobile apps dev company?

CATRIONA: There have been major challenges starting with the initial challenge of finding a team for the project. As a mother and English teacher I didn’t have contact with tech people and programmers. Through contacts I got in touch with various unsuitable people working in IT before calling the Professor of the Masters course at one of the best computer programming university courses in Milan. He introduced me to my current partner and programmer, Davide Jones.

Then there’s the challenge of balancing life between work and being a mom. There are times when I feel like I’m not doing enough for either my children or my business. I feel guilty for not spending time playing with my kids after school as I used to do when I was teaching English. Now I have to rely on my nanny to play with the kids and organise their after school activities.

There have also been financial challenges securing funds to be able to continue our work. I have invested my lifetime personal savings in this project and have not earned a wage for 2 years. The other team members have also been working hard on the project for little money.

The Colto Team: Rubens Cantuni, Catriona, and Davide Jones

MOMINCORPORATED: Did you start or do you run your business from home? If so, what challenges did that present?
I started running the business from home for the first year and a half but in June this year we started renting a desk in an open plan co-working space for startups in Milan.

Working from home was very difficult when my second child was still a toddler. Even though I had a nanny, when he got home from pre-school in the afternoons, he wanted me to play with him and I found it difficult to close myself in the office and concentrate when he was in the house. I could still  hear him asking for me.

MOMINCORPORATED: How did the Indiegogo campaign come about? What are your goals for that?
I started thinking about running a crowd funding campaign after a mentor on our accelerator program in Estonia gave a seminar on the advantages and disadvantages of the different funding options for startups. I decided it was our best option because it gave us the opportunity to test the popularity of our vision and game on the market before it was released on the App Store and it gave us exposure to a huge target market audience. If our campaign is successful, we will be able to be truly independent game developers as we will not have to answer to investors making decisions for Colto based on profit.

Our goal is to raise $50,000 in 45 days which will enable us to finish Dodo Ladder Chase and publish it for English language learning on the App Store for iPad and iPhone. If we raise more than our budget we’ll develop and publish the game for learning in different languages and we’ll develop it for the Android & Windows 8 platforms. This will enable kids from all corners of the world to practice languages for free while having fun playing our action adventure game.

To learn more about Colto’s effort to fund Dodo Ladder Chase, their interactive language-learning game for kids, visit their Indigogo campaign page

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