An Award-Winning App Designer On His One Legitimate Parenting Innovation

Plus, his one legitimate parenting innovation.

by Michael Howard
Originally Published: 
work-life balance

Routine Behavior is a series where we talk to guys who successfully juggle businesses, careers, and parenting about the routines that keep them on track. Up next is Raul Gutierrez, founder and CEO of Tinybop, the studio behind some of the most highly-praised iPad and iPhone apps in the Apple App Store.

Tinybop is to kids’ educational apps what Sub Pop was to ’90s independent music: the trend-setter that everyone looks to for ideas on what “cool” looks, sounds, and plays like. If you think the guy behind gems like The Robot Factory, Simple Machines, and Homes draws inspiration from his 8 and 10-year-old sons … you’re right.

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What time do you start answering emails in the morning?

Depends whether we’re in the summer or in the fall. During the school year, I’m the person that takes the kids out to the bus stop. Our business is 24 hours. We sell apps in 155 countries, and stuff happens overnight. Usually, the very first thing I do after I hit my alarm clock is look at my phone and grab emails. I don’t answer them, just look to see if there are fires to be put out. After that, I don’t touch email until I come in to the office. I’ve never been an early bird. I’m a night owl. Kids have forced me into this other schedule. I’m now usually the first person here between 8 and 8:30.

How many nights a week do you make it home for dinner?

For me, one of the things I try very hard to do is to go home at a reasonable hour. It’s company-wide. The great thing about starting your own company is you can create a culture by example, and that’s something we state as a value. Most people in the office are here 10 to 6, and there’s no peer pressure to stay crazy hours.

We do Question Time, which is an open forum. They can ask anything of me, and I can of them.

For the most part we do try to leave at 6. I don’t always make it, but when my kids were younger, they would wait by the door for me, because it was clockwork. My wife was always angry at me because I was the hero coming home. She didn’t feel that was fair. Now they’re older, so when I come home it’s dinnertime, and we try to have dinner together.

Most of my parenting stuff is some imitation of something my parents did with me. This is my one parenting innovation.

How do you reconnect with your kids when you get home?

After we’ve read, when the kids are going to bed, we do Question Time, which is an open forum. They can ask anything of me, and I can of them. Because it’s a defined space and time, they’ll save something up that they’ve been thinking about. It’s a very safe space, they’re in bed and comfortable.

It’s amazing what comes out at that time. A lot of times it’s about some other kid who’s being a bully or something they’re thinking about sometimes. The questions are really profound, stuff you had no idea that they were contemplating: big questions about life and death and the universe and god. Sometimes it’s something very small, like a misunderstanding about our family. My dad is from Mexico. My mom died a long time ago, and he remarried a Spanish lady. My kids were having a hard time with the difference between Mexico and Spain. They were embarrassed to ask, but that was a space where they could ask.

What are your kids’ favorite books?

Even though my kids are older, I still read to them several times a week. One of my kids made me promise that I wouldn’t stop reading to them. When you read to your kids, it’s a way to introduce them to books a few steps beyond where they are, because you can stop and pause and explain different concepts. Over the last year, we’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird and some post apocalyptic sci-fi that blew their minds.

It’s interesting to see them come back to books they read. When they were young, we read Narnia, the whole thing. Now 2 years later, they’re reading it on their own. That’s nice.

Does your wife stay at home or work?

My wife stays at home.

What services do you pay for (cooking, cleaning, yard maintenance, oil changes, etc.)?

We don’t have a maid. We do everything ourselves. My wife cooks a lot. I’m in charge of cleaning the kitchen. There’s something about the daily routine that’s nice — it’s a time you’re together and talking. No one likes cleaning dishes, but I don’t feel the need to outsource that.

Reading to your kids is a way to introduce books a few steps beyond where they are, because you can stop and pause and explain different concepts.

Our biggest splurge spending is on kids’ classes to help support their interests in areas where an outside teacher can teach more than we can. Our older kid goes to school with a big population of Russian kids who are amazing chess players, so we got him a chess teacher. Our younger son got into origami on his own, and was soon making things way beyond anything we could make, so we sometimes go to a place here called Taro’s Origami Studio, where he can go way beyond what we’re able to teach. This, I think, is one of the major cultural advantage of living in a large city — there’s a market for virtually any skill a kid might show an interest in. Of course the cost of these kinds of classes really add up so we choose them pretty carefully.

How much exercise do you get in a given week and what kind?

I’m terrible with exercise, but I walk to work. I live about a mile and a half from my office, so I walk there and home and that’s it. Before I had kids, I exercised all the time. For me, it’s a time situation. I feel like going to the gym, clothes, and shower — that’s 30 or 40 minutes I don’t have with my family … so I walk pretty fast.

How often do you travel for work and do you look forward to it or dread it?

I travel relatively often for work, and lately I’ve had I do a lot of speaking for my job. Sometimes these gigs are in Europe — they’re far away. I love to travel; I’m a traveler at heart. There’s a New Yorker cartoon: “Travel is the sorbet between courses of reality.” But it’s hard on my wife for me to be gone and her to be a solo parent. I can tell when I get home the kids are a little more clingy; they want to be around you every second. So when I travel, I try to do the same routines.

Last year at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, I was in a back corner trying to find a quiet corner to read Harry Potter over FaceTime from a hallway. I still do the questions. I try to have that routine. Personally, I love being in a foreign place, but I do hate missing my kids and wife.

What’s your go-to when you need work-related inspiration?

We make children’s apps, and for basically everyone in the office, one of the interview questions is, “What children’s books do you love?” We don’t hire people who like the basic books. We like skewed tastes, and we buy a lot of books for the office. We have a nice library of children’s literature — that’s a great inspiration for us. I also love Pinterest. I’m a science geek, so we’re looking for good old infographics from the ’50s, when they did a great job explaining that stuff. It’s a great place to go for inspiration.

How’s your attendance record at your kid’s events/games/milestone moments?

Not so good. I try to go to my kids’ games when they are playing soccer or music. For the last several recitals, they’ve had I’ve always been traveling, and I hear about it later. but I try, especially for sports games.

What’s your kid’s favorite toy at the moment?

I think we make great apps for a certain kind of kid. For me, I love toys that are open-ended. The best toys I’ve ever gotten my kids — that they continue to play with at 10 — are just wooden blocks. I got an elaborate set of handmade blocks, and it’s been a constant source of play for the kids. It’s funny how there’s a giant difference between 40-year-old and 10-year-old in terms of how they think and make things, and they’ve been the one constant in our life.

One of our interview questions is, “What children’s books do you love?” We don’t hire people who like the basic books.

Another great thing: I think a lot of parents like to give kids things they had in their childhood, and I had one of the last analog childhoods. For us, it was Light Bright and Erector sets and model rockets and stuff like that. I do that with my kids; we made model rockets the other day. It’s illegal in NYC, so we drove to Jersey. Model rockets are like $40 and they’re so much fun. They go way up, and now you can put a tiny USB camera and take a video; it’s amazing.

I like that even though we’re a digital household, we get a lot of fun out of analog toys as well as the books from my childhood that isn’t even published anymore. I grew up when every family had a children’s encyclopedia in the house. The Childcraft Encyclopedia: 15 volumes, earth, space, plants. If you look at our apps, it’s exactly that kind of idea. I found on eBay a copy of that set for my kids, most of the info — with the exception of the space stuff, which is out of date — is still relevant. It’s been amazing watching my kids get into it.

There’s one about a puzzle. I loved that book. It’s more complicated and more sophisticated than what you’d get out of most of the apps. It involves a lot of logic and thinking. Introducing kids to those things and seeing them respond meant a lot to me.

We made model rockets the other day. It’s illegal in NYC, so we drove to Jersey.

What about sites or apps?

Like every other kid in America, my boys are really into Minecraft. As part of the discussion around Minecraft, the kids have started to get into programming, and they have programming classes in school next year. Over the summer, my kids have been spending lots of time writing their own games in Scratch, with Hopscotch, and with a new maker tool from Tinybop, which gets released August.

I think it’s important to teach kids who are drawn to computers the fundamental principles of coding. The idea is to let them know that technology isn’t magic and that ultimately everything they see and experience on screens is the product of someone’s work. When kids you teach kids to code/make things and see them start making connections where they can turn ideas into reality, something incredible often happens: They realize they have agency, something that before had just been a black box.

Also, I love It’s a maker site for kids that functions a bit like a modern-day scout troop. The site encourages kids to make and do things with their skills, and kids can learn from each other. I’ve found the self-motivation of wanting to show creations to other kids can help propel school projects from work to fun.

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