Michel Kripalani is President of Oceanhouse Media, Inc., a leading publisher of more than 650 mobile and desktop apps based in Encinitas. He’s built his entrepreneurial empire by sticking to the company’s mantra of “Creativity with a Purpose” and is a strong advocate for developing apps that uplift, educate and inspire. Oceanhouse Media, or OM, was founded in January 2009, less than a year after Google launched the App store. Kripalani became one of the pioneers of interactive apps back in the “Gold Rush” days, as Michel calls it.
Being a veteran of the video gaming industry didn’t hurt either. Before that, Kripalani gained acclaim as a founder and the CEO of Presto Studios, creator of “The Journeyman Project” series and “Myst III: Exile” games that are still on the market. Today, the company has licensing agreements with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, HarperCollins, Random House Children’s Books, Hay House Publishers, Zondervan (a division of HarperCollins), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, Mercer Mayer,
Soundprints, Andersen Press, Chronicle Books and others. In many cases, the company works directly with authors to bring their beloved books to the app market, always staying true to the original content and intent.
Oceanhouse Media has created apps for all 44 of Ted Geisel’s Dr. Suess books as an interactive, educational experience. The Dr. Seuss apps have received critical acclaim and won numerous awards from various organizations, such as Parents’ Choice Awards and Children’s Technology Review. Twelve of the company’s children’s apps have reached the number-one spot on the App Store in the Top Paid Books category.
In addition, OM has a diverse variety of other apps including games, music, photography, health and fitness, reference, productivity and finance. Google has selected the company as one of its Top Developers, a designation granted to only 150 groups worldwide.
Michel is married to his wife, Karen, and they have two daughters, Tia who is 12 and Talia who is 10. Karen operates another imprint with the company called Beauty Everywhere, a digital publisher and community that creates inspirational products to help people live better lives.
Umbrella Media caught up with Michel Kripalani recently to find out more about this fascinating local entrepreneur and how he approaches his business and his life.
Let’s go back to 2009 when you created your very first app called Bowls. How did that idea come about?
We were looking do something that would take advantage of IPhone technology, including the touch screen. We wanted to develop something that would do more than just tap or swipe, so we came up with the idea of swirling, which led us to the idea of Tibetan bowls. As a user, you swirl your finger around the edge of the bowls to create a sound, along with cymbals and other Eastern musical instruments. My wife and I are very much of Eastern religion and meditation, so we already had the bowls. At the time, it was incredibly novel and got featured by Apple and rose to the top of the charts. That app is still available on the App store today and has been updated.
What’s funny about it is that I was concerned we had already missed the boat. There were already 10,000 apps on the App store, which had been open for seven months, and I was thinking wow, that’s a lot of competition. Little did I know just how crazy and huge this thing would blow up.
How did you come to secure the licenses to create apps for all 44 of Ted Geisel’s Dr. Suess books?
Before Oceanhouse, I ran Presto Studios, a video game development company here in San Diego. Way back when, UCSD was the first university in California to sign on to Google’s big digitization program where Google was looking to digitize all of their books. They asked me as the CEO of Presto Studios to be on the advisory board for the libraries to help them understand digital technology because I had a
background in video games and I was an alumni. So, for two years I sat on the advisory board for the libraries, which was kind of ironic because when I was in school, the library was not a place I went to very much.
The main library at UCSD is the Geisel Library, so I asked the head librarian if I could have an introduction with Audrey Geisel. We met with her and the president of Dr. Suess who asked, ‘Why would we want to have Dr. Suess on an Iphone?’ We had done a full demo, a full prototype of Dr. Suess’s ABC book on an Iphone and were able to show it to her running, and that landed us the agreement in October 2009.
Then we had a fire drill to get three apps out before that Christmas season, including How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Within a span of two and a half years, we were publishing apps for all 44 books that Ted Geisel had written and illustrated across all phones and tablets.
We really tackled it from the perspective of if Ted were alive today and had access to an Ipad, what would he want to do with it? We went back to thinking through how he wrote his books and what he did, so we created a lot of playful interaction between the words and pictures. Our Read and Learn series of Dr. Suess titles is pretty world-class on the App store for how it helps early readers to engage with books and find little educational moments and things.
Did your kids use the apps when they were younger?
They did. My two daughters grew up with Ipads and used a lot of our content. They were that first generation, you know, two-year-olds having access to Ipads, so we got to see firsthand how children interacted with all of our products.
How did your kids influence your busines decisions?
My wife and I are very big into meditation and metaphysical and Eastern religion and then as the kids were born, that very much drove us into being interested in early childhood education. I have the blessing as an entrepreneur to go in directions that interest me. And I find that to be a lot easier when you’re running a business because there are times when things are going to get really, really tough and really bad. When you enter into those times, it’s a lot easier to be doing something that you love.
Tell me about your childhood. Where did you grow up and what were your interests as a kid?
I grew up traveling. My dad was an engineer so we ended up moving once every 12 months almost throughout my entire childhood. We lived a little bit on the east coast and then came out west to California by the time I was in fifth grade. By middle school, we were living in South Korea. In ninth grade, I lived in Australia. This was all pre-internet and pre-email, so we were pretty cut off at the time. My dad was from India, so by age 12 I had been around the world twice, because we’d been back to visit family numerous times. So I grew up with a very wordly view. I was a tinkerer; I used to build models and rather than doing crossword puzzles, I would make crossword puzzles.
I was often the kid who would organize everyone else in the neighborhood. When the 1976 Summer Olympics were happening in Montreal, I organized the Campbell Street Olympics. The marathon was 26 loops around the house. We had little medals and everything. I was just always a bit of an organizer for anyone who was willing to follow.
Why did you choose to live in Encinitas and what do you love about it?
I went to UCSD and I fell in love with San Diego. I was fortunate enough to buy my first house in Cardiff, which was a great bachelor pad overlooking the ocean. Having traveled as much as I have, which is millions of miles, I realized there is no place in the world like San Diego — from the weather, the culture and the opportunities our state and country provide. As much as we love traveling with the family, there’s nothing like coming home to Encinitas and taking a walk on the beach and just being able to go outside and jog all times of the year. We’re grateful to be able to live here. We have no interest in ever moving away or selling our Encinitas property.
I know that your wife, Karen, was diagnosed with a brain tumor nine years ago, and that really transformed the way both of you approach life. Tell me about that.
When people say, “Live like you’re dying,” we really decided to do that (just like the country western song by Tim McGraw). We’ve come through this. Karen still has a tumor, we believe it to be benign and we’ve done everything we can do via Western medicine to treat it. Now it’s really just about being really careful how she lives her life. She has to be very thoughtful of what she eats and what thoughts she has. So we’re using a lot of Eastern metaphysical techniques to find the beauty in everything that happens to us. Karen’s using that as a foundation to explain to people or to teach people who are interested in listening alternative ways of looking at things that might otherwise be viewed as bad or harmful, and to try and help them to see the silver lining in everything.
Your wife has her own imprint under Oceanhouse Media called
Beauty Everywhere. What’s that about?
We realized that we needed to have two brands, or two imprints within the one company. We decided Oceanhouse Media was the brand appropriate for the kids’ media section of the business, so we rolled all of our metaphysical, spiritual content under this other brand, Beauty Everywhere, where Karen is very focused on helping people to see the beauty in everything. It offers inspirational apps and manifestation tools centered on finding gratitude for all the ups and downs in life.
What do you look at when you’re choosing a new product to offer?
From a business standpoint, it certainly has to make financial sense. Over the past 12 years, we have probably reinvented the business model six or eight times, which is crazy. We just keep pivoting to find a way to make it work. Many of our early competitors are long out of business because they just couldn’t figure out a way to make it work.
Along with the financial component, we always consider how interesting something is to us, knowing that once we get into it, it’s going to take a lot of time and energy. It’s going to become part of our psyche and our minds, and do we want that energy around us. Early on, there was an opportunity to do something with WWE, the wrestling company. We were like, it’s just not our thing, it doesn’t matter how much money we would make; it’s just not of interest to us.
We want to work with really wonderful partners that are educating, uplifting and inspiring people. Author and marketer Joe Polish talks about when you’re in business, try to make decisions that are based on ELF, an acronym for Easy, Lucrative and Fun. When you hear people talking about dead-end jobs or projects they don’t like, it’s very often that they’re on the wrong side of that particular equation.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced in building your business?
When you’re operating in a goldrush type of environment, it’s easy to get caught up in thinking, ‘This is just going to keep on going forever because the whole market is going super easy,’ which was really the first two or three years. And then things got really challenging after that, as the App store got oversaturated. We really had to get down to the question of what’s making this business tick. So one of the biggest challenges was just being able to ride those macro-economic waves, trying to navigate those things properly.
Plus, we have a very different way of running our business. A lot of people tend to go out and raise a lot of money and use that money to grow a business very fast and shoot for the moon. We have opted to run the business on a cash basis and not take investors.
There are times when that’s tough because you see other people moving faster than you. And there are times when you’re really happy you made that decision when you see other people burning too much cash, then crashing and burning. The real challenge is making sure we have a long view on the business and that our short-term decisions won’t ultimately hurt us in the long run.
How has COVID affected your life?
When COVID hit, we bought an RV and we took off. It was our quarantine vehicle. We did 14, 000 miles across 36 states. We ran the business remotely. The kids went to school remotely. We adopted a little dog named Lorax that traveled with us.
I know that a lot of people are hurting and have been really impacted by COVID, and I’m completely sensitive and empathetic to them, which is absolutely first and foremost. For us, we view challenges as an opportunity for change and growth. And that’s a reflection of what we went through when Karen was diagnosed with her brain tumor. We’ve come to the point with Karen and her brain tumor that she doesn’t have a black mass in her head; she has a gold nugget in her head. And the gold nugget has given us the ability to focus on what matters most and to make choices for our family in ways that we can live a more enriching life.
Using that same mentality, that’s the way that we look at COVID. We said, what blessing could come out of this? It was as simple as, well now we can have a dog. We could never have a dog before because we used to travel so much. That’s a small thing, but the girls love it. Now we can buy an RV and we can travel for months on end because the girls can go to school remotely. We closed the office; we sent all the employees to work from home forever. We didn’t say this is temporary for COVID. We said, we’re going to make this work because this is going to be a healthier work/life balance for good. I’ve set up a home office, which I love. I find that I’m happier, I’m more productive. And I’m really focused on the things that matter the most to us.
What else has happened for you during the pandemic?
Our family got closer. We’re spending a lot of time together, it’s bonding us. Our employees are happier, our business is actually doing well during COVID, because families are home and they need at-home learning and education. Education apps, as a whole, are up and we are thankful for that.
Personally, I’ve used COVID as a time for rebirth. I really focused a lot in 2020 on who I am, where I’m going and what I want to do. And I realized that it’s been a transition time for me to focus on giving back. I started coaching people. Karen and I have both been in life coaching and business coaching. We’re doing everything we can to help people during this time.
My mom sold her house and moved closer, that’s a blessing. We are way more involved in our daughters’ education now. That’s a blessing. My elder daughter started tutoring on Fiver. She saw what tutoring was like, being on the receiving end, because we went heavy on the virtual tutoring when schools shut down. And then she said, I can do this. Just last weekend, she was tutoring a kid in math who lived in Turkey who was originally from South America. He was struggling in English and my daughter immediately just switched over to Spanish and he got better. This kind of stuff wasn’t going to happen if it was just normal life. What lessons have you learned?
I don’t know how to summarize it other than to say large challenges can turn in to really amazing opportunities for change when we are open to embracing that change. The unknown before us can actually be better than the known that’s behind us. It can be a little bit like a pig sitting in slop and thinking that they’re happy sitting in slop, but the unknown of what could be may actually be better if we’re willing to give ourselves the opportunity to give it a shot.
What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
Knowing that I may not have the opportunity to get out of bed tomorrow. I realize that today there’s a lot of work to do and I’ve got to keep it going. I am very focused on legacy in the good sense, not the ego-driven sense. I’m focused on legacy in the sense that I want to leave bread crumbs for my daughters, for my family, for my friends, for my community, for anyone. So I write a lot. I write in a journal daily, it’s designed for my daughters to read when I’m gone. I’m in the process of working on a book that is inspirational in nature to get people moving. And I tackle each day with gratitude and the gifts that I’ve been given.
I’m in my mid-fifties now. I’m getting to the point where my mentality is starting to shift and I’m really starting to figure out how I can help others more, whether it’s through writing or coaching or mentoring or advising or whatever it happens to be. And that’s what truly gets me out of bed in the morning — thinking what is my purpose at this stage in life, and how can I accelerate it?
Sometimes people ask me what my life purpose is, and it’s to live an extraordinary life. But more importantly. It’s to inspire others to live extraordinary lives of their own by demonstrating what is possible.
To learn more, go to www.oceanhousemedia.com and www.beautyeverywhere.com.
By Jeanne Rawdin