INTERVIEWS

Ondrej Vrábel Is 16 And Develops Games For Kids With Special Education Needs

Five years ago, Ondrej Vrábel started to create apps for his family friend with cerebral palsy. Pinf Hry, as he named them (hry meaning games in Slovak), are special games for kids with mental handicap and special education needs. Ondrej helps them to learn more skills, including logical thinking, computing, writing, or reading. „It’s basically all the things I take as natural but are much more difficult for these kids. Thanks to my app, they can actually learn all of these.”

The last two years have a had huge impact on Pinf Hry and Ondrej himself – on his personal and business development. He received the LEAF Award, participated in Impact Incubator program, got included in Slovak Forbes 30 Under 30 2018 list, and won the Krištáľové krídlo (Crystal Wing) award. “Thanks to the Crystal Wing award, we got the attention of the media which helped to spread the word and we have new users who seek help. One year ago, we came with new graphics and also new translations into different languages.”

Ondrej is not even 18, so it was his mom who helped him with all the “citizens’ association” (“OZ”) and “limited liability company” (“s.r.o”) formalities, and she still supports him. How does he manage to keep his schedule together with the school which he cares about very much? What difficult decisions did he face? What motivates him in taking so much time helping other kids?

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Ondrej Vrábel from Pinf Hry
Ondrej Vrábel from Pinf Hry

Ondrej, since the beginning, you’ve been very much against the idea to make Pinf Hry into a paid app. What did eventually change your mind?

For a long time, I’ve believed the app will be for free for everyone and forever and everything will be great. However, I talked to many experienced people from the LEAF and the Impact Incubator and they explained that in order to improve the app, I need to invest money into its development.

Currently, as a student, I don’t earn any money so I would have to invest my mom’s money and this idea wasn’t so great after all. There were very strong arguments from experienced entrepreneurs that made me see that all the institutions that use my app are actually getting money from the users themselves so, at the end, they should have a few euros to pay for a license.

You’re 16 now and you started to develop Pinf Hry when you were 11. Eleven or sixteen, doesn’t really matter because at that age kids usually have other hobbies in their spare time. How comes your hobby was to code apps for kids with special needs? That’s quite unusual.

At the time when I started to realize that my mom’s cousin, Dáška, suffers from cerebral palsy, I was wondering how to help her to learn more. She liked playing on the PC and there was that one game she played over and over again and therefore couldn’t learn anything new. I wanted to create something that she’d like, something interesting that can help her learn new things.

And therefore, you decided to help your mom’s cousin and to learn how to code? What followed? You took a book and started the learning process?

I read a few books, but mostly I spent time on the internet watching tutorials. At the beginning, it was very hard for me and I wasn’t good, but with time I got better and after some time I created simple applications. Now we have 23 games in 12 languages.

Can you share some useful websites or tutorials that you used when learning?

I learnt a lot from Stack Overflow forum or from W3Schools, and similar pages. There are many projects that can help you code now such as Code.org or Learn2Code, but when I started I didn’t know about them or they haven’t existed yet back then.

Children playing Pinf Hry
Children playing Pinf Hry

What followed?

At that time, I didn’t spend much time on coding. I started to attend high school in Senica where my teacher noticed Pinf Hry and she proposed me to release the games to the public. So, I applied for a competition and won the first price. That helped me to realize the full potential of Pinf Hry, that it makes sense and it can help people. Later, I translated the games into English and afterward got approached by the Horyou organization from Switzerland. They invited me to the SIGEF 2015 conference in Geneva. This is where I got my first chance to present the Pinf Hry for a big audience and I must say it was a great experience. Right after the conference, I received the LEAF Award from the LEAF together with a one-year support program. They helped me with networking and interesting contacts such as Pixel Federation and Lenovo.

How you managed to translate the games into different languages?

I did the English translation and I wanted to proceed with the other translations through the Indiegogo crowd-funding platform. I set up the target price to 2000 dollars which would have been used for the graphics and the translations. I got 62 dollars. When I paid the fees, they sent me 15 dollars 🙂

You do everything by yourself now?

I usually do most of the things connected to the games by myself, even now. There are several people helping me with translations and graphics though. The game graphics was done by a graphic designer from the Pixel Federation and the logo was designed by Michal Finka. The games look much much better now. You can definitely see that this is a work of a proper designer. And also, my mom helps me a lot all the time.

How do you manage both, the Pinf Hry and school?

It’s not an easy thing to manage. Usually, I prepare everything in advance. For example, today, I spent three class lessons at school and then I travelled to Bratislava to present my project in a school and in the Slovak radio. On the fourth class lesson, we were supposed to write a test from history, but I did this couple of days earlier already. I try to be very careful with my grades though, I don’t want to get bad grades. I try to work on all the project- related things in the afternoon or after school. For example, during the Impact Incubator, we used to get home around 10 pm or even 11 pm and I went to school the next morning with all my homework done like kids usually do. I did most of the homework in the car 🙂

Ondrej presenting Pinf Hry at Impact Incubator
Ondrej presenting Pinf Hry at Impact Incubator

That means you don’t follow any individual plan at school.

No, I attend school as regular students do.

When you finish high school, would you like to continue to a university?

I would definitely like to continue with my studies. So far, I don’t know if I’ll stay in Slovakia or will apply for abroad, but I prefer abroad. I would like to go on with informatics, there’s no use on me in history or anything similar.

What motivates you to put all your free time to your project?

It is great to see that these games – or learning tools – actually help people. How kids get excited when they click on a pig and it recovers, smiles, or oinks. It motivates me when teachers tell me that kids learned something from the games.

How does your mom support you with the project?

She’s the greatest support. She drives me whenever I need and she also gives great advice when I need it, she uses good arguments and has her own opinions on things. She also helps me with administrative work and helps me with errands while I’m at school.

You’re not 18 yet, so I suppose she also helps you with legal documents.

Exactly. We have a citizens’ association and a limited liability company.

This year, you visited Web Summit. Can you tell us more about this experience?

When I checked it out, it looked very interesting so we decided to enlist as a startup and waited if they’d pick us. They did and we were so happy that we’re going to Lisbon. The only thing to do was to pay the participation fee. Which was EUR 850. Luckily, we found a sponsor from Philanthropy Foundation. We had a booth there and could talk about the project. We also met many interesting people.

Ondrej after receiving Krištáľové krídlo award for his project Pinf Hry
Ondrej after receiving Krištáľové krídlo award for his project Pinf Hry

How do you network with people on such conferences as a Web Summit? Are you bold when it comes to networking? You look older than 16, I suppose it can help sometimes.

That helps a lot. But I must say I’m already used to speaking with people and speaking in public. I did two TEDx talks and I also spoke at Jump Slovensko and other events. At the beginning, I was stressed a lot, but now it’s okay. I try to prepare in advance, but I only write down a few things. When I don’t have a plain text, I can’t mess it up, right? 🙂

Do you look for an investor or not really at this moment?

We have a finished, working product right now so I’m not sure if we need an investor at this point. An investor usually helps, but I let it open right now. We would like to expand abroad and promote the games there. We have the translations in English, Slovak, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish now, therefore we’d like to promote the games at some of these countries so they can help as many people as possible. But it’s quite hard to get to foreign markets.

So far, you’ve dedicated 5 years to this project. What have you gained?

A lot of experience, the most obvious thing is perhaps that I learned how to code. But it also gave me better presentation skills and I think more about how to help people.

Do you think you’ve missed anything by working on the project?

Maybe I’ve lost some free time, but that doesn’t bother me at all. I like this project and working on it.

Where can people find you if they’d like to connect with you?

You can find me on Facebook or at www.pinfhry.com 🙂

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