Presto, Tibetan Bowls, & Dr. Seuss: How Michel Kripalani Got His Entrepreneurial Karma Back

8/27/10Follow @bvbigelow

Some tales of technology innovation have an ethereal quality to them, and such is the case with Oceanhouse Media—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that such is the case with Michel Kripalani, the startup software developer’s founder and president.

Encinitas, CA-based Oceanhouse was founded in January, 2009, and its first product was an app for the iPhone and iPod Touch called simply “Bowls,” which features seven Tibetan “singing” bowls. Each one generates a different meditative harmonic tone when a user runs their fingertip around the edge of a virtual bowl on the display screen. Tapping the bowls, along with the virtual gongs, bells, and “tingsha” cymbals adds even more to the musical dharmony (so to speak).

Bowls app

Bowls app

Kripalani tells me that a few weeks after Oceanhouse launched Bowls (in March, 2009), the $1.99 app was selected by Apple as a “staff favorite” and featured on the home page of the online Apple store. Their sales spiked.

“When we started, the Apple iPhone had 10,000 apps and I was concerned that we had already missed the boat,” Kripalani says. With Bowls, though, he saw it would be OK. “More than the revenue, it gave us a glimmer of what could happen. We saw the potential.”

After Oceanhouse’s modest success with Bowls, Kripalani persuaded Louise Hay, the self-help author and founder of Carlsbad, CA-based Hay House Publishers, to license some content from her company’s catalog of inspirational books and related material for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. With a bit of karma, Kripalani says he also managed to secure a licensing agreement with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which is based in La Jolla, for the entire catalog of 44 Dr. Seuss childrens’ books.

“Oceanhouse Media wasn’t the first company to bring childrens’ books to the iPhone,” Kripalani says. “But we were the first to bring real production values. It was almost unfair that we came to play at the iPhone party, because we have guys who have decades of experience writing code.”

By the end of last year, Kripalani says Oceanhouse had three licensing agreements (including San Francisco-based Chronicle Books) that enabled the company to create stand-alone books and related apps for the iPad and other Apple devices. “We’re taking the back catalog of existing products and adopting it for mobile devices,” he says. “We’re helping old school publishing companies move to the digital age, and in the process we’re creating a new publishing house.”

iPad Yertle the Turtle

iPad Yertle the Turtle

The company is moving rapidly through the Dr. Seuss titles (priced at $3.99 each), beginning with “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in December and “The Cat In the Hat” in February to “The Lorax” in April and “Yertle the Turtle” in August. Oceanhouse also has plans to expand with other popular children’s book titles. “This year, we already have eight,” he says, “and we’ll be announcing more in September as we start rolling out more stuff for the iPad.”

If Kripalani is on a roll, though, it hasn’t always been that way.

I first met him in the summer of 1993, when he was 25 years old—and he was just shipping an interactive sci-fi adventure computer game called “The Journeyman Project” on CD-ROM. As the president of a youthful partnership-turned-overnight success called Presto Studios, Kripalani had spent the previous two years overseeing the 15,000 hours of development time needed to create the 400-megabyte program. In the first six months after the project was finished, Presto sold 10,000 copies of “Journeyman” (at a suggested retail price of $100 a pop)—or roughly $1 million—which helps explain why I arrived at Kripalani’s door as a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

My story about the explosive success of Presto’s “wunderkind wonks” led me to a succession of other stories about San Diego’s booming multimedia software industry. A sudden demand for multimedia content triggered a proliferation of new companies in the early 1990s, including Compton’s NewMedia, GTE Interactive Media, Jostens Learning Corp., GreyStone Digital Technologies, and Angel Studios. They flourished—and then vanished—as the accelerating Internet pulled such content online.

Michel Kripalani

Michel Kripalani

Kripalani says he closed Presto in 2002, “after the business had grown into something that didn’t work for us any more.” Presto created two Journeyman sequels and developed Myst III: Exile, a 2001 sequel to Myst, the hugely successful PC adventure game created by Cyan Worlds of Spokane, WA. But as an independent video game developer, Presto’s margins were getting crushed. “Myst III did well enough that we had enough cash in the bank to shut down without burning anybody, and that’s what we did,” Kripalani recalls.

Myst III: Exile

Myst III: Exile

But for Kripalani, “closing Presto was like going through a divorce. I would literally wake up in the middle of the night asking, ‘Who am I? Where am I?'” To cope, he says he took himself “off the grid for 21 months and did a lot of yoga and meditation.”

Kripalani says he still didn’t feel quite ready to go back to work in mid-2004, when he got an offer to work in San Francisco for AutoDesk (NASDAQ: ADSK), which is based in San Rafael, CA. But it seemed like an appropriate fit—he would be working as a kind of evangelist for the software giant, selling computer-assisted design (CAD) software used by videogame developers to create 3D games. After a few years at AutoDesk, however, Kripalani says he felt restless. He sometimes yearned for his old entrepreneurial life. But he concedes he wasn’t sure he had what it took to quit AutoDesk and leap into the abyss.

Instead the abyss came to him. Kripalani was laid off in January, 2009. By then, however, Kripalani says he’d been using an iPhone for months, and he already knew what he wanted to do. Apple had opened the software development kit for the iPhone about 9 months previously, and Kripalani wanted to test the emerging market for iPhone Apps. He also knew where he wanted to do it, and returned to Encinitas, about 21 miles north of San Diego.

“We wanted something to do with Apple that would take advantage of the iPhone’s technology,” says Kripalani, who credits his wife, Karen, with the idea of creating the Tibetan bowls app. (They had met on dharmaMatch.com, “Where Spiritual Singles Meet,” and married in 2006.)

Green Eggs and Ham on iPhone

Green Eggs and Ham on iPhone

Kripalani says he recruited six to eight friends in software development “who could give their spare cycles on nights and weekends to throw one test volley over the wall and see if we could make money.” He funded the company himself, and had purchased  a house in Encinitas because it had a spacious room that seemed like the ideal place to start a business. It is now Oceanhouse’s headquarters.

Under the business model that Kripalani created, Oceanhouse hires contractors to help develop an independent app, and shares the revenue that each app generates with them. “Part of what I do is allocate value to each person’s contribution,” he says. “So the value of their work is directly related to that product.”

He estimates that Oceanhouse Media has sold close to 30,000 copies of the “Bowls” app in the 18 months since it was introduced. Kripalani says Oceanhouse isn’t disclosing sales of specific Dr. Seuss titles, but he says the company has sold a combined total of more than 300,000 Dr. Seuss apps.

As I mentioned at the outset, there’s an otherworldly quality to Kripalani, who says he absorbed his spirtual nature from his parents. Michel says his father was a globe-trotting engineer from India and his mother settled in Encinitas after his dad died to be closer to the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple founded in 1920 by Paramahansa Yogananda. The temple, which overlooks a coastal break that surfers have dubbed “Swami’s,” still teaches the Indian traditions of Kriya Yoga today.

After meeting with Kripalani when so many years had passed, I realized that I also shared a kind of inverse cosmic connection with him. After all, I was a young father when we first met (my kids were 1 and 4 at the time), and I remember holding them on my lap in the mid-1990s as we watched a CD-ROM of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” which was one of “The Living Books” series of interactive childrens’ stories from Broderbund. Today I am grayer—our youngest just left home for college—and now Kripalani is a father. He says he holds his daughters, who are 20 months and 3 months old, while he reads Dr. Seuss stories with them on his iPad. There’s got to be some kind of karma in that.

Yertle the Turtle on iPhone

Yertle the Turtle on iPhone

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow