Playtime By Design

With her Popup Play app, Amelia Cosgrove is turning little iPad lovers into the tinkerers of tomorrow.

By Rachel Rascoe

Amelia Cosgrove is merging new media and nostalgia through her startup, Popup Play, an app that allows this generation of iPad-savvy kiddos to custom design their own playhouses. The cardboard creations are then delivered to the doorsteps of these budding little architects and designers.  

Cosgrove was inspired to launch the company with her husband, Bryan Thomas, by memories of a transformed shipping crate in which Cosgrove and her sisters flew across the galaxy on special missions. The app’s hands-on design process, which allows kids to customize the playhouse with doors, windows, towers and graphics, aims to bridge the gap between tech and creativity.  

“Suddenly, I saw the connection,” Cosgrove says. “All this new technology could really make the experience of the imaginative play we do as kids not just more modern, but also more exciting.”  

The company delivers the cardboard parts to app users in less than a week, and they can then be built and decorated for hands-on play. The playhouses run at a flat cost of $99 plus a $10 shipping fee. Cosgrove says the short turnaround allows kids to “make that connection of ‘This is what I thought of, and this is my idea brought to life.’ ”  

“The biggest thing I want kids to learn from this is that you can use your tablet or your computer to make something real,” she says of her app’s ability to immerse kids in a real-life engineering experience.  

Cosgrove previously worked as a portive startup culture afforded them the perfect opportunity.

The two launched PopUp Play in 2015. When Thomas found himself between jobs, he committed to PopUp Play full time. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, PopUp Play was up and running, shipping custom playhouses directly to families.  

The co-founders’ expertise in product development comes in handy when tailoring PopUp Play to the needs of kids and their parents. They conduct play tests for each product to ensure the app and playhouses are fitted to little hands and minds, and have previously partnered with children’s museum Thinkery.

To bring their startup to the next level, the couple connected with Capital Factory, a collaborative workspace designed to provide local entrepreneurs with resources and connections. From there, PopUp Play joined the Techstars program, an intensive three-month accelerator for Austin startups. The program connected them with mentors and provided their current downtown workspace.  

PopUp Play won first place in this year’s South By Southwest Accelerator Pitch contest, beating out more than 40 other finalists. Cosgrove was then able to quit her consulting job and focus solely on PopUp Play.  

“During the transition between making my nights-and-weekends job my day job, it was hard to find a balance because I wanted to do both at a really high level,” Cosgrove says. “I finally realized that I had to give one up to continue.”  

As an engineer and product designer, Cosgrove says a problem with new design technologies like 3-D printing is that they’re inaccessible to the average consumer. Anyone can imagine a design for a rocket ship, but not everyone can actually bring that idea to life.  

“My goal is to create that bridge for people where I’ll do the basic stuff to make sure they get what they want, but they can actually do the fun part of the design themselves,” Cosgrove says.  

Since its big South By Southwest win, the brand has received attention from large companies interested in applying Cosgrove and Thomas’ app-to-doorstep customization model to their own products.  

“They’re really looking for a way to authentically engage with kids and families more than putting a logo on a teddy bear, and what we have is this amazing, memorable experience for kids,” Cosgrove adds.  

Aside from an upcoming Android app, customizable rocket ship and more big-brand collaborations, Cosgrove admits, “It’s my not-so-secret plan to recruit a whole new generation of engineers and, of course, a whole new generation of female engineers.”  

With kids spending hours adding dragons and towers to their designs, it sounds like her plan is working.    


Photos courtesy of Popup Play.