Sinan Ismail always held an affinity for the animated medium. Growing up during the age of classics like the Transformers, Thundercats and Care Bears, he knew from an early age that he wanted to create cartoons. Yet, it was Pixar's 1995 masterpiece Toy Story that struck a chord in him and pushed him to pursue a career in 3D animation.
Charmed by the use of 3D visuals and ground-breaking animation techniques at the time, the Universiti Sains Malaysia graduate taught himself the in-and-outs of 3D modelling, and later founded Digital Durian, the studio behind accomplished titles such as Didi & Friends and Omar & Hana.
But after noticing a significant gap in children's entertainment catered to the Islamic population, Sinan decided to shift focus. “It was clear to us that, all around the world, there was a need for these kinds of children's TV, but nobody was really producing high-quality shows for the market or creating a platform to match the demand.”
Using what he learned from leading Digital Durian, Sinan set up tech startup Durioo and its main product, Durioo+, a streaming service platform showcasing a variety of high-quality, original shows catered to teaching valuable principles to Islamic children.
Though Durioo comes with its own challenges, Sinan and his team are pleased with the momentum of which the company is moving in, choosing to focus on the bigger picture and facing bumps along the way head on.
Earlier this year, Durioo was among the selected finalists chosen to receive pre-seed round funding under American technology startup accelerator - Y Combinator's Winter 2022 batch scheme.
Having just been established in August 2021, and officially launching their platform in November of that year, the team was faced with a tight schedule and difficulties keeping to their 2023 deadline for Durioo+ to be a full-fledged platform. But thanks to the investment of Y Combinator, the company was able to launch the full extent of their platform in February of this year; 14-months ahead of schedule, and a few subscribers already onboard.
“It was huge for us,” says Sinan excitedly. “Even though we were just one week old at the time, we had outperformed what we had expected and gained good traction.”
Durioo+ now plays host to almost 12 Durioo Originals, ranging from animated series teaching nursery rhymes and language skills to educational live action shows that keep kids on their toes. The company is set to undergo another seed round this March.
Apart from Malaysia, the company’s English-language channel saw a majority of its viewership come from global audiences in the US and the UK, which Sinan got a chance to see first-hand during a trip to the UK in late 2019. “We've had parents in the UK tell us that they loved our work and would get emails every other day expressing their thanks to us about how our programmes have impacted their lives.”
Speaking on his motivations, the entrepreneur sites his drive to create a positive impact and his parents as one of the main reasons he decided to focus on creating educational children's programming. And as a son of lecturers, it only seemed natural. “I think that runs in the blood,” jests Sinan. “I'm just doing it in a different medium.”
On the other hand, Sinan shares that there is a sort of frustration that comes with this line of work. Though the industry is not short on Islamic creatives, very few have taken up the mantle to create more top-quality, Islamic value-focused children's content; something he hopes to address through Durioo.
“We want to create something as big as the internationally recognized animation studios out there, but also understand that it will take time, especially in terms of budget and investment. We hope that by cultivating this platform, we can motivate other Islamic driven producers to create high-quality content and boost the local animation ecosystem.”
Having worked in the local animation industry for over 13 years, Sinan has seen many of his peers come-and-go. Faced with the reality that creatives are not being compensated according to their worth, he looks to change that stigma.
“I want the best for my team and see them be paid on the same level as engineers and doctors. I want them to feel like they are as good as the animators at Pixar. That is what drives me to lead my team to build a great company.”
“Beyond that, I also want to help other producers and fund other animators who we hope we can bring on for other Durioo Originals, which we're already starting to do,” adds Sinan.
And to those thinking of following in the footsteps of 3D animators like himself, Sinan insists the importance of passion.
“Most importantly, you need to love what you do, always be improving and have an understanding that creativity is only one piece of the puzzle,” advises Sinan. “You are an artist, but also a professional, so it’s important to hone your passion, communication skills and work ethics in order to succeed.”
Penny For Your Thoughts
How would you define a “good life” and/versus a “successful life”?
I think this differs depending on the person. As for me, I see it as one thing, as in a good life should be a successful life. Professionally, I see it as enjoying what you do and creating impact beyond yourself. Personally, it would mean having a balanced life, creating moments with your family and being thankful for what we have.
What is the bravest thing you have ever done?
Setting up Durioo, to be honest. I had Digital Durian for 12 years, and I'm still with them as the CEO. But to open a new company and talking to the team saying, ‘Hey, move with me to this new company. We're starting from scratch with just a mission in mind’ was one of the boldest things I've ever done. And hopefully it pays off for everyone.
Advice you would give your younger self.
I didn’t read much when I was younger, so I would say ‘read more books’. Look for mentors and learn from people.