May 22, 2024

Can Karri persuade kids to ditch smartphones for its techno-walkie-talkie?

The UK-based startup has raised £775k from 468 Capital

Tim Smith

5 min read

It’s estimated around a quarter of five-to-seven-year-olds in the UK have their own smartphone. And, while a lot of Sifted readers will naturally be pro-tech, the addictive nature of screen time and the dangers that lie on the internet make smartphones a less-than-ideal toy for a young kid.

It’s a conundrum that UK-based Karri is trying to solve with its data connected, screenless walkie-talkie, which lets kids communicate with their parents and their friends, without age-inappropriate and harmful content a couple clicks away.

The company has raised £775k to develop the technology, in a round led by 468 Capital with participation from angel investors.


How does Karri work

The Karri walkie-talkie is a chunky-looking device with five buttons and no screen. The central button lets the user record and send messages — much like a voice note — which can be played by a parent on their walkie-talkie, or on the startup’s smartphone app.

It also lets kids talk to each other if they both have walkie-talkies and is targeted at five-to-twelve-year-olds.

GPS tracking also lets parents see where their child is, and can alert them if their kid leaves a defined area that they can draw on the smartphone app’s map. The device will cost £50 with a £5 monthly fee for data.

Founder and managing director Peter Clifford says he invented the product after failing to find a low-tech way to stay in contact with his kid that worked for him.

He tried the “dumb phone” approach, and connected smartwatches designed for children, but says that both of those methods shared two problems: they rely on screen interfaces and are geared towards making phone calls.

“We find it difficult as adults, but I think young children find it even more difficult to psychologically not be distracted by the screen,” says Clifford. “I see kids where I live walking literally across roads without even realising they're on the road because they're so deep in their smartphone.”

His experience is that young kids find it easier to communicate asynchronously — voicenote style — rather than by phone calls. 

“What I found in my son was when it came to actually just having a straightforward phone call to organise what time he’s coming home or something, it just didn't work. It needs to be somewhat asynchronous, the communication between the parent and the child, for it to work really smoothly,” he argues.

“It's the ability for the kid when they're at the mate's house, and their mate says, ‘Hey, do you want to stay for dinner?’ They press one button and say, ‘Dad, can I stay for dinner?’ And then wait for a few minutes for a reply […] It doesn't require somebody to see that their phone's ringing or anything like that.”

Will kids use it?

Some members of the Sifted team who have kids were sceptical about Karri — saying that kids want smartphones and tablets for games and that they would likely be socially isolated if they didn’t have access to the technology.


Clifford is clear that he’s not against children using the internet at home in a boundaried way, and says that Karri is solving the issue of kids needing a connected device when they’re out of the house.

He agrees he needs to make sure that it’s seen as “cool” and is already thinking about ideas like brand partnerships with football teams or popular kids films, both for branded skins on the devices and for the voice interface.

“My son is a Liverpool fan so I can definitely imagine there being a Liverpool branded one of these at some point,” he says. “What I'm most excited about would be the audio partnerships that we could do, so that when you've got a new message, it's the voice of Jürgen Klopp saying to you that you've got a new message from Dad.”

He says that Karri would be following in the footsteps of Luxembourg-founded startup Tonies, which uses physical figurines in place of CDs to play kids audiobooks and has signed deals with Disney to make the product more appealing.

Changing behaviour

Getting kids interested in a five-button walkie-talkie over an all-singing all-dancing smartphone might be a tough sell, but Clifford says that parents are increasingly waking up to the fact that they’d rather not have their kids connected to the internet all the time.

“It feels like parents are dying for an alternative, which would allow them to say to their kid, ‘No, you don't need a smartphone,’” he argues.  “You see this a little bit already in the UK with the smartphone free movement that's a parent led movement..”

The Smartphone Free Childhood campaign, started by two mothers who were concerned about online safety, now has thousands of members in the UK; Clifford says that Karri’s product would be further helped by government plans to ban smartphones in schools.

He also says that Karri is proving popular in its pre-sale stage, and has sold 1,250 units since December after a few simple Instagram posts. Clifford says that he was surprised to learn that among its early customers were adults who were buying it as a simple way to keep in touch with their elderly parents.

The fresh funding will let the startup manufacture its first run of around 750 units.

Asked what he’s hoping Karri could achieve if it manages to reach commercial liftoff, Clifford quotes social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt.

“He has a really nice quote, that we've over protected our kids in the real world, while under protecting them in the digital world. And I guess my hope is that for the coming generation of parents of young children, we can reverse that trend,” he says. “We need to give parents a solution that allows them to give their kids the freedom and independence that we had when we were young.”

Tim Smith

Tim Smith is news editor at Sifted. He covers deeptech and AI, and produces Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast . Follow him on X and LinkedIn