With over 4 billion views on YouTube, cartoon shows Didi and Friends, and Omar and Hana, combined, are making an impact on preschool children around the world.
We spoke with Sinan Ismail, CEO, and co-founder of Digital Durian, a Malaysian animation studio, to share his success journey by creating valuable content in educating children via cartoon shows. Their cartoon shows are also shown on TV networks in various countries.
Unlike other Malaysian animators who graduated in graphics design or animation from a Cyberjaya-based university, Sinan is a Mathematics graduate from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).
He self-taught 3D animation, learning all from the internet to pursue his real passion.
Sinan started his entrepreneurial journey from freelancing before starting his own company. The first two years doing multimedia for businesses, and the second two years were doing wedding videography, cards and merchandising.
They started with 2 founders, before growing to 24 people and scaling back to just 4 team members. Both ventures failed.
He then started animating cartoons for preschool children, called Didi and Friends, in 2012, and in 2017, with a second animation show, an Islamic cartoon called Omar and Hana.
At the time, he wanted to introduce his one-year-old son to Malay nursery rhymes and could not find many online. He then used the Googled Keyword Planner tool and searched for the term, nursery rhymes in Malay, and found there were at least 10,000 monthly searches.
Seeing a gap in the market between real demand for Malay nursery rhymes and a lack of availability of suitable content, he and his co-founder started Didi and Friends.
Didi and Friends started as a Malay nursery rhymes cartoon for preschoolers, with chickens as the main characters, teaching good values to kids. He chose this target audience to educate children at the same time, rather than creating superhero or robot-based characters.
Sinan learned from his mistakes and he realized that being an entrepreneur is not about for yourself.
“It’s about creating value for other people.”
Recalling a hadith, Sinan further explained how creating value fits into Islamic principles.
“The best of humans are the ones who give benefits to other people.”
“When we started Digital Durian, we always wanted to do a cartoon [show]. But, making cartoons is expensive.”
Animated cartoons cost approximately USD3,000 – USD 5,000 to make per minute, and can go up to millions of dollars to create animated movies, including the latest Malaysian-made movie animation.
“Hence we thought, if we do cartoons, let’s do cartoons that have a good impact on children. We chose to do pre-school cartoons teaching good values to children.”
“That’s how Didi and Friends started.”
“We started to realize that [it’s best to] take money off your mind. Let’s get the intention right. Create value for people first.”
“Give value to the children. And then, inshallah [God-willing], the money will come.”
“For Didi and Friends, we started with a trailer and a pilot episode, and started pitching to all broadcasters, local and international.”
“All of them rejected us. In a way, that’s almost saying goodbye to your dreams.”
“But the good thing is that we got a lot of feedback from the broadcasters. We took the feedback from them, and improved the characters.”
“Then we decided, if TV broadcasters don’t want us, there’s YouTube!”
Sinan and his team then targeted to get a million views on YouTube. Luckily, the show exceeded that target and reached two million views.
With the YouTube success, he reached out again by email to one of the Malaysian broadcasters, Astro. Astro, the largest Malaysian satellite broadcaster, agreed to invest in the series, with co-ownership of the intellectual property (IP) rights with Digital Durian.
Prior to that, Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) had also invested in Digitial Durian’s animation show.
Didi and Friends currently have 4 million YouTube subscribers, 2.9 billion views, and is available in seven languages.
Sinan credits his Digital Durian team, of 134 people and expanding, to the success of Didi and Friends, and now for Omar and Hana.
With the success of Didi and Friends, the Digital Durian team received a lot of feedback and requests from parents to create Islamic content for their young children. Parents requesting that cartoon characters teach young kids how to pray, or memorize du’a or surah al-Fatihah, the first chapter of the Quran.
There’s only one problem.
Didi and Friends are chicken characters! These characters were not really appropriate to showcase Islamic cartoons.
Therefore, they created a new set of characters. It took six months for the first production. However, it took another six months just to name the new cartoon characters that would appeal to a global Muslim audience.
“Alhamdulillah. We see this as a great responsibility to create content for children.”
“Studies done by Harvard University as well as by Stanford University showed that early childhood education has a big impact on children’s future when they become adults.”
“For now, we see an impact on children [from Omar and Hana] in that they are happy, they know Allah, they say Alhamdulillah. The bigger impact is actually twenty years later, inshallah.”
Omar and Hana now have 1.5 billion YouTube views and 3.5 million subscribers. The UK and the US are the top two countries for their English version.
“We see this as a blessing from Allah to be able to do this. Inshallah, we will continue to do this.”
Shahfizal Musa is the Founder and Managing Editor of Halalop. He graduated with a Law degree from Thames Valley University London. He is an award-winning journalist covering topics such as human trafficking, Muslim research discoveries, and exceptional Muslims.
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