Jun 6, 2013 · 2 minutes

It's hard to believe how much a startup can change before it's even formally announced its existence. Some companies pivot after their initial product fails to attract enough users. Some refocus after a larger company builds a competitive offering. Still others head back to the drawing board after watching a group of toddlers and their parents use a beta product. Or maybe that last bit only applies to Hullabalu, a New York-based startup that transitioned from being a stuffed animal marketplace to creating digital children's books for the iPad.

I first heard of Hullabalu about a year ago, when the company was focused on creating a better place to purchase stuffed animals online. I liked the concept. As someone with a toddler nephew and an intense dislike for the Build-a-Bear Workshop, or any of the other places one might buy a stuffed animal, the idea of being able to purchase an impossibly-cute (and improbably colored) plushie online seemed mighty appealing. The short, amusing backstories Hullabalu created for each product sold through its site were also interesting and, as it turned out, resonated with toddlers and their parents more than the products themselves.

"We learned a lot from that site, especially when we first started showing it to moms. The general consensus was that everyone really liked the experience -- it felt magical, it felt like going into an old toy store," says Hullabalu CEO Suzanne Xie. "But when it came to what actually stuck with them, and ultimately what stuck with the kids about the toys, was the story behind each character."

Hullabalu had entered the children's market backwards by trying to sell merchandise and then adding a backstory instead of allowing children to connect with a character and then hit their parents up for some new toys.

Xie decided to change that by transforming Hullabalu into a digital storytelling startup. The original site is gone, and the stuffed animals have been shelved, with a new, custom-created "universe" and a series of interactive books for the iPad taking their place. The company is today releasing the first book in its series -- "Pan: the Fearless Beribolt," which will be available in the App Store for $3.99 -- as a foundation for what it hopes might become the next big, children-centric brand.

"Pan: the Fearless Beribolt" (referred to simply as "Pan" from this point on) incorporates many of the features and gimmicks associated with iPad-based books. The story is moved along by your (or your child's) touch and features the music and animations that define these new "interactive books." The story itself is fine -- I can see my nephew enjoying it, at least -- and is chock full of references meant to entertain the adults who have to sit and watch as their toddler reads-slash-plays the same story over and over again. You can download "Pan" without having to worry too much about your sanity.

Other books within the Hullabalu universe are expected to be released each quarter. New characters will be introduced periodically, and Xie says that the company is hoping to make Hullabalu a fixture of children's and parents' iPads for some time to come. Then, once the universe and its characters have made their way into children's hearts, Hullabalu might return to its roots and begin selling stuffed animals again. It's finally gotten the order right -- make 'em love you, then convince them to purchase the latest books and merchandise as they're released.

[Image courtesy Hullabalu]