“You know what? The world needs a [insert that fantastic idea about a product here]!” We’ve all said it, heard a spouse say it, or listened to a friend talk about that next great innovation or product. Yet not many go from a brainstorming, off-the-cuff chat to taking the steps necessary to launch a company. Christy Cook, founder of Teach My, a line of award-winning learning kits for babies and toddlers, did just that, however. She saw there was void in the educational toy marketplace and turned her homemade solution into a successful business. Today, her Teach My products are sold on Toysrus.com, Walmart.com and other major online retailers, and she’s cracked the code to creating product awareness, having been mentioned everywhere from The Huffington Post to “The View.” Business and parenting writer Heather Chaet found out how this “mompreneur” transformed her idea into a thriving brand.
HC: Your company, Teach My, began because you couldn’t find a basic, all-in-one teaching kit for your son. Tell me about your “light bulb” moment.
CC: When my son was 18 months old, I wanted to teach him the basics. I began going to education supply stores to find teaching tools. I was hoping for one kit that would have tools to teach the alphabet, numbers up to 10, colors, and shapes. I didn’t find one, so I bought several tools that were expensive and outdated in style. I played “Mama’s School” with my son, and [used] the teaching tools for 20 to 30 minutes a day. By the age of three, my son could read, which caught the attention of parents at nursery school and playgroups. I realized there was a gap in the market and knew that other parents would benefit from an all-in-one learning kit. So, I created Teach My Toddler.
HC: What next steps did you take to turn that germ of an idea into a business?
CC: It took six months from the time I decided to move forward with the idea to actually going into production. I tested a prototype on many moms’ groups in my local area. The testing process didn’t have to be rigorous because [similar] products exist in the marketplace already. We updated them, made them more stylish, and put them all in one kit. I like to call it “evolution not revolution.” I spent a lot of time looking for overseas suppliers, trademarking the name, and setting up a business—thank goodness for Google! I manufactured 1,000 kits and exhibited at a local consumer show, [selling] 90 kits in just three days.
HC: What obstacles did you encounter as you built your company? Any that surprised you?
CC: I was surprised by how difficult it has been to build relationships and connect with store buyers. Buyers are a tricky breed. When working with buyers, you need to be prepared to take criticism and grow your product line accordingly. I needed to ‘check my ego at the door.’ The buying process can take up to six months to get underway, and there are long approval processes and many forms to fill in to become a vendor with large corporations. [It takes] a lot of persistence—a key trait for every entrepreneur—and patience.
CC: In 2009, at our first New York Toy Fair, a top buyer from Toysrus.com came by our booth and loved the products. He was instrumental in championing the products at Toysrus.com in the early days. He gave us great placement on the website in our early days. This alone created amazing sales numbers and exposure, and [I was able to use] the sales figures to attract the attention of other big box online retailers.
HC: Do you collaborate with other small business owners?
CC: I work with lots of small business owners. In the early days, it is important to find a group of business owners at the same stage. We collaborate on social media efforts and giveaways, and share contacts and stories.
HC: Your Teach My products have been mentioned on top parenting web sites and national talk shows. Any advice on attracting that ever-important word-of-mouth “buzz”?
CC: If nobody knows about your product, it will not sell. My corporate background was in marketing and public relations, and [I’m] thankful for my public relations experience. Public relations is an essential part of launching any product and also important to keep it on the market. In the “old days,” marketing professionals said that a brand or product had to be seen by a potential customer seven times before they would consider buying. Due to all the noise in the current marketplace, that number has increased 10-fold. Now, it’s essential to build “layers of awareness.” Using both traditional media (TV, radio and print), as well as non-traditional media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Youtube, Google+ and blogging), build layer upon layer of awareness by getting your story out to the public at every possible opportunity. Through building the layers of exposure, customers will be able to find you among all of the other brands.
HC: What are one or two other tips to get a product noticed?
CC: Tradeshows are key. They put your company in front of hundreds of buyers over a course of three or four days. I also think a professional image is important. [From my days] in public relations, I knew the importance of image. Although you are a small company, you need to look and think like the big guys. Therefore, we invested in a great website, a stand-out tradeshow booth and high quality sales materials to represent the brand.
HC: Many of us dream up ideas for products or companies, but rarely follow through with it. Share your thoughts on what others need to keep in mind before they begin a venture like this.
CC: [Ask yourself] do you have money and passion? Unfortunately, start-up businesses take more money than anyone ever expects. Be prepared to invest or find investors. We have private investors in the form of friends and family. Also, you need to have a relentless amount of passion—don’t listen to the naysayers, and don’t ever give up on your dream.