In this week’s edition of our small business success story series, we chatted with Susan Flora, who is the president of WordTeasers.
Susan purchased a fabric banner to use as a backdrop for her trade show booth.
Tell us about yourself.
Prior to starting WordTeasers, I was an advertising salesperson for a large educational publisher. I understood how to design and sell innovative educational learning programs for major companies like Apple Computer. Having a strong understanding of content development and a sales background has been instrumental to the success of WordTeasers.
But for years I had thought about starting my own business. I just needed a push to make the leap. That push came from an unlikely source, breast cancer.
As a survivor, I realized that I was up to any challenge and starting a business was worth all the risks. It was just a matter of coming up with a product that I believed in that would help kids of all ages learn something new while having fun. That product is WordTeasers!
What does WordTeasers do?
WordTeasers are fun conversation starters that get kids and adults talking, laughing and learning. The idea is simple! Pull a card from any WordTeasers deck, read the question out loud and let each person in your group answer it. If someone in the group doesn’t know the word or phrase used in the question, it’s OK to turn the card over and seek more information. But you still need to answer the question!
This quote from a customer sums up the WordTeasers mission, “What I love most about WordTeasers, is that it invites families to play together. Play is the brain’s favorite way of learning.”
Where did the idea for your company come from?
Some of the best products, like WordTeasers, are inspired by real-life experiences. The original WordTeasers deck (WordTeasers: SAT Vocabulary) was created for my son when he was studying for SATs. He was great at memorizing word definitions for his tests, but using those same words in context was a whole different story. So, I created a series of fun, engaging questions that incorporated his study words. As we began to work through the questions at the dinner table, we discovered that we all talked more, laughed more and learned more. WordTeasers was born!
Who comes up with the questions for the teasers? And how are those questions formulated?
The concepts for each WordTeasers deck are mine. The first deck was born out of a need to help my son. The subsequent vocabulary decks were a natural age progression.
Many of the other decks were developed because I like quirky information and facts. I’ve always wondered why we say odd phrases such as it’s “raining cats and dogs.” Where did that idiom come from? Funny sayings and old wives’ tales helped to satisfy some of my curiosity!
The writing is a collaborative effort. I have writers who work on the questions after I’ve decided on a theme. Once the questions are completed we try to talk, laugh and learn something as we play with them at meetings or in phone conversations. You’d be amazed how many times we toss out questions, because there just isn’t a fun way to answer it!
What is your unique selling proposition?
Two key words: education and connection!
Research shows that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts their vocabulary by 1,000 significant words. Eating and talking, regardless of the meal or the type of family, is a more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent at school, doing homework, playing sports or creating art. It turns out that sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain and WordTeasers helps inspire the conversations! It helps the family learn and connect in a really fun way.
What is one strategy for gaining customers that you have been successful with?
Trade shows, trade shows and more trade shows! WordTeasers is unique because it appeals to a broad audience. Consequently, we sell to a wide variety of outlets from gift stores to toy stores to bookstores to education stores, which means that we participate in a huge number of trade shows to reach our target markets.
Is there an area that you’ve struggled with in regards to customer acquisition that you believe is critical to future success? If so, how are you overcoming that?
As with most small businesses, WordTeasers runs very lean. We are sometimes stretched too thin to handle all of the trade shows and sales leads effectively. A few years ago, we started to work with a large rep group that has showrooms all over the country. This move has significantly expanded our reach and our trade show budget.
How do you compete with the bigger competitors that are similar to yours but have a recognizable brand and large marketing budgets?
In the beginning, I wanted to create slick advertisements, flyers and catalogs like the “big boys” do. But I’ve discovered that my customers respond more to a “homegrown” and folksy approach. My husband, who is a career marketing executive, used to make fun of our direct mail advertisements. However, that really changed when he saw the awesome sales results! One of the wonderful things about the gift and toy industry is that people are always looking for something new that has a unique personality. They really appreciate the homespun WordTeasers persona and react very positively toward our growing brand.
We have also significantly upgraded our overall trade show appearance over the years. We started out with one little vinyl sign, but have blossomed to a full-blown booth with wonderfully bright and colorful signage.
What is one of the biggest challenges you have had with your business and how did you overcome it?
One of the biggest obstacles I’ve faced was understanding supply, demand and lead time. When our first really big order came in, it far exceeded the inventory we had in the warehouse. At the time, I thought, “Oh no problem, I’ll just order more.” Little did I know that depending when you put in an order, the length of time it takes to get finished product into the warehouse varies tremendously, and not by days. If you order at the wrong time of year, you can literally add months to the printing process, not to mention huge cost implications. When I discovered that this big order was potentially only going to net me a fraction of what I had hoped, I almost threw in the towel! But perseverance and hard negotiating won out, and I found a printer who saved the day!
If you could rewind time is there anything you’d do differently? If so, what?
Well, there is a yin/yang part of me that wishes I had known how long it would take the company to take off, and part of me is glad that I didn’t know…because I might not have done it.
Even with the speed bumps I’ve hit, it’s been a great experience. I am amazed every day by the things I learned and the people I’ve met. There is nothing like seeing your own idea come to fruition and then sold in stores across the country.
You mentioned the length of time it took your business to take off. How long would you say that length of time was?
I started the company 8 years ago. At that time, I thought that WordTeasers would be an overnight sensation! To some degree we were. We had instant success at trade shows and sold a lot of product, but we only had one title! We quickly learned that stores want more than one brand product to sell, and retailers also want to see if you have “legs.” Longevity and persistence in the toy business is a good thing that proves you have staying power!
If you had advice for other SMB owners, regardless of the industry, what would it be?
Do your homework. Is there anything similar to your product on the market? If so, why is yours better? Where do you think you could sell it? What’s the right price that will both maximize sales and make a nice profit?
Go to trade shows and talk to people. There is no substitute for face-to-face learning. The toy industry in particular, is a very friendly industry and people are willing to share their “secrets” of success. Talk to associations like ASTRA and find out if they have suggestions to point you in the right direction.
Get your ducks in a row, make sure you have taken steps legally to protect yourself and your products, take a deep breath and go for it!
You mention pricing your product so that you could still make a profit. Did you know right off the bat the perfect price? Or did you have to play with pricing for a while?
Interesting question. No, I didn’t know right off the bat if we had the perfect price. Part of the decision was based on the cost of manufacturing the games, and part of it was a gut feeling. I have played around with pricing at local venues like festivals to see if a price change will affect sales, but my bottom line is the product drives the price. If customers feel they are getting their money’s worth, then they will buy it.
How do you “WOW” your customers?
Getting on the Today Show was one of our biggest wow moments recently. It was the result of having a great product, being persistent and never taking no for an answer!
Being on the Today Show is HUGE for a business owner. Congrats! So how do you wow your customers when they make a purchase from you or when you’re meeting them at trade shows? When a customer takes home a pack of WordTeasers how do you hope the product wows them?
I remember one event when a mother and her obviously bored and disinterested teenage son came up to my booth. She asked me what WordTeasers were and I went through my spiel. Her son was busy texting and not paying attention. She picked up a card from WordTeasers: SAT Vocabulary and read it to him. They started to talk. Then he read her a card and they laughed together over her answer. After a few more exchanges, where they were clearly talking, laughing and learning, she looked up at me and said, “Wow! That hasn’t happened in awhile.” WordTeasers helped them make a connection…and that’s our “wow” factor!
What do you find is your most effective marketing strategy?
There is no substitute for visibility! You’ve got to be “out there” to be seen. WordTeasers goes to as many trade shows and events that we can afford.
Do you find you have more sales at trade shows, through social media, PPC ads, or a different avenue?
Most of our sales come from trade shows and repeat customers.
What do you think the future holds for your business?
The future is bright for WordTeasers. We are hitting “critical mass,” people are recognizing who we are, and instead of asking what we do, they now ask what’s new!
Without sharing detailed financials can you speak to your growth to this point and why you think it will continue?
Since we started, we have grown more than 20% year over year. But this year, we will probably double our revenue!
Where can you be found online?
You can also find us at retailers and in catalog websites from across the country.
Editor’s Note: We’d like to thank Susan for taking the time to do this interview and for the great example of perseverance and networking that the WordTeasers brand is. Susan hit the ground running with her idea by attending trade show after trade show. Doing so provided immense brand awareness with consumers and stores in attendance. The simple, yet catchy idea caught fire, which led to more demand for the product than actual supply. Susan’s explanation of the product and subsequent demonstration of it at trade shows teaches a crucial principle of hands-on customer service. This creates a lasting connection between the business and the customer, which in this case led to return customers for the company. Researching the toy industry gave Susan the ability to tailor her product and create unique selling points that lead to the success of WordTeasers; research should be implemented in a small business development plan. We send our best wishes to Susan and WordTeasers and look forward to seeing this creative, fun card game take the country by storm.