Katherine Huck of Fortamajig
It wasn't an ideal time for 40-year-old Katherine Huck to invent a product and launch a business. She had three small children, ages 10 months and up, and a husband running his own business with its own set of challenges. But when the idea for Fortamajig took hold, she knew she was on to something. And when it captured the imagination of her own kids - and her friends' and family's kids - she found she couldn't let it go. Since then she has successfully developed, launched and won numerous awards for her innovative product, available in specialty stores, catalogs and online at www.thehappykidcompany.com.
Here is her story:
Describe your company and product line.
The Happy Kid Company manufactures products inspired by children and designed by parents. Taking into account the importance of imaginative play and combining it with high quality materials, versatility and practicality - we strive to create inventive renditions of classic childhood play themes.
Our product line consists of the award winning original Fortamajig. With no hard pieces to break or lose, the Fortamajig allows kids to build their own playspace anywhere - indoors or outside. Constructed of durable nylon ripstop, kids build their space by attaching the Fortamajig's adjustable loops to anything stable like tree branches, stair rails, chair legs - pretty much anything. Winner of a Parents' Choice Gold Award, Dr. Toy Best Products Award and Mr. Dad Seal of Approval, the Fortamajig is an heirloom quality toy that kids will adore and parents will appreciate. When play is done, it folds up into less than a foot and stores away easily in its matching tote bag. The Fortamajig's one piece design is machine washable, portable, storable and completely safety tested for ages 3-12.
We recently launched our second product - The Fortamajig Connectables - at the International Toy Fair in NYC. Constructed from the same durable nylon as the Fortamajig, Connectables are colorful panels that kids can quickly and easily lock together to create any kind of space - anywhere! The unique soft tab system is easy for little hands to connect and allows kids ultimate freedom of expression in building their space.
Why did you start this company and when?
My children were my inspiration. They loved to build their own play spaces, and blanket forts were common around our house. I watched them play and noticed ways that creating this textile could improve their experience. Much of what we owned for play spaces was static - you could not change the structure, the parts would break and you could not easily wash or store them. I began building prototypes using different materials and ideas. It took several months of trying new things before the product took its final form.
The prototype design began in the Fall of 2005. In early 2006, I launched the company with an old friend from college who had a business background and willingness to spend a lot of time on this! The initial goals were and continue to be providing high quality products that are built to last and foster creative play. My friend, Kristen, has since had her second child and moved to a different part of the country with her family. I am grateful for her enthusiasm and help getting this project underway.
Describe yourself and your family. What is your background and how does it relate to your company?
I am 40 years old and married to an incredibly supportive man with his own entrepreneurial spirit. He has supported my endeavors from the very beginning and he continues to be a sounding board for discussing ideas and business strategies. We have 3 children, ages 9 ,6, and 3. Raising them is a privilege and fascinating experience on its own.
My background is in political fundraising and software sales. I have also always been actively creative and interested in art and design. Combining these skills has allowed me the bandwidth to create and build this business.
Have you ever experienced an epiphany that changed the direction of your life?
My epiphany occurred watching my kids. Once I realized what I found missing in their playtime routine - I felt an overwhelming need to work on bringing my ideas to market. Truthfully, none of it made any sense to us as a family at the time. I had a 10 month old, my husband had his own business with its own challenges, and there was no room for spending a lot of time and money on an unproven idea. I also had never manufactured my own products nor run my own business. The whole thing truly appeared absurd. However, it was not an option to let it go and I knew if I did not follow through on this I would regret it. I am thankful for not being deterred and for persevering.
What process did you follow to develop a prototype?
Prototype development was an evolutionary process. I would build one version of the toy and test it on my kids. Then we would take it to a friend's house and see how their kids liked it and used it. Each experience fleshed out new ideas and improvements. Original designs were created out of fabric that was entirely wrong. Good ideas were eventually improved upon. Ultimately we held focus groups with the nearly completed prototypes and incorporated that feedback in our final designs. Safety testing was an essential element that was never compromised, and we spent a good deal of time and initial funding to get this done correctly and thoroughly. It was a very good experience that also helped us narrow down the final designs. The whole process took about 1 year until we actually got to the point of manufacturing our first run.
What process did you follow to find a manufacturer?
Manufacturing was a challenge considering the size and quality of fabric we wanted to use to make this product. We initially lined up a manufacturer in the US - obtaining all of our materials and mapping out the needed timeframes to make our launch date deadlines. In our final meeting with them before production, they turned the tables on us, telling us the price was going to be $60 per unit more than they originally quoted. They made it impossible for us to move forward - because they had overcommitted themselves and realized they could not complete our work. In light of this development, I approached a friend who had manufacturing experience and access to a manufacturing team. In other words - I got very lucky. This friend graciously accepted the challenge of getting us underway and walking us through the necessary steps. It was a learning process every minute and I am grateful for the help and advice this person offered us - out of friendship.
What secrets have you learned in terms of marketing and publicity?
We launched the Fortamajig at the International Toy Fair in NYC in February of 2007. It was an incredible experience and we worked hard to get people to notice the idea. Our booth was creative and different and we attracted attention just from standing out a bit. The show was a major reason for our success - as we were too small and undermanned to actually get our product in front of this many people any other way.
We were selected by several large catalog companies there and a consortium of specialty toys selected us as part of their collection for 2007. The toy is now sold through catalogs, online and in specialty stores nationwide. The process of selling and marketing our product continues to be our challenge and focus. Getting the word out in different and creative ways has helped us leverage our coverage with less expense. We worked hard to get samples out to folks for reviews - and then used these reviews to our fullest advantage. I also had a friend who was a publicist and he helped us work on several ways to get our message out there. Primarily using electronic media - email blasts to local newspapers and reviewers got us our initial coverage.
What was your biggest learning curve in terms of marketing?
The biggest learning curve for marketing was getting our product in front of people. Just because we were making it did not mean anyone knew about it or would look for it. It's also a textile product that truly shows best when you can touch it and play with it. We had to look for ways to demo it - we created a video for our website which has been immensely helpful.
How long did it take to bring your product to market?
Product to market time was about 15 months. Juggling 3 young kids and dealing with the time to research and make this happen was certainly challenging. Part of my secret was waking up very early. In the busiest times, I would get up at 4:30 AM to work for a couple of uninterrupted hours before the rest of the house awoke. I also worked efficiently. We continued to stay very true to our goals and tried very hard not to compromise. This made decision-making easier - and quicker. If we ran across a problem - there was no time to dwell - we just figured out how to fix it.
How do you juggle all your roles?
My family has always been incredibly supportive. It's a good thing too, because there are still days when the dishes are piled up in the kitchen, some laundry is clean - but in piles in a basket somewhere, we cannot find a matching mitten or sock for the life of us - the list goes on. I feel as though this experience will enrich and offer my family more than having a perfectly clean and organized home. Would I like both? Absolutely, but I have learned to put that aside for now.
What kind of support system do you have in place personally and professionally?
My family is a support personally and professionally. All of my siblings are coming with me to Toy Fair this year to man my booth. My youngest sister, Emily, is my graphic design director. She is a talented photographer and web designer and gives our company the exact look and feel we continue to work hard to achieve. We also work very well together. In some ways - I am not sure I could have done much of this without that relationship. The exchange of ideas and the work we have done has happened very naturally.
Any resources you would recommend?
We used the Mom Inventor's Handbook throughout the entire first year of launching this product. We religiously read every chapter - flagging the parts that applied to us and working through the steps as Tamara had done. It was an outstanding resource for us and also helped to make us realize that no one is going to do this for us. If we wanted to get this done - we had to go out and do it.
How did you finance your business?
This company was financed by our own funds. We scraped bits together along the way when needed - some through refinancing our house. This was something we tried very hard to work through without it becoming a huge source of stress. In our first year of selling the product, we were able to stop using our own money to fund monthly business expenses. We had very high-cost materials in the first year and our goal was to be able to pay for them through the business and not our own bank accounts. We managed to do this - and it's an immense success for us to have reached this goal in 2007. Our projections for 2008 were to triple what we did this past year and work on our distribution channels.
What has been your greatest success or high point in the process?
The high points are many. My son currently has a Fortamajig/Connectables fort over his bed and he refuses to let us take it down. This success to me, as a mom, is incredible. I have given them something they will remember forever. I also am thankful to be an example to them for following their passion. I always felt that whether I succeeded or failed, at least I did it -- and I wanted them to know that. When our toy won the awards this past year - it was a validation that resonated on many levels. We are very proud to be in a league with other manufacturers creating top quality toys.
Any low points in the process?
Low points have centered mostly around manufacturing logistics and time management on the home front. Dealing with the work issues that are not always the most fun can be hard. Working to balance the family needs with the businesses - also tough especially on vacations. I try to take things as they come - fix them when they need it and keep moving forward. I find this helps even as the hard stuff continues - by taking some element of control of the situation.
Any advice you'd like to offer other moms?
Trust your instincts. There was no good reason I should have pursued the inception of this business. It was instinct that drove the process from the start. It was energizing and forceful.
Also, talk to your friends. It was through our network of friends and relatives that we achieved so much of our initial success. Without them we would have been years behind where we are now. We were honest about our goals and people were incredibly willing to help us achieve them.
And honestly - the Mom Inventors Handbook - inspirational and helpful. It gave practical advice and helped us realize this can actually be done. When we hit a roadblock, the book helped to keep us on track and to find a solution. We also used a book by Romanus Wolter - Kick Start your Dream Business. He was a friend of my business partner's and through his book and personal efforts, lent his support and energy to our endeavors.
What surprised you about this process?
The biggest surprise was how gratifying it feels to following a path of my own design. Succeed or fail - I will be proud of the process and know that I have done the very best I could. It's helped me look at other areas of my life and realize - if I want to do something there is no reason not to give it a shot.
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