Pediatrician Mom Creates Innovative Children’s Learning Tool
Dr. Jennifer Canter has two sets of twins and a pediatric practice, but when she came up with the idea for the U-Play Mat in the fall of 2008, she just had to add being an entrepreneur to her already busy schedule.
Conceived of as an educational tool, the U-Play Mat is a U-shaped pad with 15 clear card-holding pockets that puts the child at the center of the activity. It's intended for use with children ages one and up to help them learn to talk and develop social skills.
The most important part of the patent pending U-Play Mat is not its design, though -- it’s the instructional manual that accompanies it, with exercises to engage your child using the eight available educational card decks.
Jennifer brought her product to market in the fall of 2009 and it’s currently available online, in catalogs and in small shops in the U.S. and internationally. The U-Play Starter Set includes the U-Play Mat, a tote, an instruction book and two card decks for $49. We caught up with this busy mom of four to hear how she started her business and how she manages juggling her kids, her career and her startup.
Mom Invented®: Why did you start this company and when?
Jennifer Canter: My "Aha!" moment arose during a speech therapy session with her son. He was focused and engaged while playing a simple interactive floor game involving a large paper poster and picture cards. As a typical toddler would, he crawled on top of the paper poster during the game, nearly ripping it and causing the cards to fall off. I thought, "We should have the mat curve around the child -- rather than the child sitting on the mat."
The child being the focus of the U-shaped mat was like a light bulb going off in my head. It opened up a tremendous amount of ideas for U-shaped play. The first, our U-Play Mat, focuses on speech and language play with young children.
What is your background and how does it relate to your company?
I am a pediatrician with two sets of twins who were 2 and 5 at the time I came up with the idea for U-Play. As an experienced mom of toddlers and preschoolers, I understand the value of low-tech, interactive floor play and how it doesn't always come easily to parents.
What process did you follow to develop a prototype?
I found an amazing manufacturer through word-of-mouth and had my best friend, a designer create drawings.
How did you find a manufacturer for your product?
We went to the New York Toy Fair in 2009 and found an awesome, reliable, honest, amazing manufacturer.
What was the biggest learning curve in terms of developing your product?
To expect time delays and prepare for them. Also, I thought we'd sell out in a week! Product ideas and manufacturing are very different from distribution and sales. Now I am bridging relationships with other companies to develop avenues for distribution -- something I didn't necessarily understand at the beginning.
What secrets have you learned in terms of publicity and marketing your product?
Being a pediatrician and a mom of two sets of twins has opened up doors -- it gives me credibility as a parent and a professional. I Twitter, Facebook and blog as myself, and I'm honest about the multitasking motherhood madness that goes with having four kids, a full time job, business and a husband.
What was the biggest learning curve in terms of marketing your product?
Social media rocks, but, I have to be careful to set priorities. It can be very time consuming. I had a great PR firm help at the start (Ann Noder of Pitch Public Relations) and that got the ball rolling. I also have a nice balance of professionals and non-professionals using and loving the product, so that has helped with word-of-mouth.
How did you finance your business?
The business is self-financed and I have invested more than $100,000 -- a fair portion of which was legal. Number one to us was protecting our ideas and understand how to do that properly. I feel that this is a solid investment in an amazing idea, and we're already seeing success.
We're currently exploring direct sales and partnerships for licensing our intellectual property. Taking development costs aside, we're profitable already and expect a lot of growth in 2010.
What has been your greatest success or high point with your product or business?
We had phenomenal licensing discussions at the New York Toy Fair with various companies interested in totally different applications of our ideas. One CEO of a toy company I greatly admire was exceptionally complimentary about our idea, about our philosophy on U-shaped play, and the unique angle of being a pediatrician with a toy was super-cool. But, the coolest has been my daughters and how excited they are to be part of this process. They came with me to a meeting at a magazine recently, and it was wonderful to share this with my daughters.
Have you experienced a low point in business?
There have been a few pockets of time when I felt overwhelmed and shortly thereafter made decisions to delegate parts of the business. We have help with public relations, fulfillment and wholesale outreach now. That's been a big help.
How have you managed to juggle the roles of business owner, doctor and mom?
I have not changed my regular full-time work load. I love my job and have no plans to give up being a pediatrician. I work after the kids go to bed, early in the morning, and get as much help as I can at home to spend quality time with my four kids. When it comes to U-Play, the kids are part of it as much as possible.
What advice would you offer other moms developing their ideas?
Network, network, network. The answers are usually out there with a little bit of research, and most problems are easily solved.
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