by Ken Scheel
We have homeschooled our three daughters who are in ninth, seventh and fifth grades, since the beginning. Until three years ago, our lives were bumping along with a livable level of chaos (like any other homeschooling family). I had a real 9:00-to-5:00 job. Life was stable. At that time a rare opportunity dropped into our laps through some connections I have with the toy industry as a toy inventor. A European toy company that happened to be the maker of the absolute favorite toy in our house was about to pull out of the United States because they were unhappy with their U.S. distributor. I caught wind of this and initiated discussions with the company, not sure if I was really ready to take on the responsibility. Before long, I knew they were interested in my proposal, so I suddenly had to get serious in evaluating the impact it would have on our family.
It was a small business, so it was certainly going to be a family affair, with the five of us as the entire workforce. The looming decision was our main topic of discussion for a month, trying to anticipate the pros and cons. The obvious and biggest pro was that we would all be working with (and playing with) our favorite toy. Also, the girls could learn about business by helping to receive orders and ship packages, we would get to travel to trade shows, the girls would get paid and we would all be working together as one big happy family. That was the plan. It was a good plan. It was a happy plan. But the plan changed.
The first weeks
It is 2:00 o’clock in the morning, and I am slumped at the computer trying to figure out how to print shipping labels. Late into the night or early into the morning, I have many learning curves to climb: Learn to work a Website, learn QuickBooks, compare FedEx Ground shipping with UPS, find a box manufacturer, learn how to send large chunks of money to unknown, overseas bank accounts and hope some product shows up in Virginia, learn what an import broker is, find an import broker, get to know my import broker -- Vinnie.
Finally, the first shipment arrived in a 20-foot box, and the whole family enthusiastically headed to the loading docks to work together, loading boxes into our trailer. By the time we had the trailer half-unloaded at our house, the enthusiasm level had dipped. All of us started doing the math in our heads to calculate how long this was taking and how often we would be repeating this little routine, but we also had the satisfaction of seeing rows of boxes neatly stacked and ready for business.
A year later
I found that I was excited to work out the processes and get things running smoothly, but the daily routine started to wear on me. No matter what time we got home in the evening, I still had to process orders. With each order, I would mentally note how much we just made, but at 1:00 o’clock in the morning, who cares? Although the girls were generally willing to help, they had a lot of homework and other activities competing for their time. Do I ask them to stop studying so they can help me with orders? Do we want this routine to characterize our family life? Business was increasing at a modest pace, and I needed to start thinking about more creative ways to operate without pulling the family down. I believe it was during this time that I was first accused of living at my computer. Our computer is in our family room, so I was always visible to the family. Unfortunately, I was always in the same pose in the same chair because I always had work that needed to be done. If everybody else watched a movie in the family room, I would be right there with them, but I was usually staring at a different screen.
Thankfully, I was able to work out a deal with a local business so it would be responsible for the daily shipping. In theory, this would give us much of our time back. In reality, it gave me a chance to pursue other ways of promoting the business, which took up just as much time as before. However, this is when it started getting more interesting for the whole family.
The nature of this toy is that few people understand it or appreciate it until they have played with it. Once they have tried it, they usually say that it is one of the best toys they have ever played with. Knowing these extreme characteristics, my new marketing plan was to create a full-scale, hands-on exhibit for children’s museums and science centers that was based on our toy so the new people would discover our toy every day.
The "toy" is really a construction set from Europe called "Kapla." It consists of small wooden blocks. Since they are all the same, there is no sorting to build or cleanup. Their secret is the precision of the cut. They fit together so perfectly that many people describe them as "almost magnetic." Structures are surprisingly stable and can be quite tall and can easily be built to the ceiling.
A Virginia science museum liked the concept and agreed to work with me on development. We now had a need to set up some spectacular exhibits in museums, and I happened to have some of the best Kapla builders in the country living in my house. When it was time to set up the exhibit, each person would build a version of his or her favorite structure. We were on the road to getting paid for playing with blocks -- a dream job that none of us has grown tired of.
Since then, the girls have enjoyed building at museums and trade shows and are being recognized as expert builders. Last November, along with two other homeschooling families, we built a world record-breaking Kapla tower at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. that was over 51 feet tall and only 2 feet wide at the base. During events like these, we all wear professional Kapla shirts and the girls build demonstration structures and talk about building techniques with visitors who are building for the first time. It has given the girls many opportunities to converse with strangers in a professional manner. They have seen their dad interviewed on T.V. They know what it is to be exhausted at the end of a busy day but exhilarated by the success of the day and the enthusiastic response of so many people to what we are doing.
I hope I am planting entrepreneurial seeds that will take root. They can begin their experience early because there are many opportunities for children, especially with the Internet. Homeschooling gives us the freedom to pursue special events and trade shows when other children are at their traditional schools. I just returned from a trade show in California with my seventh-grade daughter. She was the only young person in a room of adults. She was able to hand out information and see a side of the business world that most adults never get to experience. It was like a father/daughter retreat. We had a chance to build some lifetime memories together and have some meaningful conversations as she heads into her teen years. These times make the fatigue and sleep deprivation worth it. Hopefully, in the long run, we will make some money, too. In the meantime, the hope that our ideas and products will enrich others’ lives is enough to keep us going.
Please visit the Kapla website, www.kaplaworld.com
to see a
photo of the world record Kapla tower and Kapla blocks for purchase.
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