Embarking on the journey of building asuccessful business requires careful planning, smart decision-making, and a passion for innovation. In this edition of ARTicles, we delve into the inspiring story of E-Blox, a groundbreaking company that sparks curiosity and learning in young minds through their fun and educational products.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Jim Seymour, a driving force behind E-Blox's triumphs, to learn about his journey as an entrepreneur and the strategies thathave propelled the company forward. From tackling packaging hurdles tonavigating distribution channels, Jim shares valuable insights and lessonslearned while shaping the future of engineering education. Join us as we explore the remarkable journey of E-Blox and glean wisdom from a true industry visionary.
Helder: Hey Jim, thanks for joining us today! We're excited to learn more about your journey in building a successful business with E-Blox. As our readers are aspiring entrepreneurs and business enthusiasts, your insights and experiences will be incredibly valuable to them.So, let's dive right in and start with the story behind your company. Could youtell us about its history, mission, and the values you uphold?
Jim: Sure! Our business idea was inspired by the need to cultivate more STEM engineers. STEM jobs are growing at twice the rate of any other job type in the country. However, we noticed that the UnitedStates lags behind countries like China and India in producing STEM engineers.
So, we identified the necessity of getting kids excited about STEM at an early age, even as early as preschool and kindergarten. We developed a range of products that are not only fun but also educational, primarily targeting students from the first through fifth grade. We firmly believe that the best toys are those that are enjoyable and engaging, as learning follows naturally when children are having fun.
Helder: Yeah, it makes sense. When selecting business partners, what qualities do you typically look for in order to form a good partnership? Also, I understand that you manufacture the products, is that correct?
Jim: Yes, that's correct. Fortunately, one of our team members who joined us at the beginning already had his own company with connections in China. He has a team in China that is proficient in English andChinese, and he possesses extensive knowledge of the country as he has lived and worked there for ten years. This was a significant advantage because finding the right manufacturing companies in China can be challenging. With his expertise, we were able to locate suitable factories and establish a smooth manufacturing process.
Sometimes, for large orders, we directly ship products from China to the customers' warehouses, which we refer to as FoB (Free-on-Board)China. However, we also bring in a considerable amount of product domestically, especially for specialty toy stores and mid-tier retailers like Fleet Farm and Barnes & Noble.
Helder: Thank you for sharing that. One more question. Regarding your background and the journey of entrepreneurship, who do you think were the most helpful individuals you encountered along the way? If possible, could you provide a few examples of how they influenced your life and contributed to your success?
Jim: Personally, I have a background in the wireless industry, which I was involved in while my father and brother were building Elenco. I have been able to leverage this experience in our products, such as incorporating Bluetooth technology. However, the most influential person in my entrepreneurial path has been my father. He always aspired to have his own company, and from the start, he had the experience and knowledge of how to establish and grow a business into something significant.
Of course, there have been many others who played crucial roles as well. I mentioned earlier the individual who manages our operations in China, which has been invaluable. In terms of sales, as we are primarily engineers—myself, my father, and my brother—we relied on a consulting team called Hahn-Solo Consulting for sales expertise.
They have been instrumental in establishing connections, helping us secure representation across the nation through five or six rep groups comprising more than 50 reps who can effectively promote our products in stores. They also introduced us to a rep team experienced in managing Amazon, which was a significant contribution in building the sales team we needed to succeed.
Helder: Since the inception of your company, have you encountered any unexpected developments or market changes that prompted you to pivot your vision or strategy?
Jim: One of the significant lessons we learned was the importance of packaging in selling our products. We have an amazing toy that receives great reception from kids and parents when we showcase it at public shows. However, we faced a surprise and a challenge when it came to conveying the same appeal through product packaging on store shelves.Initially, we released a box that didn't effectively showcase the parts, lacked a clear description of the product, and had poor color choices. It was astonishing how crucial excellent packaging is for successful sales in a retail environment. We had to learn this the hard way through disappointing sell through.
Helder: So, you experienced a significant boost in sales after changing the packaging?
Jim: Absolutely. Changing the packaging made all the difference. It took a couple of attempts, but once we got it right, the products started selling through well. Initially, we made numerous sales to stores, but the products didn't move off the shelves because of inadequate packaging. The box plays a crucial role in telling the story of how our product is different from others. Ensuring the box effectively conveys our uniqueness was vital.
Helder: Jim, just out of curiosity, was it primarily about the visual appeal or the message conveyed by the packaging?
Jim: Initially, we had dark boxes with vague names like "Lights Starter," which didn't explain anything about the product. Then we shifted to a box with a window that allowed customers to seethe assembled parts. This new packaging had a clear title that described the product and a neutral purple color scheme that appealed to both boys and girls.These three changes had a tremendous impact on sales.
Helder: That's interesting. Now, moving on, could you tell us about your distribution channels? I see you have an online store, and you probably have wholesale and school distribution as well.
Jim: Certainly. We have a significant presence in the specialty toy market, which includes local toy stores. With our warehouse, we directly ship products to these toy stores. We also cater to mid-tier retailers like Barnes & Noble, Meijer and Fleet Farm. For some of these larger chains, we sometimes ship directly from China to their warehouses, and they handle distribution to the stores. Additionally, Amazon is a major sales channel for us.
There are two ways to sell on Amazon: Vendor Central and SellerCentral. Initially, we started with Vendor Central, where we sell wholesale to Amazon, and they handle the sales. However, we've found that utilizing SellerCentral allows for potentially higher profits if we manage our own advertising since we sell at retail prices. We have some products listed on our website, but our primary focus is supporting our customers in selling our products.Social media also plays a significant role in driving sales. We utilize platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, where we share stories and posts. While we have our own website, we list the prices slightly higher than what our authorized stores and Amazon offer.
Helder: Jim, out of curiosity, have you noticed any increased prevalence of engagement and conversion on platforms like TikTok?
Jim: TikTok has definitely gained significant influence, and Instagram has tried to follow suit with their features likeReels and Stories. Although we haven't fully capitalized on TikTok yet, I've read numerous success stories of companies going viral on the platform, resulting in a massive boost in sales. We're actively working on leveragingTikTok's potential. Instagram is also striving to achieve similar engagement levels with their Reels and Stories.
Helder: Interesting. How much of your budget is allocated to social media, including paid advertising, as a percentage of your revenue?
Jim: We have an individual who discovered us a tone of our public shows, and he manages our entire social media presence at a fraction of the cost we'd pay a regular company.
So, our expenses for social media management are not overly significant. We also collaborate with a few influencers, although they can be quite expensive when they have hundreds of thousands of followers. However, I've found some influencers with around 300,000 followers who are willing to work with us for $300. The majority of our advertising budget is allocated to Amazon, specifically through their advertising options that appear when customers click on other products. I would estimate that we allocate up to 10% of our revenue to Amazon advertising.
Helder: Understood. In terms of your goals, can you share what the company aims to achieve this year, in terms of revenue or growth? Additionally, what are your plans for the next five years in terms of business performance and expansion?
Jim: I won't disclose exact numbers, but our goal is to grow significantly. We faced challenging times due to the impact ofCOVID-19, which slowed our growth for a couple of years. However, we're now looking to be more aggressive and aim for a growth rate of 30% to 40% annually.We believe there is pent-up demand for our products, and we're ready to capitalize on that.
Helder: That's impressive. It sounds like an ambitious goal.
Jim: It is ambitious, but I believe we can achieve it. COVID-19 had a profound impact on our customers, especially those in the toy business. They were hesitant to take risks and primarily focused on well-established brands. Additionally, the education industry was heavily affected, diverting funds to COVID-related supplies rather than STEM products.
However, last year showed promising results, and I believe there is pent-up demand waiting to be tapped into. Our current vision is to grow the company, work with more people, and make it something big. While there may be potential for partnerships in the future, our immediate focus is on independent growth.
Helder: How many people are currently employed by the company? Additionally, what are your proudest moments and the biggest risks you've taken so far?
Jim: Currently, we have a small team of three employees. However, we work with contractors for various aspects of our operations, such as managing China-related tasks, handling social media, and sales. When considering the total workforce, including contractors, the number would be around 20. In terms of proud moments, we have received multiple awards at educational shows where the winners are determined by votes from educators, toy stores, and retail outlets. It's an honor to be recognized by our customers.As for the biggest risks we've taken, it was starting this company.
We had achieved great success at our previous company, but we had a vision and a passion for inventing new products. Our partners at the old company focused more on reselling existing products rather than investing in new innovations.Taking the leap to start our own company was a significant risk, but one that has been rewarding.
Helder: You're clearly driven by a strong purpose, and I believe that's a key driver for excelling in your company.
Jim: Absolutely, we love inventing and want to get kids excited about STEM. Our mission is to contribute to the betterment of our country by addressing the increasing demand for STEM engineers.
Helder: I love the mission. Just out of curiosity, do you typically participate in science fairs or similar events?
Jim: We do participate in some maker fairs. While COVID-19 impacted such events, some have returned, and we attend those where people are interested in creating things, often using products like LEGO. We also participate in retail shows like ASTRA (American Specialty ToyAssociation) and the annual Toy Fair in New York City. Additionally, I attend various educational shows, such as NSTA (National Science Teaching Association),which attract many educators. I make an effort to attend local events like theIllinois Educators Technology Conference (IETC) in Springfield, and I'm open to going to Library conferences like AISLE ACT as well.
Helder: That's great. Here's a somewhat unusual idea: have you considered promoting projects from science fairs and involving people in social media voting, which could boost engagement and sales?
Jim: Absolutely! It's just a matter of time since we currently have a small team. I'm always involved in science fairs at my daughter's school and try to support smaller maker fairs at schools. When people reach out, we do our best to provide support for such initiatives.
Helder: Two more questions for the interview: Can you share any exciting upcoming projects or plans for your brand? What are your goals for the next five years?
Jim: One of the projects we're working on and planning to release this year is a "Build Your Own Gyroscope" kit.Gyroscopes are fascinating, and there's a lot of science behind them, so we're excited about that. Additionally, in the mechanical realm, we're exploring the idea of a "Build Your Own Electronic Catapult" kit for kids who enjoy launching objects. These are just a few ideas, and we're always striving to come up with something fun.
Helder: I'm personally excited about those projects. I still have a kid inside me. That's great.
Jim: We're also continuously improving our products. Currently, our Plating product involves building circuits, which is educational but requires circuit knowledge. We're working on a new technology where a base plate can supply power, allowing users to simply plug in parts.The ones with LEDs will light up, creating a building experience similar to LEGO without the need to think about circuits. We're excited about this new technology.
Helder: That's pretty cool. Finally, what advice would you give to someone starting their own business?
Jim: There are typically two paths to consider when starting a business. Firstly, you need to decide if you want to establish your own company or license your product. Starting your own business requires a substantial amount of capital upfront for product development and investment before generating sales. If you have the financial resources, you can proceed with starting your own business and aim for growth.
However, if you lack the capital, I recommend patenting and trademarking your ideas. This allows you to license your product to larger companies that pay a licensing fee. By protecting your intellectual property, you can still make a significant profit if the product sells well. Attend shows like People Play in Chicago, where big companies are on the lookout for new inventions. Patent and trademark your ideas, and if you don't have the capital, licensing can be a viable route.
Helder: That's one of the best practical advice we've heard.
In conclusion, the journey of E-Blox and its founder, Jim Seymour, serves as a testament to the power of passion, innovation, and perseverance in building a successful business. Through their engaging and educational products, E-Blox has captured the hearts and minds of young learners, inspiring them to explore the fascinating world of STEM. Jim's insights have shed light on the importance of strategic decision-making, adapting to market demands, and leveraging effective marketing channels.
From overcoming packaging challenges to embracing social media, E-Blox has thrived by constantly evolving and staying ahead of the curve. Aspiring entrepreneurs can learn valuable lessons from Jim's experiences, such as the significance of creating products that combine fun and education, the value of strategic partnerships, and the impact of strong branding. The remarkable journey of E-Blox stands as a shining example of how passion and dedication can turn a vision into reality, empowering future generations of engineers and innovators.