Categorized | Shoestring Startup

The ABCs of Letter Learning, Educational Greeting Cards for Kids.

LetterLearning.com

I am an elementary teacher by trade, but went on maternity leave to have my daughter in November, 2009. Going from nonstop activity with my 3rd graders to staying at home with a newborn in the dead of winter was quite an adjustment and the busybody in me started to go a little crazy. Thankfully, while on a walk with my little girl, I let my mind wander. I began to think about my former students, whose biggest struggle was often motivation to learn. Kids learn more when they’re having fun and see meaning in what they’re doing. Next up in my stream of consciousness was the multitude of thank-you cards I needed to write. Before I knew it…ta-da! That was it! Combine fun educational activities with greeting cards that promote healthy relationships between kids and their family and friends! Letter Learning, Educational Greeting Cards for Kids was born! It couldn’t be a more perfect niche for a mom/teacher/greeting card lover like me!

As soon as my husband got home from work that day, I bounced the idea off of him. When I got a positive response, I tested the idea out on a couple of close family and friends. Again, the response was overwhelmingly positive. So, I did a little research and found that educational greeting cards with traceable, pre-printed messages designed to help young kids with reading, writing, handwriting and letter formation were not yet available on the market. The more I thought about my cards, the more I realized the possibilities were endless. I could make cards that improved children’s math abilities, critical thinking and problem-solving skills as well. Christmas cards, birthday cards, thank-yous…there really was no limit. And, since kids like to “be like Mom” and 80% of greeting cards are bought by women, it seemed that young children would jump at the opportunity to create and give their own greeting cards to family and friends, all on their own, while parents would love the cards because they help educate their children.

My husband is an entrepreneur himself, so his input was invaluable. He directed me first to forming an LLC and getting my paperwork in order for legally establishing Letter Learning. Letter Learning became official on January 23, 2010. Since I was still on maternity leave, I was receiving a paycheck and used small amounts of income to fund my initial investment. Getting the paperwork completed cost around $300.

Next up was creating the actual cards themselves. With some trial and error using software already installed on my computer, I came up with a prototype that I really liked. I bought rights to the artwork for a nominal sum (well under $200) and confirmed that using them on greeting cards that I was going to resell was within the usage rights. (My first card designs included rhinestones, which I thought be appealing to little kids. It wasn’t until my friends pointed out to me that the rhinestones are huge choking hazards that decided to scrap that idea all together. This, of course, cost me money in cards and rhinestones that I wish I had back!)

My next task was to find a logo. Again, trying to keep everything as dirt cheap as possible, I did my research. I found a company called LogoNerds that designs logos and banners, and allows you to give input and make as many changes as you like. For a logo, favicon, banner and website header, my bill was originally close to $100 (still not too shabby), but I found a coupon online to save $10, so I was thrilled. I used the logo on my business cards and back of the greeting cards, as well as the site…all for $90!

I used a large national chain to print the first cards, which was a big mistake. I didn’t do enough cost comparison and ran into problems when I saw that each card was costing me around $3.00 since they required 2-sided, full color printing. I knew that the more cards I ordered, the cheaper they would be, so I bit the bullet and spent roughly $500 on 20 designs of cards. It brought the cost down slightly, however, since I also wanted to pair each card with a matching envelope and protect them in a cellophane envelope, per-card costs were mounting. I wanted to sell the cards for a price comparable to those in grocery stores (roughly $3.00), but at that point, each card/envelope/cello combination was running me around $3.50 and I knew I was in an unsustainable situation. At one point, my husband jokingly said, “You’ve found an exceptionally creative way to lose money!” I did a little more cost analysis, talked to more printers, envelope and cellophane suppliers and soon found that I could make the card combination for about $1.00 a piece, without having to buy thousands of cards at a time.

At this point, I was about $900 into Letter Learning.

What good were these cards if no one knew they existed? I needed a website and some marketing tools. So, I bought the domain (www.letterlearning.com) from Network Solutions for $20.00 and bought a website package for $9.95 per month. I talked to multiple companies, including Network Solutions about having a professionally-designed sit, but I was not willing to spend the $2,000-$3,000. So, I went to the library, checked out three books on website design and HTML coding and built my own site. What I did not know at the time was that I was creating just a regular website, as opposed to an e-commerce site. My site design was decent, but I was constantly making changes, trying out new, free shopping cart gateways, sticking in PayPal buttons here, there and everywhere…and quite honestly, it looked homemade and piece-mealed. I struggled through with this design for about 6 months, which cost me another $100 or so.

In the meantime, I was keeping myself busy applying for grants to get funding and building my social network fan base. I applied for the Women’s Net Amber Grant (http://womensnet.net/default.aspx), which supports women-created business with $500 in funding. I also applied for the Huggies’ Mom Inspired grant which awards its recipients roughly $10,000 (https://www.huggiesmominspired.com/). I created profiles for Letter Learning on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I started multiple discussions with people on LinkedIn from greeting cards groups, who were so valuable in helping with design and marketing designs. I signed up for Help a Report Out (www.helpareporter.com) which allowed me access to pitches from reporter for more potential PR.

I also sent out samples to every major greeting cards company I could find, hoping they would pick up my cards and distribute them to stores and shops nationwide. Not surprisingly, that didn’t happen, and to boot, I had spent an additional $300 in card samples and shipping fees just to get rejected or no response. I continued to get tons of kudos from friends, family and social media followers, but still sales were very slow. I was convinced my website was the main part of the problem.

With the only real source of funding coming from my personal account, and my total investment running around $2000, I began to get a little discouraged. Thankfully, the editor of an online baby magazine called Tot Trends Weekly responded to one of my LinkedIn threads and mentioned that her magazine would like to endorse Letter Learning Cards. Needless to say, it was the huge boost that I needed. I also found out that I won the Amber Grant, so a check for $500 was in the mail! (I, however, did not receive the Huggies Grant.)

Now that I had a lot more interest in Letter Learning, I determined that I needed to switch host providers and invest in a new e-commerce website and 3rd party credit card processing gateway. My homemade job that I was trying to retrofit into an ecommerce site wasn’t getting the job done. I got the impression that potential customers were a little scared off my first website attempts, and that meant they weren’t going to buy cards. I made the switch to 3dCart and think it’s made a huge impact on our sales. I did the design for the 2nd site by myself again, but it was much easier since I already had so much background knowledge.

I continued to nurture my social media outlets and also joined online groups of Women- and Mom-owned Businesses, most notably one called, The Enterprising Moms (TEMS). Through TEMS, I received an email from the owner of a group-buying website called Certifikid who wanted to feature Letter Learning as their daily deal. This sparked my interest and provided me another idea for low-cost marketing. I reached out to a couple different group-buying sites geared to moms because, with the group-buying site model, there is no initial fee for the retailer. The downside, of course, is that we had to offer our cards at 50% of retail, and then typically split whatever was remaining with the group-buying site. At best, we make 25% of the retail cost of the cards. It is not an especially profitable means, but people typically buy additional cards when they redeem their gift certificates and that is where I can turn more of a profit. It also makes more people aware of the cards, and gets cards circulating as well.

Another successful (and mostly free) marketing gimmick I use is to tap into profession Mom bloggers. These savvy ladies have hundreds or thousands of moms following their every word, so when I can get Letter Learning cards reviewed by them, it usually spikes our site traffic and sales. It costs me just the sample cards that I send the bloggers, and the shipping costs. Sometimes we do giveaways as well, and the cost there is minimal.

So, that’s where I am about 11 months into switching from full-time teacher to full-time mom to part-time mom/part-time entrepreneur. My investment thus far is around $3500, but with the $500 Amber Grant, I’m in the red about $3000. By far, our biggest challenge is getting word out about Letter Learning cards. Without fail, every single person who has received one has been impressed by the quality and positive impact it has on young children. We have several more group buying deals in the works, and I continue to make big plans. I’d absolutely love to have the money to participate in stationery trade shows and buy advertising in national parenting magazines, so I continue to apply for grants (we’ll hear back from a big one in January, 2011) and push our cards to anyone who will listen. I also have plans to continue expanding my greeting cards lines to include even more academic areas. Ultimately, I do think you’ll see Letter Learning cards in grocery stores and pharmacies. If it happens because a large company buys us out, that’s wonderful. If not, I have all of the confidence in the world that I can get them there on my own, with a little luck and a lot of hard work!

By: Ellen Richard, M.Ed., Founder and President of Letter Learning, LLC

http://www.letterlearning.com

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