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innovativeKids Goes Toe to Toe with Toys

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Michael Levins, CEO of innovativeKids, sees the biggest challenge facing the book publishing industry as the decline in reading. “We have to find a way to revive an interest in reading,” he says, voicing a widespread worry. Then Levins goes on to talk about context: “Children today are awash in options for filling their time, and in many cases children are voting for activities other than reading,” which is why his company publishes “books that go toe to toe with other established alternatives such as toys, Internet, and electronic games. Our books can almost be classified as toys that read like books or books that play like toys, all while the kids are learning something.”

One example is the Now I’m Reading series, whose titles feature “cool packaging” that pleases children’s book buyers like Brian Monahan of Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton in New York City. Now I’m Reading books come in a case “about the size of a CD jewel case, only thicker and with a magnetic flap that opens up to 10 little books, each in its own vinyl sleeve,” Levins says. “Kids can easily peruse and see each book, unlike a competing product that’s in a box where you can’t see anything.” The series also includes four-color drawings designed to entice children to read, which compare favorably, Levins reports, with the black-and-white stick figures used in a competing series. Now I’m Reading also improves on the competition by providing a guide for parents who want to help their children learn to read.

“Their stuff is great,” says Linda Devlin, owner of Linda’s Story Time, a children’s bookstore in Monroe, CT. “It’s quality merchandise that combines a book with an activity or with learning activities. Parents love them. Kids love them.”

No Sacred Cows

When Michael Levins got engaged to Shari Kaufman in May 1989, they skipped the engagement ring and used the money to start innovative USA, which began by supplying businesses with promotional items, such as coffee mugs, umbrellas, and T-shirts with a company’s name or logo on them.

The company has since morphed into a specialty manufacturer and book packager, and today it is best known for innovativeKids, which generates revenue of more than $10 million annually, publishes approximately 25 children’s titles a year, has 100 titles in print, and is looking to double title output over the next five years.

“Our niche is specialty books that excite and are developmentally correct,” Levins says. “We produce books that are unique, educational, and interactive.” Or as innovativeKids’ tagline puts it, books that are “Hands-on, Minds-on.”

Levins believes that innovativeKids has been successful partly because he and Shari Kaufman had no preconceived notions about book publishing and doing things “by the book.” Preconceived notions were fairly easy to avoid, since neither of them had direct experience in book publishing before starting innovativeKids. Levins had sold paper to trade and college textbook publishers. Kaufman, who currently serves as president of innovativeKids, has an early childhood teaching degree (kindergarten to third grade).

“We operate by the idea that there are no sacred cows,” Levins explains. “We listen to what our customers need and want and respond.”

True to its name, innovativeKids also believes in spending time and money to create new concepts. Approximately half its 30 staff members focus on development, and many innovativeKids titles appear in formats that the word book doesn’t quite cover. For instance, its Soft Shapes™ and Tote-Along Soft Shapes™ books have foam pop-outs designed to spur fine motor skills development, hand/eye coordination, object recognition, and imaginative play; and its Hear and There Books™ let children push a color-coded button to hear a bird or animal and pull a tab to see it.

The Challenges Now

Ideas for innovativeKids titles come from booksellers, distributors, and the market. The principals and staff spend time talking to the ultimate purchasers of its books–kids and their parents. And they also mine the minds of the children they know best, including staff offspring as well as the three Levins and Kaufman children ages 13, 10, and 3.

“We have a collaborative environment that allows us to work toward the goal of having the best books, as opposed to what one person thinks is the best book,” Levins says.

Book buyers say they appreciate the time innovativeKids takes with development as well as market research. “What sets them apart is obvious from their name,” B&N’s Monahan says. “They take a creative approach and have uniquely formatted titles that make it fun to learn.” At the same time, Levins reports, they’re willing and able to adapt to standard practices. When booksellers previewing a phonics wheel complained that its irregular size would make it difficult to stock, innovativeKids changed the design.

Its latest operational innovation involves moving selling in-house–with Tammy Johnston, formerly of Candlewick Press, as VP of sales and two national account managers who will cover the West Coast and Midwest–instead of using Chronicle Books. Fulfillment, which Chronicle had also handled, has been switched to the Time Warner Book Group.

Levins believes his company’s biggest challenge this year will be managing the changeovers and keeping up with inventory demands. “We are working closely with our suppliers and our sales and operations team to avoid any out-of-stock situations,” he says.

The firm’s guiding principle, though, is unchanged. As co-founder and president Shari Kaufman explains on the innovativeKids Web site: “We know that if kids are given the choice between a book and a toy, they will choose the toy nine times out of ten. We also know that kids need books. That’s why every iKids book is crafted to feed the desire for fun and the need for knowledge.”



Michael Levins, CEO


Innovative USA, Inc.

Norwalk, CT


First booklist:

Fall 1999.

Favorite part of job:

“I enjoy being able to wake up each morning and decide what it is I want to do with the business.”

Least favorite:

“The incessant need to focus on the business of business. Essentially you are always worrying whether you are making the right decisions. In today’s world, everything changes much faster than it did even five years ago. The pressure is higher, and the ante is as well.”

How to run a business together and stay happily married:

“Shari and I have very different skill sets, so we complement each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Shari is the creative genius and runs all the creative aspects of the company. I am not creative, so I get to be in charge of sales, finance, etc.”

What’s a key to success:

“I believe that the key feature of running any company, publishing included, is to have a laser focus on what you as a company do best and concentrate all your available resources in that direction. If you dilute your energies, you will be more likely to struggle and ultimately stumble.”

Your biggest business influence:

“My wife and I belong to a group called TEC that I have been a member of since 1998. It consists of business owners in noncompeting industries. This group has worked hard to provide sound business advice, prop me up when events go awry, and ultimately to keep me accountable.”

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