From the January 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

To read, you need nothing but words. But to read seriously--that is another proposition. Serious reading involves equipment. Accessories. Ingenuity. Style. Serious readers need monogrammed velvet pillows to support their books. They need cherrywood lap desks to compose letters, gold-nibbed fountain pens to lend splash to their signatures, and note pads with night lights to capture late-night inspirations.

Until Lori Granger Leveen, 39, and Steve Leveen, 42, creators of the Delray Beach, Florida-based Levenger catalog, began purveying what they call "tools for serious readers," no one dreamed readers were such a vast--and acquisitive--market. In fact, no one outside the publishing industry dreamed readers were a market at all.

The Leveens don't scoff at this kind of ignorance. That's because they didn't recognize the market themselves until months into their venture. How did this husband-and-wife team parlay an $8,000 investment into a $60-million-plus mail order powerhouse with its own built-in market? Their road-to-riches story began with a bright idea.

Coming To Light

In 1987, Steve and Lori Leveen decided to go into the lighting business. It wasn't due to a lifelong devotion to lighting; it was more like a whim. Steve had read about halogen lighting in The International Design Yearbook and, having recently been laid off from his job at a software design firm, thought halogen lamps would be an interesting product to market. Lori agreed. She was pregnant, contemplating maternity leave from her job as a marketing consultant, and open to new career directions.

"We both liked the idea of selling a product instead of a service [such as consulting]," says Lori. "With only two people, we could see there was a limit to how much we could do in a service business. With products, there was no such limitation."

The potential may have been boundless, but start-up capital was not. They had retirement savings to help cover personal expenses, but their business fund consisted of proceeds from the sale of their 1985 Mitsubishi Montero, for which they netted $9,500. They used $1,500 to buy Lori's father's station wagon; the remaining $8,000 was used to start the business.

Levenger's elegant-sounding name (a combination of the founders' last names--Leveen and Granger) was perhaps the only elegant thing about the initial operation. The Leveens' apartment served as headquarters, while their neighbor's garage acted as a warehouse. Their catalog was a modest black-and-white brochure featuring a handful of halogen floor and desk lamps. "Frankly, it was just one large piece of paper, folded twice," says Steve.

Lack of glitz wasn't their only problem, though. Their first few ads drew only a lukewarm response. The Leveens had nearly resigned themselves to obscurity when inspiration struck. Maybe what they needed was a hook. The appeal of halogen lighting was its effectiveness, not just its good looks. If they could highlight function over fashion, perhaps customers would respond.

So, on October 12, 1987, they placed a 1-inch ad in The New Yorker magazine promising "Serious Lighting for Serious Readers."

A Light Bulb Goes Off

And the phones rang. At first, the Leveens figured they had finally tapped the nation's need for good lighting. But slowly, they realized it was the other half of their pitch--the "serious reading"--that customers were passionate about.

It was a classic case of good luck disguised as bad. Because of their meager funds, the Leveens answered all their own calls. In conversations with customers, what they heard again and again was that serious readers needed serious help. "They'd ask us, `Do you really know about reading light? I read a lot, and I can't get a decent lamp,' " Steve recalls.

"Of course, the truth of the matter was, we didn't know a thing about reading light," Steve says. "But we did know enough to listen to our customers and realize they wanted us to become experts." And that's exactly what the Leveens did. "We talked to several lighting engineers at General Electric, GTE Sylvania and elsewhere to learn more about lighting for reading. What we learned, we passed on to our customers and explained in our catalog." Just like that, a resource was born.

But it wasn't until February 1988 that the Leveens recognized the full potential of their discovery. "A light bulb went off, and we suddenly realized we could look at readers as a group and think of other products to sell to them," says Steve. "Our list got longer and longer--bookcases, dictionary stands, chairs, desks, bookends--objects serious readers needed to make their lives more comfortable and productive."

Good as the idea sounded, it was a gamble. Were readers really a cohesive market? And were they serious enough about reading to buy paraphernalia to enhance the reading experience? In 1988, no one knew for sure. But the Leveens had stumbled on some fairly compelling anecdotal evidence, and they seemed to be the only ones privy to this knowledge.

Every day calls came in from lawyers with eyestrain. There were squinting college professors, writers, editors, doctors, actors, politicians, analysts, architects--all sorts of people who read for a living. And that didn't even include the people who read for pleasure.

Since so many people needed help seeing their reading material, perhaps they'd need help organizing it, too. Maybe ergonomic items such as footrests weren't so much a luxury as an orthopedic necessity. Best of all, here was a need no one else seemed to know about. All the world looked at readers and saw nothing more than people who read. But for the Leveens, who listened to the concerns and wishes of avid readers every day, this was a market with life and breath.

Small Wonders

Starting small meant plenty of hard work for the Leveens, who juggled new parenthood and homebased entrepreneurship all at once. "We had a newborn that first year, and it was crazy," Steve says. "There were times we felt claustrophobic, especially being holed up in our apartment for long periods."

Close quarters and a small staff (limited to the two Leveens) kept costs low, which enabled the partners to develop their concept and skills at a slow pace, learning as they went along. Time and effort were two critical ingredients in the Leveens' newfangled venture. After all, they had entered a market without guideposts.

How, for example, do you reach serious readers? The Leveens used trial and error--and a plethora of inexpensive small-space ads--to figure out which publications their market read and what they would buy. It was a slow process but an effective one. "By the time we were ready to rent outside lists and do our first unsolicited mailing in 1991," says Steve, "we had a pretty good idea where to go, what to sell and what business we were in."

Levenger Style

The Leveens resolved to provide Nordstrom-level service, even when their business was operating on a Kmart budget. Like many new firms, Levenger encountered its share of product defects early on. Although it hurt to cut into profits, "we would send [customers] replacements or pick up their returns for free or do whatever it took [to make them happy]," says Steve. "Even if we lost money on the transaction, we wanted a customer who loved us at the end of the day."

Naturally, it's not just royal treatment that keeps customers calling. Levenger's product mix is unparalleled. Exclusive products are a Levenger hallmark, and many are created in-house by the company's designers.

Originality is clearly what differentiates Levenger from other catalogs. You can find note pads anywhere, but only in Levenger will you uncover the Pocket Briefcase, an ingenious leather case that holds business cards, a pen and 3 x 5 cards for note-taking on the fly. Chairs may be commonplace, but Levenger's exclusive New Dream Chair, with its "butter-soft aniline-dyed leather" and "lower back support engineered to perfection," sounds more like something you'd want to marry than merely a place to sit. Everywhere in the Levenger catalog are products you never imagined before but suddenly can't live without, especially if you love to read and write.

Exclusive products were an obvious choice for Levenger since the company set out to pioneer a new market. The Levenger staff comes up with hundreds of new product ideas every year. Some are developed during brainstorming sessions; others come from what the Leveens call "industrial archaeology"--culling new ideas from old products and modifying them for modern use. "We're constantly trying to find the thing that will delight people," says Lori. "You've got to keep developing and growing, or the business isn't alive."

Their creative process is serious but offbeat, the domain of an extraordinary staff. "Many of them are curator-types; they have a background in museum fields," says Steve. "One requirement for our latest merchant position was that the candidate have an advanced degree in a useless subject." This offbeat job requirement feeds the unique creative atmosphere. "We're a wacky group of people," he laughs, "but we inspire each other."

No Small Thing

The creative department clearly isn't the only one to have evolved over Levenger's nine-year history. Fulfillment, customer service, human resources and operations--Lori's bailiwick--also run like a large, well-oiled machine. In fact, with 230 employees year-round and another 100 to 150 seasonally, Levenger is a large, well-oiled machine.

The company has a whole new shape. After moving from the Leveen's Boston apartment to Delray Beach, Florida, in 1989, where commercial real estate was more affordable, Levenger topped the $1 million mark in 1990 and continued to post annual growth of 100 percent or more for the next three years. In 1994, the company moved to its current 130,000-square-foot location, which houses executive offices, telemarketing, a warehouse and two retail stores (one of which is an outlet).

Unstoppable growth has been a blessing, but also a challenge. In fact, jokes Lori, "There are many categories of challenges." Maintaining the company's high standards for innovation and quality is one. Another is "attracting and retaining the best people possible. There are so many advantages to being located in Florida, but we aren't in a real hub like New York or San Francisco. We're really lucky to have a great group of people we can trust to do a good job."

Becoming a real corporation does not happen overnight, and it does not happen automatically. Over the years, the Leveens have worked with various consultants to tweak management systems, boost creativity and cultivate leadership skills.

They've also had the good fortune to find mentors. In 1990, award-winning mail order entrepreneur Ric Leichtung, retired CEO of Leichtung Workshops, dropped in at Levenger's headquarters and began asking some questions about the business. When he offered to critique the company's catalog, Steve jumped at the chance.

"Two days later, I got his response in the mail," Steve recalls. "It was a single-spaced, typewritten thing where he ripped the catalog to shreds. But everything he said was right on the money. I called him back and said it was the best thing I'd ever read, and that started a friendship that was extremely helpful to us."

Read On

However humble their beginnings were, the Leveens began this adventure with a largeness of spirit that persists today. Define a new marketplace? Dazzle the likes of the brilliant and well-read? Only people with serious vision would attempt such a project.

And only people with serious vision would succeed. Today, the Leveens enjoy unique measures of success. Lori speaks for both of them when she says, "It's rewarding to have created a workplace where people are appreciated and are passionate about what they do."

In their downtime, when they're not looking after their two sons, the Leveens visit a lot of antique shops and crafts fairs, where the possibility of a new discovery lurks around every corner. And they read, of course--comfortably, productively, seriously, and with equipment, accessories, ingenuity and style.

Contact Sources

Levenger, 420 Congress Ave., Delray Beach, FL 33445, (800) 544-0880, (561) 276-2436.