Do you think that starting out small is an obstacle in the business world? If you don't, then you're in good company, because neither does Kenn Viselman, founder and chairman of The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company (TibECo). TibECo specializes in young children's entertainment and is well known for importing Teletubbies to North America from the UK, a pop culture explosion that became the most successful preschool property introduction of the 90s, and included such products as soft toys, puzzles, videos, games and books. Viselman's unorthodox marketing vision took his tiny one-man operation from a spare bedroom in his home in 1995, and blew it to epic proportions with offices worldwide in Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Canada, Brazil and Germany. His book, Eight Giant Steps to Global Domination, is a true testament to the old adage, size doesn't matter. Here Viselman discusses how entrepreneurs can begin thinking globally no matter what their size.
Entrepreneur.com: Early in your book, you tell readers to be nontraditionalists. What's an example of an obstacle you met, and how did you overcome it by thinking out-of-the-box?
Kenn Viselman: Recently, we did a deal with the Fox Family channel. We believe very strongly that children should be able to watch television in a commercial-free environment. We saw huge potential with the Fox Family channel, but they had no preschool programming. Ultimately what we wanted to do was get programming on the Fox Family channel and make it commercial-free, even though they were a commercial network. We found an underwriter to come in, Hasbro, and they did a product-free commercial at the beginning and end [of the program], and now we have commercially uninterrupted programming. Sometimes what you have to do is look at what the end goal is and look at all the possible players in there. Then try to see if there is a way to just turn the world sideways. Just because everybody else has chosen to walk doesn't mean you can't fly.
Entrepreneur.com: Most small-business owners have to define their target market without the help of a multimillion-dollar marketing department. What do you recommend for these owners who are having trouble defining who comprises their market?
Viselman: You have to know who you're targeting your product at. Knowing who the end user is going to be is the trick. You don't have to spend millions of dollars to do it; there has to be a logic. Why did you create [your product] in the first place, or why did you buy into it? When we're looking at a TV show or a toy product, we know who our audience is. More often than not, people know who their audience is; they simply don't know how to go out and reach them. Technology has a great opportunity-you've got the Internet available to you. Look at successes like Blair Witch Project where they used the Internet in an extraordinary way. There are lots of new outlets and venues available that didn't exist before that now give people an opportunity to go out and reach their market.
Entrepreneur.com: Appearance is something that's especially relevant to entrepreneurs who want to grow their businesses but who may only have a few employees or work out of their home. How do you plan how big or grand you want to seem, and are there any boundaries that should be set?
Viselman: I don't think [there are any boundaries]. I think that when you're a small company, you have to do whatever it takes to be noticed as long as it's not illegal, and we do that. When I was working for another company, we were very small and no one had ever heard of us before. I desperately tried to schedule two meetings with two very big toy companies. I knew I had to find a way to make each one think we were important. Although I only had those two meetings that entire week, I scheduled both of them on the same day, at the same time. They walked in and saw [the other] competitor sitting there. I then had them go into two different rooms, and it actually helped us sign the deal, because each one thought we were more important or bigger [than we were], or about to deal with the other company. It's a silly little game, but it's something that I'm guilty of.
Entrepreneur.com: In the book, the experience with your graduate school roommate was a sad yet valuable lesson that taught you how to approach your relationships with your staff. Please explain why your concerns as a small-business owner or entrepreneur about your employees shouldn't be confined to just their workdays.
Viselman: In grad school, I studied industrial psychology, and while many people think that subject is simply about common sense, there's a science attached to it. And even if it is just common sense, common sense dictates that if you have an employee who's focused on his personal problems, he's not going to be able to think clearly and he's going to be distracted during the workday. If you can show some compassion, some kind of caring or attention, and let him know you're concerned for him on a personal level, it helps increase his motivation and productivity and be more focused during the workday.
Recently an employee who had worked in a number of big businesses came up to me and said, "I don't know why you put up with all these people whining all the time. It's distracting; it's taking away from getting our work done." I said, "No, you don't understand. Have you ever seen a company put out as much work as we do?" He said no and I went on to say, "The whining is why we're able to get the work done. These people feel comfortable enough to be able to talk about whatever it is that's bothering them-good, bad or ugly." It's not always professional, but it is important for them, for whatever reason, that they feel the need to make this communication and then get it off their chest and go back [to work]. Every once in awhile, I wish I had a normal company, but then I'm really thankful that I don't. It's because our employees are able to whine that we're able to find out [what the problems are], deal with them, move on and get stuff done. I play therapist in this office as much as I do CEO or chairman.
The most exciting thing in the world to me is being able to see a child smile. All that I set out to do is make the world a happier and safer place for kids and their caregivers...and not lose money. It's not like we're altruistic-we're out there to make money-but you don't have to make money at the expense of the audience, and I think a lot of people have yet to learn that lesson. Our mission is to make great stuff. It's really kind of neat to have an idea for a product, and then work and slave and do whatever you have to [do] to make it happen. When you get to a retail store and you see a child pointing at that toy and laughing, or holding onto it at the airport, there's nothing more rewarding for me in my career than that moment.