Boosting Team Spirit Via Toddler Seats
The Harden family was strolling through Chapel Hill one rainy day, revisiting the place where Boyd Harden earned two academic degrees from the University of North Carolina.
He was pushing along a stroller carrying his young daughter, who was protected from the showers by a plastic rain cover. He was surprised when, for the 10th time on their short walk, someone stopped and commented on the brilliance of the stroller cover. The family was living in New York City at the time, where stroller accoutrements of all shapes, sizes and colors are commonplace.
Boyd, a former marine and a fanatic for UNC sports teams, recalls suddenly thinking "I'd pay another $10 for this rain cover if it had a North Carolina logo on it."
While it may not sound like the beginning of something big, the moment sent Boyd and his family down an entrepreneurial journey. His spark over infant and toddler paraphernalia and how "boring it was" morphed into a business selling high-end infant car seats with collegiate logos.
It also enticed a new kind of buyer to the infant market.
So far, about 80 percent of the sales on from his Web site are made by men, according to Harden. "That's the niche market we're trying to pursue. Men kind of get overlooked in the process of purchasing equipment and clothing for their newborn."
Toddler Teams was founded in March 2005 as a company encouraging sports fans to celebrate team allegiance by using car seats for kids embroidered with their favorite team logo.
"The beauty of car seats is that it's required by law, and they are essentially billboards in the back of your car for at least four years," said Harden, whose self-funded firm is based in New Canaan, Conn.
Harden has spent a lot of time thinking about ways to get people from point A to point B in high style. Prior to his small business venture, he sold time for travelers on private jets.
"It took me almost two years to get the confidence that [Toddler Teams] would work and I began to lose interest in a very cool jet job," he said. Harden worked on the car seat idea at night while continuing his day job. In January of this year, he decided to focus on Toddler Teams full time.
In March 2006, his firm started shipping car seats made by Britax Child Safety, a unit of Washington, D.C.-based The Carlyle Group.
"Our idea seemed so simple I wondered why no one had done it before," said Harden, who adds "and four years later, after all this work, I understood why."
Researching a Business Plan
After Harden's idea was sparked in the rain, the real work began. First, he hired a patent attorney to validate his idea. Harden then attended two trade shows -- targeting the juvenile products industry and campus bookstores -- to scope out potential competition and get the creative juices flowing.
"I walked the floor, probably seven to 10 miles a day, at each show and verified that no one was doing what I wanted to do," said Harden. "I talked to a lot of people but kept my idea to myself and identified the big players who I wanted to take my idea to."
Harden, who has an MBA, put together a presentation, called some manufacturers and set up meetings with CEOs. After he narrowed his choices to two car-seat makers, he began negotiations and settled on Britax.
Next, he started the paperwork to obtain licensing rights for universities that Toddler Teams wanted to produce products for, such as the University of Maryland. In order to be able to use a school's logo, a company will have a much easier time if it gets endorsed by Collegiate Licensing of Atlanta. It took Harden about two months to submit the comprehensive application and get approved by CLC as an "official licensing company."
It took about six months from getting approval from the licensing group and then the OK from the initial 15 schools Toddler Teams had chosen. Four schools initially rejected the request, however the firm now has licensing rights with 31 institutions.
A Britax car seat with an embroidered sport-team logo will cost a fan an extra $30. A regular Britax Marathon seat retails for $269.99.
Britax charges a flat fee for each seat and Toddler Teams sells the logo-emblazoned seat as a distributor. "Our business is that I own Toddler Teams and the license for the school logo, and I sell the product," said Harden.
Harden turned to two long-time college buddies who run C & A Sportsware, a Baltimore firm with a warehouse specializing in embroidering and screen-printing.
His friends, who he played lacrosse with at UNC, have run their business for about 15 years. C&A works with local high schools as well as national teams such as the Orioles and Ravens. Toddler Teams does not have any employees but because of its partnership with C&A, there are five people involved in the company, according to Harden.
Up until this month, C&A embroidered the seat covers. Toddler Teams is changing the process so that the work is done by a Britax contractor in Mexico City, where Britax has its factory.
Toddler Teams has sold several thousand car seats since March 2005 with a close competition between fans of the University of Florida and the University of Georgia as the biggest buyers.
Harden anticipates his firm will become profitable during the latter part of next year. He is working on expanding the firm's distribution channels to more college bookstores and independent retailers in college towns where Toddler Teams is licensed to sell.
He's also taking his show on the road every weekend to major college games.
Another marketing strategy is to pursue relationships with alumni associations. For example, if North Carolina has a football game, he plans to donate a couple of car seats, have the school auction them and donate the money to the alumni group. "At least you'll have 20,000 people walk by and see the seat," he said.
Fans also can purchase the products through the Toddler Teams Web site. However, most of the firm's sales have been through Target's Web site "and those buyers sort of blindly found us," said Harden, who added that the firm recently has been spending a lot of money on search-engine optimization resources to get better exposure online.
Although Harden, who now has three children under the age of five, says his MBA gave him the confidence he may not have had without the formal training, "there's a lot of characteristics that an entrepreneur needs that you don't acquire at business school."
"Despite all the cynicism that you'll encounter, you'll control your own destiny by staying committed to your beliefs and ideas," Harden said. "They'll always be people along the way who doubt it or distract you along your pursuit, but you have to have the desire and the relentless commitment to pursuing your idea and that's a key component of entrepreneurship."
Summary: Toddler Teams was the brainchild of Boyd Harden, a college sports fanatic who thought infant products were bland. He dreamed up the idea of putting collegiate logos on car seats as a way for fans to show their allegiance to a team. Harden researched his plan by working with a patent attorney and attending trade shows to gain industry knowledge. He also went through the arduous process of gaining rights to use individual college and university logos on a product. He was helped by some college friends who offered embroidery and screen-printing services and owned a warehouse in Baltimore. He eventually partnered with car-seat maker Britax to sell the logo-branded car seats. So far, he's sold several thousand car seats and hopes to make it to profitability by the end of next year.
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