Occasionally, Yun and I will post a “retro diary” that will reflect on how a series of random encounters, which at the time may have seemed innocuous, helped to lead us to where we are now with our business.

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A year ago at this time, Yun and I were in the Windy City eating lots of deep dish (for what it’s worth, our favorite is Lou Malnati’s) and attending the International Reading Association conference (IRA). IRA is the educational publishing industry’s equivalent of the SuperBowl, without the fanfare. Yun and I were there to meet with our distribution partners - Curriculum Associates and Oxford University Press - and to see all of the new products that were on the market. 

One of the companies that we discovered at IRA was a small publisher called Mandy and Pandy, which focuses on helping young kids to learn Chinese. In speaking to the company’s owner, Chris Lin, we learned Mandy and Pandy had just signed a licensing deal with an agency that would help the brand expand beyond books into different product categories (think: TV, movies, t-shirts, plush dolls, etc.). We thought,  “why aren’t we doing this with our characters?”. If Mandy and Pandy could get a licensing deal, why not our Letter Buddies or Zoozoo characters...? I immediately envisioned a Letter Buddies TV show, an image to this day that only plays in my mind.



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After this epiphany, we decided to exhibit ourselves at the biggest licensing show in the world - Licensing Expo - held in Las Vegas every year. Sure, every huge multi-national brand like DisneyMattel, and Nickelodeon would be there to sell their wares too, but we were determined to carve out our own niche, our own licensing deal (shouldn't every kid be wearing a Letter Buddies t-shirt with their favorite character; we think so:)). With only 1 month to prepare for the conference and a booth budget similar to Disney’s except with four fewer zeros to the left of the decimal, we decided to DIY our own booth. As I mentioned, the other companies exhibiting were the creme de la creme of brands, so there were a few misgivings about whether our handmade booth would fit in with this crowd. That said, when you're small what do you have to lose? But, as it turned out, the disparity between our booth, which we thought looked quite good given our constraints, and the big boys' booths could only make you laugh. Please see the visual evidence.


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Our booth started with 5 black panels attached together like a fifth grader's science day display board. We applied blackboard paint and tried to create a classroom feel. We thought it looked pretty good, but it was a little...
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... like Cinderella before the fairy godmother intervened, while... 
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... Disney's was like Cinderella after the transformation!

If a photo can speak a thousand words, then it’s probably unnecessary to say that our great plan didn't quite come to fruition. We were a little company amongst a sea of large, established mega-brands and as you might have predicted, it was impossible to get any attention. Moreover, most of the licensing agencies with whom we would want to speak already had their meetings planned for months so we didn’t even have the opportunity to connect with them. 
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Being late to the game hurt us more than we could have known. By the time we realized our mistake, we had already suffered two horrendous nights at the worst hotel in Las Vegas - the Luxor - and we still had three more uncomfortable nights to go. 
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The only upshot of attending the Expo was the chance encounter we had with Blues Clues co-creator, Todd Kessler, who stopped by our booth to talk about the state of early childhood literacy. He was surprised that there were so few players, excluding us, focused on the early childhood space (if only others would have taken the same notice). After happily leaving Las Vegas, we hooked up with Todd to collaborate on a digital project, which ultimately catalyzed us to think about creating digital apps using our own content. In May 2010, we hadn’t given mobile apps much thought, but 5 months later we were jumping in full bore and hiring developers to build our first app - Letter Buddies AlphaBooks

In business school, they preach about creating an executable business plan, which is to be followed stepwise for fear the consequences if you stray. However, in practice, sometimes you find yourself developing a plan on the fly. It’s like a broken play in football, you’re constantly evaluating and reacting to opportunities as they present themselves while trying to avoid being sacked. In many cases, the plan is only visible in hindsight. As we look forward, we're not sure if we will ultimately be an "app" company; it's something we evaluate constantly, and while the uncertainty is often stressful, the scrambling around does keep things interesting. — Kevin



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