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SMALL BUSINESS

Firm needs to step up marketing, experts say

December 27, 2007|Cyndia Zwahlen | Special to The Times

During a visit to a friend's farm, three San Diego moms were inspired by their preschoolers' reaction to a cute calf named Wilbur.

They parlayed that into successful DVDs starring a book-loving Wilbur the cow puppet.

This year their EKA Productions Inc. signed a deal with Discovery Kids to feature Wilbur and his barnyard sidekicks in a 26-episode television show.

Co-founder Kim Anton previously worked in sales and marketing in the financial industry. Tracey Hornbuckle is a former advertising sales rep at New Yorker magazine. Jill Luedtke is a one-time attorney.

Lacking Larry Kay's creative chops (see accompanying story), they hired outside experts to develop their vision for Wilbur a decade ago. The result: three literacy-promoting videos and a plush toy. The videos are off the market, but in February, Discovery Kids will launch a two-DVD series featuring Wilbur.

They remember how tough it was as independent producers of children's video to try to create a successful kids' entertainment product from scratch.

"It was a long road, but it happened," Anton says.

She and Hornbuckle agreed to review Kay's efforts and offer marketing guidance based on their experience in the trenches.

"I'm just so impressed with what [he's] done," Hornbuckle says. "I haven't seen anything like it as far as how children are to take care of pets and what they can learn and what the pets can give back to them. It's invaluable."

Anton agrees that Kay has had great success in creating polished products. The natural second phase is to focus on marketing.

"We were at your crossroads years ago and we were fortunate enough by just calling other producers to find some amazing partners," she says.

The company was picked up by Big Kids Productions Inc., an Austin, Texas-based distributor that specializes in finding quality independent children's media products for moms, child-care centers, libraries and small specialty stores.

They suggest that Kay send his products to Big Kids owner Tamara Carlisle. She would have to agree to take on Kay's product line, of course, but the EKA Productions founders expressed confidence that Kay's work would hold up to scrutiny.

The women also recommend that Kay work with a key publicist in the world of independent children's video and DVD, Andrea Blain of Andrea Blain Public Relations in Skokie, Ill. Blain helped launch the first Wilbur series and handled publicity for its Discovery Kids debut this year.

Kay also might benefit by contacting TTB Marketplace, Anton says. It's the new venture by Ty Simpson, the founder of Ty's Toy Box -- the online store for hundreds of licensed characters, many hard to find. TTB, based in Erlanger, Ky., offers e-commerce strategies that could boost Animal Wow's sales.

Kay should follow his Web developer's advice and work on optimizing his website for search engines, so it will pop up on the first page when consumers are looking for products like his, Anton and Hornbuckle say. It's easier to drive people to Animal Wow's website than to get in brick-and-mortar stores, they say.

"That's the reason we created the TV series," Anton says. "We needed to get people to know the product so Target and Wal-Mart would consider putting it in at a future date. It's hard to compete with main brands on shelves when you don't have awareness."

Another thing to consider: a celebrity endorser.

"We still haven't accomplished this, but it's on our radar screen," Anton says. "The first one that comes to mind is Ellen DeGeneres because she's such a huge pet lover."

Networking is key, they say.

"Use every professional contact and relationship you possibly can" to help find the resources the company needs, Anton says. "We weren't shy to pick up the phone and say, 'We got your name from so-and-so and they said you might be able to help us out.' "

Lastly, they suggest Kay set up a meeting with his investors to update them on his plans. Using the information he has gathered on his own and the advice from the EKA Productions founders, he might ask for help in crafting a business plan meant to raise funds for the next steps the company wants to take in marketing and public relations.

Then, consider finding an angel investor who shares Kay's zeal for teaching values to kids through pet care.

"You've done the hardest part in getting this adorable DVD created with plush toys, with an activity kit, with the party set," Anton says. "Now switch gears to phase two and say, 'OK, guys. How are we going to get this to market?' "

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cyndia.zwahlen@latimes.com

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