Sharon Schneider, founder of Schneider Educational Products, in San Francisco, was losing money even as she hired more sales reps for her line of finger-puppet books for preschoolers. Just as distressing, she hardly recognized the business she had started in late 1989 with two young children in tow and a desire to "make a contribution in a tangible way."
To their credit, the sales reps she'd used for a year got her books into some 1,000 independent bookstores. But then, says Schneider, "I realized that was crazy. I had major problems getting paid by the bookstores. And when you deal with rep groups, you may know only a couple of people in the organization. When you don't know which people are selling your stuff, you don't know if they're selling to the wrong places. Finally I thought, I've just got to do it myself." Early last year she dropped all 45 sales reps and took sales and distribution into her own hands.
While sales reps make sense for some young companies, going it alone paid off for Schneider, who employs just one part-time worker. It forced her to focus her selling efforts. She decided to concentrate on museum and aquarium stores because of their initial interest, the potential market (museums host upwards of a million visitors a year), and scant competition.
"Once I started to move in that direction, it felt good in a lot of ways. When I called people to ask if our new Ocean Magic books were doing well or not, I got reasons that made sense to me. And they were more open to suggestions."
Schneider's new focus also freed her to slowly pursue a variety of distribution channels. In a year's time she placed her products in Walt Disney's Epcot Center store and several teachers' and book-club catalogs. Ultimately, national bookseller B. Dalton agreed to test her books in 300 stores.
While Schneider has traded faster sales growth for her independence, getting paid on time is no longer an issue. The company is running in the black. Sales doubled in 1991, to $100,000, and Schneider expects sales to double again this year.
"I was afraid that some people wouldn't deal directly with me, but if your product's good for them, they'll make exceptions." -- Susan Greco* * *