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During her doctoral work in early childhood education, Alex Tornek noticed that no well-designed, quality learning tools existed for young children. There was simply nothing available to help babies learn. Seeing a niche that she knew her expertise could fill, Alex started So Smart! Productions and began creating developmentally appropriate DVDs out of her house. Since the company launched in 1997, Alex’s animated So Smart! Beginnings series for babies and King Otis series for preschoolers have won over 30 national parenting awards and have been distributed in over 50 countries. In addition, So Smart! has sold over a million videos without a mass distribution system.
Knowing that she could develop better early childhood education videos than what was available, Alex self-funded So Smart! Productions completely from savings. She formed So Smart! in March, 1997. Alex was the creative force, immersing herself in mastering graphic software programs day and night and researching the animation field. The first video, a 30-minute production called So Smart! Sights and Sounds, was completed in August, 1997. It was an instant hit as parents quickly recognized the value in Alex’s new, stimulating video experience for their children.
Alex’s husband Scott joined So Smart! soon after its launch to lend his expertise in film, television, journalism and business. While Alex focused on art, concepts, directing, producing and doing the DVD voice-overs, Scott handled business, operations, finances, administration, sales and marketing, and distribution.
In its infancy, So Smart! Productions had little competition. With experience in the fields of art and psychology, Alex differentiated her videos by using what she knew babies responded to on TV: sound, light and movement. Her DVDs were slow and colorful, with minimal scene changes – very different from what was being offered. Alex’s videos also featured classical music, Bach and Beethoven, and a progression of images that infants seemed to prefer, such as symmetrical shapes and pictures with sharp contrasts. Not surprisingly, So Smart! Sights and Sounds became an instant best seller and won multiple awards. Coincidentally, the same month that So Smart! introduced its first video, Baby Einstein hit the pages of The Right Start catalog.
Alex didn’t have a mass distribution system, so an independent, specialized distribution network was developed. It included retail chains, catalogs, independent retailers, online stores, as well as third party distributors, wholesalers and sales reps. She also sold through a number of non-traditional channels such as direct sales companies and consumer products-related promotions, eventually selling over a million copies of her videos.
Since So Smart! Productions’ fast start 12 years ago, Alex and Scott have grown their family, as well as their company, with the addition of Matthew, 7, and Kaely, 2. The Torneks have also maintained control of every aspect of the business. However, aware of the changing retail climate where specialty stores like Zany Brainy gave way to mass retailers like Wal-Mart, Alex realized a change needed to be made to remain competitive.
As a result, in 2009 So Smart! Productions entered an exclusive distribution deal with Echo Bridge Entertainment, an outside distributor, to release their new DVD line for babies called Baby’s First Word Stories, and sell their other products, which are produced in VHS, DVD, CD-Rom, music CDs and gift sets. This leaves Alex and Scott free to focus on the creative development, production and marketing of their videos.
So Smart! Productions has grown into a leading, trusted brand, with its videos appearing in Parent Magazine, ePregnancy, Baby Zone, Ser Padres, Big Apple Parent, Cincinnati Family and multiple times in Parenting. The videos have also won a multitude of awards, including the Parents’ Choice Recommendation, National Parenting Publications Award and Early Childhood News Award, and are a three-time winner of Parenting Magazine’s Video of the Year.
What we learned from Alex: “As an entrepreneur, you need to understand the business landscape, competitive environment and how best to communicate your message. The retail climate is always changing, so your company needs to evolve. If you can’t do something one way, find another way to do it. Control your destiny. We are a small, independent production business competing with big entertainment companies, so we partnered with Echo Bridge to distribute and sell our products.”
You’re So Smart
“We wanted the name of the company to represent those ‘Ah, ha!’ moments between a parent and child. Also, you hear parents saying, ‘You’re so smart’ to praise their child. We wanted our videos to create moments of discovery for small children, so the name So Smart! was perfect for what our business, and brand, were all about.”
Know Your Boundaries
“My husband and I work together, but we have very complementary roles. We have our own domains and respect each other’s space. However, when we had a child and moved into a house in West Chester, PA, we were working non-stop. All of our time was spent there so we didn’t have a distinction between home and work. There were no clear boundaries and we finally realized we needed a separate office away from our house.”
Pieces of Me
“My advice to female entrepreneurs is to do something you really love and are passionate about. Combine your skills and create something with pieces of you in it. If you have to, learn as you go and don’t make too many demands on yourself. I didn’t know anything about graphic design, so I bought graphic arts programs and taught myself.”