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Taking Risks

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, December 3, 2018

If there is one regret I have when I look back on my own business career, it’s that I wish I had more aggressively pursued more of our riskier strategic alternatives.

Certainly, I made many moderate to high risk decisions when I was leading my company and most worked out very well. But as the company grew bigger, as I got older, and with the visibility and pressure of being a public company in the Sarbanes-Oxley era, I frankly became a bit more reluctant to try bold new directions. Looking back now with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I wish that were not true. I wish I had taken a gamble on some of the bolder breakthrough ideas we had at the time.


Who knows how they would have worked out. But the fact that I’ll never know is regrettable. In reality, most of us are naturally risk-averse for good reason. It’s a life-saving characteristic built into our DNA. As a result, too often it takes a crisis to get an organization to try a totally new approach. By then it can be too late.  

I would argue that the companies that have been and will be most successful going forward are the ones that consider prudent risk-taking to be a critical ongoing component of their culture and behavior.


The Challenge Today

In the years since our company was sold, being a CEO hasn’t gotten any easier. I don’t have to tell you about the increasing pace of change. And it’s absolutely impossible to predict the future. Five years ago, how many people predicted the total demise of Toys R Us/Babies R Us, a trade war with China, or the growing impact of artificial intelligence. The feeling most business leaders are experiencing today is like being strapped to the front of a speeding train not knowing what’s waiting for you around the next turn. The one strategy that clearly won’t work is to just continue to do what you’ve been doing regardless of what’s going on in the marketplace. Woolworths, Toys R Us, Sears, and many JPMA companies learned this the hard way.


The Need to Continually Evolve

This is where mastering risk-taking becomes important. Successful business leadership requires that you do today what will be needed to be successful in the future. So how do you prepare your company for a future you can’t predict? First, you need to think of your business not as a static entity but one that is in a continuous state of evolution. Then to evolve, you have to continually experiment with new business model components that seem like they might have promise—new product categories, new operating processes, new technologies. I’m not suggesting you recklessly plunge into the deep end. Any new bold direction can and should be validated with your customers and employees before you implement.


Next Steps

At the very least, make sure you perform an annual plan review that includes brainstorming possible creative new initiatives. Preferably you do this quarterly. Also make sure, as I mentioned, that you have a mechanism for testing and validating the best of the generated new ideas before plunging ahead.


As always, if you’d like more information or assistance regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Feldman at


Ron Sidman was the founder and CEO of The First Years, Inc. and former Vice Chairman of the JPMA Board of Directors. He is currently a  business consulting resource for JPMA members and serves on the Advisory Boards of both the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Dean of the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. Ron is also the President of Evolutionary Success, LLC, a life and business coaching company. He can be contacted at


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Who's Your Mommy?

Posted By Ron Sidman, Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Have you really pinpointed exactly who your target customer is? Determining specifically whom to focus on is a crucial strategic decision that should impact the design of every aspect of your business model and increase your likelihood of success. 

I do quite a bit of consulting with entrepreneurs and I mentor college students studying entrepreneurship. One of the very first and most important steps in starting a new company is to select a specific, somewhat homogeneous segment of the total market to be the target you intend to dominate. A startup can’t begin to develop products or form channel, pricing, and marketing strategies until it does so. Yet I’ve found that established companies often have lost track of or never really clearly defined who their target customer really is. The typical result is a loss of competitive advantage. 


Whether or not you feel you have target customer confusion, I have some thoughts and suggestions:

Don’t Try to be All Things to All People

To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Maybe more than ever in this country, there are major differences between people’s interests, beliefs, lifestyles, parenting styles, and incomes. If you try to please everyone with your product, you may be loading it up with costly features that many customers could do without. The good news is that because there are so many market segments, there’s a better chance you can find one or more you can dominate. And domination is what you should be seeking. Better to totally satisfy and dominate a smaller market than be a me-too player in a big market. 3% of a 50-million-dollar market ($1,500,000) is not as good as 40% of a 5-million-dollar market ($2,000,000)—and probably not as profitable.

Define Your Market Segment

There are numerous attributes that can be used to define customer segments. To name a few:

·        Age

·        Income level

·        Education

·        First-time vs. second-time (or more) parent

·        Geography

·        Beliefs—religious and political

·        Parent or gift-giver

·        Lifestyle (e.g. outdoorsy, like to travel, dog owner, etc.)

You can cut it as finely as you want. For example, first-time parents over 30 with a college education who live in rural areas and like to travel by car. Just make sure the market is big enough to make pursuing it worthwhile.    


Leverage Your Strengths

Pick a target segment that you know well or syncs with your skills or interests. The simplest approach, and it happens a lot in the juvenile industry, is to create products for people like yourself. That certainly reduces the need for market research. If not, it’s helpful to have one or more people on your team from the target segment who can give you feedback.

Look for Unhappiness

You also should look for a market segment that is not totally satisfied with the competitive products that are currently available. There’s bound to be some definable group of customers that wants products or features that no one else is offering in your category. That’s your opportunity!

Become an Expert on Your Customer

Once you’ve defined a niche, you’ll want to become and remain the world’s leading expert on it for your product category. This is done via internet research, in-person interviews, and field observation. You’ll want to identify unsatisfied needs of course. But you also want to learn how they make their buying decisions, where they get their information, how they like to shop, and any other information that will help you design your product and let them know why it’s their best choice and how they can easily purchase it.

Start on a Beachhead

If you’re a new company or you’re introducing a new product, it’s often best to start with a relatively small “beachhead” market segment where you have the best chance of success. This will allow you to work out any bugs in the product or delivery system on a small scale without taking a huge risk up front. Once you’ve made corrections and improvements, you can then safely move on to larger adjacent market segments.

Next Steps

If you feel that you’ve defined a very specific target customer for your products, everyone in your company understands who that is, and you’re the category leader in that segment, congratulations! If not, I hope some of these suggestions will help you get there.


As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Feldman at


Ron Sidman was the founder and CEO of The First Years, Inc. and former Vice Chairman of the JPMA Board of Directors. He is currently a  business consulting resource for JPMA members and serves on the Advisory Boards of both the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Dean of the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. Ron is also the President of Evolutionary Success, LLC, a life and business coaching company. He can be contacted at



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Trade War Woes

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, August 6, 2018
The current trade dispute between the US and China is just another reminder that juvenile product manufacturers need to continue to be alert and nimble to cope with an ever-changing environment.

Your supply chain is the bloodstream of your company and any interruption or complication can put your business in jeopardy quickly. It’s tough enough having to deal with today’s distribution channel challenges, safety regulation, and competitive pressures. The last thing the JP industry needs is another thing to worry about. But here we are in the midst of a battle of economic titans that has injected a level of uncertainty into both cost and continuity of product supply.


It was different when I started in business in the seventies. Baby product importers were able to buy from multiple countries. A typical Asian buying trip for me included Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. If one country was a problem at any point in time, there were alternative sources elsewhere. But gradually labor costs in all those countries increased and China became virtually the only source for most of our labor-intensive products.


Meanwhile duties on most imported juvenile products have declined over the years. As JPMA’s general counsel Rick Locker pointed out in his recent JPMA webinar, countries have generally agreed that there’s a benefit to keeping tariffs on goods for children low. Currently duties for most JP products are very low or zero. But this may be about to change for products imported from China if the US goes through with its threats.


It’s in situations like this that the rationale for having a JPMA comes into focus. And as usual the association is responding quickly to this potential threat. If you’ve stayed up to date you know that JPMA is making industry concerns known to the appropriate government entities and is arguing persuasively that children’s products should be excluded from tariff increases. At the same time, it is doing a great job of keeping members up to date on what’s transpiring.


I think most observers feel that some kind of mutually face-saving resolution of this dispute will occur before long. It’s just not in either side’s interest to prolong a fight that will clearly harm both sides. But, leaving aside the issue of whether tariff threats are the best tactic to use to provoke change, the lack of a level playing field is real and ought to be addressed. And it’s highly likely if not inevitable that any progress in resolving trade differences between the US and China will be slow in coming leaving the possibility of a rocky road ahead for many years.


So, what if anything should you be doing in response to these geopolitical machinations? There’s no need to panic but it might be wise to take the opportunity to do a “failure modes and effects analysis” on your supply system—and not just products made in China.


This is something you should be doing anyway at least once a year as part of your overall planning and management process. But let the current China situation serve as a wakeup call to spur a more aggressive consideration of all possible threats to cost and supply continuity and possible ways to minimize the likelihood of occurrence or the negative effects if they do occur. Here are some ideas to consider:


  • Make sure you are comparing apples to apples in your product costing by including indirect costs such as the added inventory carrying cost for longer lead time foreign sources and the “cost of quality.” You may find that costs for some imported products are not as inexpensive as they seem.
  • Study whether for at least some of your products, consumers would be willing to pay a sufficient enough premium for the product to be produced in the US.
  • For critical large volume products, consider dual sourcing in both Asia and US/Canada keeping the dominant share in Asia but having the capability to shift if necessary.
  • Review whether automation advancements may now allow some currently imported products to be feasibly produced in the US or Canada.
  • Monitor the sourcing strategies of larger companies in other categories who are making products similarly constructed to yours. You may find they are successfully producing in countries other than China.

  • Even within China, make sure you have some kind of ongoing process for cost comparisons between alternative suppliers.

  • As your order sizes increase, make sure you are routinely renegotiating production costs based on the higher volumes.
  • Make sure someone in your company is periodically physically inspecting both domestic and foreign factories looking for potential issues that could interrupt supply. 


As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Reta Feldman at


Ron Sidman was the founder and CEO of The First Years, Inc. and former Vice Chairman of the JPMA Board of Directors. He is currently a  business consulting resource for JPMA members and serves on the Advisory Boards of both the Institute for Entrepreneurship and the Dean of the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. Ron is also the President of Evolutionary Success, LLC, a life and business coaching company. He can be contacted at

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Manage Problems: Rule the World

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, April 2, 2018
If you can train yourself and your staff to prevent the problems that are preventable and solve the problems you can’t prevent, you are well on your way toward a more enjoyable and fulfilling business and life.


My juvenile product industry odyssey started with having to face a huge problem. When I graduated from college in 1968, I was contemplating going to law school or business school but decided to take a year off before plunging back into academia. Needing to earn a little money to pay for burgers, dates, and rent, I took the path of least resistance and went to work for the family company—a modest-size baby product distributor called Kiddie Products. Turns out I arrived at a pivotal point in the company’s existence. Our customers, the early discount stores, had gotten so big that they didn’t need a distributor any more. They could buy big enough quantities to deal directly with the importer/manufacturers who were our suppliers and enjoy considerable savings in product cost. Of course, our suppliers were more than happy to accommodate them.


To his credit, my father saw the writing on the wall. Most of what we sold we were buying from importers sourcing their products in the Far East. So, in desperation, he decided that the company’s only hope was for him to travel to all the “countries of origin” and do to our suppliers what they were doing to us—bypass the middleman and go straight to the source. Unfortunately, he had limited knowledge of importing, injection molding, product design, packaging, or quality control.


Meanwhile, I had just finished sleepwalking through four years at a small, all male, New England liberal arts college and arrived on the office doorstep. Since my father was concerned about his lack of manufacturing expertise and was reluctant to travel to those alien lands alone, he asked me to go with him. I guess he thought my four years of Latin could come in handy. So off we went to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong on the first of many (for me not him) journeys to the Orient. Our mission was to knock off every product we were buying from the importers as quickly as possible. And that we did with great success—at least for a while.


As you can imagine, our profits on all those now directly imported products effectively doubled and our financial statements never looked better. So good in fact that, at the urging of his golf club buddies, my father decided to take the company public. By doing so he saw an opportunity to get the company out of hand to mouth mode and finally make some decent money after he and my mom had worked so hard to build the business.     


Soon thereafter, as happens in life and business, the euphoria was interrupted by another crisis. The FDA, which was responsible for the safety of children’s products at the time (pre-CPSC), decided to impose what I believe was the first ban of baby products ever. They issued a press release banning 28 products in one fell swoop—including a few of our knock-offs. Suddenly our little company was getting national attention in a not so flattering way.


Now I can’t explain why, but it was at this point that I had a life-changing epiphany. Rather than look at this turn of events as a business-threatening tragedy, to me it was an exciting opportunity. The FDA ban was not just a commentary on the quality of our products. It was a sweeping condemnation of the quality of infant “accessories and playthings” in general. Fueled by idealism, naiveté, and inexperience, I saw an opportunity to be a crusader for babies and their parents and create a safer, much higher quality product line. This is how The First Years brand was born. 


But now I had another problem. I was single, no babies, no knowledge of what was important to our consumer customers. How could I lead the effort to design superior products? They say necessity is the mother of invention. Well, ignorance of vital information is the mother of learning. In college, I struggled to get myself motivated to study subjects whose relevance to my life was not clear. Now it was obvious what I needed to learn to accomplish my dream, and the sooner the better. We put an ad in the local paper to see if we could get expectant and new moms to meet with us in a local hotel to talk about their hopes, fears, and parenting practices. Much to our surprise, they came and they absolutely loved meeting other moms and sharing their thoughts. In all the years I attended our regular focus group sessions like this, I never failed to come away on an adrenalin high from some new insight or idea that could be implemented immediately. These early sessions eventually morphed into a nationwide online community of parents that we called The First Years Parents Council. It was an invaluable source of ongoing market research information that contributed enormously to our competitive advantage.


The moral of this story obviously is that while you should certainly try to do everything you can to prevent problems from occurring, sometimes problems can be the trigger for breakthroughs in thinking and action. The key is accepting the fact that, as a wise Chinese supplier of mine once said, “If there are no problems, there’s no business.” Then, see if you can get in the habit of looking for the hidden opportunities in every new problem that comes along. 

Next Steps

You can’t problem-solve or prevent reoccurrence if you don’t know the problem exists. Make sure your corporate culture encourages making problems and failures visible and acceptable.  You might also want to adopt and teach a company-wide problem-solving methodology.


As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program by scheduling a Skype or Face Time with me. I’d enjoy meeting you and helping you any way I can. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at

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Make Your Company an Innovation Powerhouse

Posted By Ron Sidman, Thursday, March 1, 2018

If you want to survive and prosper in this world of fast-paced change  and intense competition, you need to build innovation into every nook and cranny of your company. Business success is all about creating and sustaining a competitive advantage and innovation is the key. 


What sets apart companies like Google, Amazon, “Elon Musk Inc.”, and Apple is their extraordinary pace of innovation. Hardly a day goes by when they aren’t announcing some new product, feature, technological breakthrough, business model redesign, or other initiative. As a result, their competitors are choking on their exhaust fumes as they futilely try to catch up.


Now, you may believe that rapid-paced, company-wide innovation is only required in the high tech world. But I would argue that companies in the juvenile industry who want to break out from the pack and flourish in today’s very challenging marketplace would be wise to adopt the philosophy that has driven the high tech company boom. And it’s not really difficult to do if you are committed to it. In a previous post, Crafting an Innovation Culture, I talked about how you can create a culture that energizes the implementation of your mission. Here’s how to make sure your culture fosters state-of-the-art innovation:


Innovate Everywhere

Let it be known in your company that everything is up for grabs. No sacred cows. You obviously can enhance your competitive advantage by designing innovative new products, but also by creating a clever new way to attract consumers, redefining your target market, revamping your sourcing strategy, leveraging artificial intelligence, simplifying your organization chart, changing your compensation system, entering a totally new category, and on and on. These are all innovations.


Adopt an Experimentation Mindset

In the “old days”, companies were reluctant to create radically new products, processes, and business models because of the high cost of failure and related risks to personal job security. Today, it’s easier than ever to simulate and test ideas at low cost rather than immediately take the high risk plunge. We now know Innovation is best accomplished through iterative experimentation. Generate an idea, simulate or prototype it, get feedback from internal or external customers, revise as necessary, get feedback again, and so on until you’ve got something you’re confident will fly. Then you invest the big bucks and make it happen.


Encourage Idea Generation from All Sources

Successful innovation is a numbers game. The more ideas coming into the funnel the more great implementable ideas will surface. The nurturing and harvesting of ideas has to be built solidly into your business model so it automatically happens all the time. Identify all the potential idea sources and make it easy and rewarding for people to make suggestions. It shouldn’t be just a passive approach where you wait for ideas to be generated. The search for ideas should be proactive—a part of everyone’s job.  Monitor the number and quality of ideas from all sources and take corrective action if you’re not getting what you need.   


Screen Effectively

The quickest way to discourage idea generation is to not provide feedback to idea generators. The well will quickly run dry. Every idea should be acknowledged and responded to with information about the likelihood of implementation. You’ll need a very good screening process to separate the wheat from the chaff. The art of screening is to be able to recognize the ideas that have potential even when they are still undeveloped. You’ll also need a mechanism for refining and implementing the best ideas in a timely manner.


Leverage Teamwork and Diversity

Innovation is a team sport. It takes a blend of diverse perspectives to take the seed of an idea and develop it into something that will really work. A team will almost always come up with a better idea than an individual. There’s a magical synergistic effect generated by a cross-functional team trained to build on and implement an idea.


Teach Innovation Techniques

One of the most effective things we did at The First Years to encourage innovation was to adopt one company-wide innovation process that people across the company were trained in. We used a technique developed by a company in Cambridge, MA called Synectics. Whenever we needed a new idea or a problem needed to be solved, we got the appropriate cross-functional group together and conducted a Synectics brainstorming session. The more we used it, the better we got at it. And it was fun! 


Next Steps

Do a self-assessment to see how innovative your company is right now. Ask yourself if you are generating enough new product and process ideas to keep you out in front of competition for the foreseeable future. If not, consider implementing some of these suggestions. You might be surprised by the amount of creativity in your company you can tap into.


As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at

Tags:  business  competition  innovation 

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Why You Need a Mentor

Posted By Ron Sidman, Friday, February 16, 2018

If you haven’t yet established a relationship with one or more confidants with whom you can share your deepest concerns and get reliably helpful feedback, you’re missing a huge opportunity. 

Most successful CEOs and senior executives are not totally independent and self-sufficient    pioneers who boldly move forward without the need for advice or a shoulder to cry on. In fact, some of the least successful CEOs I know have avoided mentor help because of fear of looking weak while the mega-stars almost always thrive because of mentor guidance.


Bill Gates credits Warren Buffet with teaching him how to deal with tough situations and how to think long term. Mark Zuckerberg got advice from Steve Jobs about how to build a high-performing team and about focusing on changing peoples’ lives. Nike founder Phil Knight says if it hadn’t been for his mentor and co-founder Bill Bowerman, there would have been no Nike.


While I certainly don’t put myself in the same league as the aforementioned billionaires, I too benefited from mentors in my career. Bart Wendell is a business consultant and psychologist whose experience working with family companies was especially relevant to my situation early in my career. Joe Selame was a highly talented graphic designer who taught me the basics of good design and helped bring out the innovator in me. I also for years met monthly with a group of successful “big league” CEOs organized by a company that was called TEC at the time. Their guidance was of enormous value during the ups and downs of my career and particularly when the time came to sell the company.


Since that sale in 2004, I myself have enjoyed mentoring many JPMA CEOs and executives and for the past three years I’ve been the lead mentor at the Institute for Entrepreneurship at Florida Gulf Coast University. Learning how best to help people of all ages succeed in whatever it is they are trying to accomplish has been the highlight of my “second career”.  Here’s some of what I’ve discovered. 


Characteristics of great mentors

Mentoring is a skill of its own. Just being a successful executive yourself does not teach you how to help others. Here are some of the characteristics of the best practitioners:

  • Totally supportive—not in a position to cause you harm or affect your compensation or standing in any negative way.
  • Empathetic—has a sincere interest in helping you solve your problems and improve your life.
  • Curious—asks open-ended questions that enable you to talk openly about your thoughts and actions and pays full attention to the story and the story behind the story.
  • Honest but diplomatic—able to be direct without being offensive.
  • Experienced—already gone down the same road that you are going down.
  • Discreet—able to keep everything discussed totally confidential without exception.
  • Connected—having a broad and relevant network of resources.
  • Innovative—recognizes opportunities that you may have not thought of and able to stimulate your creative juices.

What a mentor can do for you

Consultant and mentor Bob Proctor defines a mentor as, “someone who sees more talent and ability within you than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.” The fact is that we all live in one form of a “mental prison” or another. What I mean is that our mindsets have blind spots and walls that prevent us from seeing everything objectively. And you’re not going to ever get the straight scoop from your board, your boss, your employees, or even friends and family. A good mentor that genuinely wants to help you and has no axe to grind can quite simply open your eyes and bolster your confidence. This can make all the difference in the world regarding your ability to learn and progress.


How to find the best mentor

Just like the process you would use to hire a new employee, you need to start with an understanding of at least the general area of needs you are trying to fill. In my case, I was looking for someone with a family business background who also understood the particular stresses of being a CEO. It was the emotional and personal side of business I wanted to talk to someone about, not the nuts and bolts of how to manage a company where I felt more confident.

Once you know what you’re looking for, use your existing network of business associates, trade associations, friends, and family to find someone who you know you can trust because of the referral. Then follow the typical process of phone screening followed by a trial session. I ended up finding someone through a referral from a member of my TEC CEO group.


Next Steps

If you don’t currently benefit from a relationship with a qualified supportive mentor, I would highly recommend at least giving it a try. Use the methods listed above to identify a candidate and have at least one meeting to see what comes out of it. You really have little to lose and you may have created a new life-changing relationship.

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges or you just want someone to brainstorm, vent, or commiserate with, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at

Tags:  mentor 

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Crafting a High-Performance Culture

Posted By Ron Sidman, Friday, December 8, 2017

A crucial but often overlooked component of your business model is the culture that you create within your company. The first thing to recognize is that it’s something that needs to be thoughtfully designed and nurtured, not something that should be allowed to just happen.


Corporate culture can be described as the shared values, standards, and beliefs that govern the behavior of management and employees. A positive culture that is designed and implemented correctly and consistently can be a powerful force supporting performance excellence and enhancing your competitive advantage. A negative culture can be poisonous.

Here are some thoughts about what you can do to create a culture in your company that will help you be successful.   

Understand the Culture that Best Supports Your Mission

As you know if you’ve read my previous blog posts, I firmly believe that the design of your business model is the key to business success. My definition of a business model includes 5 components:


  1. Mission—how you will improve the lives of your customers
  2. Culture—the values, standards, and beliefs that support fulfillment of your Mission
  3. Operating Process—the day to day methodology used to fulfill the Mission
  4. Resources—the people, skills, facilities, partnerships etc. that you need to perform the Operating Process
  5. Financial Formula—the relationship between expenses and revenues that will generate a profit

Culture is a foundational element of your business. You could have a great mission and process, outstanding resources, and a sound financial formula. But if your culture is flawed, everything crumbles to the ground.


A great example of a company with a clear and well-enforced culture is Wal-Mart. I personally believe that their culture has played an enormous role in their incredible success. If you’ve had any experience working with Wal-Mart buyers, you know that they consider their mission to be acting as agents for the consumer to save them money so they can live better. All well and good. But it’s their unique Sam Walton-initiated culture that makes this work so effectively. It dictates, for one thing, maintaining relationships with suppliers that are cooperative, demanding in a fair way, and strictly objective. To that end, in stark contrast with many other retailers, their buyer-salesperson relationships have always been of the arm’s length variety and this has been strictly enforced over the years without exception. Add to that their other cultural attributes like obsessive continuous improvement, merchandising boldness, customer focus, etc. and you have a potent cultural platform on which to build a business.  

Include the Most Important Mission-Supporting Values

Be careful what you choose to include. There are certain values that virtually every company should embrace like integrity, fairness, teamwork, and continuous improvement.

Some obvious ones for the juvenile industry might be supporting family values and rigorous regard for child safety.


Certain values and policies might stem from the kind of employees you’d like to attract like work flexibility or development opportunities.


And, you might want to include some that differentiate you from your competitors like obsessive customer-centricity or high speed innovation.


What you need is the right mix of cultural elements that best creates the working environment that you believe will best support your mission—but not so many that no one can remember what they all are.

Walk the Talk

There are few things more demoralizing in an organization than leaders who lay out a glorious set of corporate values but then don’t follow them themselves. The CEO and other senior managers need not only to lead the culture creation process but also be its most avid followers. You can talk all you want about the importance of efficiency and timeliness but if you yourself are late for meetings or miss promised deadlines, you’re teaching your staff that that’s acceptable.


And, it’s not enough to just live the values. You need to find ways to continually remind everyone what they are virtually every time you’re talking to your employees or through other forms of communication and events. Understanding and appreciating the challenges of parenting and the keys to healthy child development were aspects of our culture at The First Years and we reinforced this through training programs and videos among other things.

Hire People Who Fit the Culture

This is enormously important. Not every employee can flourish in any culture. And a fish out of water will contaminate the atmosphere (literally and figuratively). Part of your recruiting process needs to address cultural fit. Then make sure your culture is explained in detail with explanatory examples during new employee orientation.


And, if you make a mistake and hire someone who doesn’t buy in, act quickly to remove them. This sounds cruel but cultures are crucial and fragile at the same time. Keeping a misfit on board will not do you or them any good.

Align Your Compensation and Rewards System to Support Your Culture

A critical component of culture reinforcement is your overall policy for compensation, feedback, rewards, and punishment too. No matter what you tell your employees your culture is, what gets rewarded and what gets punished sends the definitive message. For example:

  • If you want to promote teamwork, your bonus system needs to have at least some team component.
  • If you want to encourage innovation and risk-taking, people who make good tries and fail should be praised not punished.
  • If you want your managers to think long-term, don’t predicate all compensation on short-term results.
  • If you want to see more culture consistent behaviors, praise publicly behaviors that reflect your important values and promote employees who are culture ambassadors.
  • If you seek continuous improvement, create a system for creating measurable objectives and reviewing results.
Next Steps

There is a culture that’s a perfect fit for every mission. What you and your key employees need to do is identify the employee attitudes, standards, and behaviors that will support what you are trying to accomplish, document them, and live them.


As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at

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Dreaming About Selling Your Company?

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Many juvenile product company owners hope to be able to cash in on all their hard work someday via a company sale. Having experienced the process myself first hand, I thought I could pass on a few pointers as well as some cautions.


Just like most major life decisions, selling your company is a complicated proposition that deserves a great deal of thought and care. No doubt it will be a life-changing experience not just for you but for many other people in your world. You want to be able to look back on the transaction with satisfaction not regret. If you’ve reached the point where you are considering selling, here are some important questions to ask yourself:


Are You Selling for the Right Reasons?

There are lots of situations and events that can stir up thoughts about a sale. But you never want to be using a sale as a way to escape a bad situation. The outcome of selling under duress is likely to be disappointing. You can’t hide the bad news. Buyers are too savvy. The best time to do a deal is when you don’t have to but you want to—and your reasons for wanting out should make sense to others. If your rationale doesn’t add up, potential buyers will be very suspicious. Good reasons for putting your company on the market would be things like wanting to try something else in your life or being ready for retirement.


Is This the Right Time?

To maximize the value you will receive, you want to sell when your profits are trending up and prospects for new business are provably rosy. Of course, when that’s the case, you’ll be tempted to postpone selling. But that’s precisely the time to press the go button. Buyers will estimate the return on their investment and the corresponding price they are willing to pay based on what is real—what has already happened or is sure to happen, not what you’re promising for the future.


You also need to make sure your company has been positioned for sale. What I mean by that is that the staff and processes you have in place can be easily taken over and run by the new owner. If that’s not the case already, it will take time to get there—maybe years. But it’s worth waiting. If the company is too dependent on you or any one person for that matter, the value for a buyer can be drastically diminished. Similarly it’s best for your company not to be too dependent on one customer or one product. Diversify your revenue sources.


Can You Keep it Confidential?

While I’m typically a big proponent of transparency when running a company, the fact that you’re contemplating a transaction of this type is one thing that you need to keep confidential for as long as possible for many critical practical reasons. It’s crucial to keep your business running smoothly during a process like this. The last thing you need are employees or customers nervous about the company’s future. When you’ve worked out all the details, that’s the time to come forward.


Have You Really Thought Through the Consequences?

Failure to thoroughly think through all the intended and possible unintended consequences of a sale is where the biggest heartaches can come from. The sale of my company did not at all unfold the way I expected. While I wanted to walk away after the deal, our hope was to attract a buyer who would retain our existing staff. That didn’t happen for the most part and once the documents are signed you have no control over what the new owner does.


Other questions you should be considering in advance are: What are you going to do with yourself after the sale? Stay on? If so, what would it be like working for someone else? Leave and play golf? Will you be happy doing that for the rest of your life? Start a new company? I was strongly advised by some business friends to make a clean break. That was good advice for me.


Do You Have the Right Advisers?

Selling a business is complicated stuff legally and financially and chances are you’ve never done it before. Make sure you have capable experienced legal and deal-making experts working with you every step of the way. Get the best you can find. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is even if it seems expensive. A process like this will have many unexpected surprises and setbacks. You want people by your side who have been through it multiple times and know how to cope with anything and everything.


Next Steps

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at

Tags:  company sale  sell your company 

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Preparing for the Inevitable

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The recently announced Toys R Us bankruptcy filing brings back memories of numerous crises we at The First Years, like every company, has had to weather. Bad things happen—with regularity. And anticipating and preparing for them should be part of your standard operating procedure.


As a senior manager, there’s a value to being optimistic about the future. No doubt your company’s mission statement and vision are based upon bold beliefs about what’s possible—and rightly so. To grow and improve you need to dream, and dream big. However, if your plans and budgets are based on a belief that you can accurately predict the future and everything is going to work as planned, you’re in for a painful surprise. Bad stuff happens.    


In fact maybe the only thing about the future you can be sure of is that something unexpected will occur. In my 32 year experience leading The First Years, it seemed as if we had at least one major costly negative surprise every year. Here are just some I can remember:

  • Numerous major account bankruptcies
  • A phthalate-related mass return from retailers of standards compliant merchandise sparked by a Greenpeace protest in Hong Kong
  • Product safety recalls (fortunately few)
  • Precipitous decline of licensed character sales after many years of rapid growth
  • Patent law suits
  • Unexpected losses of key employees
  • Dock strikes
  • “Greenmail” by a major stockholder
  • Aggressive new competitors
  • 9/11

I’m sure you could add to this list. For example, some companies have had fires destroy their warehouses, sexual assault or discrimination cases, or had their information systems compromised. So how do you deal with these harsh realities? Here are a few suggestions:


Brainstorm What Could Go Wrong

After your senior management team has generated your company’s preliminary plan of action for the next time period, devote some time to thinking about everything that could go wrong. Build this into your process. Usually the rule for brainstorming is there’s no such thing as a bad idea. For this kind of brainstorming, no bad idea is a bad idea. Get the most pessimistic and conservative people in your company to participate. Narrow the generated list down to the most costly and disruptive possible crises with a reasonable chance of happening. Then see if you can come up with ways to prevent them from happening or mitigate the impact and build that into the overall plan.  


Include an Adequate Contingency Fund in Your Budget

After a few years of getting blind-sided by unexpected financial setbacks (usually when we’re on our way to a record-setting year), we decided to include a sizeable “unknown contingency” expense line item in our annual budget. If nothing bad happened, great. If it did, we still had reasonable profitability. 


Maintain Ongoing Diligence

Just like when it comes to personal health issues, early detection can enable you to minimize the harmful effects. Stay on top of industry related news and take pre-emptive action when appropriate. JPMA can be especially helpful to you in this regard but also subscribe to relevant news feeds and other information sources. Don’t ignore the red flags! Often there is smoke before there is fire.


Have Reaction Plans in Place

It’s very worthwhile to have thought through in advance what the best things to do are in various crisis situations. In the “fog of war,” it’s going to be very difficult to think straight. One personal example—when 9/11 happened, I should have been more proactive in speaking to our employees, recognizing their concerns for the safety of their families, and making it easy for them to leave work if they desired. But in the heat of the moment, I was so caught up in what was unfolding that I failed to do my duty as CEO. Similarly it would be wise to have at least some guidelines in place for what to do if there was violence in your workplace, a product safety recall, accusation of sexual misconduct, etc. 


Have Crisis Communication Plans in Place

A mistake even the largest companies make is to keep their employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders in the dark too long when something goes wrong or appear to be hiding the truth. Obviously these are no-no’s. In an information vacuum, people will imagine worse facts than what’s actually true. To be prompt and prudent with your statements, it’s wise to anticipate problems and formulate at least some possible talking points well in advance of an actual occurrence—with legal and PR advice as appropriate. Make sure you reflect your corporate mission and values in what you say. By doing so, quite often you can turn a negative event into a positive as J&J did with the Tylenol recall. 


Next Steps

If you haven’t already, take a hard look at your strategic planning and budgeting process and make sure you have adequately addressed the inevitability of unexpected negative events.

As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at

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Your Packaging Can be Your Most Effective Advertising

Posted By Ron Sidman, Thursday, August 31, 2017


With all the hype about social media, online reviews, and other mechanisms for getting the word out about your brand and products, it’s easy to overlook the importance and power of your packaging communication.


Even in this era of the rapidly increasing importance of online communication and growing e-tail sales, when asked by my mentor clients about marketing strategy, the advice I often give is, “Get your packaging right first.”  If you think about it, it’s the one messaging vehicle that every target consumer will see. So why not leverage it to the hilt. You also have total control of the message delivered. And it’s your most cost-effective communication channel. Obviously you need a container for your product anyway and it costs a relatively small amount to use it to deliver your complete product and brand message. You just have to be smart about what you’re printing on it.


Like most of my blog topics, you could write a book about this subject and still not cover all the important information. However, here are a few hopefully thought-provoking ideas about what your packaging can and ought to do for you:


Here we are!

Chances are that the dominant share of your sales is still going to be of the brick and mortar variety for at least a while (even Amazon realizes this). So one of the things you absolutely need to do is make a brand statement at retail. In the chaotic retail display mosaic, your piece of retail real estate needs to say “look at me” so customers know you exist and will stop to take a closer look. To do this well, it helps to have listed multiple products with the retailer. At my company, we emphasized what we called “program selling”—i.e. don’t ever sell individual products, always present multiple products together in “families.” The packages need to be designed in such a way that they look great together in a grouping and have color and graphics that grab attention. You should have a store fixture set up in your offices on which you can test how prototype packages will look amongst the competition.


Who we are.

Once customers have found you, you’ll need to quickly communicate who you are and what you stand for as a company—i.e. your “brand identity.” Some packages do a good job of explaining and selling the product (see below) but not the company. It’s critical you do both—especially in juvenile products where safety and reliability are so important. A number of package elements can combine to deliver this “corporate elevator speech”—brand name, tag line or positioning statement, structure, graphics, brief company description, guarantee, etc. The goal is to establish the positive uniqueness (a.k.a. competitive advantage) of your company.


What this is and why you need it.

You then need to deliver the “product elevator speech”—what you are selling and why parents and children can’t live without it. You might be surprised how often companies do a poor job of explaining what the heck is inside the package! They personally know what it is so they assume everyone else will. Assume you are talking to someone who just landed from Mars (parents often feel they have). Be careful about the product name and description. In almost all cases, you’ll need an explanatory picture or drawing as well. But your job isn’t done until you’ve made the case for indispensability. The unique benefits this product delivers that you have to have and you can’t get anywhere else need to be spelled out.


What else you need.

You’d be missing a huge opportunity if somewhere on or inside the package you didn’t cross sell other relevant products of yours, with or without coupons. No advertising could be more targeted and hyper-efficient than telling someone who just bought one of your products (and is hopefully loving it) what other goodies you have to offer.


Join the club.

In or on your packaging is also a great place to encourage customers to sign up for your loyalty club. At my company, we recruited thousands of “Parents’ Council” members via an in-package offer. The Council became a great resource for market research input and a mechanism for economically promoting new products.


Keep it simple.

After all that, now you’re going to think I’m crazy. Because I’m going to tell you that you have to deliver all these messages without overwhelming the poor customer with a mish-mush of words, pictures, and logos. It’s like that old saying, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Take the time to prioritize the messages and get them across with the fewest possible words and pictures. Visual complexity will drive customers away.


Test, test, test.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of testing communication effectiveness. Again, you and your staff are too close to the product to understand how your average consumer will interpret what’s on your package. Show prototype packages one-on-one to objective target consumers who will tell you the truth. Keep revising until all the key messages are instantly and accurately communicated.  


Next Steps

I’d suggest you make a checklist of things in this blog and elsewhere that you think are important to accomplish on every package. Do a review of all your current products and see if some changes might pay dividends. Then apply the same checklist to all new products you develop.


As always, if you’d like more information or assistance from me regarding your unique challenges, consider taking advantage of JPMA’s Executive Mentor Program. Check the JPMA web site for more information or contact Sam Adams at 

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