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Debra Hansen is the head honcho and inspirational instigator of Teacher’s Professional Resource, a community of highly creative educators, designers, artists, and storytellers who have made it their mission to banish boredom from classrooms and homes one fabulous idea at a time.
A long time ago, in a classroom far, far away, Debra was a music teacher who loved to look for the math in music— she was great at stuff like counting, recognizing patterns, and dividing by four. She was so good at math, in fact, that she eventually left the music classroom to become CFO of an international software company, but she never quite forgot about music and math and teaching. One day, she balanced her books for the last time and left corporate America to start Teacher’s Professional Resource, a unique company that provides parents, teachers, and kids with innovative tools for building more successful learners.
MO: What inspired you to create Teacher’s Professional Resource? Did you have an “aha moment?”
Debra: After years spent traveling all over the world for my corporate job, I got tired. I enjoyed that life and I learned a lot, but I was working ridiculous hours and turning into someone I barely recognized. So I put away my battered suitcases, reintroduced myself to my oh-so-patient husband, and stopped moving long enough to think about my future.
Around this time, the national discussion on education was gaining serious momentum with what I felt was an emphasis on the wrong results. As a corporate leader, I’m all for accountability, but standardized tests can’t measure the qualities that I, through observations made during my travels, had come to realize were the biggest advantages offered by the U.S. educational system: creativity, problem solving, and collaboration.
I saw a need for highly creative educational products that would supplement and reinforce what is already right about the U.S. educational system, and started a company that could provide them. We set to work creating our first product, a math game called Who’s Counting™ that’s so fun to play, kids don’t even realize they’re practicing their math facts. Who’s Counting™ features the math loving Whozits™ and their fascinating adventures in Wherezit™. Who says math can’t be fun?
MO: What was the transition to go from working for an international software firm to founding your own educational resource and game company? What was the most challenging aspect of the transition process, and on the flip side, the most rewarding?
Debra: I found out there are things I know well and things I know nothing about! Because of my work in the software company, I knew how to complete projects on a strict time budget. I understood how to work with overseas vendors, which became critical when we learned we wouldn’t be able to manufacture the game in the US. I knew our products should ultimately be sold globally if we wanted it to be successful.
I didn’t understand how inefficient it is to operate with only one resource: me. Early on, I contracted with a smart young consultant and it was the best decision I’ve made for the company, to date. I had no understanding that limited resources of all kinds would be such a challenge. I have become very good at “making do.” My corporate jobs included managerial roles in IT, finance, manufacturing, and sales, but in running a start-up company, there seemed to be a never-ending collection of jobs to be done that I had no experience in and no choice but to quickly master. This constant accumulation of new skills appeals to my love of learning, but some days I think I have learned enough!
MO: Can you tell our readers how looking for fun, passionate, creative people to help build your company turned into a kind of mentorship opportunity?
Debra: To create truly creative, engaging products like Who’s Counting™ I needed unique team members, young adults for whom college hadn’t fully erased the “kid” inside, creative thinkers with an intuitive connection to what kids would respond to. Because I cared more about the creative contributions a person could bring to the company than the accomplishments on their resume, I ended up surrounded by extremely bright but largely inexperienced young adults. I realized I needed to devote an extra measure of time and attention to acclimating them to the business environment and the almost universally new experiences and tasks facing them, but it’s been completely worth it to be able to see these extraordinarily talented and highly responsible young people succeed. I always express confidence in their abilities and constantly remind them that this business works because of their efforts. When they make an error, I remind myself that business is more like chaos theory than a regression analysis, and I encourage them to try again.
MO: Can you tell us about some of the games you’ve been working on and how you have been able to bring your ideas to life on a shoestring budget?
Debra: The game Who’s Counting™ is just the beginning of the products that will eventually feature the Whozits™. We knew playing Who’s Counting™ would improve kids’ math skills, but we needed something to get them excited about trying the game. Our artist/scientist created some line drawings of round-bellied characters named Whozits™ and we knew we had the start of a brand— new Whozits™ seem to leap out of our imaginations every day. Faster than a speeding bisector, more powerful than a logarithm, able to leap whole numbers in a single bound, Captain Mathinator is our resident superhero. The Sneaky Subtractor loves subtraction so much that he sometimes subtracts things that belong to others. (Humans call it stealing.) These characters and dozens more are appearing in artwork, books, kid-friendly web content for the Teacher’s Professional Resource website, and other projects that are in development and fast approaching completion. The Whozits™’ neighbors, the Muzits™, are hard at work on “Awesome, I am Multiplying,” a CD of multiplication facts set to familiar songs.
It’s critical to minimize costs when you’re a startup; one of the most expensive things to pay for is advice. With much trepidation, I went to a counselor at the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and was thrilled to find extraordinarily experienced mentors there to help me. The consultants at the Denver Small Business Development Center (SBDC) have also helped me fill in gaps in my business knowledge. I’ve gotten marketing, sales, planning, tax, and start-up advice that I never could have afforded without these organizations.
MO: How have you managed to put together a network of highly creative educators, designers, artists, and storytellers and how have they influenced the development and design of your products?
Debra: Networking is the key word here. People love to tell you about special people they know, and if you’re paying attention, you eventually hear about some of the gems of humanity.
I start by looking for people who are actually smart, not just good at working the system. This recession has made it more difficult even for talented young people to get jobs, but much easier for me to find these smart young people! This generation of college grads wants more than an entry-level office job. They want opportunities to use their creative talents without the baggage of office politics and climbing the corporate ladder.
I’ve found extraordinary talent in graduates from the International Baccalaureate program at Lakewood High School. They’ve gone to college and are ready to do fantastic work, but most companies see their inexperience, not their talent. I know enough about basic business for all of us, so I can afford to let them exercise their creativity in an unfettered way. I’ve also found that previously home-schooled kids have great discipline and creativity. Once I have screened for intelligence and creativity, I tell my story and see if they can catch the spirit of the company. If they can, I’m willing to take a chance. Once they’re here, everyone is encouraged to contribute in any way they feel inspired to. If the writer has a suggestion for the artist, throw it out there. If the business guy has a clever line for the writer, pass it on. You close yourself off from potential ideas when you put people in boxes.
MO: What are the most exciting things on the horizon for Teacher’s Professional Resource in 2012?
Debra: Teacher’s Professional Resource launched our math game, Who’s Counting,™ on Amazon in late November and to our surprise, although we had done absolutely no advance marketing of the product, people started ordering it immediately. That felt pretty good. This year, in addition to “Who’s Counting” supplemental materials featuring the Whozits™, we will launch at least two new products. The “Awesome, I Am Multiplying” CD will be available on Amazon, iTunes, and through retail stores starting in April. We haven’t announced our second new product yet, so readers will have to watch our website, for that announcement.
We’ll be exhibiting at the NSSEA’s Ed Expo in Baltimore in March, the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics in May, and several other events throughout the year. Those events should bring us more exposure and help us meet our goal of being in 30+ stores by year’s end. We’ll also begin our effort to break onto the Canadian market.
Finally, this company would not exist without the ideas and inspiration of great teachers. We’ll be establishing teacher connections during the summer to continue the expansion of our product line through teacher ideas. It’ll be a full year, but helping kids succeed in school is worth the effort. Who’s Counting™ is just the start!
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