The Learning Journey; My Interview with Debbie and JB Frere

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Learning Journey Owners Debbie and JB Frere

The Learning Journey began operations in 1995 and since that time has been busy producing children's interactive products and winning awards for doing so. I wanted to know more about Learning Journey's "journey" so I spoke with the owners, Debbie and JB Frere. Here is my interview: 

Richard:    Learning Journey was originally part of World Book, the Encyclopedia Company. Can you tell us about how Learning Journey broke away,  your role in how that came to be and what kind of company Learning Journey is today?

Debbie and JB:    Back in 1994 we had the opportunity to join World Book (International LogoDivision) and manage their UK operations. Due to the strength of Encyclopedia Britannica in the UK, World Book was looking for a “new way” to break into the UK market and the expand their sales representation.  At that time Party Plan was all the rage, so the decision was made to start a new division focused on developing and selling lower cost educational items while at the same time building a direct selling sales force.  

Nine months later with over 1000 Party Plan Consultants selling Learning Journey branded items in the UK, World Book made the “big pitch” to the sales force, presenting the opportunity to earn “big bucks” by selling the World Book Encyclopedia. Well, that strategy did not work out so well as 95% of the sales force were quite happy selling lower ticket items as opposed to high end encyclopedias.

Over the next four years, The Learning Journey expanded quite quickly with operations running in six countries – the largest being in the Philippines with over 2000 Sales Consultants. Unfortunately in our toy industry, the margin made on “educational toys” lacks significantly behind those realized on a set of high end encyclopedias.  Seeing the writing on the wall, ourselves and two other equity partners made World Book an offer to buy out The Learning Journey. In January 1, 1998 The Learning Journey International LLC was born, and so was full access to the USA market which previously was off limits as we were part of the International Division, which meant “hands off” their Domestic Division.   23 years later, we remain “true to the core” of the Company’s main focus of offering high quality, award winning, non-licensed educational products for children.

Richard:    A lot has changed since 1998. How do you see the landscape for educational toys today and what do you think about the STEM phenomenon?

Debbie and JB:    Educational toys are very important in the toy space. Toys can be both fun and educating. When parents provide excellent toys for their children, toys will actually promote both mental and physical growth. It can be a challenge for an educational toy manufacturer to produce multiple kinds of playthings which have been created to stimulate children's educational growth, while at the same time developing them so that they are relevant, current and keep a child’s interest. With technology changing so rapidly in today’s world, manufacturers need to be creative and agile so as to keep up with the times, while at the same time not losing sight of the true core values established in traditional play. This is why the S.T.E.M. movement is perhaps one of the most important trends in toys in decades.  The Learning Journey has been producing products that support S.T.E.M. since The Learning Journey’s inception – they just did not carry the acronym. Is S.T.E.M. a fad and will it fade away? It’s hard to tell, but it’s bringing more focus to the educational toy market and adding to the demand, and for that, we say “bring it on!”.  

Richard:    Creating and selling educational toys is a big responsibility as you have to be educationally appropriate, fun and different from the competition. How do you go about proofing your products so they meet your criteria? 

Debbie and JB:    All of our products are designed to build skills that are important for kids to learn in order to have a good head start in school. When creating new products, we look at curriculums and create around the concepts that are being taught. So it’s not really about proofing – it’s about creating intentional products that hone certain skills. The content actually comes before the product design. It’s then getting creative to make those skills you are trying to teach fun and engaging. We actually own and operate a Child Development Center where we test our products to see how the kids react before the products go to market. It gives us great, honest feedback – straight from the mouths of the babes. Proofing is just the last step in the process.

Richard:    In which retail distribution channels will I find Learning Journey products? How do you sell to them? Do you use in-house sales people, distributors, independent sales reps?

Debbie and JB:    The Learning Journey products can be found in select mass, all clubs, mid-tier, e-commerce and specialty retailers nationwide.  While we do have an in-house sales team, each with a primary focus on one of the channels mentioned previously, we also utilize a wide range of independent sales reps to call on the specialty retailers and well as a number of specialized reps who are account specific focused. Internationally we utilize representatives and distributors for many of the 25+ countries we market our products.

Richard:    Who are the most eager users of your products? Are they teachers, kids, parents?

Debbie and JB:    All of the above! We receive letters, emails and social media posts every day from parents, teachers and children who use our products. People post YouTube videos, Instagram photos and make Pinterest Boards. And we see it ourselves everyday in our Childcare Development Center – When our products are used they can and do make a difference! It’s so much fun to see the joy on a child’s face when they grasp a concept by putting together all of the Match It! Cards in a set – or the accomplishment of spending a few hours building one of our Techno Gears sets and then actually being able to watch it move and work. Our main goal is to create high quality educational products. It is also our goal to keep them affordable. From Grandparents, to parents and teachers, and even that child who saves up his or her allowance to purchase one of our toys, we want our toys to be accessible to everyone.

Richard:    You have been in the educational toy business for more than two decades. What changes do you think we will see over the next two decades?

Debbie and JB:    Excellent question, and one that is not easy to answer. The challenge for companies like ours is that children seem to grow up much faster these days.  While technology is a great thing, you simply cannot replace the value of parent-child interactions which ultimately develops the foundation of the basic skill teaching concepts we all grew up with. Children all want to grow up as fast as they can, and then when we all become adults, most of all wish we could be more childlike.  

Over the next two decades we believe you will see a continuation of technology being integrated more with traditional educational products, and it is this that excites us.  Take the best of what we had growing up, and make it better. While we have been creating S.T.E.M. items for a long time, it is great to see the recent focus on S.T.E.M. and the impact it has on children of all ages.  We believe S.T.E.M. is just one of the first acronyms to hit our industry, and more are just around the corner. Let the journey continue!   

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