Serving the Homeschool Market since 1985
By Jenn Bergin
In the early 1980s, newlyweds Dan and Deb Deffinbaugh planned to start a business in Washington raising Golden Retrievers. Plans changed in 1985 when their friends started asking Deb, a homeschooling mom, where she got her supplies. The couple saw an opportunity and instead of amassing puppies, they assembled an inventory of the best curriculum, books, hands-on activity sets, software and much more for the growing homeschool market. Today, Timberdoodle is a family business that prides itself on selling “crazy-smart” supplies: unique and innovative homeschooling items that are fun for kids and parents.
We recently spoke with Dan and Deb’s youngest daughter, Pearl Deffinbaugh, who described the company’s evolution from mail order to internet, and the ways their business has changed in the last 30-plus years.
Ed Dealer: It sounds like Timberdoodle was a pioneer in the homeschool market.
Pearl: It began when our mother was homeschooling my three sisters and sourcing some hard-to-find educational resources. Homeschooling had recently become legal in our state and was growing in popularity, so there was a demand. She started buying case quantities and reselling the extras. From there, the company slowly grew. Stock was stored on shelves in our laundry room and then in our grandparents’ basement before we built our first warehouse.
Our father got a judge’s order that allowed all five of us kids to be on the payroll. Our work hours were restricted, and it couldn’t interfere with our schooling. Today, when bankers ask for my employment date, it’s difficult for them to believe I’ve been in the workforce since age 5.
Perhaps our best employees in the early days were our father’s parents and our next-door neighbors. They built shelves, hauled equipment, entered data into one of our earliest computers, proofread catalog pages, stuffed envelopes and made daily runs to the post office. In 1989, when a truckload of inventory got stuck, grandpa jumped on his tractor to pull it out. Grandma was hired to file and track incoming checks – a huge job when mail-order was at its peak!
Today, my three sisters and I work here full time. Our brother and his wife, busy with other careers, help out when they can.
Very good, and constantly evolving. We used to have somewhat consistent sales throughout the year with a big rush at Christmas. It’s shifted now toward a great back-to-school season from May to October. Business levels down from late October through February or March, with Q4 sales becoming flatter than they used to be.
Where is Timberdoodle located?
In Shelton, Washington,on a campus that includes two 2,400-square-foot warehouses, an office building, a photo studio and our home.
We have 13 on-site employees, plus a few long-distance contractors that we employ year-round or seasonally. Our administrative staff does double duty in the warehouse during rush season.
Several of our employees have been with us since the ’90s. Our most recent hire is the daughter of an employee who worked with us for more than 15 years. Three of her older sisters and a brother-in-law have done seasonal or long-term work with us, too. In addition, her nephews have been models in our catalog photoshoots. So even when it’s not our immediate family, it’s still a family business!
Who are your customers?
Primarily homeschooling families. At first, it was mostly “crunchy-granola” moms purchasing curriculum for their children, but now homeschooling families are much more diverse. We ship orders all across the country, and even process some international orders.
We also focus on families with special needs, and have pushed for autism therapy tools. Many homeschooling resources can work well for special needs kids, especially if they’re hands-on, which is our product emphasis.
A number of our orders come from charter schools. We were hesitant at first because of their delayed payment schedule, but now we see the benefits. Through this program, our thrifty, often single-income-family customers get free curriculum, and we still get paid our standard amount.
How do you market to them?
We’ve come a long way from the original mail-order model we started with, but our catalog and word-of-mouth are still huge sales drivers. We use an internal sales team and promote through emails, social media and our catalog. Facebook is an important communication method for us – we announce sales, create special groups and hold contests and giveaways on the site, and also promote them through email blasts.
We also use magazine and web advertising and bloggers, and exhibit at regional conferences, with varied success. We sent a team to homeschooling conferences across the nation for several years, which helped us get our name out there and meet customers who had never heard of our business. Recently, we’ve shifted away from conferences because of the cost, but may go back in the future. We’ve also won some fantastic awards recently, which lend us credibility.
Customer reviews are another way we engage customers – we’ve recently added kid reviews, so families can get an idea of what their kids think of the products. We also try to provide as much product information as we can, including photos, videos, descriptions and sample pages. A number of our products have been reviewed by independent reviewers and our blogger review team. To increase consumer confidence, we offer a return policy and 120-day price guarantee.
Your catalog must be really important to your business. How do you produce it?
We primarily put it together ourselves. It’s a three- to four-month process, from the time we start making product decisions in December, through confirming product availability, pricing, creating product descriptions, designing the catalog, doing the photoshoots, editing the pictures, proofreading, and finally uploading to the printer. The bulk of our orders come from our website, but the printed catalog drives sales. Once in a while we’ll get a mailed-in order – a real throw-back!
This year we expect our catalog to be more than 150 pages, and we print between 40,000 to 60,000 copies. It’s printed annually, in spring, before the back-to-homeschool rush. (We used to also print a catalog for Christmas, but it wasn’t worth the cost for such a short buying season.)
For a year or two we worked with a local photo studio, but with their technical advice we were able to eventually do all the photography ourselves. Our child models are family and friends. It’s a big project, with two to three people running cameras, plus others overseeing outfits, hairstyles, product setup, and generally keeping things running smoothly.
We like doing it ourselves. It’s more relaxed for the kids and their families, and gives us greater flexibility to slow down or speed up the process.
However, we’ve found that outsourcing some aspects is well worth it. Most of the design is done in-house, but in the last few years we’ve contracted with graphic designers who provide templates. We realize that we can’t be experts in every field, and getting the help of skilled professionals is worth the investment.
The catalog is distributed by mail, mostly to families, whether they are homeschooling families, grandparents, or others looking for educational items. We also include catalogs with some orders. A PDF version is available on our website, which is helpful for our international customers. We also supply catalogs to schools with charter programs for homeschooling families, for display at their parent/family fairs.
Who are your competitors?
There are a few homeschooler-specific online and catalog retailers that share our market, but Amazon is our main competition. It’s difficult to compete on price, and also with the fact that so many people now consider free two-day shipping the norm!
How do you find out about new products to stock?
We always have our eyes open for products that fit our market. Our regional sales reps introduce us to new lines, get us catalogs and send us samples. Many individuals and small companies contact us to ask us to sell their products.
As homeschooling has grown, our goal of meeting the needs of homeschooling families has become less about finding available curriculum – which used to be scarce – and more about helping families choose the very best out of the many available choices.
What’s been your biggest challenge? Your biggest achievement?
In general terms, our biggest challenge has been surviving some tough years during the dot-com bubble followed by 9/11, and then the economic crash. To be more specific, shipping costs have been a major profit-eater, and remain a primary concern today.
We’ve also seen a number of brand-new online retailers pop up in our market. They sell at amazing discounts and siphon a lot of our customers. However, they fizzle out and close when they discover what we’ve discovered: sometimes having the lowest price doesn’t work. We need to continually look for ways to motivate and retain customers, beyond merely having good prices.
I think our biggest achievement is helping parents do what they want to do – homeschool – and keep them wanting to do it, instead of burning out! Many companies provide resources like ours, but Timberdoodle helps families make homeschooling enjoyable, and – as we like to say – “Crazy-Smart.” That’s what we hope to keep on doing.