CHICAGO The irony is that if Steve Mock had his own kids he may never have stumbled upon his creative concept for entertaining them.
The founder of Giftventure www.giftventure.com, an online startup that leads children on treasure hunts using customized letters sent from fictional characters, conceded he likely wouldn't have had enough free time.
"That's a joke a lot of parents say to me," said Mock, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who launched Giftventure in December 2007. "You never would have come up with this idea because you'd just be so busy."
And that's the point of Giftventure - to save adults precious time while offering them the ability to communicate with kids through letter-writing campaigns that play to the love of imaginary characters like Elmo, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
It started accidentally, when Mock was globetrotting on behalf of several tech ventures, making periodic stops to see his three young nieces. He noticed the girls cared less about his presents than about the stories he told when he saw them. So he deployed a string of elaborate written dispatches ahead of his arrivals involving leprechauns, clues and games that ultimately ended with treasure hunts for his gifts.
"The gift at the end doesn't really matter," said Mock. "The experience around the gift is what they really appreciate."
He soon realized he was onto something that could resonate with time-strapped working parents, as well as aunts, uncles, grandparents and family friends - anyone with a kid in their life who valued the dying art of letter writing in the digital age.
"Everybody said, ‘Geez, I wish I had the time and creativity to do the same thing for my kids,'" said Mock, 40. "My entrepreneur hat was on - how do I create this experience in a way that anybody can easily do it?"
There were lots of trials before he arrived at the formula for the right number of letters and the appropriate time period, ultimately settling on three over the course of a week. The fun begins after an adult plunks down $9.95 at the site, selects from some 40 characters and answers basic questions about the chosen child to allow for customization. Before long, Grandma and the Cookie Monster are conspiring in written form.
Giftventure, which has no direct competitor, operates in a growing area of online media services classified as "web-to-print." The space includes concepts ranging from Shutterfly.com, an imaging company that lets users upload photos for sharing and reprint, and Vistaprint, an online seller of design-it-yourself business cards.
"That's certainly a model that's got some traction within the printing industry," said Ronnie Davis, chief economist with the Printing Industries of America, a trade group. "Any type of personalization and customization is doing better."
Mock won't share financials for his company, which he chose to locate outside Las Vegas for its proximity to printing and mailing services. Giftventure's startup costs were below $1 million, he said, including contributions from angel investors; the firm has yet to break even. The five-man operation keeps smaller print runs in house, farming out larger volumes through a technique known as dynamic variable printing.
Whether or not Giftventure gains traction in the market hinges largely on Mock's ability to forge partnerships with companies that can provide visibility and additional distribution for his product. The venture has already inked licensing deals for characters with Sesame Street, Cartoon Network and Wild Brain. In addition, Sesame Street and Barnes & Noble now sell Mock's product on their websites.
"The educational piece is what really grabbed us," said Benedetta Campisi, assistant vice president of licensing for New York based Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street. "The target is perfect for our audience."
Sesame Workshop began licensing with Giftventure in 2009; its child development specialists collaborate with Giftventure to create content offered by Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Abby Cadabby in their letters.
Long term, Mock would like to expand the educational component of his product, customizing campaigns to help kids improve in specific curriculum areas such as problem solving or math. For now, though, it's all about building awareness.
"We're staying as lean possible and we're focused on developing major corporate partnerships where we can leverage their marketing channels as best we can," he said.