Re-tuning her music firm

Special to The Times

After almost a decade of harmony, the market for Ida Larsen's song kits has hit a sour note.

The music teacher turned entrepreneur expects to sell at least $200,000 this year of the colorful posters and music CDs that use "Farmer in the Dell," "Yankee Doodle" and other classic children's songs to teach language, reading and vocabulary. But her company, Singlish Enterprises Inc., has done much better.

The Singlish kits, which Larsen developed to help teach music to the young Spanish-speaking children in her former elementary classroom in Chatsworth, have earned kudos from users and reviewers, including Scholastic Inc.'s Instructor magazine.

Customers include more than half the elementary schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Some buyers are located as far away as Peru and Puerto Rico, where a government agency ordered several hundred of the $99.95 kits, she says.

And Larsen prides herself on the quality of the song recordings, samples of which are available on her website, www.singlish.com. She uses Los Angeles studio musicians, she says, to make the sing-along and the instrumental-only versions of the songs.

But her business, which saw annual sales peak at $700,000 in 2003, is being buffeted by complicated crosscurrents that are pounding many publishers in the $3-billion supplemental educational materials industry.

School budgets are being slashed. Music education often is taking a back seat in time and money in classrooms where teachers are busy teaching to standardized tests. And shifts in public education policy make it hard for a small player to compete.

"I believe so much in my materials, and when these teachers are calling me and telling me how much they love it and how their kids love it -- they're using it with Eskimo kids in Alaska -- I mean, it makes me feel like I have a bigger purpose and that I have to rage against the machine," Larsen says.

Larsen is still signing up new customers, especially for her most recent kit, whose 48 nursery rhymes are targeted at the preschool market. But her small business, which moved into a 2,000-square-foot office and warehouse a few years ago, has had to cut employee hours.

She has put a compilation of classic patriotic songs on hold until times improve.

It may be little comfort, but Singlish is not alone, says consultant Suzanne Barchers, president-elect of the Assn. of Educational Publishers.

"I think you are in the middle of a perfect storm when it comes to supplemental education and supplemental publishing," says the former educational publishing executive, who is based in Palo Alto.

Larsen says she's not sure whether to ride out the storm or consider moving on. Sales reps from major educational publishing firms have told her the industry is dead, she says.

Barchers acknowledges the industry turmoil but says Singlish can reposition itself and reinvigorate sales.

Larsen has done a wonderful job of creating her content, Barchers says. Now she has to consider how she can get her message out by redesigning the website, reaching out to industry leaders for guidance and partnerships and rethinking her company's traditional markets.

The consultant made a number of recommendations, including the following.

Pump up your website. Singlish has a colorful website with photographs, videos and music files so customers can listen to samples of each song. What's missing is vital information on the home page that clearly states what the product is and why it should be bought.

"I looked at your website and I had absolutely no idea what you were offering," Barchers says, although she has seen the Singlish booth at some of the 15 or 20 conferences Larsen attends each year.

The Singlish website should be reorganized to sell the benefits of the program, the consultant says.

To help keep visitors on the site longer and bring them back, Barchers advises Larsen to keep the design simple -- use fewer fonts and limit elements on a page. Effective Web pages are designed for scanners so the text should be broken up into short paragraphs, bulleted points and headlines that carry the reader quickly through it.

Singlish's website might include a sales promotion and could highlight and expand its free downloads as a way to draw repeat buyers, the consultant suggests. Barchers also would like to see a search box on the home page and an easier way to find examples of the teacher manuals.

Write a white paper. Barchers suggests that Larsen create and post online an authoritative, research-backed white paper that explains how music combined with movement not only fulfills a school's music standards but also helps children become better communicators. Such research has become increasingly important to customers in the education-materials field, she says.

To Larsen's concern that no one would read such a paper, Barchers says: "You need it for the curriculum coordinator who is going to be making the buying decisions." The coordinator may not read the entire paper, but the report will help justify the purchase in today's standards-based environment.

Create an advisory board. Larsen should find five well-respected individuals in education who will agree to serve on an advisory board for Singlish. The board members should include academics and industry leaders in key positions as well as a teacher.

Larsen could appeal to those who support her passion for music education and the use of music to boost language and learning. The board members should be willing to discuss company goals, strategies and tactics for retrenchment in a changing market, the consultant says.

The advisory board members could also help get the Singlish message out themselves, since it should dovetail with their own beliefs, as well as provide additional credibility to the company and its products. In return, for each meeting they participate in, the board members could receive two song kits to donate to a school.

Increase focus on the preschool market. The consultant recommends that Larsen build on the success of Singlish's nursery rhyme song kit by approaching national child-care chains, such as KinderCare Learning Centers Inc. Start with the top executives and pitch the program's benefits, she says.

"It's very slow in getting those relationships established and it takes a lot of nurturing on your side," Barchers says. "So it means the burden is on you to continue to sell it."

Develop distribution partnerships. Barchers also suggests that Larsen consider alliances with other educational publishers to include her products on their websites or catalogs.

"It doesn't mean you have to quit distributing yourself, but you piggyback on someone else's reach and penetration," Barchers says. In exchange, a partner would get a portion of each sale while beefing up its product offerings.

Create momentum. All of these proposed steps can help Singlish create momentum in the marketplace, Barchers says. That will give her additional news to share with potential buyers and give her new publicist stories to pitch to industry publications.

"It's worth the remaking of it and the reinventing of how you are going to deliver the content," Barchers says. "Let people out there know that you still have a story to tell."

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cyndia.zwahlen@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Singlish Enterprises Inc.

Business

Produces song kits -- CDs and posters -- to teach language, reading and vocabulary using folk songs and nursery rhymes.

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Owner

Ida C. Larsen

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History

Founded: 1998

Start-up funds: $50,000 from credit cards

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Company snapshot

Employees: Two, part-time

2007 sales: $320,000

Headquarters: Chatsworth

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Main business challenge

Less money and fewer hours are available for music education as school budgets shrink and classroom time increasingly is devoted to teaching to standardized test requirements.

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Goal

To rebuild company sales by promoting music and singing as a regular part of school curriculum.

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Meet the expert: Suzanne Barchers

Barchers, president-elect of the Assn. of Educational Publishers, previously was editor in chief and vice president at LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. The Palo Alto consultant and award-winning author also was managing editor at Weekly Reader Corp. and editorial director of Fulcrum Publishing Co. She has written 50 books, including two college texts.

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