Fuhu is growing by leaps and bounds, but it hasn’t changed Jim Mitchell and his commitment to serve his core customers

Jim Mitchell had already put together quite an impressive resume when he decided to partner with Robb Fujioka to create Fuhu Inc.

He spent nearly 20 years with Accenture, helping the management consulting firm create an e-commerce practice that would bring Internet-based solutions to leading companies from across the U.S.

Mitchell holds six patents on e-commerce frameworks for doing business via the Internet and he has worked with some of the biggest brand names in the world of technology.
It’s fair to say, however, that none of those names are hotter in 2014 than Fuhu. The company, which was inspired by an heirloom tomato, is now changing the way kids use technology to learn with the first Android tablet specifically designed for children.

Fuhu was named the No. 1 fastest-growing private company in America by Inc. for the second consecutive year. Its three-year growth rate this year was calculated to be a staggering 158,956 percent, dwarfing last year’s figure of 42,148 percent.

Revenue has jumped from $123 million in 2010 to $195.6 million in 2013.

As an entrepreneur, Mitchell is obviously pleased with the success and is working hard to keep it going. But this isn’t a company that was built for the purpose of breaking records with its impressive financial performance.

“We have a company focused on kids and family,” says Mitchell, Fuhu’s CEO. “So the most important thing for us is making sure the kids have something to be engaged with, have fun with and learn with, and for parents to feel comfortable with it. As parents, we know what that means to us. So we take that same care and quality and we project that on to our tablets and on to our products and through the culture of the entire company.”

Find your inspiration

One of the first things likely to catch your eye when you visit Fuhu’s website is the image of a digitized tomato. In this case, it’s an heirloom tomato. There’s a big difference, Mitchell says.

“A regular tomato is made for a short shelf life,” Mitchell says. “It’s made to look red and perfect and be something that people just want to grab and go. An heirloom tomato is made from seeds that are passed from generation to generation. You really focus on the taste and the quality. That’s how we feel about our products. We’re creating products for kids.”

Heirloom tomatoes, says Mitchell, require daily care and nurturing in order to reach their full potential. And as Mitchell and Fujioka looked at the way computer technology was evolving, they felt an opportunity was being missed to educate children and put them in a better position to reach their full potential.

“When we started, there were iPads and there were toys,” Mitchell says. “You kind of think of a toy as a regular tomato with a short shelf life that looks kind of flashy, but does not have a lot of substance. The substance of an iPad is huge, but it’s not appropriate for kids. If you drop it, it could break or they could go all over the Internet.

“So our focus is on creating great, amazing experiences that kids will cherish and parents will trust and love and do that on a tablet that we make. It’s the first tablet made especially for kids and we think it has a lot of the same themes as the heirloom tomato.”

Fuhu was founded in 2008 and when nabi, the name of the company’s Android tablet designed just for kids, was released in late 2011, it generated an overwhelming response.

The entire pre-order stock sold out less than three weeks after becoming available on Toysrus.com. It became the No. 1 seller across both the electronics and entertainment category and the learning category.

It was touted as “a game console, a movie theater, a university, a library and an art studio” that would grow with its young users.

“Kids that use our product range from ages 3 to 11,” Mitchell says. “Both Robb and I are parents. So we know what our kids want. We also know what we want to make sure we can provide them and our focus really comes down to three things: Learn, play, grow. We want children to learn with the device. It’s not just a game station.”

Being thoughtful parents makes it relatively easy for Mitchell and Fujioka to find their motivation. But Mitchell points out that the passion they feel for their customers is just as important in other industries.

“If you are going to be a leader, you have to be passionate about your business, regardless of what it is,” Mitchell says. “It’s easier for me to be passionate about our business because I have a family and I have kids. But I spent a lot of years in consulting, so I’ve seen a lot of different companies.

“The ones that are most successful have leaders who are really passionate about whatever it is they do. It could be a car you are creating. That passion comes through not only in the product, but when customers call your company for support or questions. It comes through in how you respond to your customers.”

Find your balance

In this day and age, it’s harder than ever to get a handle on what your customers are looking for, no matter what industry you’re in. Consumer preferences change fast and it takes effort to keep up.

But what about children, who generally have an even shorter attention span. How do you keep up with their needs and expectations?

“We spend a lot of time trying to get the right ways for kids to learn, especially in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, and do it in a way that is fun for them,” Mitchell says.
Fuhu tries to keep up with the needs of its customers by creating a product that evolves and adapts based on what its users need.

“There are certain levels they are supposed to be at in certain grades,” Mitchell says. “But all the kids are not at the same levels. So we want to make sure it adjusts based on what proficiency they have.”

Fuhu designed its product with a Chore List function. When you put the nabi in Mommy/Daddy mode, you can track chores that you have given to your children and when they have been completed, you can reward them with nabi Coins, which allow them to purchase virtual goods such as apps, games and music.

“Every parent is different,” Mitchell says. “We make sure there is parental control. The parents can go in and say, ‘OK, you can only play games for a little while. Then you have to do education.’ Or, ‘You have to do educational games for a certain time, but then you have to go outside and play.’ So we make sure it’s something a parent can adjust as the child grows older and as their parenting responsibilities shift.”

It takes a lot of work to become No. 1 in anything and Mitchell and Fujioka have invested a lot of time and energy to get Fuhu where it is today. But just as they talk about the importance of kids putting down their tablet to go out and play, Mitchell and his partner must seek balance as well.

“Without a doubt, when you’re starting a new company, it takes a lot of time and dedication,” Mitchell says. “You have to set priorities. For me, it’s the weekends. My weekends are with my kids and with my wife and that’s that. During the week, I work with everyone at work and I work hard. But everyone has to find their own balance. You might have short-term hurdles or short-term goals that you are achieving, but at the end of the day, it’s a long-term commitment. You have to have that balance or you’ll burn yourself out.”

Mitchell is fortunate to have found a strong partner in Fujioka to help him find his balance and make the most of his time at work.

“When I left Accenture, I needed to learn quite a bit about what it meant to be an entrepreneur and what it meant to watch what was going on on the playing field, and then get out of the stands and direct what’s going on and do the things that you have to do,” Mitchell says. “I was fortunate to have a partner who had been an entrepreneur all his life, with probably five to 10 different companies and who had the patience to teach me what it really means to be an entrepreneur.”

True entrepreneurs must be prepared to make a long-term commitment to the goals they want to achieve.

“You are building something that wasn’t there before and wouldn’t be there if you had not come along and created it,” Mitchell says. “It’s not like you’re climbing a corporate ladder that someone sets in front of you. There are going to be a ton of things every day that can shake you and can challenge you. That’s what builds the passion behind people wanting to run their own business. If you are going to do that, you need to focus on the long term. It’s a long race, but a fantastic race.”

Takeaways:

  • Get inside the mind of your customer.
  • Don’t assume everyone is the same.
  • Strive to find balance in your work.

The Mitchell File

NAME: Jim Mitchell
TITLE: CEO
COMPANY: Fuhu Inc.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business and computer science, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.

Mitchell on having a strong relationship with your business partner: The first key is having a common goal. Robb and I have a common vision we share always. Doing right by our customers and doing right by the people we work with.

Everything we do goes through that filter. The second thing is making sure you are complementing each other. There are different skill sets, different business acumen that Robb is strong in and some that I have more strength in. Once you know those roles, you just play them out.

Going beyond the business: nabi Inspire is Fuhu’s charitable initiative that came about due to the response from the company’s community of customers. After the launch of the nabi tablet, Fuhu received letter after letter from parents telling the story of how the nabi tablet uniquely supported children with autism as a tool to learn, communicate and engage in reciprocal play with family. For some, it was the first time.

Hearing of these life-altering experiences, Fuhu launched the nabi Inspire program with the mission to offer direct assistance to families living with autism and help raise awareness. Fuhu has since built a team dedicated to this cause to provide access to nabi tablets through discounting and gifting programs, as well as securing low-cost and free autism-friendly apps which are aggregated and easily available to parents in the Inspire section of the nabi App Zone.

To date, $500,000 has been raised through the nabi Inspire charitable program with proceeds going to support the mission partnering with organizations such as the HollyRod Foundation.

To learn more about nabi Inspire, visit www.nabitablet.com/inspire.