Hoffman Reinvents Education Firm

June 12, 2002
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GRAND HAVEN — After seeing a demonstration while on a business trip in Italy, Jonathan Hoffman became convinced there was a future in mixing emerging technology with education.

Hoffman recalls watching with great interest back in 1996 as an interactive CD-ROM program highlighted text on a computer screen as the audio told a children’s story. The technology, he believed, held great potential for School Zone, a Grand Haven-based publisher of educational workbooks and flashcards for children.

“This was super smart and I owned 300 products that could benefit from this technology,” said Hoffman, the CEO of School Zone Interactive, a firm spun off in 1999 from the education publishing company his parents founded.

“It just all connected. That is the seed, the genesis. I came home and said, ‘We’re going to make us some software,’” Hoffman said.

Since that beginning, and after overcoming the obstacles of bringing a new product to market, School Zone Interactive has sold more than 1.7 million “electronic workbooks,” as they’re called, on CD-ROM and won numerous awards for its products. Hoffman now has his sights set on expanding the company into global markets as it competes against industry giants.

“We’re going to be a major developer” of educational software, Hoffman said. “There should not be a school out there that shouldn’t have a set of electronic workbooks or flashcards.”

A Grand Haven native, the 33-year-old Hoffman wasn’t planning to join the business that his parents, Joan and the late James Hoffman, founded in 1979.

After graduating from Grand Haven High School in 1987, he enrolled at Hope College. During his college years, he switched majors a few times before settling on political science.

Politics became an interest because he didn’t like some of the college’s rules and started asking questions about the decision-making process on campus. The only way to change things, he reasoned, was to get involved. So he ran for and won a seat in the Student Congress.

The experience, both as vice president and then president of the Student Congress, whetted Hoffman’s appetite for politics. He delved further into the field in the summer of 1990, prior to the beginning of his senior year, when he moved to Lansing and worked on Gov. John Engler’s first campaign for governor.

When he graduated from Hope that December, Hoffman planned to go on to graduate school to study political management. His plans changed when a position as sales manager opened up at School Zone Publishing. He joined the company soon after graduation.

After three years as sales manager, Hoffman became director of new business. Around 1995, he “started dabbling” in the emerging interactive CD technology from Phillips Electronics.

The next year, after witnessing the demonstration in Italy, he was given the OK from his parents to form a team to develop interactive software that would provide children the same lessons electronically they received through School Zone’s paper books and cards.

The following months were fraught with repeated problems and launch delays, leading the development team to become “the joke of the company,” Hoffman recalls.

“We had no clue as to what we were doing,” he said.

They figured it out, though.

After 18 months of development, the team came out with its first product in early 1998, “Alphabet Express,” a software that helps children learn the alphabet. The CD went on to win a prestigious Human Interface Design Excellence Award from Apple Computer.

School Zone shared the recognition that year with software developer Adobe, which was recognized by Apple for its Freehand software and was certainly far better known in the industry.

“Everyone was wondering, ‘Who in the hell is School Zone and where is Grand Haven?’” Hoffman said. “This little company is competing with giants and gets recognition by an industry icon? That was the beginning.”

Yet that accolade, and others to follow, didn’t immediately translate to revenues.

Sales of the software languished for months. In the first year, School Zone sold “maybe a hundred” CDs, Hoffman said.

Hoffman and his co-workers refused to use the existing distribution channel that was designed to maintain, rather than penetrate, a market. That forced them to develop a new distribution model that eventually led to putting the CDs on the store shelves of some of the largest retailers in the U.S.

As a publishing company, School Zone had always followed one distribution channel. As a firm that wanted to make software, School Zone needed to develop a new system to bring its products to markets that often differed from one retailer to another.

Where one store sells School Zone software as a consumer electronics product, another categorizes it as an educational toy. Yet another will buy the product through its publishing buyer.

“It brought a whole new class of customers,” Hoffman said of the electronics workbooks division. “There’s a different paradigm to running a technology company than to running a publishing company. We had to reinvent ourselves.”

School Zone finally broke through when it started packaging a CD-ROM with a paper workbook. That enabled the product to penetrate distribution channels and ultimately led to the survival of the product line.

“We were going to pull the plug and we got a heartbeat out of that, so we held on,” Hoffman said.

That heartbeat led to new business, including a deal to create a customized product line for retail giant Wal-Mart, and deals with some of the largest retailers in the U.S. School Zone Interactive, which was spun off from School Zone Publishing in 1999, today produces 43 software titles and comes out with a new product about every month for elementary-aged children.

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