Entrepreneurs are commonly advised to be aggressive when taking on a market full of large competitors. But not many are confident enough to follow that advice -- and even fewer are brash enough to confront Goliath-sized rivals head-to-head. Of course, most enterpreneurs are not Renee Mazer, founder and president of Not Too Scary, an SAT tutoring outfit that sells anything-but-mainstream audiotapes and CDs as a means of teaching vocabulary.
Mazer, 40, not only positioned her upstart outfit as the "teen choice" in a field full of long-established competitors, she also issued her rivals a written challenge in the form of a $10,000 bet posted on her Web site. Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein spoke to Mazer, of Philadelphia, recently about her bold marketing strategy. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Q: You have posted a challenge on your Web site aimed at one of the leaders of the test-preparation industry, Princeton Review. How did the idea of issuing a bet come about and what reaction have you gotten?
A: I started doing private SAT and LSAT tutoring after my first year of law school, and I've kept it up on some level ever since. I understand the SAT market, I know what other products are out there, and I know you need a really good product to teach vocabulary. Unfortunately, all the other products on the market are really boring. They suck! So, knowing what kids are looking for and what they like, I created my own program.
At first, it was just for my own tutoring students -- using mnemonics and stories, songs, and poems about things that are on teens' minds: Sex, dating, music, relationships, and celebrities. I know that I can get kids' attention this way, and I know that with the memory devices built in, they will learn the vocabulary they need. My students have 82-point average increases in verbal scores when they take the SAT after using my materials. I'm so confident that students will get better results from my products, that when my publicist came up with the idea of a bet, I went with it.
So far, though, I haven't gotten any response at all from Princeton Review or any of the other larger companies in this marketplace. Maybe I'm not big enough for them to know about yet.
Q: How big is your company?
A: It's really just me at this point, except my son comes on one of the tapes and sings with me. We've sold around 6,500 copies of the product through our Web site, word-of-mouth, and through bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. We're hoping for a major marketing push this fall.
Q: Why did you start the business?
A: I have business and law degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, and worked as a lawyer at the Environmental Protection Agency until my older son was born. He's 10 now, and my younger son is 5. I kept doing the tutoring while my older one was a baby, then I decided to use my Wharton degree to teach women how to meet guys -- kind of like "how to market yourself for love." I wrote a book and got an agent, but publishers rejected it because they felt the market was flooded with this kind of material. So, I went back to the tutoring because I could do that from home.
What I noticed was that my students were learning math and everything else they needed to do well on the SAT, but they would plateau on their scores because of the vocabulary section of the test. I had the kids buy every single book and every single tape that existed in order to improve their vocabulary, but nothing worked! I knew from tutoring myself through the SAT and the LSAT that you need memory devices to remember vocabulary words. I also knew that the study aids put out by the existing companies were crap! The kids hated them, and most of them wouldn't read the books or listen to the tapes because they were like reading the dictionary.
So, in 1999, I went into a studio to record some of my mnemonics for my students and the company just kind of blossomed from there.
Q: You use original material on the tapes and CDs. Who writes it and how does it teach vocabulary words?
A: I started off singing song parodies but I realized that I would have to pay royalties if I used familiar songs and it would cost a fortune. I used all my own money to buy studio time and finance the project, so I had to keep the expenses down. As it was, I was recording in the middle of the night in the scariest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, so I could get cheaper studio time -- and even then we didn't have money for winter coats one year!
So, I started writing my own material and I tried to make it weird and funny to capture the kids' attention. I have no musical talent and my singing is off-key, but part of the charm is that it's not slick, it's goofy. Teenagers really respond to it because it is so real. What it does in terms of teaching vocabulary is use scientifically based memory mechanisms like linking, alliteration, rhyme, repetition, and word-association.
Q: What's the response been to the nine hours of vocabulary prep material?
A: I have been amazed at the response. People love my songs and poems; we were given an award voted on by students for educational materials. I gave the tapes to my students and I saw them come back every single week and they knew every word. The parents told me, "My kid's sitting in his room cracking up all night listening to your tapes!" Better yet, their scores started going through the roof.
Q: The content tends to be racy, like the story about your lifeguard boyfriend who took his clothes off on your first date. (Maybe I should add that the vocabulary word for that lesson was "diminutive!") Do you ever get complaints from the parents of the teenagers who are listening?
A: I have never gotten any negative feedback, which surprises me, because some of the stuff is really risque and I was expecting some upset parents, but all of them are thrilled when they see the results. I also offer a money-back guarantee if students' vocabulary scores don't improve after they use my materials, so the parents like that part, too.
Q: What are your plans for the company?
A: Just to keep selling and do more versions with better quality and get into more stores across the country. And help more kids do well on their tests so they can get into the colleges they want to attend.