Born weighing less than two pounds, little Maddie Lefcourt remained in the hospital for 105 days before her mother Donna could finally bring her home. But the homecoming marked the start of another struggle.
“When Maddie came home, she was already three and half months behind,” recalled Lefcourt, who works as a billing specialist for an obstetrician-gynecologist in Columbus, Ga. “Because of her birth weight, she qualified for a state-funded program called Babies Can’t Wait that guarantees eligible children access to services that enhance their development. The physical therapist assigned to Maddie worked with her every other week based on her needs.”
During one such session, the therapist wanted to teach Maddie how to grasp a toy for fine motor skill development. Lefcourt noticed that every time she put the toy in her daughter’s hand, she would drop it, either because of the toy’s size or the weight. After exhausting all local and online retail sources for toys suitable for her daughter, Lefcourt was seized by the entrepreneurial spirit and decided to make her own line of specialty toys.
“I was lying in bed one night and I popped up and said, ‘I’ve got it. We’re going to have a company and make toys for premature babies.’ I even thought of the name while I was lying there – Little Hands for Preemies,” Lefcourt said.
Lefcourt began researching the market for toys for premature babies and learned from the March of Dimes that more than 500,000 babies are born prematurely every year in the United States. She also researched baby toy companies both nationally and internationally. While she was researching online, she stumbled upon an inventors’ workshop being offered by Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2) to expand educational and professional networking opportunities for Georgia’s inventor community.
In 2007, Georgia Tech launched the first statewide survey of independent inventors through a pilot program sponsored by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. More than 300 inventors responded to the survey, and that feedback led to creation of workshops designed to help independent inventors improve their product development and business efforts, while connecting them with resources in intellectual property protection and licensing – two of the key building blocks for commercialization.
“I thought the workshop would be something fun and I could learn something,” said Lefcourt. “I was very skeptical about talking to people and telling them my business idea, but I also realized that was the only way I could get some help.”
After the workshop, Lefcourt introduced herself to Ed Murphy, a project manager with the Georgia Entrepreneur and Small Business Outreach program, a partnership between EI2 and the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center that delivers services to entrepreneurs and small businesses in rural Georgia. The program is funded by the OneGeorgia Authority.
Murphy assisted Lefcourt with researching manufacturers that could make her line of specialty baby toys and coached her on the kinds of questions she needed to ask. As a result, she selected Peliton Plastics, a plastic injection molding company in Valdosta, Ga., to make the first three toys – a rattle, a teether and dexterity/motor skill toy.
“I already had some prototypes that I shared with Peliton Plastics. The size and the weight are the biggest issues for preemie baby toys,” she said. “We needed to figure out how many toys we would go to market with because molds are very, very expensive. We decided to start with three different toys for three different functions.”
Lefcourt also hired a local marketing professional, Jason Bray, to help her design a company logo and revamp the name of the business. They settled on “Maddie’s World” – represented by a butterfly – with “Little Hands for Preemies” as a toy line. Murphy continued to assist Lefcourt with developing a business plan and her pricing structure.
“He was very encouraging and even the days I got down, he pushed me to press forward. Every time I’ve ever called him about anything, he’s been right there,” Lefcourt said.
In addition to utilizing EI2’s entrepreneur services, Lefcourt took advantage of FastTrac® NewVenture™, a 10-week program developed by the Kauffman Foundation and offered through the University of Georgia’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) that helps startup entrepreneurs develop and evaluate their business model and develop a plan for success. Class participants learn how to write an actionable business plan, are given access to financial and business resources and are able to network with peers and professionals, lessons Lefcourt described as vital.
“In these difficult and challenging budget times, it is more important than ever for state agencies to work together to provide assistance to the citizens of Georgia,” said Lori Auten, SBDC Columbus area director. “Both Georgia Tech and UGA bring unique qualifications and areas of specialty to the table to assist Georgia businesses.”
Moving forward, Lefcort says she wants to also design toys for children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy and develop a clothing line for both premature infants and toddlers. A portion of Maddie’s World sales are currently donated to the local Children’s Miracle Network where the toys are purchased.
“Donna exemplifies the successful entrepreneur; she has passion, energy and exhibits a willingness to learn,” said Murphy. “Without any illusions about the challenges she faced, she employed lessons learned and direction given and just went to work to systematically execute her plan.”
Photo caption: Eight-month-old Justin, born five weeks premature, plays with the tulip rattle developed by Maddie’s World.
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Writer: Nancy Fullbright