To many toy companies, their products are simply a diversion, something to keep kids occupied. For MindWare, however, the toys it creates and distributes do more than simply pass the time. MindWare’s line of educational toys help kids increase their brainpower and bring the entire family together. “That’s really what we’re all about,” General Manager Jonathan Staruck says. “We are brainy toys for kids of all ages.”

The Minnesota-based company has been fulfilling this mission since 1990, when founder Jeannie Voigt opened a small retail store in Minneapolis devoted to selling educational toys. Over time, MindWare has evolved into one of the largest catalog retailers in that segment. The company also has developed a robust line of its own proprietary products, which are distributed to more than 2,000 retailers across the country as well as through its catalogs and Internet sales.

“We really look at MindWare as a product innovation company that has two distinct channels of distribution,” Staruck says. Although MindWare faces stiff competition from traditional and specialty toy retailers, he says the company sets itself apart in the marketplace through its innovative products, relationships with retailers and emphasis on data.

Smart Play

Whether a product is developed internally or merely distributed through MindWare, Staruck explains that the company goes to great lengths to make sure it fulfills its two key requirements: that it is fun and educational. The company conducts extensive internal and external play-testing on all new products.

“We really have what we feel are a group of key filters that we run all of our products through,” Staruck says.

The products that typically do make it through MindWare’s extensive testing process are unique for the toy industry, and not just because they’re educational. Staruck says the company stays away from electronic toys for the most part and concentrates on toys that challenge kids to use problem-solving skills and creativity, rather than just reacting to prompts on a video screen. These include activity books, brainteasers, puzzles and building sets.

Many of MindWare’s products have been honored with awards from education and parents’ groups. For example, Qwirkle, a strategy game where players match colors and shapes in a way similar to dominoes, has been awarded a Parents’ Choice Gold Award, a Mensa Select Award and a Creative Child Magazine Award.

One recent product line developed by MindWare that has become extremely popular is the Extreme Dot-to-Dot puzzle books. Staruck explains that although most traditional dot-to-dot puzzles only ask kids to connect up to 100 dots, MindWare’s spin on the idea features puzzles of more than 1,500 dots at a time, with some puzzles that spread across two pages. The puzzles also feature themes such as animals, history and books, so children learn while they focus their attention on completing the puzzles. Staruck says that although the books are popular with teachers looking for ways to keep students engaged during group activities, they’re not the only ones who have latched onto the Extreme Dot-to-Dot series.

“What we find here that’s interesting is that if you look at our customers’ reviews, half of them are coming from kids and the other half are coming from adults,” Staruck explains, adding that the line has branched out into posters and books in 3-D.

The Right Mix

Customer feedback about its products is extremely important for MindWare. General Manager Angie Holmstrom says the company wants to be sure it knows exactly how to market its products because catalog shoppers devote only so much time to reviewing an individual product before moving on. “We are a very data-driven business,” Staruck says. “We have, for a smaller company, very good access to data.”

Paying close attention to the data about its products also helps MindWare develop the proper product mix to stay ahead of the latest trends. For example, Holmstrom says that several years ago activity books were among the company’s best-selling products, but today building and strategy games lead the pack. This is mainly due to demand from special-education teachers who are discovering the value of hands-on play for their students.

Holmstrom adds that MindWare gets a lot of positive feedback from its retailers. She says the company places much emphasis on determining price points that will help retailers sell, and also offers marketing and merchandizing options for them. “We are a very easy company to work with, and I think if you would ask our retailers, they would agree,” Holmstrom says.

Forging Ahead

Thanks to the company’s unique products, dedication to data and retailer relationships, MindWare is in a strong position to continue leading in the educational toy market. Staruck says the company is in the process of expanding its presence in the area of mobile apps for smartphones and tablet devices, as well as online gaming.

“I see a lot more of what we’re currently doing, and that is trying to develop products that are unique in specialty and nature,” Staruck says.

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