Steve Spangler: Make It Big, Do It Right, Give It Class
Steve Spangler is a professional science educator.
He’s also a marketer: he founded and runs Steve Spangler Science, a multichannel retailer and science training company.
I had the enjoyable opportunity to interview Steve about the importance of the customer experience, about company values, and about diet soda geysers.
If you ask any of our employees what we believe in as a company, they all know the answer: Make it big. Do it right. And give it class. If we can’t do that — if we can’t make it big, and do it right, and give it class, or if there’s no a “wow” factor involved — then we simply don’t do it.
– Steve Spangler
Listen to podcast: rkgblog-interview-steve-spangler.mp3
Steve Spangler Interview: Transcript
Alan Rimm-Kaufman: This is Alan Rimm-Kaufman, and today I have the great pleasure to speak with Steve Spangler, of Steve Spangler Science. How you doing today Steve?
Steve Spangler: I’m doing fine thanks. See we put the name in there so that it’s just harder for me to forget, alright. So, as long as it’s Steve Spangler and then you just put “science” on the end we’re set. See how it works.
Alan: Very good. Now your title over at Steve Spangler is “Chief Mess Maker.” That’s an interesting title. Can you tell me what a typical day is like for someone who has that title?
Steve: Well, first of all you know this title thing is the weirdest thing because you know the bank wants you to be a CEO or a president or whatever. And I think of what a CEO or a president does and so forth and I think that my day may be a little bit different. I don’t think that many CEOs have their arm in a 55-gallon drum mixing up agar, you know or the next thing you know we’re taking in a shipment of about 50 to 80,000 rolls of Mentos or we’re planning one of these huge geyser events. Or, we’re working on new product development or television or any of those things.
So, it’s kind of hard to say what a typical day is. I can tell you that we believe, we’re a science education company. So, and soon as you say the word “science education” many people go “oh, how boring is that” or “what would that be about?” And it really is all about making learning fun. And my area of expertise just happened to be years ago, science education. So, we’ve built a company doing that. So, everything from live performances, workshops, teacher training, to an entire product line of about 850 products that are available either in a catalog or on our online e-commerce store.
Alan: Pretty wild. I have to pick up on that. Fifty thousand rolls of Mentos that’s pretty incredible. I’ve heard you talk about your experience with the Diet Coke and Mentos. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Steve: Yeah. We have to credit that to science teachers all over the country. Back in the ‘80s to teach kids about carbon dioxide, we were dropping wintergreen Life Savers into soda. And if you drop anything into a bottle of soda, the carbon dioxide that’s dissolved comes out, any imperfection at all. If you’ve ever noticed when you pour champagne into a glass the really expensive glasses, it doesn’t happen in plastic at my house, but the really expensive glasses have bubbles that come up in four equal columns to the very top. And the way that they do that is they put a tiny little etching on the very bottom of those champagne glasses –
Alan: How interesting –
Steve: So they can control the bubbles. Well, that said teachers have been dropping tons of things into soda and it just happened that back in the ‘80s, if you drop wintergreen Life Savers, which had little tiny pits on the outside, into soda that all the carbon dioxide would come out and literally push out the bottle. And you got a little geyser that came out. So, probably, I don’t know at the most five, six feet, but it was great and kids liked it and that was it.
Probably early 2000, we all discovered that they had changed the size of wintergreen Life Savers. Trying to buy a roll of those, you couldn’t anymore. They went to these big bulk backs. So, here we were, teachers in these training programs and before the program starts, with a hammer smashing up wintergreen Life Savers. It was just a mess. And so, thanks to some teachers who figured out that, you know I think Mentos might work pretty well, and it was just trial and error. But all of a sudden you drop Mentos in and you got this beautiful geyser that came out because again, these small little imperfections called nucleation points are on the outside.
So, where does this all go? Nobody cared. I mean honest to goodness, it was kids thought it was cool in school. And if you did it for a live audience and I was doing it in live programs and you know I guess my keynote is a little bit different than most, most people have PowerPoint and I and the writer make sure there’s a dozen bottles of Coke and a whole bunch of Mentos and a whole bunch of plastic covering on the stage. And we’re launching off Mentos.
It was in 2005, on television, I worked for NBC television, as another piece of this, is a weekly segment that we’ve been doing for about 15 years. We did it for the fourth time on television in our little backyard setting at the studio in Denver. And the lady, the co-anchor I was working with didn’t drop them and move away fast enough and she got covered in soda.
Alan: Oh, my.
Steve: Which is great. And then she proceeded to do it on live television two more times. So, she was covered in Diet Coke and Pepsi and root beer. Well the blog posting that went out that night, because I had been taught that you try to create a blog posting that people might read, I simply wrote “news anchor gets soaked, science experiment goes awry,” something like that.
Well, that blog post was picked up and literally just ran. And so much so, that the vice president of technology with Gannett called me and said what is going on with this video? And we saw this surge of people looking at video. Within oh, probably three or four days it was all over You Tube and that was really the, at the very, very beginning there, that September 2005, at the beginning where people were feeling comfortable with You Tube and posting stuff up there. Now, there’s like 2,500, maybe 3,000 Mentos eruptions that are on You Tube, and of course, it’s all over the place.
Alan: Using the social networks and using blogging, what kind of impact on the sales side of your business, how does this affect meeting new potential science teachers who might need the stuff you sell?
Steve: I think it helps a tremendous amount because people look at it and say oh, you did that Diet Coke and Mentos thing. And the first thing I say is no, I didn’t do it by myself. Teachers in general did that, but when you’re focused on making learning fun, all of a sudden you’re creating experiences. And what my entire premise is as a company, as a trainer, as a professional speaker is the ability of a person to create an experience and not do an activity. And this was more than, just a teacher dropping something into soda and getting an eruption. This was a whole bunch of people out there saying oh, I want to do that because they wanted to do that experience. And if you’re creating products and your business model is to create these unforgettable learning experiences and it just happens to be what ours is, it was extremely valuable.
But I have to tell you that there wasn’t six of sitting around in some boardroom with a white board behind us, you know and mapping out the business plan and the strategic plan for doing this. This happened and thank goodness the blogging tools, the video, everything was there, and I had just enough basic knowledge to put these pieces together and to push it out there in a very, very short period of time.
The other piece that went with that is that the great people over at Perfetti Van Melle, the people who make Mentos entered into an agreement with us to be able to create toys. And we wanted to do some other educational kinds of things, so we launched the geyser tube toy and some associated science kits that are in mass market now, that take this reaction to the next level with a loading tube and launcher and everything else. So, now that little 10 or 12-foot thing goes up about 30 feet in the air and we’re, the whole goal once again is to make learning fun.
Alan: So, the amount of exposure Steve Spangler Science has had for the company, for helping teachers is so much bigger than most like, the people would think the size of the company actually is. What kind of tips would you have for other specialty retailers that are actually seeking to get that national attention and they have limited budgets?
Steve: Well, I think we could have one off in a billion different directions. It’s really easy to veer off and on all these tangents because there’s all these things around you. I mean we have play dates or no let’s sell slime and no let’s have creative toys that do this. And I think that one of the things that helped us is we didn’t have the budget to try everything.
What we did was we focused on one or two things as a core competency and if it didn’t fit within that model, then we didn’t do it. One of the premises that all of our employees, we have about 35 employees and everybody understands if you walk up to any of them you say, what do you believe and the belief is make it big, do it right, give it class. If you can’t do that, if you can’t make it big, do it right, give it class, there’s not a “wow” factor involved with it, then let’s just not do it.
And so, buying third party product and just selling it on the website like, everybody else is doing is not the primary interest for us. Our primary interest is to create product, possibly stuff that’s already out there, but to combine it in such a way that a teacher, a parent or the end-user can create an experience and not necessarily just pull something out of the box and do it.
So, I guess the advice is to focus on a couple of core competencies, what you believe to be true. And then kind of go after it. And for us it was creating those experiences.
Alan : I love your three precepts. Those are fantastic.
Steve: It’s old W. C. Field’s stuff, I think. I think he was the first person to say make it right, do it big, give it class, something like that. And so we kind of took that and expanded upon it. And we have a Director of Wow here at the office and Brian does that. He just makes sure that when we launch something everything has to go through him. And if it doesn’t have his “wow” factor then the product gets dumped.
Alan: Are there products that he’s nixed as just boring or –
Steve: Oh my God. He’s going to start his own blog.
Alan: Of a bad ideas that brought to me that weren’t “wow” enough.
Steve: Yeah. Or, a great, great product but you missed it. And he’s gone so far as to actually put the product in front of kids and videotape them and watch him take it out of the box and watch their disappointment or watch their excitement…
Steve: Or to see that oh my God, what they loved was the tweezers. They could care less about the $300 microscope. They just wanted tweezers and a magnifying glass. And so, I think he’s got a lot to share with people saying you know, here are these things that come pass by desk, should we add this to our catalog for our customers who hopefully will read his blog. Do you think I should carry this? I just got this. It’s not due out for three months, you vote. We carry it or we don’t carry it.
Alan: That’s amazing and you guys are 35 people.
Alan: There’s some huge direct marketers that never even look at the box experience or what people like about their stuff as closely as you guys are.
Steve: Well, it was funny. I think I learned that from somebody who tried to buy us a couple of years ago. A very, very big company and we sat down at the Brown Palace in Denver and had breakfast.
And you know what he said was, “you know I could care less about this user experience that you talk about.” He says “Here’s what’s most important to me: one, do you have a good product description, and two, do you have a good photograph?” He says, “As long as you’ve got those two, we’re in business.”
And at the end of the meal, I stood up and left. I just respectfully declined to go any further with any type of discussions. I said to him, “I just don’t think that you and I see eye-to-eye. We’re developing product that’s all about the user experience. I want to know what it looks like when the kid tears open the present and this thing unfolds onto the floor. Where you, you’re more concerned about getting that sale. I’m sure you’re making more money than I am, but I’m on a different mission.”
And that was the end of that meeting.
Alan: Wow. Your commitment to user experience is really impressive. Hey, Steve, thank you so much for spending this time with us this morning!
Steve: Thank you. I’m honored to be on your blog!