What does a person do after he’s led global design and spurred innovation and entrepreneurship at one of the most respected and well-known packaged goods brands in the world? How about transform parenting by empowering other talented people to solve problems that they are passionate about to ensure that his influence positively impacts generations to come?
David Butler, co-founder of venture capital fund Be Curious Partners and the chief growth officer at Kids2, the company behind the Baby Einstein, Bright Starts and Ingenuity brands, is doing just that by using his business and brand leadership skills strengthened during his time at The Coca-Cola Company, leading design as The Coca-Cola Company’s vice president of global design and then spearheading growth efforts as its vice president of innovation and entrepreneurship, and his fierce design and innovation capabilities refined by real-world experience, such as serving as co-chair on the Global Agenda Council on Design and Innovation that’s part of the World Economic Forum.
Developing a thirst for transforming business
Clearly still enamored of the company where he spent nearly a decade of some of the most formative years of his early career, Butler credits The Coca-Cola Company for truly seeking disruptive innovation. He asks me the rhetorical question, “What company wants to disrupt themselves?” Butler then notes, “Almost every company fears disruption. But Coke had me lead global design and then asked me to lead innovation for the company, and I mean real disruptive innovation at the core business-model level versus on the product level.”
He explains that Coca-Cola had been smart and brave enough to see that other brands, such as Uber, Twitter and Airbnb that were startups at the time, were transforming entire markets, and even though Coca-Cola is “this giant global corporation” that it looked to learn from these startups that were “able to scale up and change things quickly.”
Butler adds, “It became Coke’s focus to uncover our biggest problems or most difficult to achieve opportunities and seek out people who had started early-stage companies focused on these same problems.” Butler and his team created win-win scenarios with these entrepreneurs by using Coca-Cola’s vast resources to both fund the startup with venture capital and be its first customer. “Venture capital and customer acquisition are the two biggest challenges for early-start companies,” Butler explains. “To take a solution from theoretical to offering, early-stage companies need both venture capital and a customer to start developing product for.”
The beverage industry heavyweight also was a good corporate citizen. Coca-Cola empowered Butler to share learnings about disruptive innovation with other business leaders through TED Talks and eventually a book co-authored with Linda Tischler that is titled, Design to Grow: How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale and Agility (and How You Can Too).
There’s a reason why some clichés are true
Children change everything. “So Linda, I don’t know if you have children,” Butler says, “if you’ve been through the process of becoming a parent, you know what I’m talking about: Becoming a parent is one of the biggest transitions that people make. And I know you talk to brand-and-business focused people every day, but you know, at that moment in time when you become a parent, everyone reconsiders and resets their relationships with brands and this happens across socioeconomic situations. It’s been a long time since I’ve been a parent of a newborn, but I’m still trying to understand the problems of new parents and help solve them.
“When I met Ryan Gunnigle and he was very interested in Coke’s success, we both realized that we wanted to bring that type of mutally beneficial approach to Kids2,” he recalls. Under Butler’s leaderships as Kids2 chief growth officer, Kids2 has announced several mutually beneficial partnerships with other brands—big and small.
Last summer, Kids2 and Hape announced a joint venture after the success of their award-winning co-branded Baby Einstein and Hape toy line that is disrupting the musical toy space with its harmony of traditional and modern materials with thoughtfully integrated technology. The partnership began with an observation that toy options at that time forced parents to choose between either traditional wood toys or feature-driven plastic toys while market research showed that parents have an affinity for nostalgic toys, place a high value on music and creativity, and desire more toy choices. This led to a meeting of the minds between Kids2 and Hape.
“With the rising consumer demand for natural wood products and the high-value parents place on music as a universally enriching part of play, Kids2 and Hape saw an opportunity to blend those elements together, giving parents everywhere a reassuring and balanced play experience for their children,” says Dave Calhoun, president of Kids2.
The two toy companies initially launched a collection of nine co-designed, co-developed and co-branded Baby Einstein-Hape toys that combine Kids2’s magic touch electronic capabilities with Hape’s expertise in wooden toys. Just that initial collection resulted in tens of millions in revenue.
“Hape is one of the world’s largest producers of wood toys, with products being sold all over the globe,” continues Calhoun. “They are well-
respected for their focus on quality, design and sustainability. This joint venture opens new channels and retailers for both Kids2 and Hape, creating volume opportunities across our brands.”
Peter Handstein, founder and CEO of Hape Group, adds, “With Kids2’s application of cap touch technology and a similar approach to design, we knew it was the right partnership to pursue our shared goal to create an elevated yet accessible segment of high-quality toys that encourage curiosity through genuine open-ended play.”
Last fall, five new wooden, interactive musical toys were brought to market from Kids2 and Hape’s collaboration: the Magic Touch Mini Piano, Tiny Tambourine, Magic Touch Ukulele, Magic Touch Xylophone and the Magic Touch Curiosity Tablet, which plays more than 150 melodies.
Recognizing Gen Z parents want new solutions to old problems
Butler and Gunnigle also realized they could take this collaborative approach one step further by co-founding a venture capital fund. Their venture capital company Be Curious Partners is rethinking the parenting-solutions-provider business model and its impact on the environment through an innovative partnership. “We’ve invested in a company called Good Buy Gear,” Butler explains. “So I have three daughters, who are all teenagers now, but when they were babies, we started collecting this stuff, from strollers to toys to big gear like baby furniture. I found that as a parent, you would think I’d try to find ways to extend the usefulness for this stuff versus sending it to a landfill. Parents plan to do things like put items on Craigslist or save it for a friend who is having a baby because they might need it. But the reality is being a parent makes you very busy, and a lot of parents end up with a basement full of stuff. If you live in a city like New York or San Francisco, then storage space is an even bigger problem.
“What Good Buy Gear does is they come pick up your used baby stuff, refurbish it, put it in their warehouse and sell it on their platform,” he exclaims. “The stuff actually gets out of your house instead of being a reminder of something you never have time to do! They take a revenue share of whatever you sell but the service makes it so much easier for a parent to get rid of kid gear they no longer need and for other parents to buy used items. Re-commerce is very important to the next generation of parents that are coming up—Gen Z—because re-commerce is a form of sustainability.”
Good Buy Gear CEO and co-founder Kristin Langenfeld notes, “We started this company after a frustrating experience on a Facebook moms group. I was messaging back and forth, driving across town, and overpaying for a broken stroller. It was a complete waste of time.” Good Buy Gear’s COO and co-founder Jessica Crothers was also acutely aware of the waste, clutter and never-ending costs associated with raising children. The two determined moms started the business out of her garage, and the company has helped thousands of families extend the life of great kids’ gear and make a little money through its managed marketplace and eCommerce website.
Room to thrive
With decades of experience investing in entrepreneurial business, Butler knows what to look for in brand and business leaders. “To get really binary here,” he prefaces, “there are two types of people I look for when it comes to innovation or mindsets. They are managers, and they are founders. I’ve found that big established companies often hire managers to, well, essentially ‘manage’ what the company has built and scaling those successes. Founders are the people who create companies, and they have a completely different mindset from managers. From these leaders come two very distinct cultures. What my experience at Coke and at Kids2 and my observations of leading companies such as Amazon is that these two cultures need to be treated differently, and both cultures thrive when they are kept somewhat independent of each other.” Much like siblings, as much as both a manager culture and founder mentality can benefit from each other, sometimes leaders need to keep them separated: Don’t lose sight of just how difficult it is for each culture to thrive in the other’s environment.