BigKeys In The News


  Originally published by The Charlotte Observer, July 4, 1994:



Stella M. Eisele, Staff Writer


Jerry Wagstrom's granddaughter Emily was 3 when she wriggled onto his lap and tried using a kiddie program on his computer.


The game, like many of the more than 700 educational children's software programs, directs users to press a letter to make something happen. That's fine for older kids who know their way around a standard keyboard. But Emily Clippinger was too young. "The frustration ... negated all the value of the software," Wagstrom said, remembering that day about 18 months ago. "I thought, something really could be done."


From his Huntersville home, he did it.


Kid Keys, a PC keyboard with oversize, colorful keys arranged in alphabetical order, hit stores two months ago, priced at less than $100. Educators, parents, software designers and computer retailers across the country already are embracing it. There's also some international interest.


"He's got something unique," said Carol Ellison, an editor for Home PC magazine. "That's how a kid's keyboard ought to work. ... It's like, why didn't somebody think of this before."


Wagstrom, 54, has been at the forefront of the computer industry all his working life. In 1962, when computers were giant machines used only by big business, he was writing software for one of IBM's first major competitors.


Twenty years later, just after IBM introduced its first personal computer, Wagstrom foresaw a need for custom software. So the Minnesota native started a Los Angeles consulting company to design small-business programs.


Three years ago, an Outer Banks vacation lured Wagstrom and wife Katherine to North Carolina. He sold Wagstrom-Cartwright Computer Consulting, but continued to fiddle with computers. With KidKeys, his first hardware creation, Wagstrom joined the fledgling "technotyke" industry that caters to children ages 2 to 6.


"We tend to see trends coming," Wagstrom said. "We had this market pegged."


Numbers specific to the kiddie computer industry are hard to come by, since it barely existed two years ago, but there is evidence it has strong potential.


More than a quarter of U.S. homes have personal computers, and by the year 2000, analysts expect computers to be humming in at least half of all homes. Home PC, a monthly magazine designed to help home computer users, just hit newsstands in May. Circulation already is near 200,000.


"It's becoming a booming market," said Ellison, who tests software and hardware with children ages 6 months to 14 years. "Kids do have a natural interest in computers."


She urges moderation and warns against turning children into "technojunkies," holed up in their rooms, staring glassy-eyed at a computer screen.


"On the other hand, there's a lot of cool stuff that goes on in computers," she said. "The kids' area especially is booming."


Saw a niche to be filled


After designing his keyboard, Wagstrom looked around to see if there was anything similar. There wasn't, but that wasn't enough to keep him going on the invention.


"For about 4 months, the project went dormant," he said. "I could see the amount of work ahead of me to do it, and I really needed ... to decide I was going to do it."


Combing The Observer's list of new patents one day, he found one for a Raleigh woman who listed a kid's keyboard.


"I thought, 'There went another idea,'" said Wagstrom, but he checked out the keyboard, and it wasn't close to what he envisioned. "I said: I'm not going to let this one get away.'


" He persuaded a few people to invest in his idea, and in April last year, Wagstrom started Greystone Digital to produce a keyboard designed for little kids' fingers and limited reading ability.


After doing the engineering drawings, Wagstrom hunted for a manufacturer. He intended to build in the United States, but production costs were at least 40 percent higher than quotes submitted by a company in Taiwan, a major hardware-producing country.


"The toughest part was faxing back and forth to Taiwan and going from millimeters to inches," Wagstrom said.


Sales slower than expected


Prototype boards, ordered last September, arrived in January. They passed muster, so Wagstrom put about $100,000 into a production run that filled his Charlotte warehouse in March.


The board requires no special software to operate and works with any IBM-compatible PC. Later this year, Wagstrom plans to introduce a board for Macintosh systems.


KidKeys' keys are 1-inch square, compared with standard half-inch keys. The vowel keys are yellow, which stands out against the gray background. Y, which also can be a vowel, is yellow just as the R key is red, B is blue, and G is green.


But KidKeys' biggest selling point is the alphabetical order of its keys.


"It's a great, great keyboard," said Kamal Nayfeh, owner of Computek, a computer store on Tyvola Road. "It's so simple."


Nayfeh, who said his 2-year-old daughter quickly mastered the keyboard, has sold about 50 of the $95 keyboards since he started stocking them six weeks ago. That was more than he expected especially since he didn't advertise.


Wagstrom planned for sales of 50,000 units this year. He's still optimistic, but he said sales have been slightly slower than expected.


"The big players take time," he said.


So far, his biggest order has come from a Los Angeles computer distributor, who just bought 200 boards. Last month, Wagstrom shipped two boards to a British distributor. Stores in New Zealand and Australia also have called.


To help build his business, Wagstrom has relied heavily on industry contacts. In an effort to make inroads in toy stores, where he has no contacts, Wagstrom is working with the manufacturers' reps that the big stores say they prefer to use. He's also trying to get into Wal-Mart and Kmart.


Initially, Wagstrom targeted small computer stores, such as Computek, with the information flyers he mailed all over the world.


"I thought that's where my market would be," he said.


Finding unexpected markets

Wagstrom was surprised to find a market among people working with people who have disabilities.


"Computers are the great equalizers," said Judy Timms, director at Carolina Computer Access Center. "They make it possible for people with disabilities to communicate, verbally, written and otherwise.


" The center, at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Metro School on East 2nd Street, uses technology to help people with disabilities learn. Timms liked Kid Keys right away.


Some software publishers and distributors, mostly in educational fields, also like Kid Keys - another surprise for Wagstrom.


"It turns some possibly feared computing time into fun time," said Ken Heptig, an owner of Software Express in Charlotte.


Software Express has a Charlotte retail store, but its main business for the last four years has been selling software to schools. Wagstrom's keyboard is one of the few hardware items listed in Software's catalogue. That puts Wagstrom in place for a share of the quickly growing home-educational software market, which saw sales jump two-thirds from $146 million in 1992 to last year's $243 million.