Martinez makers of parenting aids learn hard lessons about doing business online

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Their home is littered with boxes of parenting products they can't sell.

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Judi and Mike Cohen started their parenting aids company in 1987 at their home and sold many products through Walmart.   Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Judi and Mike Cohen started their parenting aids company in 1987 at their home and sold many products through Walmart.

Judi and Mike Cohen took their Web sites down last month, finally capitulating to the aggressive adware and hacking that have plagued their home-based Internet business for the past six years.

The more visibility their sites got -- being on the first page of a Google search, for example -- the worse their bottom line became. Being on top drew attacks from adware companies that stole customers away with pop-up ads as they were ready to buy.

The more they fought back, the worse things became, drawing direct hacking incidents from the adware companies.

Though those companies have been sued out of existence by other victims, the presence of the infections in millions of computers continued to plague the Martinez entrepreneurs and forced them off the Internet.

They continue to invent and sell, but it will now be in a more low-key manner.

It is a bitter experience, Judi said, for a small company that once sold parenting aids in Walmart and had products featured on ABC and CBS.

"We have tons of stuff all over the place," she said, opening the door to the garage and revealing stacks of boxes. "Our house is like a warehouse, it is awful."

They donated thousands of dollars worth of unsold product to Golden Harvest Food Bank, which saw a use for parenting aids at the charities it supports.

"This is not the end of us. It is the end of us as far as the Internet," Judi said. "We still have our products and new things. We're going to do them slowly, and by going person-to-person with groups."

She said she doesn't even cruise the Internet anymore.

The Cohens are probably best known for developing Potti Pets, an animal-shaped potty training calendar where the child gets to place a sticker after every successful use of the potty.

"Most of our stuff is low-tech," Mike said. "It is something that we think of and manufacture ourselves at first."

They developed the idea in training their 2-year-old daughter, who is now a 27-year-old educator in Boston. A hippo that Mike drew and hung on the bathroom wall worked.

"Stickers always work. Because the child is taking responsibility at that point," Judi said.

They started selling the kits in 1987 and called their company Positive Parenting Products Enterprises.

"If you give a parent who has a problem with a child a textbook to read, they're not going to read it. But if you give them a hands-on tool, they can see what to do and it always works," Judi said.

Since Potti Pets, the Cohens developed the Behavior Beasts game, What-A-Kid Coupons of Appreciation from Parents and Lastic Laces. Judi said they also design special-order items over the years for parents and groups that have called them.

Judi said inspiration can hit at any time. She can be sitting on a couch watching TV and will get a thought of something new.

Ideas also stem from her teaching career, from knowing what works as a parent, and networking with therapists and psychologists.

"We do everything silly, things that kids will find humorous and be willing to work with," Judi said.

Judi Cohen reflects

Looking back at the beginning of her life, Judi can see the genesis of her entrepreneurial spirit. The mother of invention was necessity, creatively turning mundane items into toys.

Judi said she would walk around her neighborhood in Pittsburgh with a wagon and sell crafts to her neighbors.

"I held little circuses in my backyard to make money. I gathered some kids and we could all do some tricks on the jungle gym," she said. They spent their earnings on gum and candy.

Her choice of teaching as a career was a sign of the times in the 1950s and '60s.

"When I went to high school, women were told they could either be teachers, nurses or secretaries." And she didn't want to be a nurse or secretary. Her mother was a secretary and her father was a salesman.

Judi got her undergraduate degree in education from Penn State University and then a master's degree in education and developmental research from Pittsburgh University.

She started her teaching career in her hometown, then moved after a couple of years to the Washington area. She taught in elementary schools in Fairfax County, Va., for a decade.

She said she was fond of the fourth grade.

"Loved it. They're not babies and they're not old enough to be nasty. They get it, they're nice, they don't form cliques yet," she said.

Judi had to leave teaching because her right eye developed double vision, a condition called monocular diplopia. She returned to Pittsburgh, thinking they would have better doctors to help her with the often-painful condition.

And her return to Pennsylvania had a positive note. She met Mike.

"We were at a party and I happened to see this attractive brunette," Mike said.

Judi said they dated for about a year and then got married.

"I didn't want to marry an American man. I traveled a lot. Teachers have their breaks ... we'd all go off to Europe. I was fascinated by accents, people with different cultures," Judi said. "He came waltzing into my life at that party. He's from India."

Mike Cohen's life

Mike was born and raised in India, but he's not ethnically Indian.

Both sides of his family fled Jewish persecution and settled in India before World War II.

"Some of my family came from the Middle East, where they weren't treated very well. Some came from Russia. They came through England to India," he explained.

His Middle Eastern father met his Russian mother in Bombay and Mike was born in 1944 in Indore.

Mike's father worked for a British bank that became nationalized by India. Then, with the State Bank of India, he was a troubleshooter and sent on assignments throughout the country.

Mike said his father was promoted to the head of the international department and began traveling abroad, negotiating foreign aid for India. In 1964, ready to retire, the bank asked him to go to New York City for three years to help investors cut through the red tape of establishing business ventures in India.

Mike came to the U.S. in 1965. He had a bachelor's degree in commerce from St. Xavier's College in Bombay and got a master's degree in marketing from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.

"I went for an interview with Westinghouse and they offered me three different positions. Those were wonderful days, there were jobs available," Mike said.

He chose a cost control position in Pittsburgh. Before meeting Judi, he was drafted into the Army. Mike said the military wanted him to be a code breaker, but he wasn't a U.S. citizen and couldn't get the necessary clearance.

He turned down an opportunity to work on the electronics in helicopters because the training and the assignment would have required him to re-enlist for six years.

He chose an honorable discharge and returned to his job at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, staying there two decades before moving south.

Mike and Judi and their daughter moved to Augusta in 1991. A Westinghouse manager working at Savannah River Site called Mike when he was in Pittsburgh.

His new job was similar to his old one, but he was pricing power plant projects, Mike said.

"A power plant is such a huge enterprise that you have people just involved in the pricing of it," he explained.

His services weren't needed three years later, though.

"Communism collapsed. And suddenly there was no need to produce tritium. They started laying off people that were relatively new, people who weren't doing some of the key engineering work," Mike said.

Judi said Mike's job loss was a blessing in disguise. Her mother came down with terminal cancer, prompting frequent trips back to Pittsburgh.

"Had he still had his job, we couldn't have gone all the time to take care of her and my brother, who was living with her at the time," she said.

At the same time, their entrepreneurial venture exploded into the largest retailer in the world. Their parenting aids hit Walmart.

Walmart and beyond

Potti Pets were test marketed in Walmart stores in Georgia in 1992, then mass distributed. Judi said landing the big retailer was a stroke of luck.

She approached a baby sale at the Bobby Jones Expressway Walmart and was told she couldn't join the store's sale with one of her products. She would need permission from the head office in Arkansas.

"I called them up and somehow got to the CEO, at the time it was Bill Fields ... he took pity on me. 'I'll have my buyer call you.' That wouldn't happen today," she recalled.

Mike and Judi were on a flight to Bentonville, Ark., two weeks later.

Once they were in the door with one item, it wasn't hard to market others, like their elastic shoelaces that postponed the need to learn shoe-tying skills, and the coupons for kids that rewarded good behavior.

Their products also made the shelves of drugstore and grocery store chains, and a few nationally distributed catalogs.

Judi said it would be hard to get their new ideas into Walmart today. Their old relationships with executives and buyers are gone and they would need to re-establish ties with the retailer.

"I would do it in time, but we need a little rest from what happened to us."

The Cohens started their Web sites in the infancy of the Internet in the mid-1990s. They had only three of their products up for sale.

Eventually, the business grew and they added affiliate Web sites as a cooperative way to sell their aids and other inventors' parenting aids.

The years went by and the Web sites grew more lucrative. Learning the secrets of Search Engine Optimization lifted their visibility to the top spot on a Yahoo search for certain parenting word searches. They also were able to get their sites listed on the first page of a Google search.

They didn't know that better visibility made them a target for companies that wanted their customers.

It started to hit them in 2004. Companies developed software that infected millions of computers capable of hijacking Internet surfers.

"Anyone coming to us was being rechanneled to a competitor," Mike explained.

It was as the customer was ready to pay that the popup would come to direct them away with the competing ads.

"It got to the point where we were getting one order a week," Mike said. "The minute a customer goes into our shop cart, here comes a popup ad."

Fighting back only made things worse. Judi said she believes the software companies hacked their Web sites and made their way through firewalls into their personal computers after she started calling them to ask them to stop their Web site hijacking.

"I felt invaded. I could see that our orders are being removed," Judi said.

Even the FBI couldn't help.

"They were nice to us and tried to help us, but they couldn't do anything," Judi said. The FBI had "bigger fish to fry."

The future

The Cohens' potty training and child behavior modification Web sites are now down, though they still pay to keep those domain names.

"Something good will come out of this. I have faith," Judi said.

Judi said she sees a new career in working with parenting groups, small-time product development and marketing -- even teaching Search Engine Optimization to companies that need it.

But there's still the matter of leftover products that have yet to be sold now that there is no Internet marketplace for them.

Judi said she'll approach parenting groups and parent-teacher organizations to see if she can sell them at near-cost prices.

"You're still going to work," she told her 65-year-old husband.

Judi will never retire.

"I have to be active in something," she said.

"I wish she could just slow down," Mike said. "She keeps me active, and that's good."

Judi Cohen

BORN: Dec. 11, 1946, Pittsburgh

EDUCATION: Penn State University, bachelor of education; University of Pittsburgh, masters of education and research

FAMILY: Husband, Mike, daughter, Erica

Mike Cohen

BORN: Sept. 8, 1944, Indore, India

EDUCATION: St. Xavier's College, Bombay, India, bachelor of commerce; Fairleigh Dickinson University, masters of marketing

FAMILY: Wife, Judi, daughter Erica

Comments (3) Add comment
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Dixieman
14962
Points
Dixieman 03/07/10 - 10:56 pm
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This is just silly. FBI

This is just silly. FBI won't do anything. They need to just spend a few hundred dollars on a computer guru who could clean up their website and keep the traffic from being redirected. This is an easy fix; I have had an internet website for several years and never had this problem -- because I paid a professional to maintain it and keep it clean. C'mon, folks, you have only yourselves to blame for the continuation of this problem!

apache
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apache 03/08/10 - 02:04 pm
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Am I understanding this

Am I understanding this correctly...were these folks hosting an e-commerce site from their home PC?

belle
307
Points
belle 03/08/10 - 03:47 pm
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Don't know anything about
Unpublished

Don't know anything about your computer problems but I tried EVERYTHING to train my daughter and even created my own reward posters but until we got the pink potty pig nothing helped. She was trained in two days. Great products!

themaninthemirror
0
Points
themaninthemirror 03/08/10 - 06:36 pm
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Those pink potty pigs will do

Those pink potty pigs will do it every time! My baby sister wouldn't even think of going without hers!

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