December 5, 2013

Portland company eco-kids on verge of welcome expansion

The growing home-based business gets a new investor to help it move to a bigger space.

By Jessica Hall
Staff Writer

Eco-kids, which makes all-natural children’s art supplies for retailers ranging from Pottery Barn Kids to Nordstrom to Williams-Sonoma, is bursting at the seams of its home-based business.

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Kip and Cammie Weeks offer 13 products from the business they run out of their Portland home.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The Portland company eco-kids makes a line of children’s art supplies using non-toxic, natural ingredients.

Courtesy of eco-kids

Kip and Cammie Weeks manage the business and the production of eco-kids’ 13 products – including molding dough, crayons, finger paints and egg-coloring kits – out of the basement and first floor of their Portland home. They dream of the day when they’re not living where they work and can produce all-natural art supplies on a greater scale and expand their product line to incorporate all aspects of a child’s life.

With the help of a new investor, eco-kids is close to taking that giant step.

An infusion of cash from Shazi Visram, founder of organic baby and toddler food company Happy Family, will help eco-kids find a commercial space in the Greater Portland area to expand production. Visram and eco-kids declined to comment on the size of the investment, other than to say that Visram will be a major shareholder.

Although no stage of starting and expanding a business is easy, Cammie Weeks said the current phase has been a challenge. In addition to eco-kids, Kip and Cammie Weeks also have three children, who serve as the prime product-testers for new inventions.

“Right now is the hardest stage we’ve had. All the work that has to be done – balanced by all the family stuff,” Cammie Weeks said. “Right now, we wear all the hats in the company. We need to find some other people to take other hats off our heads.”

Kip, 38, and Cammie, 39, want to go back to developing products and being the face of the company, instead of serving every role from sales to shipping to distribution and accounting.

Visram met the couple earlier this year while she was doing a speaking engagement for the Stonyfield Entrepreneurship Institute, where eco-kids had a table of its art supplies on display. Visram’s son already used eco-kids’ products, so she was curious to meet the people behind the brand.

“I fell in love with the passion of the people who made the products I already knew and loved,” Visram said.

Visram, who in May sold 92 percent of her Happy Family company to French-based food giant Danone SA for “hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to media reports, said her involvement with eco-kids is a long-term investment. She does not expect to see a return for several years.

The investment will allow eco-kids to expand its production volume, add employees and buy its all-natural supplies in greater volume to help cut costs.

“They are at a critical stage. There’s massive amount of demand out there. They need to focus on manufacturing and focus on being able to produce product for the large orders that will be coming in,” Visram said. “It’s inspiring to see them take some advice and run with it. I’ve been through a lot of the problems they have or will have in the future, so I hope to be able to help them. I don’t have all the answers, but I can connect them to people who do.”

The company began with a recipe for molding dough that Cammie Weeks’ mom made for her as a child. After incorporating natural ingredients into the recipe, the dough was named eco-dough. With the slogan “creative play the natural way,” eco-kids’ products are developed with non-toxic natural ingredients and packaged with environmentally friendly supplies from around the United States.

Kip and Cammie Weeks started selling eco-dough at the Hollywood Farmer’s market in 2008, and eco-kids was born. Their background wasn’t business – Cammie was a nanny and Kip was an actor – so they’ve been driven more by their creativity and passion than by a textbook business plan.

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