Cover Story: Weird Science
Steve Spangler has managed to make science cool … and at the same time earn a living. For the teacher turned retailer, the focus has remained the same: to educate kids, particularly about science. And if that means turning bottles of Diet Coke into erupting geysers in the process, all the better.
Founded in 1990, Steve Spangler Science is the offshoot of a man's lifelong obsession with science. After 11 years as a science teacher, Spangler shifted directions. He decided to bring his passion for science to a wider audience, and a mail order catalog offering educational toys and science-related products was born.
Web Opens New Market
What started as a B-to-B catalog targeting teachers, Steve Spangler Science has evolved into a hybrid B-to-B/ B-to-C retailer offering products via catalogs, an e-commerce site, a wholesale division and various other channels, including trade shows. The emergence of the internet proved a watershed moment for the previously catalog-centric merchant.
Unable to substantially grow its business via catalog prospecting alone — the costs were too prohibitive — Steve Spangler Science launched its first website in 2000. Up to that point, the company had marketed its products to teachers only. Little did it know a whole market was left untapped.
"Pre-internet, we had people who wanted to meet with us and handle catalog distribution," recalls Steve Spangler, the company's founder and namesake. "They wanted us to ramp up catalog prospecting to see if there were other people out there who wanted this besides teachers. But it was just too expensive for a little company like ours. We decided the real focus had to be online. Once we went online, we found that our market wasn't just limited to teachers."
This epiphany didn't solve all the company's problems. All of its marketing efforts, in particular its catalog and website, were geared to teachers. So it brought in outside consultants to revamp the website in 2003 with a more consumer-friendly look and feel that included significant search engine optimization (SEO) and analytics upgrades. Soon Steve Spangler Science discovered its appeal extended beyond teachers.