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Team effort

Free-flowing ideas fuel growth for Bird Brain

Bird BrainErrol Town, left, and Craig Wigley are part of a creative sales and design team at Bird Brain that help the company continually develop innovative decorative accessories for the home and garden.
COURTNEY AND CHRISTINE KING HAVE COME UP WITH MORE THAN A few great product ideas during their years at the helm of Bird Brain. But it's not any single item that has kept their company growing since they launched it in 1995. It's the creative business culture they cultivated.
     At the core of Bird Brain culture are two principles. First, always keep an open mind when considering new product ideas.
     "Courtney and I are really good at feeding off of each other in terms of inspiration," Christine said. "You seek your inspiration wherever you are. You see something interesting, and it inspires a thought."
     She recalled an interesting textured wall the couple saw in a hotel during one of their many trips to China. They took a digital photo of the wall, returned to Ypsilanti, Mich., and worked with Bird Brain designers to incorporate that texture into a line of outdoor accessories.
     "We're always looking for materials, textures, icons - anything that makes sense," said Errol Town, vice president, sales. "We have a product in the line now that was inspired by a church in Germany. What we saw there became a decorative tabletop item."
     Keeping an eye out for design inspiration is a mandate for every Bird Brain employee. No one is exempt from offering a new product idea or giving input on things that are in development.
     "This is a team effort," King said. "We're always showing the new products we're developing to our sales team to get their feedback on it. We know if they aren't fired up about selling it, they won't pull it out of the bag."
     The second principle of Bird Brain culture is rapid follow-through. Merely having the idea isn't enough. It's also about communicating the idea to designers who can make it a reality as quickly and efficiently as possible. For instance, Town said one of the company's signature items, gel burners, began as a discussion between the Kings and their staff in late January 2007. A mere 90 days later, gel burners were in production.
     Bird Brain responds with the same speed to business opportunities that pop up. General Manager Craig Wigley mentioned an instance when a retailer called about a custom holiday program.
     "We had never made a holiday product before," he said. "But in a six- to eight-week period, we were able to create 80 original products for the retailer to sell."
     The Bird Brain workplace facilitates the quick response times. The company is based in an old commercial building in Depot Town, a small commercial district near Eastern Michigan University that sprang up in the mid-1800s. The facade of the Bird Brain building is painted in whimsical colors that set it apart from the others lining East Cross Street.
     "The building is so Bird Brain," said King, who, with her husband, spent the better part of 2003 gutting and renovating the building. "It's so much about who we are and how we work."
Inside, 22 employees work on three floors, each level a wide-open room filled with desks. The cubicle-free layout is strategic, Wigley said.
     "The open architecture fosters collaboration," he said. "When someone gets a great idea, we can discuss it and move quickly on it."
     The company doesn't let geography get in the way, either. The Kings have 10 employees in an office in Dongguan City, China, and are mindful to keep them involved in everything that happens at home in Michigan.
The Bird BrainThe Bird Brain offi ces are housed in a refurbished brick commercial building in a historic part of Ypsilanti, Mich. Inside, the space is purposely wide open to foster impromptu brainstorming sessions.
     "One of us is over there every month," Town said. "And we're able to communicate quickly with the videoconferencing capabilities we have here. With designers here and in Asia, we can design product day and night."
     That's a good thing, because new ideas are constantly flowing. It's been that way ever since Courtney King noticed birds were constantly pecking at gravel in his backyard. He discovered that, with no teeth, birds ate gravel to help digest food. He came up with a product called True Grit, pulverized rocks to add to bird feed, which explains the company's name.
     Most, if not all, bird feed now contains grit, but the Kings quickly moved beyond that product. In 2000, they introduced the outdoor industry's first decorative copper water sprinkler, which was their gateway into the garden and outdoor living business. The introduction of its Veggie Watchers line, a collection of garden stakes with faces on them, entrenched Bird Brain.
     Today, the company averages 300 product introductions annually, which means the product mix is always evolving, Town said. At the 2010 National Hardware Show, the company filled its 40 x 60-ft . booth with entirely new merchandise. It did the same thing last month, and why not? The strategy has kept Bird Brain growing in the down economy of the past three years.
     "Even during recessionary times, people can always find money to buy some embellishment or bauble to enhance their living environment," King said. "I think it also comes down to our ability to be innovative and come up with great ideas and execute them in ways that are appealing."
     Above all, that may be the sheer volume of ideas that are batted around in the Bird Brain offices every day. There is never a dull moment, said Wigley, which is why both he and Town said they love their jobs. Every new day brings the promise of the next great product idea.

The Bird Brain business model
The Bird Brain     Casual living retailers can get a lot more from Bird Brain than great outdoor accessories. They can learn from its creative business culture:
     1. Everyone contributes. Bird Brain owners Courtney and Christine King don't limit good design ideas to a product development team. Everyone from reps to accountants can offer them and give input on items in development. The result? More good ideas and happier employees.
     2. Work environment matters. Bird Brain headquarters is an 1850s commercial building the Kings renovated with a ton of creative touches, which helps foster creativity. Each of the building's three levels features one room with no walls between desks, encouraging idea exchanges among employees.
    3. Communication is key. The Kings don't let distance be a barrier, which is important in a global economy. They maintain cohesiveness between their Michigan and China offices by traveling frequently between offices and using video conferences to collaborate between visits.

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