MADEIRA, Ohio — It's a question that has plagued moms and dads since the beginning of time: "How much longer?"
Jan Rogers heard it from her youngest child, Lauren, far more than her older son or daughter ever asked. Showing Lauren the time on a clock didn't work. Setting a kitchen timer didn't either. Even the timer on the microwave — with its abstract digits counting backward — didn't mean much to a curious 4-year-old.
So Rogers did what any frustrated mom would: She invented a product, built a prototype and started a company that now sells millions of dollars worth of her gizmos each year in dozens of countries across the world.
Of course, the story of Rogers' Time Timer LLC is far more complicated than that.
But it's no oversimplification to say that Rogers built her business through determination and persistence despite being dismissed by manufacturers who thought the Time Timer was too simple to succeed.
"I probably should have been an engineer," Rogers said.
Instead she's a stay-at-home mom turned entrepreneur who is partnering with Jake Knapp of Google Ventures to market a special-edition Time Timer with his new book "Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days."
It's an entrepreneurial ride that Rogers never envisioned when she sketched her initial concept on a yellow legal pad back in October 1987.
"I thought I would sell the idea for millions of dollars and cash checks for the rest of my life," Rogers said. "But that didn't happen."
What happened instead is far more interesting — and a lesson in how a mom's perseverance can pay off.
'Then I Got Stubborn'
Let's go back to the beginning.
Rogers sketched her concept for the Time Timer and built a prototype using paper plates — one white plate and one red. The prototype didn't work exactly how Rogers had envisioned. But she showed it to Lauren, and her little girl was intrigued.
Rogers talked to some of her teacher friends to ask if other kids had problems with time. The answer was an emphatic "yes."
She called manufacturers to explain her idea.
"I talked to the presidents. They were very nice, a little condescending," Rogers said. "They said things like, 'Oh that's nice. How many kids do you have?' It was too simple. So then I got stubborn."
Rogers told herself: "I know this is important. It's important for my child. It's important for my life."
And she started to develop the real product herself.
Keep in mind that Rogers was a stay-at-home mom. She had a college degree in psychology and sociology but no business background at all.
"I didn't even balance my checkbook," she said. "But I loved solving problems."
Her husband — an engineer whose job at the Procter & Gamble Co. brought the couple to Cincinnati — gave her a loan for $20,000 to launch the product in the early 1990s. She repaid it after a year.
"None of us really thought it was going to go anywhere," said Rogers, who is now 70. "But it kept me busy."
For a long time, Rogers assembled the Time Timers herself in her family room. She would work after her kids were in bed, then sleep for a few hours before it was time to wake up and get them on the school bus and then go back to sleep for a while.
Her husband left P&G and started his own company. He bought a building in Madeira, with his business on the first floor and hers on the second.
"I would go up there at 9 o'clock and work until 4 a.m.," Rogers said. "I loved it."
No Competition in the U.S.
Meanwhile, her company grew organically. Rogers pushed the product for use in preschool classrooms. But her first big market was among special education teachers.
Cari Kelly has been using Time Timers in her classes at Cincinnati's Springer School and Center for nearly a decade, she said.
"It definitely allowed the children to take ownership to monitor their time and also the counting backwards and the visual that it provides to students," Kelly said. "It really takes away the anxiety for children who are trying to monitor time management."
Things started taking off for Rogers after her Wisconsin-based supplier figured out how to add an optional audible signal at the end of the time segment. Time Timer LLC got so big that she found a company to assemble the devices for her.
By 2006, her company had reached $1 million in annual revenue and was selling between 50,000 and 75,000 Time Timers each year.
Those numbers have gotten bigger, but Rogers doesn't want to say by how much.
"I have no competitors in the U.S. There's nothing like my timer," she said. "As I've come up above the radar, companies are watching to see how successful I am."
Rogers figures that if she talks too much about how much money Time Timer LLC makes, that would just inspire other companies to try to compete with her.
"They can still keep thinking it's a nice little hobby for me," she said.
Even though Time Timer LLC is anything but that.
Time Is Money
The company has grown to six employees at what Rogers calls its "world headquarters" in Madeira.
Two of those employees — Rogers and her son, Dave Rogers, who is president of the company — work full time. The rest work part time with flexible schedules that allow them to come to work after their kids get on the bus for school and get home in time to meet them afterward.
"That's really important to me to be able to provide that kind of flexibility," Rogers said.
Time Timer LLC is moving more and more into the adult market, selling to people who have had strokes or brain injuries or who are living with Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease.
And there's the business world, of course, as illustrated by Time Timer's starring role in the new book by Google Ventures' Jake Knapp.
Knapp first saw a Time Timer in his son's classroom and immediately thought it could be a big help in innovation sessions to mark small chunks of time and keep things moving.
"All those kinds of situations in business where time is important — it's money," Rogers said.
"It's an evolving process," she said of the relationship with Google Ventures. "But it's definitely a partnership that we see as having a real attraction in the adult business world."
Rogers expects the company to grow even more with her son at the helm.
"We're closing out on our biggest quarter ever this quarter," she said.
The family certainly isn't looking to sell Time Timer LLC anymore, Dave Rogers said.
"Our strategy is more on how do we keep this business going and create a mix of products that will allow it to succeed 10 years from now," he said.
That includes mobile apps, desktop computer Time Timers and all sorts of ways to use that simple idea that Jan Rogers sketched all those years ago.
It's a business Rogers couldn't even imagine back in the 1980s when little Lauren wouldn't stop asking, "How much longer?"
But the nearly 30-year journey has taught her a lot about herself and about business.
"Never think you're asking stupid questions," she said. "Because stupid questions get really smart answers."
For more information about Time Timer, click here.
For more information about the special edition Time Timer developed for the Google Ventures book, click here.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. She has been writing about women- and minority-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati for more than 17 years. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.