Business People-Vermont: Kids VT, Kimberly Kropf and Susan Holson

It's their baby

Kimberly Kropf and Susan Holson photoKimberly Kropf (left) and Susan Holson are the publishers of Kids VT, a family-oriented monthly newspaper published in Shelburne.

by Janet Essman Franz

Kimberly Kropf and Susan Holson publish news to use for parents

Ask mothers of young children in central and northern Vermont where they turn for information about activities, events and services for their families, and one answer will likely be heard over and over: Kids VT.

Most mothers know they can find free copies of this monthly newspaper at their local library, preschool, food market, toy store, pediatrician’s office, health club, gymnastics center, martial arts school and anywhere else frequented by kids and caregivers. Each month, 23,000 copies are distributed in eight counties, from the Rutland region to central Vermont to the northwest corner of the state.

The people behind Kids VT resemble their readers demographically: women raising children, juggling home and work, looking for family-friendly events and interested in tips, products and services for children. Partners Kimberly Kropf and Susan Holson own Kids VT and publish it in Shelburne with three employees and several freelancers who sell advertising, create the ads, edit a calendar of events, run a website and oversee circulation. Holson manages the editorial functions; Kropf manages advertising sales.

Kropf moved to Vermont in 1985 with her husband, dentist Joe Kropf, whom she met when they were sophomores at Boston College. “I got to pick where he would do his residency. I picked Vermont,” she says. “We always skied here and were familiar with it.” They live in Shelburne with their two children, Mayson, 14, and Quinn, 12.

Kropf founded the newspaper in 1994 with then-business partner Tracey Morehouse-Maurer. Kropf worked for a printer and Morehouse-Maurer worked for a graphic design firm, and their work brought them in frequent contact with each other. Each had a child and was expecting a second.

“We were both pregnant together, and talking about what we would do during maternity leave,” says Kropf. “When the babies were little, we got together for play dates, and we talked about going back to work full time. Tracey had a friend who published a parenting paper in Westchester County, and she was our mentor. On our maternity leaves, we formulated a budget, planned editorial content and launched the paper together.”

Kropf took out a loan to start the business, and they worked out of a room in the basement of her husband’s dental office in Burlington. “We wrote articles together, sold ads together — we didn’t do anything without consulting one another first,” Kropf says.

For the first several years, they printed 15,000 copies a month and distributed the paper themselves, driving around with their children in tow. “It was way more work than we thought it would be,” admits Kropf. They took work home, doing the books in their off-hours. Circulation and revenue grew slowly but steadily.

“Being moms led us to distribution sites and advertisers,” Kropf says. “We were well-connected to schools, play groups and retailers. I used to put papers into the kids’ cubbies. They were going home in kids’ backpacks.”

During those early days, Holson was a stay-at-home mother whose children attended preschool with the children of Kropf and Morehouse-Maurer. She relied on Kids VT for information about children and family events. “I would look forward to finding the paper at my son’s preschool,” she says.

Holson had moved to Vermont in 1991 from New York City, where she had worked for advertising agencies. She married Waitsfield real estate broker Don Kaufman. They settled in Shelburne and had two children, Adam, now 13, and Dana, 12. Holson wrote freelance, covering school board meetings for her town newspaper. She and Kaufman eventually divorced.

In 2002, Morehouse-Maurer decided to sell her half of Kids VT. She knew of Holson’s journalism background and interest in children’s issues, so she asked Holson if she was interested in taking over as co-owner and editor.

Lisa Carpenter photoAttention to niche marketing has made Kids VT profitable from the beginning. Lisa Carpenter is advertising sales representative.

“I was about to go back to school to become a social worker,” says Holson. “I have the heart of a social worker embedded in a businessperson. Kids VT is the perfect blend of those things.” She took the offer and became co-publisher and managing editor in 2002.

The paper provides information on local events, news, parenting articles, humor and resources. Each issue features a theme: for example, baby and maternity, birthday parties or holiday gifts. Every issue contains monthly and day-by-day calendars alerting readers to story hours, play groups and events for children. A section called “Fridge Notes” provides short articles about events, new products, services and ideas for families.

The June issue is an annual resource guide listing contacts for everything related to families and children. It includes adoption resources, camp and summer programs, educational institutions, health care and recreational facilities. Like the regular editions of the paper, the resource guide is free to readers. It also is tucked into welcome baby packets distributed throughout the region.

“I feel proud to be able to provide this service to the community,” says Holson. “It’s because of our advertisers that we can do it. We are a for-profit business that provides a social service.”

Advertising is an integral part of the paper’s content, and readers often scan the ads looking for resources.

“We had a parent call recently to say, ‘Thank you for your ads.’ That’s how we found our child’s preschool,’” said Kropf.

Advertisers find Kids VT a good medium for reaching parents. “We make use of Kids VT six to eight times a year for advertising our family programs at the Flynn and our Flynn arts educational programs for kids and teens,” says Tom Ayres, marketing director for the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. “I can see direct results in the wake of our advertising in audience size and an up-tick in registration for classes and camps for kids and teens.”

Kropf says Kids VT has been profitable from the beginning, attributing that to niche marketing. “It’s a consuming niche. If you’re a member of the target audience, you can’t get enough of it,” she says.

Longtime reader Lynn Ann Prom began reading the publication when she moved to Vermont in 1996. “I saw copies of Kids VT at the Fletcher Free Library, and it was a resource for me about where to shop and family-related functions.” Even though her children are now teenagers, she still enjoys the articles and events listings. “The calendar has information about dates for activities we might do as a family,” she says.

Wendy Saville photoTwenty-three thousand copies of Kids VT are delivered every month in eight counties from Rutland north. Wendy Saville edits the calendar and manages the office.

Kids VT is a member of Parenting Publications of America, an organization of about 125 similar papers throughout the United States. Members share ideas for distribution, editorial content and hosting events. “PPA has been a sounding board for us, and a broadening opportunity for our product,” says Holson.

Comparable publications throughout the country have looked to Kids VT as a model because of its distribution method. Nine parents deliver the paper as independent contractors. They work one or two days each month and often bring their children along on their delivery routes. “A lot of papers pay huge amounts of money to distribution companies, and they were very interested that we hire independent contractors,” says Holson.

Kids VT also shines among its colleagues in hosting special events. The paper sponsors community programs, including a camp and school fair each winter. The 10th annual fair will take place Feb. 10 at the Wyndham Burlington hotel. Attendees and exhibitors look forward to sharing information about summer activities.

“We always have a booth at that fair,” says Ayers. “It’s the first contact we make with parents about summer camps and programs. It’s been a vital marketing tool for us.”

A new event sponsored by Kids VT in the spring is a musical theater show, Parenting 101: A Musical Guide to Raising Parents. Holson is producing the show in collaboration with a team from New York City, including her sister, who has won five Emmy awards for political satire. Parenting 101 runs March 18 through April 22 at Burlington’s Waterfront Theatre.

In June, the business moved to the Creamery building in Shelburne, and readers will soon see new display racks that make the paper easier to spot.

Kropf and Holson have also focused on expanding the paper’s presence on the World Wide Web. They recently hired a Web manager who will renovate the website, www.kidsvt.com, to accommodate additional editorial content, incorporate more interactive components and add links to advertisers.

“The bulk of our readership is busy women between the ages of 25 to 44,” says Kropf. “It’s well documented that most of that population gets most of its information from the Web, and that will become more true over time.”.

While Kids VT keeps up with changing technology, the paper remains a useful tool for parents craving information and ideas to make raising children easier. “We’ve made some changes to the product, but the editorial mission remains unchanged,” Holson says. Our editorial focus is about making family life easier and more fun.” •