Trains, TV, And Children’s Books: Entrepreneur Kenn Viselman Discusses His Career

David MillerKenn Viselman

Kenn Viselman is a man with quite an interesting story to tell. By the time he was only 30-years-old, he was already responsible for over $2 billion in sales. By the age of 40, the number skyrocketed to more than $12 billion dollars. Presently, it is estimated that his brands exceed $20 billion dollars in overall sales — and Kenn is still hard at work. Kenn holds degrees in psychology and has served on the boards of Kids First!, Love Our Children USA, and the American Center for Children and Media.

Kenn Viselman’s company, Itsy Bitsy Entertainment, is most famous for The Teletubbies, which he opened after creating and implementing the worldwide marketing and merchandising strategy for Thomas the Tank Engine. He is also behind the reintroduction of classics such as Eloise and Noddy. His innovative commercial-free It’s Itsy Bitsy Time won a Parent’s Choice Award, and NiNi’s Treehouse was lauded by TV Guide.

Kenn also created and produced The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, which was a feature-film that holds the distinction of being the world’s first interactive film that was targeted towards families with preschool-aged children. The Oogieloves characters aimed to help combat the global obesity epidemic by encouraging kids to interact with the character’s actions as they played out on the screen. Kenn is currently working on a TV series based on the show as well as a Chinese-language version. His original content led to make books, videos, toys, apparel and more.

Kenn’s most recent project is Li’l Pet Hospital, for which he has teamed up with Children’s Miracle Hospital Networks for a huge children’s initiative designed to serve the more than 32 million annual patient visitors. He has signed on a number of licensees and in planning a new television series based on the Li’l Pets of Healy Fields. Additionally, and he is also promoting planning a reintroduction of Bunches the Monkey, the star of his children’s books — I Love You Bunches! and My Most Special Gift — into a multi-platform entertainment project. An experienced public speaker, Kenn has penned articles for USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Variety, and more. He has won many awards, including seven prestigious LIMA Awards, and is currently working on several new books and TV shows.

Kenn Viselman has been successful in fashion and media.
Kenn Viselman was successful in the fashion industry but found his niche in children's media. Featured image credit: David MillerKenn Viselman

Kenn started his career in New York City’s garment district in the 1980s. He was so successful in the fashion industry — specifically with juniors clothing — that he was dubbed “Mr. Midus” since seemingly everything he touched turned to gold.

“I still design jewelry today,” Kenn explained in a recent interview, “but it’s mostly for myself or my mom.”

Interestingly, it was Kenn’s contributions to the fashion industry — specifically, his success at creating “stores within a store” displays — that led to the creators of Thomas the Tank Engine reaching out to him in the early 1990s.

“At the time, Thomas was doing poorly and literally the day I started my job retailers called demanding markdown monies and stared closing out Thomas merchandise,” Kenn explained. “They hired me as the Head of Marketing and tasked me with placing Thomas products in stores, but traditional toy retailers made it clear that they didn’t want any more to do with Thomas. I needed to create a new non-traditional outlet to sell toys and focused my energies on train museums and specialty shops and that tactic worked; Thomas quickly started gaining traction again.”

Kenn had not worked in television prior to his experiences with Thomas the Tank Engine, but he enjoyed the medium and considered it to be a good way to make money. With his efforts, Thomas became the most famous train in the world and one of the most successful children’s brands in history. However, the impact that the show had on children soon became clear to Kenn and opened his eyes to the wonderful potentials of children’s television as well as the enormous responsibility it placed upon creators.

“I got two letters in the mail that really made me see past the money,” Kenn explained. “The first was a letter from a little girl who wrote to me as if I was Thomas. She asked me things like what do trains eat, how to get to Thomas’ world, if he liked to dance, and so on. That really enlightened me to how children perceive the characters as real. The other really powerful letter I got was from a mother whose six-year-old son was autistic. She said he didn’t speak but loved Thomas. I ended up sending her a box with a shirt in it and some toys. Her son loved the stuff so much that, when he saw the shirt, he said ‘choo-choo’ which was the first time he ever vocalized. Knowing I helped that mother connect to her son was very powerful.”

While he worked on Thomas the Tank Engine, Kenn was not responsible for any creative content, but he was increasingly interested in writing stories for children. Hence, in 1995 he and a friend started Itsy Bitsy Entertainment out of Kenn’s New York apartment. They used the company as a platform to create original content and bring TV shows from other nations — specifically Europe — to the United States. Despite having worked in children’s media, Kenn did not have connections to networks, so he decided to take a playful — and very creative — approach when communicating with PBS.

“I told them I was going on a hunger strike until they agreed to meet with me to discuss my show,” he stated. “Every day I would fax them a number and a little note under it. For example, a fax might say ‘Day 5…I’m hungry but okay.’ When we got to Day 30, I told them I was going to eat a Volkswagen if they didn’t meet with me! My perseverance finally paid off, on Day 38 they agreed to meet me and I went on to develop multiple series with PBS.”

One of Kenn’s most successful creations is NiNi’s Treehouse, which became a major hit in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States — which were intentionally the only three markets that it was introduced to.

“I worked with some partners but I wrote a lot of the content in that show for that series myself,” Kenn stated. “I absolutely loved creating the stories and developing the characters was particularly fun.”

To date, series that Kenn has been attached to have has been produced in dozens of languages in nearly 140 countries, and he has aired his shows on PBS, the Discovery Channel, the Family Network, Treehouse, iTV, and more.

“I’m still working because I want to hone my skills,” Kenn said. “I am now working on a show called The itsy bitsy Schoolhouse which is very interactive and reflects the way children use TV vs the way that broadcasters tend to air it. I can’t say too much about it right now but it will follow the adventures of an inquisitive yellow bunny named ‘Sunny Tunny’ who lives in a schoolhouse and is very inquisitive.”

The show is expected to debut in 2018.

Kenn Viselman is now writing a book series called "Li'l Pet Hospital". Featured image credit: David MillerKenn Viselman

Kenn is also an established author who created a publishing company to produce and distribute his own books after Scholastic passed on the opportunity to publish them.

“My first book was called ‘I Love You Bunches’ and it is meant to be sang rather than read,” Kenn said. “I wanted it to be a way to get parents to say ‘I Love You’ to their children as much as possible after I read that many parents are not saying those words to their children that as much anymore. I thought that was very distressing. I then wrote another book called ‘The Most Perfect Gift’ which also starred a monkey named Bunches but that book was much more complex—but in a fun way. Ultimately, I would love to get an official publisher involved. I’m currently working on turning the character of Bunches and the theme of the books into a television series which aims to get children interested in world around them. I hope it will also help teach basic social skills that will help them make friends when they go to the playground or preschool.”

Kenn is also hard at work on a book series and a toy line called Lil Pet Hospital, which he is creating in conjunction with the Children’s Miracle Network. This book series focuses on animals who go to a character named Dr. Fox to get well again after getting hurt. The accompanying plush toy line includes features such as bandages and wounds that get better — seemingly by magic — when children blow a kiss on the sore spot.

“Kids really are amazed by the toys and they respond well to the stories,” he said. “The Children’s Miracle Network has over 170 hospitals in North America and they see over 32 million patients every year so they are a great partner to work with in order to raise awareness of this series. The first five books and initial toys are due to be released in the Fall of 2017, right on time for Christmas.”

Kenn has been juggling numerous projects for years but he shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. In fact, he considers this work to be his calling, his mission.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but I was supposed to be on one of the planes that was hijacked on September 11, 2001,” Kenn declared. “I ended up taking my flight on September 9 instead but I feel as if I was spared so now I’m obligated to make the world a better place. I hope I can do that through my stories and characters and brands. There are many negative things we can focus on in the world, but there are also so many beautiful places to see and interesting people to meet stories of their own to tell. I want kids to understand how big and vast the world is and to feel excited about learning about it and exploring it.”

To learn more about Kenn Viselman, visit his LinkedIn.

[Featured Image by David Miller]