"The kids loved it," he said of the display. "I thought, 'why don't we really publish it?'"
Smith ran down to his local printer to do just that, but found out that publishing a few hundred copies would cost the same amount as producing a few thousand.
Pretty soon he found himself printing out 14,000 copies of these childrens' work to every student in the Boulder Valley School district, in what became the first issue of Kidz magazine.
Today, Kidz has a circulation of over 1 million, and has found its way into schools in 40 different markets, including New York, Chicago, Miami, Denver, and Los Angeles. While Smith has put together a staff of eight since the 1995 launch, the entire magazine is still the product of the work of children: stories, poetry, recipes, book reviews, and lots of art. "That is never going to change," Smith said.
Smith's publishing venture was never well thought-out. "We never intended this to be a business," he said. "Originally the magazine came out whenever I remembered."
But response to Kidz from children, parents, and students was so strong that it soon became a monthly (no June or July issues). The quality was better than expected as well. "When you have 100,000 kids trying to write for you, the kids that do get in are really, really good."
About two years ago, Smith and his team began contacting superintendents and principals across the country to gauge interest in the magazine.
After building its distribution state by state in a grassroots fashion, Kidz is now in the process of transitioning to being supported completely by national advertising.
Smith needs those national advertisers to help him keep up with demand. He now has a waiting list of over 9 million kids--the trick will be to actually fund production and distribution for that many copies, which he hopes to accomplish in the next few years.
Kidz has succeeded in an arena that can be difficult to crack: schools.
Because of its kids-produced content, schools are more accepting of it than most other commercial products. Plus, Kidz is meant to look like it was produced by children; each 8- to 12-page issue is printed on low-quality paper, with no photos or graphics. "We'll never be glossy," said Smith.
He is also quite strict about what advertising he will accept, often working directly with advertisers to produce Kidz-friendly insertions. "The real test for ads is, is the teacher or parent going to say, 'I don't like it'? We've always made sure we don't get in trouble."
Upscale grocer Whole Foods has recently initiated a program where kids submit favorite recipes to win a contest where the winning school receives a catered lunch.
While advertiser interest is crucial, what has really helped Kidz succeed is its usefulness as a literacy tool in the classroom, particularly during a time in education where writing is being promoted more than ever. "Teachers have called us and said, 'you started the most powerful literacy program."
While his product continues to receive praise, one thing that Smith must face as his publication grows is increasing talent costs. Kidz used to pay its writers $5 a story; now it's up to $20, with $50 payouts for cover stories.
"Kids are smart," he said. "They ask to be on the cover all the time."