Kids are really smart, says the owner of Barefoot Books. And big bookstore chains are stupid. After 13 years in independent publishing, Nancy Traversy definitely has some stories.
Barefoot Books is what entrepreneurial moms want their businesses to be when they grow up. The $6.5 million company, founded by Nancy Traversy and Tessa Strickland in 1993, commissions and publishes children’s books that are profound and imaginative enough to make librarians’ hearts go pitter-pat, and visually stunning enough to win over design-centric retailers like museum shops. With seven children between them, the two women built the company from their respective homes in England, pulling off a work-life balancing act of Ringling Brothers proficiency. To date, Barefoot has released more than 400 books–almost all of them still in print–and ancillary products that include puppets, puzzles, and CDs. Traversy, who runs the business side of Barefoot while Strickland handles the editorial, operates out of a Crayola-colored office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I was born in Canada to a family of artists. I studied business, which made me the black sheep. After college I worked for the banking division of Pricewaterhouse in London. One day I was wearing a suit. One of the partners said to me, “Women don’t wear trousers” and sent me home to change. It was a formative experience.
I spent the next few years as managing director for a small London design company called FM Design. Those were the heady days when British Telecom was spending a million pounds on its logo. We designed luggage for Samsonite and did electronics for Sanyo.
I had my first child in 1992 and decided I no longer wanted to work for other people. So when my baby was two weeks old I started a management consultancy for small creative businesses. I helped one entrepreneur launch a board game meant to help train executives. I helped an opera singer start her own recording studio.
In 1992 I met Tessa Strickland. Tessa had worked at Penguin and run the mind-body-spirit list for Random House. She was very interested in Jungian analysis, fairy tales, and Eastern religion. She had an idea for a company that would bring multicultural stories with art-quality illustrations to children. The name Barefoot Books came to her in a dream.
At that time, the big thing in children’s publishing was licensed characters. Maisy. Where’s Waldo. There were also a lot of gimmicky pop-ups: pink fairy books where the child was supposed to tear out all the little parts and the whole thing was in pieces on the back seat before you got it home. The books that were educational had great content but looked boring.
“People undersell kids all the time. Children can appreciate a very high level of sophistication in art.”
We launched our first list in 1993. It was three books: The Myth of Isis and Osiris, The Outlandish Adventures of Orpheus in the Underworld, and The Birds Who Flew Beyond Time, which is a Sufi myth about a bird that saves the world from the seven human frailties. We were perhaps a little too esoteric for our own good. Realistically, you’re not going to sell that many copies of Orpheus.
Typically, we bring groups of people together for a book. For the anthologies, Tessa and I decide on a theme and then find an author to compile it and retell it in the right voice. Then we find an artist who fits the subject matter. The art has to match the sophistication of the text. People undersell kids all the time by giving them cartoony rubbish. Children can appreciate a very high level of sophistication in art at a very young age.
For the first seven years we both worked from our homes. Tessa had three children and lived in an old farmhouse in the countryside outside Bath. My husband and I lived in London. I had my second child in ’93, my third in ’95, and my fourth in ’97. I never stopped working full-time. I was also traveling to book fairs in places like Frankfurt and Bologna, and to New York twice a year because we were selling American rights to all the major U.S. houses. I was breastfeeding, so I normally had a baby with me. There’s no maternity leave when it’s your own business.
By 1996 we were doing about $2 million in sales with practically no overhead–just one or two employees. We went on the Web–we were probably the first British publisher with a website.
In 1998 we decided that if we were really going to grow the business we had to be in America, so we opened an office in Manhattan. I was commuting from London every three weeks with four kids under the age of 6. I realized it was no good trying to run the company from England, so in 2000 we sold the house, closed down the London office, closed the New York office–which was too expensive–and relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tessa stayed in Bath.
Around that time my husband surprised us by arranging to bring the whole family to Kenya to celebrate my 40th birthday and our 10th wedding anniversary. We were on a British Airways (NYSE:BAB) flight and suddenly this six-foot-four Kenyan guy comes up from the back of the plane and breaks into the cockpit. The plane went into free fall: It fell between 12,000 and 15,000 feet. All four engines were stalled. An American basketball player climbed into the cockpit and pulled the guy out. Afterward the pilot came on and said four more seconds and it would have been irretrievable.
I got back from that trip and found two letters waiting for me. One was from British Airways saying, “It’s not our fault.” The other was from my U.K. warehouse. It said, “We’ve gone bankrupt and we’ve got all your books and all your money and you’re not getting any of it back.” I lost hundreds of thousands of pounds–all my Christmas sales from the U.K. I did get the books back.
At the same time my right-hand person in New York said she wasn’t coming to Boston, so I had no one selling in the U.S. Then we sent out our first direct-mail campaign–100,000 catalogs–the week of the anthrax scare. No one opened anything. I remember sitting with my husband and saying, “What is this telling me? Am I supposed to stop?” Obviously I chose not to.
We opened a store near Harvard Square in November 2001. It’s a place to get feedback and test products. We let customers read manuscripts before they’re published; we ask people which jacket cover they like better, which illustrator.
Our books don’t sell in the chains. If you go into a Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS) or a Borders (NYSE:BGP), no one tells you what’s a great book. You buy what your kid pulls off the shelf–usually whatever is face out or on the table. That means someone’s paid a lot of money to get that real estate; it doesn’t mean it’s the best book. The whole chain model is a nightmare: 60 percent or 70 percent returns and you don’t get paid. So at the beginning of the year I said to the Barnes & Noble and the Borders buyers, “I really can’t sell to you anymore.” They said, “Fine, we’ll put our money behind other publishers.” And they cleared their shelves. One buyer took it particularly badly. She told me she’d read every single Barefoot cover to cover. I said, “That’s wonderful, but it’s not the point.”
We’ve had to sell through an awful lot of channels just to keep going. The business through our catalog and over the Web is about 18 percent of sales. We sell to schools and libraries, also to independent bookstores, children’s boutiques, gift stores, museum shops. Our export market is really taking off. China has a burgeoning middle class that wants its kids to speak English. Foreign language rights are 10 or 12 percent of our business.
One of our best moves was to launch home-selling in 2003. It’s like Tupperware (NYSE:TUP). We have about 650 people–women mainly, some men–in what we call the Stallholder program, named for those Parisian bookstalls you see along the River Seine. They have Barefoot parties in their homes or sell the books at schools or offices as fundraisers. Last year it grew 90 percent in the U.S.
My kids grew up with Barefoot. They’ve always read manuscripts and looked at samples from different illustrators. They help out with data entry, stuffing catalogs, work in the store. They came up with the idea for Animal Boogie, which is our best-selling book. I know it’s hard when mummy has her own business. But now they feel anchored by it. They understand hard work.