If your best friend, a mother of four small children, told you she planned to move across the Atlantic Ocean to reinvent children’s book publishing, you’d probably tell her (lovingly and firmly) that she was crazy. If she insisted she intended to bypass big box chain stores and build her business independently, you might smile at her optimism, but worry New York’s publishing world would eat her alive. And if she did it–if within a few short years her company blossomed as a standout publisher of artistic, beautifully crafted children’s books sold by high-end retailers like Whole Foods and FAO Schwarz, and lauded as a favorite among celebrity parents like Brooke Shields, you might believe again that anything is possible, after all.
Nancy Traversy, our little hypothetical's real-life heroine, is living proof that impossible dreams can come true. As the owner, cofounder and CEO of Barefoot Books, she has found great success by stepping outside of the existing industry model, but that success didn’t come without failures. And concerned friends and colleagues certainly did question some of her decisions along the way.
Before starting Barefoot Books in the United Kingdom, Traversy worked in both finance and design, and then ran her own consulting company, getting entrepreneurial businesses off the ground. She was a publishing industry outsider, though, when she met Tessa Stickland, a client at her consulting firm. The women—both new mothers at the time-- quickly became friends. They noticed a gap in the children’s book market, which was filled with ubiquitous character and lift-the-flap books. They thought what was missing were high quality books showcasing beautiful art and stories, and highlighting themes like cultural diversity. Strickland, who’d worked in traditional publishing, aired the idea of creating a company to publish the kinds of books they’d like to read to their own children, and centering around a short list of core values: “Imagine, Explore, Create, Connect, Give Back.” The name for the endeavor had come to her in a dream, and with that, Barefoot Books was born. It was 1992.
The company’s focus on cultural diversity and creativity gave rise to an eclectic list of titles: one, for example, teaches counting in Swahili, and another depicts a small boy taking the moon for a walk before bed. The company met with initial success within Britain, and entered the international market, in 1993, to the tune of doubled, and then tripled, profits over the next several years—revenue jumped from £110k (~$170k) to £1.1 million (~$1.7 million) between 1993 and 1996-- with international business accounting for 80% of total revenue.
In going global, however, they’d sold what had been at the heart of their endeavor, which was Barefoot Books as a recognizable publishing brand. In order to break into the international market, which is based in New York, the company had sold its individual titles to major publishers, thereby forfeiting their control; once the titles were sold, those publishers made all of the marketing and distribution decisions. Traversy and Strickland were faced with the seemingly only option that underdogs the world over must contend with in making it big: selling out.
“Over the past 20 years, we’ve had to ‘start over’ each time the rules and environment have changed,” Traversy says. By 1998, she realized one of those times had come.Internet businesses were booming (Amazon.com had been launched three years prior), and the divisions between international markets–including the US and the UK–were breaking down. For Barefoot Books to regain control of its destiny on both sides of the Atlantic, Traversy knew she had to take back the reins herself.
She’d been running the company out of her home in Britain—reviewing copy, nursing a baby, crunching numbers, wiping up crumbs and conducting meetings. “I don’t think of work and home life as separate,” she says. She involved her children in the business from the start, keeping them busy stamping envelopes, and soliciting their opinions on prospective products. “My kids grew up in chaos,” she adds. “They grew up ‘Barefoot.’” The flexibility that Traversy cultivated in the company’s—and her family’s—early years proved to be boon to both as she took her next necessary step. In early 2001, she moved her husband and four children (all under five years old at the time!) to Massachusetts. Barefoot Books came right along with them.
Once there, she was close enough to New York to play the “Big Publishing” game, but she made mistakes. For starters, she hired a large staff of people from within the publishing industry. She quickly amassed enormous overhead from paying for those employees, and for an expensive rented space. In addition, Barefoot Books was, at that time, relying on big chain stores, like Borders and Barnes and Noble, to sell their titles. She tried to keep up, as a small brand, but the constant demand for new, mass-marketable titles created excess waste and further separated Barefoot Books from its original vision to prioritize quality over quantity.
At the same time, the company’s third-party UK distributor, which held all of its UK inventory (over $1 million worth) and had the receivables/cash from all of Barefoot’s holiday sales, totaling several hundred thousand dollars, went bankrupt. Although the inventory was eventually recovered, the company lost the receivables. Barefoot Books weathered the loss, but it came just as Nancy was preparing to move offices, launch a new website and open a new flagship store. “It was a kind of traumatic period. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” Traversy remembers.
By 2004, however, Traversy had gotten it right again. The expensive Harvard Square lease, the large staff, and the high overhead were traded out for a back-to-basics overhaul, no small part of which was the removal of Barefoot Books’ titles from the national chain stores. “I just knew I couldn’t be beholden to them,” Traversy says. “Everyone said I was insane. They said publishers don’t brand themselves, and that no one cares who the publisher is, but I’d always disagreed.”
She also felt strongly that constantly pushing new content out to the stores wasn’t suited to the children’s book market’s most unique feature: it is a market that refreshes itself. “People have children all the time,” she says. “I felt, ‘let’s go directly to the parents.’”
Traversy turned the focus to the company’s website, and to a new take on direct sales, launching the Barefoot Books Ambassadors Program. This initiative is still going strong. The company works closely with its Ambassadors— including teachers, parents, and grandparents, librarians and small business owners across the United States and Europe-- to reach new customers, and communities, directly. The ambassadors are a key component in the company’s distribution model, and Traversy considers the more than 7,000 people worldwide in this role a very real extension of the “Barefoot Books family.”
Barefoot worked to create a fair compensation model around the initiative; ambassadors earns 20% to 40% of the books' retail value by way of sales commissions. They also have the flexibility to sell the books in whatever ways they choose whether online, at events or parties, from their own businesses, as part of fundraisers (earning money for themselves, and a cause), or person-to-person.
In addition to launching this program, Traversy presented Barefoot Books products at trade shows, after pulling them from the chains. They caught the attention of major catalogs, like Pottery Barn, and retailers, like F.A.O Schwartz—one of their major ‘studio’ stores is now located in FAO Schwarz’s New York City location— as well as smaller, boutique children’s mail order catalogs. The brand was fully blossoming into a lifestyle brand for kids and families based around content and community.
In today’s post-recession reality, in which the publishing industry has taken a serious hit overall, Barefoot Books has held its ground: the company’s distribution model includes the Ambassadors, sales from its website and Amazon.com, its FAO Schwarz store, another flagship store in Concord, Massachusetts, and thousands of gift and museum shops around the world. Today, Traversy takes its role in connecting communities through high-quality content more seriously than ever, and continues to explore ways to expand this capacity from a commercial standpoint, both online and on-the-ground. “Books have the power to help us stay connected to ourselves,” she says. “There’s a real need now for people to get back to basics, to do real things with their kids, and for kids to play and families to do something that matters… Storytelling matters.”
In addition to being a retail outlet, the flagship store that Traversy opened in Concord, MA, hosts classes and events in dance, theater, gardening, story times, and more. The store’s community, likewise, helps to foster the brand; customers have been involved in vetting artwork and copy before potential new titles have gone to print. This kind of interaction has been invaluable in helping Traversy determine what direction the company should take. “It hasn’t really been done in this way before,” she says. She is planning to open a Concord-type store in Oxford, back in the UK.
Traversy’s four children are now 14, 16, 17 and 19. Growing up alongside the Barefoot Books brand, steeped in a busy, entrepreneurial environment and witnessing their mother’s professional challenges and successes has, Traversy reflects, ultimately helped them to become more open and independent as young adults. “I hope they know now that you can’t give up when you have setbacks,” she says. “When you’re trying to do things no one’s done before, it’s messy. But if you don’t do it, who will?”
Editor’s note: As a point of full disclosure, this article’s author was so impressed with the Ambassador's program initiative in researching this story that she signed on after finishing the article. She now sells Barefoot Books online Alt-Mama.com.