What do you get when you mix a passionate teacher with a lawyer who loves creative writing?
In this case, you find a viable business plan and an attractive book publishing concept: children’s picture books with space for kids to create their own illustrations.
This is Picture It Picture Books, a company created and run by young entrepreneurs Alicia Belvedere and Leanne Milech.
“My background as a teacher allows me to present our books in innovative ways that will get kids excited. My experiences in the classroom have shown me how to relate with kids in ways that get them excited and engaged.”
—Alicia Belvedere, elementary school teacher and co-founder of Picture It Picture Books
Alicia, 30, graduated from OCAD with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2005 before completing her B.Ed. at Lakehead in 2007. After teaching Grade 4, she is now a kindergarten teacher (we can see the beginning of that passion for children’s books!).
Leanne, a 29-year-old lawyer, studied Film and Religious Studies at Queen’s University and received a creative writing certificate from Humber before completing her LL.B. at the University of Western Ontario in 2008. Her passion for creative writing was reawakened when Alicia asked her to write a short story to share with her class.
The concept for Picture It Picture Books was hatched while preparing snacks in the kitchen. They started with a print-on-demand business plan and made it all the way to Heather Reisman’s office before the books got picked up by Indigo. The young entrepreneurs are still working hard and making success on their own terms.
Q. What is your main goal with Picture It Picture Books?
A. Our main goal is to inspire young people to use their imaginations on a regular basis and to think creatively as much as possible. We believe that getting young readers to think outside the box early on will benefit them later in life by giving them the skill set to be innovators as adults. Our main business goal with Picture It Picture Books is to establish a toy company that makes many different creative toys for kids.
Q. What is a typical work day like?
A. Since we both work part-time, every day is different. On days when Leanne doesn’t go off to her law job, she dedicates her whole day to working on the business. That includes a variety of tasks, such as social networking, blogging, contacting retail stores, plodding through our own legal work, updating our business plan, balancing our budget and reaching out to media to create publicity opportunities. Alicia finishes teaching around noon, when she starts on social networking, contacting retail stores, brainstorming creative ways to get the Picture It Picture Book brand out there and reaching out to the media.
On some weekends, we go out into the community and promote our books in person at different Indigo locations, or we work craft fairs or mommy shows. Other days, we might do an author visit at an elementary school where we can interact with young readers. We are also always keeping a running list of new book and product ideas, so we are constantly brainstorming.
Q. Having a partner certainly helps, but you need to find the right partner. What qualities do you value in each other?
Alicia. Leanne is a work horse! She’s detail oriented, obsessive and meticulous. She’s incredibly smart and takes care of all the legal parts of the business (her being a lawyer helps with that!). But besides all of that, she’s also very creative and has a very positive outlook on life. When I need a boost, she always has an inspiring success story that will pull me up again.
Leanne. Alicia is a true visionary; she is perfect for entrepreneurship. She is always coming up with innovative ways to sell our books, and she has amazing story ideas. I also value her insight into kids, who are our true customers. She is an elementary school teacher, which means she has her finger on the pulse of what makes kids tick on a daily basis. She is also a fearless go-getter who will bravely approach a potential sales partner and tell them all about us, often convincing them to carry our books.
Q. What advice can you give young entrepreneurs starting a business together?
A. When you choose to go into business with someone, you are going to be spending a lot of time together. Make sure you respect the person you plan to partner up with. Consider their past, whether they have been successful in different things they’ve done, whether they finish things that they’ve started, etc.
Their attitude is really important: Are they a pessimist or an optimist? Social skills are also hugely important, because business is about being able to form relationships. We are constantly meeting up with people in our community to spread the word about our company. Being able to maintain these relationships is key. All of the things we mentioned will matter once you get going.
Aside from analyzing a potential partner’s personality and work history, it is very important to draw up a partnership agreement. You need to figure out – up front – how you will each be compensated financially, and you should make sure that you each feel like you are getting a fair deal.
You need to consider how things will work if you ever separate and end the business, too, and a partnership agreement is the perfect place to get these issues (among others) sorted out on paper.
It’s also important to clearly divide the tasks between you. In our business, we are responsible for many of the same things, but there are some things that Alicia is naturally better at, so she takes care of those things. Leanne takes care of the things that she is naturally better at, too, so we try to balance each other.
Play to each other’s strengths and make sure you communicate openly and honestly about how things are working between you. Don’t be afraid to revisit things and revise your division of tasks as you work together.
Q. You started Picture It Picture Books without a background in business. How did you plan your venture?
A. We really believed in our idea, so we just put one foot in front of the other and started small. We set short-term and long-term goals, and started by going down the list of goals and crossing them off one by one as they were accomplished. We guess it was a very informal business plan in the form of a to-do list!
We still set goals each week. We always took risks to achieve our goals (even when we were really afraid!), and we are still constantly pushed out of our comfort zone. We eventually did make a formal business plan so we could see our finances clearly, and so we could see our goals set out in a clear, formal way. Now we can look at our business plan and use it as a benchmark to see how well we are doing in terms of accomplishing our goals.
Q. Leanne, tell us more about what your creative writing background brings to the project.
Leanne. Well, since I really only ever wrote adult fiction before Picture It Picture Books, I have had to work really hard to change my writing style for the young picture books set. That being said, it helps that I’ve had so much practice staring at a blank page and creating a story from nothing. The blank white space doesn’t intimidate me anymore since I’ve been staring it down for so many years!
Q. Alicia, tell us more about what your teaching background brings to the project. Do your students inspire new book ideas?
Alicia. I went into teaching because I love kids and I love being creative. Having spent so much time around kids, I really get a sense of what will work in regards to our books and what won’t (language sophistication, length, plot, etc.). We often do author visits, and my background as a teacher allows me to present our books in innovative ways that will get kids excited. My experiences in the classroom have shown me how to relate with kids in ways that get them excited and engaged. My kids haven’t inspired new book ideas, but they do inspire me to make the most creative stories possible. I’ve often tested new story ideas on my class, so they help me figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Q. How did you finance your venture?
A. Through personal savings, a private loan and a bank line of credit.
Q. What are your most immediate plans for the future of Picture It Picture Books?
A. So many! Establishing school fundraisers around Toronto, developing our first iPad application and partnering with Plum District (it’s like Groupon, but exclusively for moms!).
Q. Any advice for our budding grads looking into establishing their own businesses or brands?
A. Don’t give up, even when things seem really hard and you feel incredibly stuck. If you do feel stuck, reach out for advice from people you respect in your industry – most successful people are more than happy to talk about how they’ve achieved their goals. Always, always believe in yourself and visualize your future success – your dreams will become a reality if you stay focused on positive images of your future.