by Jelani Memory, Founder & CEO of A Kids Company About
1. Get born. I was born and raised here in Portland, Oregon, youngest of four siblings, to two drug-addicted parents. Now, you wouldn't know it in that photograph of me there at the dentist as a five-year-old, but I had a tumultuous childhood. I think all of our childhoods shape us into who we are today, and mine is no different. Which brings me to...
2. Live through some stuff. By the time I was photographed here my senior year of high school, I had lived through abuse, neglect, I had a very high chance of ending up in jail or on drugs or on the street. I was destined to be a statistic. But again, I think what we live through ends up determining a lot of who we are and how we respond to those things and those folks that come alongside us to help us. I was lucky to do number three...
3. Go to college to study a dead language. Now, while that was going to College to study a dead language, Greek, at this little teeny, tiny Bible College over in Northeast Portland, it was my education in how to be a man, a full person with real, true friends, a real, true community, for the first time. Now, if going to Bible College predicts anything, the last thing it predicts is number four...
4. Become a photographer. I had taken the imagery right at the tail end of my time in College, looking for a way to just make a few bucks to spend on student loans and maybe to pay some bills. But I loved it. I started with babies and then shot weddings and then eventually got to do some really remarkable, cool commercial stuff for the likes of Reebok and Adidas and Nike. And it was a lot of fun. I spent ten years as a photographer and then a filmmaker, and then, of all things, hit step number five...
5. Start a tech company. Now, if my journey seems strange and circuitous, it's because I think my journey is a lot like everybody else's: that the things we do leading up to the things that we're doing today sometimes doesn't always make sense. And yet it makes so much sense to us that if those building blocks haven't come before, how would we have gotten here now? I got a text message one night in 2012 from a friend saying, I've got an idea, and I think it's worth something. That ended up turning into the company circle, of which we raised $30 million in venture capital, got to grow up to 60 plus people, millions in revenue and, for me, got to impact lots and lots of families lives with our products that we built in partnership with the Walt Disney Company, TMobile Netgear and Sky.
6. Parent six kids. For me, being a dad is one of the most important things that I do in my life, far above my career, and I am lucky to have a fantastic partner, my wife, Brandy, to get to do it alongside of. Parenting six kids is not easy. We're a blended family. I've got two brown kids, four white kids, and our house is full and chaotic all the time. And by no means am I a perfect parent. But I was built, I think, through my experiences, to be a parent, to be a dad.
7. Have that lightbulb moment. Now, I'm sure many of you thought this is where the story was supposed to start, but for me, my whole life had to come before for me to have this moment. And the lightbulb moment was my kids, and me wanting to share my story growing up as a Black man in America with a white mom and a Black dad and share my experience around race, culture, color, and specifically racism with my kids.
8. Make something people LOVE. I made a book about it. I titled it A Kid's Book About Racism, and it was my story written specifically for my six kids. It wasn't written for anybody else. I never had any plans other than to make one copy for my kids to read. After I made that copy, my kids saw it and they said, “Cool dad, awesome. Can we make our own books?” Of course, I said yes to that. My friends, other friends who were parents, had a really remarkable response to my little book. They wanted to take it home and read it to their own kids. My kids encouraged me to think about making other books on challenging, empowering and important topics. Now that planted a seed that kind of wouldn't go away.
9. Take the leap. I left the highest paying job that I had ever had as a role that I created for myself at a company that I had started as a founder to go start a whole brand new thing. Why? Because I wanted and I knew that this was going to be the legacy that I was going to leave for my kids. This is what I wanted to leave behind, this collection of books for my kids on topics and conversations that were going to be impossible to start. But I knew I had to.
10. Learn about the industry. Of course, the first thing I had to do when I decided to take that leap was to learn about the industry that I was going to be playing in. And it turns out book publishing is kind of broken. There's a few things about it. One, book publishers, they're not brands. They're not brands like Coca Cola or Nike or Adidas or Facebook. (Not that Facebook is a great brand, by the way.) Two, they take forever to make books. Usually from contract to shipping a book it takes about 18 months. And three, children's book authors do not look like me. Very few of them do. And in fact, publishers CEOs of publishing companies never look like me, with the rare exception. So after I learned about the industry, it was time for step eleven.
11. Reinvent it! First, we were going to make ourselves a brand first and foremost as a children's book publisher. Two, we were going to make books a lot faster and a lot quicker than any book publisher could. We could be real time and responding to real world events. And three, not only was I going to run the publishing company as a Black CEO, but I was going to go find other teammates and authors who are underrepresented who often didn't get to tell their stories.
12. Make a list of books to create. Now this was that magic moment where I really knew I had something on my hands, even though I had never spent any time in publishing and had barely even really published my book. I made a list one afternoon of 100 topics. 100 topics that I knew that I had to talk about with my kids. Some of them would be easy, and some of them would be impossible. They'd be difficult. They'd be hard. They'd be ones that I would try and find ways to avoid. Once I had made that list, I realized that I wasn't the only parent out there that was going to need these conversations, these books.
13. Solve the inventory problem. Now, if you didn't know in business you want to actually not keep as much inventory as you can, because when all that inventory is bought, it's sitting on a warehouse floor and it's basically money sitting on a warehouse floor. And so for us, we wanted to solve the inventory problem to be a really cash, lean and cash efficient business. And so we ended up striking up a core partnership with another company that was going to allow us to have our inventory be paid for after we sold it. Now, around the innovative thinking around how to reinvent the publishing industry, around that list of 100 books that I had made that I knew were going to be important topics, and around this, solving the inventory problem. Now I was ready to build my team.
14. Trick people into helping you. I say trick people into helping you because that's really what it is. At an early stage start up, you have to beg, borrow, and steal those folks to come help you because you're really just pitching a dream, a hope. And for me, that was a new kind of children's book publishing company that was going to make books in a fundamentally different way on topics that never had books made about them.
15. Acquire some authors. This would prove to be something that I'd never done, but was quite easy. When you offer someone the chance to write a book, almost everyone jumps at it. But we were offering authors something new, something different. We were offering them a higher royalty than they would typically get from any other big publisher. But we were also offering the chance to work on our books collaboratively. So my promise to every author was that they were going to come in and we were going to workshop the book together, publisher and author together, and that we would write it in a single day. So now we are something like 25 books in, and we have workshopped every single book and written the first draft manuscript in one day for every single book.
16. Workshop the books. We spent that summer workshopping twelve books, getting them ready for launch. It's this back and forth process of diving really deeply into a topic and trying to understand it more and more. And us on the publisher side, we come in often as novices as folks who don't know a lot about the topic, and we sit in the seat of a seven year old and ask questions like a seven year old does. And the author brings their wisdom, their stories, their personal experience to that topic. And it only really works when an author really knows their topic inside and out. Has 20, 10, 15 years of life lived experience with that topic.
17. Design the books. We knew we wanted our books to be different. We wanted them to look different, feel different, act different. So one of those things was to take out all the illustrations. We wanted the words to carry the weight of the book. We wanted them to speak directly to kids in an honest, straightforward, talk up to them, not down to them, sort of way. Next was to focus on color, layout, and design. (It turns out kids really recognize and know good design when they see it.) And then the last was to make it an experience. It was always going to happen together between grown up and kid, because we wanted to foster the special moment that happens when a kid goes to bed and their grown up reads to them. We wanted to level that moment up, not just as a solid bonding time, but to create a meaningful conversation.
18. Set up a website. Of course, we're an e-commerce company. We were going to do something new. Instead of going through Amazon and going through Barnes & Noble, we were going to go direct. We were going to be a direct to consumer publishing company, of which there's only a handful of really.
19. Print the books. This one's obvious. I'll skip past it.
20. Raise some money. Here's the thing to know about raising money. I have raised a lot of money as a founder and an entrepreneur, and raising money is a double-edged sword. I remember with my previous company, Circle, we only had one Black person on the cap table, and that was me, in terms of a person who owns stock in the company. And so I made sure that was not going to be the case with this kids book company. And so we were thoughtful about raising a million dollars from investors who not only believed in what we were doing, but represented not just the authors and the diversity and the underrepresented voices or the customers and the diversity and the underrepresentedness of those folks, but to make sure that those folks on our cap table looked like those same groups of people.
21. Finally use those photography skills! I had spent a decade as a photographer doing commercial projects, and now it was time to put that really to use for my own company, to tell my own story. And for us, it was about creating really evocative, really incredible imagery that showed the intimacy of reading together, that showed the beauty and style of the books and represented how empowering we wanted these stories to be for kids.
22. Hope and pray. Any time you want to do something good in the world, it requires a little bit of risk. And for me, this company, A Kid's Book About, was going to be a lot of risk. We were going to create a new kind of kids book. We were going to deliver it in a new kind of way. And last but not least, I suppose, we were going to tackle messages that typically don't get tackled in kids books. So we hoped and we prayed that it would just work, that people would gravitate towards our books on these challenging topics.
23. Launch. I have this fundamental belief that something really doesn't matter until you put it out in the world, for somebody else to look at it, to see it, to experience it. So launching for me was very important. And we launched October 1, 2019 with twelve books on empowering, challenging topics like creativity, feminism, money, cancer, gratitude, and racism.
24. Sit back and watch the money roll in!
25. Just kidding. Market the books like hell. And for me, my background was storytelling, not just through photo, but through video, and as a marketer. I knew that we were going to need to get the message out there. The typical way that publishers market their books is to get book reviews, is to get them through publications. For us, it was all about leaning into really solid storytelling through photo, through video, and of course, enabling our customers to tell that story.
27. Listen to your customers. Our customers like to say a lot of things to us. They tell us what books they love, what books they don't like, what books they want to see in the future. I love hearing from our customers–the good, the bad, the ugly–because it tells us what we're doing matters. That what we're doing is something folks care about, that we've shipped something and it's found a place inside their lives, both for grownups and for kids.
27. Remember why you started. This little guy is Solomon. He was born the month that I wrote A Kid's Book About Racism and I wrote the book and dedicated it specifically to him, because I knew, like me, that he would grow up biracial and be explaining himself, explaining himself, explaining himself to most of the individuals that he met about who he was and what his identity was. I wanted to leave something behind for him so that he could navigate that journey just a little easier than me. That he wouldn't be that five year old kid left adrift, left to fend for himself. That he wouldn't be that 18 year old kid in high school who is destined to really be a screw up. That he'd be like me, and how I am today. A fully realized, happy, healthy adult. And an underdog.
This article was adapted from Jelani Memory’s talk for Creative Mornings Portland on July 31, 2020. Jelani Memory is the Founder & CEO of A Kids Company About. He is a top keynote speaker on innovation, a keynote speaker on empathy, a creativity keynote speaker, a corporate culture keynote speaker, and emotional intelligence keynote speaker, and a top speaker for educators, therapists, or anyone who works with kids. To book Jelani Memory to speak at your event, or to just learn more, drop us a line.