Richard Lena, president and publisher of Brattle Publishing Group, is a firm believer in testing the waters before jumping into a business headfirst. He’s found success in the children’s publishing arena by taking a methodical approach to growing his business and by challenging industry norms.
How did you get started with your business?
In 2009, I had been working in educational publishing for nearly 20 years. I worked with a lot of very large publishers and small development houses. As an industry, we sort of fell into a lot of tradition and a lot of production of materials because that’s the way it had always been done.
I had the opportunity to work with a lot of really great and very talented individuals. One thing they taught me over the years was to break out of the box and not try to do something because that’s the way it’s always been done, let’s try to do something different. Although in those organizations we were never able to do that, I felt that starting my own company would allow me the ability to innovate and create products for children that would educate and motivate them at the same time.
I wanted to inspire a love of literacy and a love of learning that those educational publishers and the products they were producing weren’t really hitting the mark with. I wanted something different, and I was determined to recreate the tradition and practices that had been out there with something new.
How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
I financed it through service work, through the custom publishing and consulting we were doing.
We limped along the first couple of years, and then we were able to do some consulting and development work for various African nations developing early learning programs and early reading and math programs that are currently being used in Liberia. That really gave me the resources to, in 2013, look into what we were doing as an organization and determine whether or not we wanted to start producing products under our own name, because up to that point we had been really just doing consulting and service work.
Who was your first customer?
My first customer was Southern Methodist University School of Education & Human Development and the Highland Park School District here in the Dallas area. They were looking for a global education program that would help their teachers educate their children about the world around them and really develop a sense of empathy for other cultures around the world. We were asked to come in and do some evaluation of their current teaching practices to help create a globally oriented curriculum.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I had been in educational publishing for years and had held a lot of fairly high-level management positions. I watched very, very talented leadership. I shadowed them when they didn’t even know I was shadowing them. I sat in on meetings and watched them make a lot of difficult decisions.
Although it sounds like I don’t have a lot of respect for the industry as a whole, I really do respect the individuals I worked with in management positions. It’s a very tricky market. I learned how to run a business by watching others who had been doing it for years before I even joined the industry.
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What was the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
We learn something new every day! I think one of the main things that a lot of entrepreneurs would agree with is that we sometimes get a great idea for a product and we rush to market with it. We don’t think about the hidden cost to development. Even though I’ve been developing products for a very long time, there’s always a facet that you’re not quite prepared for.
In this particular industry, in the children’s trade book part of it, I had to get a handle on the distribution aspect and all the costs associated with distributors. I was unaware of the number of people that a product passed through before it got onto a shelf in the store or to market.
The one thing I learned was to really take a look at all facets of the supply chain and factor in those costs, but also to know that if it looks easy, it’s not. There’s always something there that you hadn’t planned on or encountered before.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
When we first started out, I took a look at the cash reserves we had and the resources we had and determined that we were not going to immediately start producing product because of the extreme drain on your reserves. We started to service other publishers. We fulfilled our mission, which was to create innovative products that foster enthusiastic learning, through other publishers.
I felt like we made a smart decision to not really jump in with both feet and get in over our head before we were prepared to do so. We went about four years before we started to map our first product out.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
I personally have a love of learning. I look forward to walking away at the end of every day saying, “I learned something.” What I enjoy most is being able to create product that is hopefully doing that for someone else.
Our children’s retail trade products are, what we call, “edutainment” products. They’re really intended to develop a love of reading and further motivate children to do more. I’m hoping that the love that goes into the development of that product is being perceived by the end user.
What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
The financial aspects of the business. Making sure that there’s always enough work there, that’s there’s always enough resources coming in for revenue to keep the employees that I have focused and not worrying about the health of the business, but worrying about the quality of the product they’re producing.
Since we’re currently funding through consulting work, we have to always make sure there’s something in the pipeline to keep revenue coming in until our sales pickup from our products to offset that.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
All of the opportunities that come up. The people from other organizations like non-profits, other publishing houses, independent authors, education authors and academics who approach us to work in some collaborative fashion.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
Entrepreneurship and being a businessperson really starts with education. I can’t look at the business community and say, “Yes, there’s my role model.” But I can look at educators who are really educating children and young adults to become key businesspeople. My role models are the educators I’ve had throughout my life.
What I’ve Learned
What advice do you have for others starting their own business?
As a person going into business, you need to define what your mission is very clearly up front and then make sure that you’ve researched your market and all facets of that – not only the market and the demographics and potential revenues, but also the offsets of the cost and the challenges – before you jump in with both feet. Be strategic in how you get in.
I think a trend I see with a lot of young businesspeople is you see a pie chart of the whole market and you think you can tackle it all, when you really should be carving in with a certain niche and expanding from there. My advice in a nutshell is to define what you want to do and what your mission is and focus in on that. Really become an expert in all facets of that business.
What do you wish you had known before starting your business?
I really wish I had more of a background in trade and retail publishing and merchandising before. I had a tremendous background in educational publishing and could conceptualize educational products and strategize how to get them into the market. The flip side of the coin is the retail and trade part of it, which is a very attractive market, but also very complex.
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About the Author — Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing, located in San Jose, California.