Canadian-born Nancy Traversy, 49, went from the world of finance to graphic design before launching a successful children's book publishing company with her business partner, Tessa Strickland. Their company, Barefoot Books, recently opened a massive flagship store in Concord, Mass., where they sell only the titles they publish.
For Traversy, the leap from banking to books isn't as large as one might think. "I come from a family of very artistic, very creative family, and somehow I went the business and math and numbers route," Traversy told me. "One day I was on a bank audit -- I was wearing a trouser suit with a tie, and I thought I was looking very professional -- and I was told, 'Women don’t wear trousers.' And I said, OK, that was kind of the final straw."
"But I don’t regret going into finance initially instead of design for a second," she added. "I love spreadsheets and business plans, and I also love design and creativity. So, I’m sort of on both sides."
I stopped by the Concord store recently to chat with Nancy; a portion of our interview was published yesterday in The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine (see image at left), but of course there's always so much more that doesn't make it into the article. Here's the rest of our question-and-answer session:
[After working for Price Waterhouse in London,] I scoured the newspapers and found a little tiny ad for a financial controller for a design company. I said, “That sounds really good,” and I walked in there and it was like, beautiful, colorful offices and a lot of designers who were doing anything from graphic design to shopping center design. It was in the heady days back in the late ‘80s when people would spend a million pounds on a logo for British Telecom. And so I then spent about eight years in the design industry, and that’s really where I figured out that I loved being an entrepreneur. The beauty of being a business person in a very creative environment was that you could just sort of learn on your feet.
We had a partnership that was my first sort-of acquisition when I was 29 or 30 -- I bought a part of Virgin Communications from Richard Branson. He had a graphic design company that had designed all the record labels and everything, and we needed graphic design, and he didn’t really want it anymore because they were changing tacks, so I bought that company from him. And in exchange -- there was no cash -- he ended up investing in my design business. So that was my very first, “OK, I did it completely on my own” and learned a lot. I ended up designing airline seating for their planes and really got myself immersed in a designing and creative environment, but running a business at the same time.
I think that had a very strong influence on my career, because I had this very strong business financial background, but I was really figuring out that I was much more suited to a creative environment. I guess that’s cause my mother is a painter and my sister is an illustrator and designer, and my father is a drafter and architect.
I was pregnant with my first child, who is now 18, in the 1990s and the recession had hit and graphic design and environmental design work was much harder to find. So I thought that it was time for a change. I met Tessa Strickland, whose brother was a very good friend of my husband’s; her background was adult publishing. She was coming very much from an editorial and words background, and I kind of had the color and design and then the business, so we had all bases covered. She had this idea for Barefoot Books -- the name came to her in a dream and the logo is her youngest daughter’s feet. We really felt that books could have wonderful educational content and also be beautiful with a huge amount of attention to the detail and design, which I was passionate about.
Before launching Barefoot Books, you started a management consulting firm around the same time your oldest child was born. How did you juggle a new business and a new baby?
I knew always that I wanted to work, I think it was just in me that I was very ambitious. And I think my years in London and in travel sparked a zeal and passion for running a small business. There was never a question that I was going to stop work. Once we started Barefoot, I think I was lucky because I was working from home, so I managed to have four children in five years and I worked from home the whole time, in the office that I had in my home in London. I ultimately had 16 people coming into it every day. But I could breastfeed my babies and see them and my house, you know, in the first eight years of Barefoot, was artists turning up with their portfolios and Tessa was living in Bath... she'd come up to London every week and we'd meet artists agents and authors agents and pour over the catalog proofs. My kids were always in the office, when they were little they'd be going to bed and have their bath and then they'd scamper up into the office and we'd be doing a mailing and my 2-year-old would be sitting on someone's lap sticking stamps on or stuffing envelopes.
Your children are now 18, 16, 15, and 13. What do they think of your career?
They're very much involved in the business now, specially since we opened this store. It's been part of their lives, and I think having a children's publishing business... my kids always understood what I do. My husband runs a hedge fund and I think they struggle with what that is, the concept of that. But they understood that it was about making books, they grew up with the books. I always brought manuscripts home and asked them to tell me what they think. And they would always give me very candid opinion, and they'd even start editing them. And so then when the book actually came to fruition, they felt like they owned it, like it was part of their creation.
What makes Barefoot Books different from other children's book publishers?
I never understood why when you buy a book you turn to about 12 white pages at the beginning. Why can’t you design the end papers when you open it up? Why can’t the table of contents look beautiful? Why can’t you have little folio design around the page numbers? And nobody was doing that. And so we saw that, at a very basic level, there was a need for very beautiful books that also had wonderful stories and content. And then I think probably a bigger part of what we felt there was a need for was books that expose children to the values and traditions of other cultures.
Multicultural publishing was defined in America as doing African American and Hispanic books, but we're really more about inclusion than exclusion. And really trying to honor all cultures all over the Globe. Now, I think people are much more in tune to the importance of raising Globally-aware children, and that the world is a very small place and the planet is very fragile and we need to make sure our kids appreciate that.
There are just so many wonderful stories out there in cultures all over the world that aren’t even written down. Some of the stories from the oral storytelling tradition are so powerful, and they take you to places you otherwise wouldn’t get to, and I think the power of story can be so transformational for children.
In 2005, you pulled your books out of the big chain stores. Why?
When we started Barefoot we were publishing in England, and the model for the first five years was to sell publishing rights to foreign publishers, the largest one being in the United states. We decided in 1998 that we needed to come into the States directly. And that was like starting again, really, because so much of our revenue had been from selling rights, and we had to stop selling rights and really hold back the rights so that we had the assets to sell ourselves.
What we'd struggled with in New York was these people who were selling and publishing in a very traditional way. You sold to the middle man and you were in your Ivory Tower creating your lists and you pushed them out there to the distributors and books got pushed from warehouse to warehouse and often came back again and got pulped. I really wanted to move away from that.
Through that period, what we struggled with thinking, "OK, maybe we did need to sell to Borders and Barnes & Nobel." We could do a print run of six or eight, they could take four or five. But you were paying for the real estate. You were at the mercy of a buyer and when they were going to place the order. And so you'd often tie up inventory that you could have put out to the smaller little independents who really got what you were all about. But you put it out there and it sat in a warehouse and then you paid to get the shelf space and then you'd have a window of time and you'd go into a Barnes & Nobel and find that it never even got on the shelf. And you couldn't monitor for things like that. But it was so un-environmentally friendly, the idea of moving books from warehouse to warehouse and then they'd come back stickered and damaged and then people would just pulp them. And that's just not what Barefoot is all about.
How do you market your books without help from the big stores?
We've always been about grassroots and community, and connecting more directly as we had done in England, talking to people. We wanted to do what we had done quite successfully in the UK -- to create a brand. People knew about Barefoot. When we lived in London, I did art exhibitions and story tellers and events. We did arts and crafts workshops and sold original art from our books. We did all the farmers markets and did consumer-based fairs there, we thought we needed to do that here, because consumers don't know us here.
The whole idea of grassroots and small and community and getting back to basics and the importance of connecting with your children and parenting is certainly on everyone's minds. In a way I don't think it was 10 years ago, or even five years. So I think that our model, which is grassroots and through our ambassador program, where you can give people a way to make their money but also stay connected with their families. I think it has a better chance of success now than it might have a while back. Certainly with the power of social networks, which have changed the way everything's done.
What fascinates me is the commonalities between the type of people who buy Barefoot. In England, our top 10 bestsellers are the same they are here. I think that they are the type of people who live Barefoot's values all over the world, and now with the power of technology and social networks and digital media, we're bringing our books to life.
You closed your Cambridge store earlier this year, and opened a gorgeous new one in Concord (where you only sell books published by your company). What makes your new store special?
One of the main things, apart from the values behind the business, is kind of the look and feel that has become recognizable as Barefoot Books, and I think it's because we stayed kind of small and so, tempting thought it was, often to maybe go a little more mass market, a little more commercial... change the colors, cheapen the paper and the production values, put a princess on the cover, made them pink, we could sell a million copies.
This store is more about getting a grand presence and getting awareness for what we're trying to do, which is bring books to life, to engage in storytelling.
For me, having this store represents getting back to basics, connecting with the community, getting more aware of other people in the community, other stores, other people. ... When you're running a business, and you've got two entrepreneurs and four kids you're just like go, go, go, go, go. And I've started to realize the value of simplicity, and what really matters. My husband always says "As long as you're having fun." So, when I stop having fun... I love Barefoot Books, I love coming here.
It's a fun, colorful place to be and it's really what we're all about.