I came back to Los Angeles this week from a long trip to New York and Europe with Dennis. We were able to stay with family in nearby Rowayton, Connecticut, for which I was extremely grateful, but it was a tiring commute from there to New York City every morning and with cold and rain and snow, we were also fighting the elements. In Europe, we were again able to stay with family most of the time, which made the trip doable for us. In New York, we attended a wonderful International Toy Fair.
In Europe, we were working with our new licensee to put the final touches on the Bloomers Island line, including a stunning, wood Mr. Banyan display for the VeggiePOPS! While in the Netherlands and Belgium, we also did a lot of driving in one of their coldest winters in decades, the result of a freak Siberian cold front. After three days of not leaving the apartment due to sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds, I started going stir crazy and insisted we walk into the nearest town, Haarlem. After making it five blocks, we had to stop for hot coffee and toasted croissants and that was as far as we made it.
The good news is, our licensees in North America and Europe are on track. It looks like Australia is next. South America is limping along, but I have great faith in my licensee there. Certainly, his enthusiasm is unparalleled. My first book is out and doing well. And meetings with studios interested in the Bloomers Island show and game are moving right along. Other potential licensees are finally knocking on the door. Wow, what an arduous journey. What an exciting journey!
What is shocking to me, is that Bloomers Island is my fourth company and I thought I knew a whole lot about business. I had run four companies! I had a good education. I started in banking. I was in a Startup Founders Group. I could raise money. I had advisors. I hired a brand strategy company. I hired a digital marketing firm. I ran projections, over and over. I know my way around a business plan better than most. I did everything right.
And I did everything wrong.
As Eric Ries says in the Lean Startup, “What we need to do is not come up with more good ideas. We need to go and test as many of those good ideas as possible.”
Or as I like to say, “There are no good ideas, there is only good execution."
The problem with my execution was that I was trying to do 100 different things at once: a school gardening program, an online game, gardening products, toys, books, television show, clothing, hair and skin care products, healthy food, an amusement park, housewares, card game, board game, garden journal app, curriculum, and wait, there’s more!
I was distracted and unfocused and felt like I wasn’t executing anything well. I spent money where I shouldn’t have spent it. I couldn’t develop a good business model. I couldn’t decide or choose what was the most important thing for me to work on. There were so many things to accomplish on a day-to-day basis, that I struggled with even the most basic prioritizing.
I went to an event that a friend of mine hosted. He is a legacy coach (I highly recommend and HERE is his website). I had written a legacy statement before, but what I liked about his methodology is that he helped us choose our legacy and then develop a road map to achieve it. When I chose my legacy, all of a sudden, it became crystal clear as to what my priorities should be. And it was not just about prioritizing but focusing the greater part of my day on them, coming up with and following a road map with lists and dates and commitments. And here’s the magic, when I started focusing, everything I wanted started falling into place for me.
Back to our return from Europe. As we rode the escalator down to the baggage claim at 1:00 a.m., desperately needing some water, trying to rally for one last push of energy needed to gather up all our oversized, overweight, and over numbered suitcases and boxes and somehow drag them upstairs to area “C” where hopefully an Uber wouldn’t take too long to pick us up, we walked past a closed Starbucks. On the side of the outside wall hung a small sign which read: “The Tireless Pursuit of All Things Coffee.”
Talk about priorities. Talk about a road map. Talk about a legacy. This one statement encapsulated all at once: commitment, focus, hard work and legacy. It wasn’t just pursuit, it was tireless pursuit. It wasn’t coffee and tea and bread and cakes and cookies and sandwiches, – although Starbucks hawks all those things – but, it starts and ends with coffee. I pictured Herman Melville’s first mate character, “Starbuck” (the brand’s namesake), standing on the Pequod, salty waves crashing around him, holding a sturdy mug of steaming coffee. Coffee.
What about me? What am I in tireless pursuit of? I am in tireless pursuit of creating entertaining, fun and clever stories to inspire and educate kids to live a healthier lifestyle. I am about all things stories. My first priority in this pursuit, the first stop on my roadmap, is to make sure my books are widespread and widely read. My wish for my legacy is to be the A.A. Milne of my generation.
In furtherance of this goal, I am going to do a tour across the country. I have never driven across the country before and I am lucky enough to have my marketing guru and partner in life go with me. We have definitive plans with gaps in between. I am going to do television, radio and press interviews, school visits, library visits, and book store signings. I’m calling it “The 10,001 Book Tour” because I want to sell 10,000 books on this trip and 10,001 sounded better than 10,000.
The first stop on our trip is Denver and we can be flexible after that. Bouncing between California and Denver and New York makes me feel like Sal Paradise in Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel, “On the Road.” We’re starting tomorrow (fingers crossed). If you want me to stop at your school, library, or book store let me know. If you want to do an interview, please contact me. Our schedule is flexible, our intention is to accommodate. I would love to meet you on the tour and sign your book. If we don’t get to meet this time, email me at email@example.com, and I will be happy to send your little reader a special message via the Snail Mailman.
Now I have a road map, figuratively and literally.
You can follow our progress on my website: cynthiawylie.com or on the bloomersisland.com website as well as the Bloomers Island Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. (All /bloomersisland). I will be posting dates and cities as soon as I have them.
It’s never too early or too late to decide on your legacy. What do you want yours to be?
It’s funny sometimes how we circle back to what we initially wanted to be. When I was a little girl, growing up on our family farm, I wanted to be an author. I have no idea how I came up with that career goal. It was probably because I loved books and I loved reading. I didn’t really have children’s books, but I had the school library. Also, every week my classmates and I would get the Weekly Reader, an order form filled with pictures and descriptions of books we could buy. I was allowed to purchase only one or two and this created some anxiety akin to deciding between a cookie or a piece of gum. Poring over every book’s review, I wrung my hands over which I would choose. I took the form home with me and studied it on the school bus. Finally, I checked the little boxes next to the books I wanted to order, and impatiently awaited their arrival to my classroom. My favorite children’s books were, “A Little Princess” and “Charlotte’s Web.”
Soon, I started reading my mom’s books. She belonged to the Book of the Month Club, her version of the Weekly Reader. Growing up, we didn’t have many options for television and of course, there were no computers or smartphones. I lived on a farm with three brothers and not a lot of friends nearby, so I read. I read books like “Trinity,” “Dr. Zhivago,” and “Gone with The Wind.” I loved the thick, historical sagas of James Michener. I even read some racy books like “The Graduate.” When I read these books, I was transported to pre-revolutionary Russia or the antebellum South, or 19th century Ireland.
I started writing stories. My mom saved them in her jewelry box. I kept journals that held my private thoughts, wishes and self-judgments. When I got to college and took the required, first English course, I didn’t do that well. In a humiliating moment, my English professor used my paper as an example to all her other classes as what mistakes to avoid when writing. She later apologized. I learned from her though.
I kept writing. I had forgotten that I wanted to be an author, but I wrote almost every morning for years and years – more to help me figure things out than anything else. I accumulated boxes of journals. Later, I joined a writer’s group. I was embarrassed again by one of the members of my group, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Program who criticized my blog. I stayed in the group. I was learning from him.
In the meantime, I co-founded, successfully ran and exited two companies. I got married. Got divorced. Raised four children. I read the favorite books of my children so I would know what was inspiring them, where they were being transported. I loved all the Harry Potter books, “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” “The Giver,” “Holes,” and “Youth in Revolt.”
My life went on. I was creating new stories to write.
When I started my third company, Bloomers, of course I wanted to write stories. I had a mission and I knew I could reach many more parents, teachers, and children if I had a book. I wrote about my Bloomers who were based on my children so I had endless fodder for my stories. I wrote over the next six years, oh, about 120 stories featuring the Bloomers.
I tried to find a publisher or even an agent. There was a friend of my close friend, whose Mother was an important literary agent in New York. I approached him with some of my stories. He said he would have to read them first before he passed them along to his mother. Two weeks later I called him back. With a big sigh, he told me that he was dreading my call. He said that he couldn’t pass along my stories to his mother… something about it being a waste of her time. My stories and my writing wasn’t good. I wasn’t a writer. For a moment, I believed him. That was my low point.
I went into my garage and opened a box of my journals and looked inside. Neatly stacked were 9 x 12 sketchbooks bound with black leather, containing unlined, white paper with page after page of cursive writing, some entries neater than others, some accompanied by little notes and drawings in the margins, some written inside the front and back covers. I opened one book to a random page and read it. It was good.
After much contemplation and introspection, I thought, I’ve been writing my whole life. No one can tell me I’m not a writer.
To use an expression from down on the farm, there’s more than one way to shoe a horse. I kept writing to be sure, but I switched my focus to building the Bloomers brand. Then, after inventing some really cool products and getting into over 5,000 stores, being awarded patents and signing licensees, establishing credibility by working many years in schools and presenting at conferences, I was approached by a respected New York Publisher. They said they had started a children’s imprint and wanted me to write a Bloomers book for them. They said it would be perfect for their company. I negotiated a multi-book deal.
Someone recently asked me how long it took to write my first book. I said that It didn’t take me long, it wasn’t “War and Peace” after all, it was a children’s book. But that’s not true. It took me my whole life to write that book. I had already written it a thousand times in my mind, in my journals. I had written it in 120 different stories that I was able to draw upon. I wrote it when I was seven and working in our family’s garden. I wrote it when the guy from Iowa was criticizing me… when the friend of my friend told me I wasn’t a writer.
Last month after my book was released, I told my previously mentioned close friend what had happened with her friend, what he had said to me. She was appalled and had no idea. I said, “I’d like to call him now and tell him that I got my first book published.” Admittedly, it was an I told you so moment. I just wanted him to know.
She said, “He’s dead.”
I was dumbfounded. She continued to tell me that he had died a couple years ago. Unexpectedly.
I felt very small.
In the end, I realized that it doesn’t really matter what other people say. It doesn’t matter if you know what you want to be or when you know. I changed my mind ten times in between the age of seven and now: a veterinarian, an economist, an investment banker, an entrepreneur, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker. What does matter is when you figure it out, that you keep pursuing it. Don’t take no for an answer. Figure out a work around. Know that there’s no right way to accomplish something. Be creative. Keep practicing. Don’t take rejection personally. Persevere!
Now if someone asks me what I do, I say that I’m a children’s book author.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I decided to move out of my beach house of twenty years. It had become too large, messy, and unforgiving for me to live in anymore. Plus, I was in a new relationship and it just felt wrong that we should start our life there together.
As you can imagine, moving out of a home that I had lived in for twenty years (to the month!), raised four children in, haphazardly remodeled several times, used as offices and a small manufacturing facility, and rented rooms in, was challenging. And I was under a time limit.
As I sifted through the memories of my life, a profound sadness settled onto me like the salty dust and sand on the boxes in my garage, neatly labeled: Alex’s Star Wars Books, C.W. Personal, Art Supplies, Baby Clothes, Bloomers Ideas, Photographs. And it wasn’t just boxes, it was failed products that I was reluctant to throw away because, well, I had paid money for them. It was all my furniture that once upon a time I had scrimped and scraped to buy. Valuable crystal and porcelain dishes. Valuable! Perfectly fine suits in the hall closet belonging to the dead father of a friend. (How did those end up in there?) My home was a beloved, eclectic expression of my artistic self and many hours spent scouring antique shops and flea markets back before there was Ebay. And finally, there were my oil paintings, my “babies” that I had spent many hours laboring over. They were the ones left after I had sold many in group and solo shows and then foisted all I could on to my kids and their small apartment walls, some from all the way back in college. What would I do with the rest of those?
To avoid the overwhelm I developed a mantra – one cupboard at a time. If I thought about every cupboard and closet and box that I had to go through, I didn’t think I could accomplish the task. But if I just focused on the cupboard in front of me, somehow, I was able to handle the sheer physical effort of it all along with the emotional detritus, which brings me to the point of my post.
There is value in business as well as in life to looking at a difficult, overwhelming and lengthy task yawning in front of us, as cleaning one cupboard at a time. As the founder of a startup company, and at times, the only one involved in the myriad of daily tasks that need to be done, I started looking at every necessary task in small, doable pieces. Small cupboards.
People ask me how I was able to get a publishing deal with a major, well-respected New York publisher. My answer is simple. I built my brand first. Simple. But not easy. (That journey is another post.) Because I have goals related to my stories that are much bigger than just this one book – I have become obsessed with making sure it is successful. My book is called, Bloomers Island, The Great Garden Party and I want to sell 10,001 of them.
My mantra has changed. Now it is: one book at a time.
Eventually, the sadness I experienced moving out of my home gave way to excitement as I embarked on my new journey. I felt a growing sense of freedom and possibility that a small apartment afforded me in more ways than one. Now I can focus on running my business, selling my books and creating new stories – new stories for my brand as well as myself. Like the old story of the Zen master, you have to empty out the tea cup to create the room to pour in more tea.
Epilogue: Almost as a show of defiance, I threw away a painting of mine. I placed the large canvas (that I had painted all the way back in grad school) on top of the garbage cans in the back of our new apartment building. Later that afternoon, as we came home from running errands, a car was parked in front of the trash cans, blocking our parking spot. I wound down the window and asked if I could help the woman. She apologized profusely, and said that she noticed someone had thrown away “a beautiful painting” and she had stopped to get it and hoped that that was okay. I put my hand on my heart and told her that I had painted it and had thrown it away because I didn’t have the room for it anymore. She told me that it would look perfect in her house. I gave her my blessing, ecstatic that just like me, my painting had found a new, better home.