Ruth Bradford, 38, launched The Little Black & White Book Project, a collection of black-and-white picture books teaching infants about animals and nature, in March 2018, having spent six years in Southeast Asia.
Pregnant with her son while living in Singapore and learning about the benefits of black-and-white images for newborn visual development, she was underwhelmed by the small selection on offer at the time. She decided to create her own. Bradford credits The Little Black & White Book Project really taking off when she created a website and sold directly to new parents.
Bradford started with three board books and one set of flash cards reflecting the places she had visited – safari in Africa, the rainforests of Southeast Asia and the Australian bush. Within nine months of launch she had won Enterprise Nation Female Start-up of the Year and been invited to 10 Downing Street.
Bradford says The Little Black & White Book Project is on track to triple her revenue in 2020-21 with 25 wholesale clients, as well as selling to five online marketplaces, obtaining national distribution, as well as direct sales via her website and social channels.
Still a one-woman-band, Bradford has a strong social conscience – 25 per cent of profits are donated to wildlife charities. Her mission, she says, is to inspire the next generation of wildlife lovers and conservationists from as early an age as possible.
What inspired you to start The Little Black & White Book Project?
I learned about the benefits of black and white images for new-born visual development when my son was born in 2016. I was underwhelmed with the books I could find at the time, so I decided to draw my own. I wanted to combine my love of wildlife into beautiful and useful parenting tools, and hopefully inspire the next generation of wildlife lovers from as early an age as possible.
When did you start?
The business officially launched in March 2017, but I started working on it just before my son was born in October 2016. In the early months he would never sleep in his cot due to silent reflux, so while he napped on me in a sling, I worked away on my laptop designing products, building a website and creating videos. Starting the business definitely helped get me through some tough times in those early days of motherhood. I feel like he was with me every step of the way.
What obstacles did you face starting up, and how did you overcome them?
My biggest obstacle has been self-confidence and working to overcome some serious imposter syndrome. I am a graphic designer, not a salesperson, so meeting lots of new people and pitching my business was terrifying when I started up. Becoming a mother and stepping out of the workplace really shattered my confidence in my abilities. But I knew getting out to events and meet-ups would help drive my business forward and raise my profile. With the support of my family I broke down each task or event into micro challenges and took them one step at a time. I decided to say ‘yes’ to everything I could throughout 2018 and see where it would take me. By the end of 2018 my business had taken me to 10 Downing Street, won two awards for my books, selected as a Small Biz 100 in the Small Business Saturday campaign, visited the House of Lords and won Female Start Up of The Year with Enterprise Nation!
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned since starting your business?
For me, it’s been finding support networks. I think community is so important when you are starting out, especially if you are a one-woman business, as I am. I have a number of different communities that I rely on, some real-world meetups, some online. Some for business, some more for my wellbeing, but all with others who understand the challenges of running a business and juggling motherhood. My favourites include Enterprise Nation, Freelance Mum, Doing It For The Kids, All By Mama and Mamatribe. They are a place of positive action and I have received so much help and advice from showing up and getting involved. I couldn’t do it without them all. I’ve even made some really great friendships out of it too.
‘To see your passion and mission come to life, and that others love and support you, is really empowering’
Why work for yourself when there’s stability in working for others?
There’s something amazing about knowing that every little action that you do each day is driving something forward you have created. To see your passion and mission come to life, and that others love and support what you are trying to do, is really empowering. I also like that my business has a higher mission and that I can do some good in the world. It’s all in my control to make my own rules as to how I think an ethical business should run. Plus right now, in all honesty, I need the flexibility of being my own boss. I want to be around while my son is little and be able to spend time with him when he needs me.
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What is the one characteristic that you possess that has helped make you so successful?
I think my creativity is a bit of a superpower, to be honest. A lot of running a business you can learn to some degree – the finances, SEO, advertising etc. but having lots of creative ideas continually bubbling, being nimble and responsive and being actually capable of designing my products firsthand without relying on anyone else is so useful. I can test and learn easily and there’s no delay in the process. Plus, I can get down exactly what I have in my head at any one time without worrying about communicating it to another designer.
What’s your guiding business philosophy?
I truly believe that people and planet can profit. I donate 25 per cent of my profits to wildlife charities to give back to the animals that have inspired me. But I try to be as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible, eliminating plastic, use of FSC and recycled papers, and that each of my products serves a useful purpose rather than being “stuff for stuffs sake”. In the year we are living in, I just don’t think there is any reason why businesses cannot operate with the best intentions towards the planet, minimum impact and do good as they go along. Having a higher purpose than just selling is what drives me forward and makes me want more success. The more successful my business, the greater the good I can do.
In what moment did this venture become real for you?
I think when I won Female Start Up of The Year 2018, it gave me so much validation as a business owner. A room full of people and a panel of judges could see the value I was creating and that my goal and mission is achievable. When other people start really believing in you it’s the most amazing feeling – yes, it adds a new level of pressure, but it also made me feel like a ‘proper’ business owner.
What is the worst part about being an entrepreneur?
For now, it’s probably never really switching off; I don’t have anyone else working with me, so I literally have to do everything. No delegation around here. So that means being always on and stealing moments every which way possible to get things done.
How important do you think International Women’s Day (IWD) is for female founders?
Really important. The conversation, tone and language is quite different when you have a group of female business owners together so including as many women in those conversations as possible and shining a light on those success stories hopefully empowers more women to become entrepreneurs too. As a community we are powerful, and I really believe in us all raising each other up. IWD is a great catalyst for that.
Is IWD necessary? Why?
There are so many women who have done incredible things for many years to enable people like me to be able to pursue my dreams. Sadly many don’t receive the attention they deserve so looking back to acknowledge and be thankful is just as important as looking to the future and lifting women up. Hearing first-hand accounts from such women is so inspiring and IWD is an amazing platform to make sure women’s voices are heard across the spectrum and we come together in celebration.
Which (if any) female founders inspire and you and why?
Sheryl Sandberg has to be up there with all she is doing with the Facebook platform to empower women to step up, but I am not sure if she counts as a founder. I actually find many of the women I have met via my business very inspiring. Faye Dicker runs Freelance Mum – a community of self-employed mothers who come together [usually with their children] to support each other and network. Claire Russell from Play Hooray who goes live every single day to inspire her community to get playing with simple activities, she is the queen of content. And then there is also the amazing story of Nish Katona, founder of Mowgli Street Food, who overcame many hurdles but is successful building her business her own way. Emma Jones from Enterprise Nation is always championing small business from the rooftops and works relentlessly to give her members the best possible platform. I could keep going and name so many.
You can do it. Whatever it is that you would like to do, you have the strength and determination to make it happen. Find one or two women who really lift you up and inspire you, who you can really count on to guide you. Female founder communities are really powerful, so find one which works for you and come together with other women doing amazing things in their own right to help push you forward. The more you surround yourself with positive, can-do women, the more you will feel you can do it too.
What is the best part of your day?
I reward myself a little time at the end of the day for pure creativity. Once all of the other jobs are done, I set some guilt-free time aside to draw and to create. It really helps my productivity to end on my favourite bit of the business.
What makes it all worth it?
Feedback from customers. The humbling words and stories people talk to me about. Whether it’s helping a baby with epilepsy, a child with autism, an animal charity with their fund-raising target or simply that a parent loved spending time with their little one reading and snuggling up. There’s so many golden moments when you think, ‘I made someone smile today’ and that makes it all worthwhile.
What advice do you have for someone just starting out?
Just try things, say yes, get involved and be present. I have learned that you get back what you put in, so don’t just lurk, speak up and find those tribes which will carry you through the tough days and celebrate with you on the good ones. No one else will understand the journey you’re on than fellow small business owners and entrepreneurs. Community is everything, no matter what stage you’re at so spend some time finding a few that work for you.
How do you define success?
I don’t think success is about owning a six or seven figure company. There are so many small successes to acknowledge every day when you set your own thing up. Especially when you are learning everything from scratch. I think it is important to celebrate all of the wins along the way as they show how far you’ve come.