How to Be a Success

By Naomi Beth Wakan

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In the 1980s, my husband and I started a small educational publishing business in Vancouver. We knew nothing about publishing and little about the education business. Still, we had one quality that seemed essential to the venture – enthusiasm.

“Let’s publish a book,” we said to each other, and, knowing nothing about how to do this, we set to with great energy. Without knowing it, we already had a few of the qualities people recommend for successful entrepreneurship – we enjoyed the idea of trying something new, and, as we had rent to pay, we were serious about setting out on our journey.

We also had, at that time, a market with little competition as we were filling a gap in supply in the educational world in B.C., and that was for interesting books on Japan and Peru for young readers. Although we were not teachers, we quickly got to know our customers’ needs by attending teachers’ conferences.

We were hardly a top-notch team as I was, at that time, only a budding writer and also our sole and very untalented illustrator; while my husband laid the books out in Word Perfect 4.2 and 5 – an almost unheard of feat.

As we went into the schools to speak about Japan, where we had recently lived, and Peru, where my husband had just visited, we gradually built up a reputation as experts. Well, we knew a little more on the subjects than most Grade 6 and 7 teachers, and certainly more than all of their students.

There was no material available on Peru, so my husband had travelled down and gathered some. We also had one bright idea, (and starter entrepreneurs only need one idea, so long as it is brilliant) and that was to buy all the books and pictures from the Peru Pavilion that had been on display during the 1986 Vancouver World Exhibition. Our tiny apartment was jammed full with photos of Inca gold and slide sets made up from the thousands of photos we had taken in Japan and Peru. Luckily, digital wasn’t in yet and so slides were still in demand, for slide shows were still the way to go, when it came to keeping a small group of students entranced.

Our advantage over competitors was that we actually spoke to the students in the school libraries and the school librarians were standing by ready to make immediate purchases (Do you remember the time when school librarians had budgets, or even when there were school librarians?). Any surplus after we had paid the rent and printing bills, we reinvested in producing more titles. We worked eight days a week and, often, if a book was to go to printer the next day, my husband worked all night.

We started in complete ignorance, but book publishing is not rocket science and soon we got the hang of the game. It never occurred to us to go to Simon Fraser University and get a Master’s degree in publishing. We have always preferred learning as we go along. It never occurred to us that we would fail. We were exploring a new field and it was an unspoken understanding that we would survive until we were bored and decided to explore something else. I must admit we learned from our peers in the educational publishing field and owe a fair amount to their generous guidance.
So there, from our modest story, you have set out for you the qualities you need, if not to become CEO in a major enterprise, to at least succeed in a modest home business:
We enjoyed what we were doing; we were exploring a fresh field (for us) and taking it very seriously; we planned our books and school visits down to the last detail; we were economical in our personal lives and reinvested any surplus in the business.

We found our market and gave a little extra with each order; we spent loads on business cards and letter-head stationary to give a professional look to our little venture; we were a team of two, each making up for what the other lacked; we had a definite advantage (there was little material available on Peru); we optimized our business space, using our tiny apartment as production area, storage of product and living space; we optimized our skills in that my husband had an extraordinary sense of space and form, which he utilized in laying out the books. I had a way with words that worked well for talking in the schools and getting facts onto a page; we worked hard, and we never gave up.

And were we a success? Well yes, if you count success as developing your talents enough to take you into the next stage of life: my husband used his sense of form and layout to become a full-time photographer and sculptor; and I took my winning words (of which I’d used thousands in the production of the 20 books we had produced as fledgling publishers) and became a full-time poet and essayist. We never made it big, but we made it big enough. And isn’t that what most entrepreneurs aim for?



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