Brandy had always loved reading and came up with her book subscription business idea while in the midst of a successful and lucrative advertising career. A layoff would be the impetus for her to go all-in with Page 1, which was recently featured on Oprah’s list of Best Book Subscriptions!
Tell us a little about your background.
My love of books and bookstores started with a small independent store in Corpus Christi, Texas, in the ‘70s, called Page One Books. Run by a beautiful red-haired woman named Ginger, I spent hours in the store, devouring books like Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Boxcar Kids, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary. I simply couldn’t get enough. My mother put me on a book budget, which I found completely unacceptable. Frustrated with this new arrangement, I got on my bike, rode to Page One and offered Ginger my services in exchange for books. She paid me $5 in books for every day I stacked and arranged books, which was the equivalent of TWO Nancy Drew books. I was in heaven and I was hooked on the bookstore life.
After university at Northwestern (English major, of course), I entered the world of advertising. I’ve been married twice and have five adult-ish children who have helped me every step of the way. I think the first half of my life was my householding phase—getting married, buying homes, raising kids—and a corporate job facilitated that and all the other wonderful things we wanted to do like travel. But my love of books never abated.
When did you start to think about making a change?
The dream of owning a bookshop always floated around in my head. I defy any reader who has made their way through You’ve Got Mail to not fantasize about owning a charming little bookshop and, perhaps, marrying Tom Hanks.
The challenge with dreams like owning a bookshop is that reality usually finds a way to elbow its way in. Mortgage, kids, college, vacations, that new handbag. And as long as you are buying the handbag, might as well buy the shoes too. Year after year passed with me in a corporate advertising job that, while not my passion, was sometimes a hell of a lot of fun and more than paid the bills.
My next act started as a conversation with some ladies I truly respect after a massage and a few martinis at the Soho House in Chicago in May 2017. (Told you advertising could be fun!) I pitched the seed of this idea I had been chewing on and we talked through all the potential challenges and benefits. After, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When I’m excited about an idea, it consumes my brain. All night my brain fired off idea after idea until it was less of an effort than a compulsion.
The vision was Book of the Month Club meets StitchFix. Subscription boxes were hot. Personalized curation was hot. And let’s face it, even reading was hot. Oprah had always carried the torch, but now you have Reese, SJP, Emma Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, so on and so forth. Reading was becoming…dare I say it…fashionable? (For a hot second, even GiGi Hadid carried a book as an accessory. But really, I couldn’t swallow the dubious verisimilitude of that.)
The universe conspires for your success. Sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Let me tell you, she is one crafty minx. She conspired by eliminating the biggest obstacle in my diving fully into my next act: my job.
Yep, that’s right. Add my name to the multitude of people in advertising who get laid off at one point or another in their career. Honestly, I feel lucky to have made it as long as I did. But man, I did not feel on a path to success at that moment.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been laid off, but it ain’t fun. Like grief, the emotional rollercoaster takes its toll. Disbelief, shock, anger, resignation, possibility. For me, in that order. I did not see it coming. Totally out of left field. But hey, when the numbers look a certain way, finance people in their infinite wisdom trim the fat. (Seriously guys, if you’re going to trim fat couldn’t you have gone for the tummy or the thighs?) Being told you’re not the only one helps. Being told it’s not because you’re crap at your job helps. Sort of. But not really.
I decided to do nothing. I couldn’t seem to muster up the enthusiasm to look for a new job. I couldn’t seem to muster up the energy to put my pants on some days. Have you ever heard the term Päntsdrunk? It’s the Finnish Path to Relaxation… Or the Guide to Drinking at Home. Alone. In Your Underwear. Sounded like a decent plan to me. There’s even a book about it. Of course, there is! I gave myself one week. Seven days. To wallow. To feel sorry for myself. To adjust. To drink in my underwear. The only thing off limits? Planning.
Päntsdrunk allowed me to breathe. To not immediately jump to the safe zone. I have spent my life in the safe zone, doing the right thing, going to a good school, working for good companies, getting bigger mortgages, nicer cars, fancier vacations. And as I said last week, I definitely had fun. But did I have meaning? I heard a question that week that changed everything. “Are you writing your resume or your eulogy?”
That’s a big question with a capital Q. I was in my late forties, looking fifty dead in the eye. I’m not dead yet. (Does anyone else hear Monty Python in their head with that phrase? I’m not dead! Not dead yet!) But I’d been checking a lot of boxes. Other people’s boxes. Could I do it? Could I not go back? Could I cast my fate to the wind? And if I didn’t go back, what would I do then?
This is where I’m going to get all new agey and woo-woo on you. I didn’t live in Seattle for sixteen years for nothing. One of my best friends in the world gave me a black obsidian stone. For those of you who had to look that up, like I did, black obsidian is apparently a powerful cleanser of psychic smog created within your aura and is a strong psychic protection stone. (Nothing creates psychic smog like being päntsdrunk for a week, I’ll tell you.)
So, on a particularly dark night of the soul, while I tossed and turned wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life, I decided to hold on to the stone. I asked it a question, (basically what the hell was I going to do with my life) and waited for the answer. I finally fell asleep and when I woke up, it was very clear… Books. No ambiguity. No doubt. No psychic smog. Pure certainty that this was the path. And I hopped right on it.
Now, I know as well as you do that this was my magic feather. Like the one that convinced Dumbo he could fly. But I needed that. I needed my magic black stone to convince me to make that kind of decision. I needed to believe I could fly. And I haven’t stopped believing since.
(Note: I didn’t ACTUALLY spend all seven days päntsdrunk. I wore pants when I walked the dogs.)
What is your next act?
I am the Founder of Page 1 Books, which I launched June 22, 2017, when I was 45. Page 1 is like StitchFix for books. You fill out an online questionnaire about your reading preferences and every month we choose, wrap, and send a book to you in a lovely box with a special literary treat.
I believe in the power of books to expand horizons and generate understanding between humans. It wouldn’t be going too far to say I believe books can change our world for the better. I started Page 1 Books because I am that friend who always has a book recommendation for you, that friend who knows just which books you will love and will love you back.
Page 1 is growing like mad at the moment, and my role is to keep evangelizing the business and keeping it growing. We’ve had a few amazing windfalls lately, like ending up on Oprah’s list of Best Book Subscriptions, which we had no idea we were even under consideration for. We were working on our SEO one day and I said, hey, let’s search for book subscriptions. And the article popped up. When I saw the headline, I thought, Damn it! How did we miss out on this? But we hadn’t. There we were at number 3. Someone told me that the Oprah people never let on if you will be in there or not, so it was a complete shock. A good one.
And that’s what I love. I never know, never, what one day will be from the next. Some days I’m paying bills. Some days I’m choosing books for subscribers. Some days I’m trying to pull out all the tangled label stickers from the label printer that went haywire. Some days I’m finding my business in Oprah. It’s beautiful, fun, frustrating, frightening, and glorious.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
I am not a natural risk taker. And I think had I spent too much time planning Page 1, I never would actually have launched it. After that night at the Soho House, I was on autopilot. My oldest daughter and I built the website that weekend and put it out there. I still had a full-time job and I had nothing to lose, really. That also gave me the freedom to try and fail and try and fail and try and fail again. I learned so much in that process and was better prepared when it became a full-time job than I would have been had I just made a huge leap.
I remember the excitement of clicking “Publish” on the Shopify site and bango presto, I launched a digital business. My expectations were low. The thrill of the creation alone would sustain me. For a while. The first month we had six orders. SIX! The first from a sorority sister of mine. (Thank you Julie Lebenson!) The next month we had 21. Oh, what fun. I wrapped all the books, I hand wrote all the notes, and I picked each little literary treat, carefully boxed everything, and shipped them with love.
By the end of year one, we had around 80 subscription boxes shipping each month. Still totally manageable with a full-time job, almost a half dozen kids, and three dogs. Totally.
And while I knew, maybe sort of thought-slash-knew, I couldn’t take on anymore, I wondered what might happen if we just threw a $5 Facebook ad out there? And what might happen if we send a bundle to Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy? And what if we created a really special bundle for the holidays? The little operation I had running in the guest room began to spill over into the dining room, the living room, the hall. So. Many. Boxes.
I saw the tipping point far ahead the way the captain on the Titanic must have seen that iceberg. A moment loomed where I would have to decide. Keep going, working, and doing my Page 1 side hustle? Dive fully into Page 1? And the unthinkable, give up Page 1 to keep my sanity?
Being laid off made the decision easy.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family was AMAZING. They were all-in with me from Day 1. I remember the first holiday season, I decided to make a special bundle to sell, The Cozy Reader Bundle, with all sorts of things that make reading in the Winter wonderful like socks, a mug, cocoa, candles, etc. I thought it would be cute to hand stamp the shipping boxes with snowflakes. I estimated we’d sell about 25, so I bought the boxes and started stamping them on my kitchen table around Thanksgiving. As we got closer and closer to the holiday, and as our family guests started arriving, the orders kept going up and up. On Thanksgiving Day, we had at least 100 orders and everyone jumped in and spent the holiday stamping snowflakes on boxes with me. I will never forget or be able to express my appreciation for moments like that which helped Page 1 get to where it is today.
What challenges did you or are you encountering?
In the beginning, you do everything yourself because you have to. Then you do everything yourself because you know how to do it best and because you are managing your capital tightly and prefer not to pay someone to do it. But eventually, you get to a place where you have to decide to work on the business not in the business, and that’s a tough moment. I had to look at what I do best and what will benefit the business the most, and let the rest go to the capable hands of my incredible team (which still includes some family members).
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that I was addicted to safety and it was preventing me from living the life I should have been living. I grew up always trying to do the right thing, the ‘done’ thing, with rather conventional attitudes towards what a good life looked like. In some ways, I think that’s just the generation of my parents and grandparents. But I’ve raised my kids differently. I do believe in passion first, money second. However, that means you will actually sometimes work harder than you would at a 9-to-5 job. The success doesn’t just show up when you decide on your path. The success shows up when you’ve earned it.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Honestly, not a thing. I am here because of the cumulation of choices I made, both smart and not-so-smart ones. If that’s how I got here, that’s how it had to be.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Be afraid. Be nervous. Be cautious. But do it anyway. It’s okay to fail. And you will. More than once. Failing has been my greatest gift. I learn so much. And to fail doesn’t make you a failure. You’re never a failure until you give up on something you know could be a success.
The other thing I would say is that discouragement and depression are part of the entrepreneur territory. And they are almost always a product of exhaustion rather than failure. When I am low and don’t feel like I can put one foot in front of the other for another moment, my mantra is: Don’t give up; rest. Rest until you want to get back up. Then you’ll have more energy than you could imagine.
What advice do you have for those interested in launching a subscription business?
I’m not sure I have advice specifically for people launching a subscription business. I think it would be the same for any business and that’s to listen to your customers and keep going. If you have an idea that is gaining traction, no matter how slowly, keep going, one step at a time. There is no Shark Tank moment; it’s an accumulation of small moments that build on each other. Honestly, a Shark Tank moment has sunk many businesses because they hadn’t grown slowly and built that solid foundation.
What resources do you recommend for entrepreneurs?
Family first! Rely on the talents of the people around you!
Funding: iFundWomen was invaluable to me not just for crowd-funding but also for workshops and training on things like your pitch, your branding, social media, etc. They are an incredible group of women who take this quote seriously: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t support each other.” – Madeleine Albright
The business association in your town: Our business is located on a street where most of the businesses are owned by women. This has been an incredible resource and support system for me.
Retail e-commerce/POS hybrid platform: Shopify
Design software: Canva
What’s next for you?
We are currently in the process of raising capital to grow the business, which is all I want to focus on right now. However, there is the glimmer of a fantasy of semi-retiring to own a bookshop in a tourist destination in the UK (my home away from home), where I only have to work a few months out of the year. Then I’d finally have time to read all these books I’m selling! That would be nice, right?
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