The picture above may be silly, but it is true: I never dreamed of starting/owning/running a business. My answer to "What do you want to be when you grow up?" was not even once "an entrepreneur." Far from it: as far back as I can remember, I've wanted to be a writer . . . specifically, a novelist. Working alone in a quiet room, not having to deal with people. Introvert paradise.
Well, I did actually become a novelist (yay!) but these days, unfortunately, almost nobody can be just a writer. Only a few, like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, can earn a living from writing. The rest of us (unless we happen to have a Sugar Daddy/Mama ;) have to "hustle" and work various other jobs to make ends meet.
That fact alone, though, would not have been enough to convince me to become an entrepreneur. I've worked as a proofreader (which paid well per hour, but I could never get enough hours; also, my health doesn't allow me to work full-time) and was a cashier until I could no longer handle the physical and mental stress. Anyway, I could've kept earning money in other ways aside from starting a business. So what was the catalyst that pushed me into the entrepreneurial arena?
I found a passion. A cause I came to care so deeply about that I am willing to go to great lengths to help remedy the unfair situation. (If you already knew I'm an INFJ then you won't be surprised by that answer.)
Still, I'd never have done it alone. The company wasn't even my idea, originally; it started with my writing group. Some friends and I discovered the problem currently plaguing writers, and we knew we had to do something about it. So Deborah, Jeannie, and I founded Thinklings Books, LLC. You can watch a short video here with a really fun version of the story of how/why we got started and what the publishing industry's problem is.
In a nutshell: We're here to help "underdog" writers. Good, quality books deserve to be published, yet the industry favors popularity and largely ignores writers who don't have a huge following on social media. But writers are writers, not marketers.
Well, that's the way it should be.
I think again of my childhood aspirations: marketing (the existence of which I was barely aware of at the time) never factored into that writing dream. I'm willing to bet many other writers would say the same. Of course, when I grew up, cold hard reality hit - writers do have to market nowadays. But that reality is tempered by a new, transformed dream; my dream that I am making come true, that chose me (as the meme at the top says), is to help other writers.
So . . . surprise of surprises to my younger self, I'm now not only a marketer but a COO. That title doesn't puff me up; it rather scares me. Like being a parent or a brain surgeon would scare me: it's a lot of responsibility. Yet it also brings a lot of satisfaction. I really enjoy helping the writers we've published, and I hope that many more will be added to our roster.
Thinklings is on a hiatus right now from accepting new books while we try to market our first seven to the extent that they deserve. Really, we can never reach that extent, because they deserve the world. They deserve the moon, the stars . . . See why I'm into fantasy and sci-fi? ;)
In my perpetual quest for more publicity, I came across the Support Small Business movement. You bet I started using the #SupportSmall hashtags! My Twitter platform is growing nicely, and I thought the addition of these hashtags (#SupportSmallBusiness and #SupportIndie ones too) might help us branch out and expand into new marketing territory. Some people who are behind the Support Small cause may be interested in our books.
Unfortunately, so far, the hashtag doesn't seem to have helped at all. It took a while, but I think I've realized why. And after doing so, I was inspired to write the essay that follows. I'm trying to get it published as an article or op-ed in various publications. (I'm open to suggestions for additional places to submit it!) At least I can post it here for now:
"A Pitfall of Supporting Small"
Recently, I received a call from the Better Business Bureau. My company, Thinklings Books, has been actively selling for an entire year now, so the BBB was calling to help us get accredited with them. The lady I spoke to was very friendly, and we got to chatting about (among other things) how COVID-19 has affected the economy. The topic of Support Small came up, and our conversation opened my eyes to a slight flaw—or perhaps oversight—in this movement.
Don’t get me wrong; I LOVE the Support Small movement. It springs from a kind, generous, and all-American spirit. After all, small businesses are the heart and soul of our country. I use the #SupportSmall hashtags and memes in my marketing any chance I get. I know a lot of people who run small businesses, and many others who do support the “little guys,” and that’s wonderful. On behalf of all small-biz owners, I want to thank everyone who helps us!
So where does the problem lie? Bear with me as I put on my Captain Obvious hat here: Not all small businesses are the same. Some are a lot more visible than others, like the ones with physical locations, especially ones in busy downtown areas. Those shops are easy to be aware of and to support. But what about the companies that operate only online? From talking with fellow digital entrepreneurs, I gather that those of us who aren’t so visible aren’t seeing many benefits from Support Small.
Take my company, for example. Thinklings is online-only; it’s the best business model for our particular situation. We save tons of money working out of our home offices, which means we can pay our amazing authors the way they deserve, with higher royalty percentages than the big publishers give. We know that building and sustaining a company (like writing a great novel) is a long, hard, uphill battle, but we’re passionately committed to our cause, which will help us stay in the fight.
Yet every business needs a lot of outside support to survive, especially in this economy. That’s where online-only is a clear disadvantage: If you can’t find us, how can you help us? Despite growing Thinklings’ three social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) significantly over the past year, running as many Facebook and Amazon ads as we can afford, and reaching out to numerous bloggers and other influencers, we still don’t have nearly as much visibility as we’d like or as we need. I’m constantly hunting for new publicity opportunities, but since I am just one woman who has to run a household on top of my company, and I have an autoimmune condition sapping my energy, I can only do so much so quickly.
I’m not wallowing in self-pity; I just wanted to give people a glimpse of what it’s like down in the trenches, to spread awareness of the everyday realities of a small-business owner. Many of us work from home because our health prohibits an “in-public” job—I’m taking immunosuppressants in the middle of a pandemic. Through the struggles, I consider my advantage to be this: I’m a scrappy underdog who won’t go down without a fight. My immune system almost killed me when I was 23, back in 2006. Every day since has been a battle, so I’m used to fighting now—and gosh darn it, while I’m still here I’m determined to do something worthwhile! I found my calling, my passion, helping fellow underdog authors, when two friends and I founded Thinklings in summer 2019. I would guess that many other small businesses are hanging in there for similar reasons . . . zeal for a cause, hopes and dreams, and maybe limited other career options.
Back to my conversation with the lady from the BBB. I told her I hadn’t noticed any increase at all in sales since I started using the #SupportSmall hashtags, and we were speculating about why—aside from Thinklings’ lack of visibility and that we sell a niche product. She suggested another reason for the movement’s failure to help many online-only businesses could be that people want to be seen and recognized when they do good things. I understand that; it’s human nature. We all have the desire to be seen, appreciated, and liked. I sure do. But I hope we don’t let our thirst for recognition and praise become the sole reason we help others.
After the phone call ended, I kept pondering, and I realized another reason people are much more likely to only seek out and support visible small businesses: We like to be able to see the smile we’re putting on someone’s face when we buy from them. Nothing wrong with that—it’s a great experience that I enjoy. It makes us feel like we are truly making a difference. (We are!) In contrast, shopping online feels cold and impersonal. But let’s try to remember that there is a person on the other end. The eBay seller or the Etsy shop owner is also going to light up with a big grin or do a happy dance when they get sales.
COVID-19 has greatly shaken up many people’s daily routine. We’re finding new ways of working, playing, learning, and shopping, and I’ve found myself trying new things and having new experiences that I’m not sure I would have otherwise had. While we’re in the middle of all this shifting and changing, it’s the perfect time to become more active in seeking out less-visible small businesses. Let’s reach for the hands they’re holding out, because two arms stretch farther than one.
America, I’m really proud of you. I’m proud that we have #SupportSmall and that this pandemic is bringing out the best in so many of us. As a nation, we’re becoming more empathetic. We’re developing camaraderie and “team spirit.” The cliché is true: We are all in this together. I can’t see you, and you can’t see me, but in a way, we’re not so different and not so far apart.
Sarah Awa lives in Ohio with two hairy guys and writes books about werewolves.