Inspiring small businesses: Page 1 Books

In our ‘Inspiring small businesses’ series we share and celebrate great stories from fellow small business owners who took their idea to the next level and built their own business. Starting your own business is a huge step, no matter how small your business is, so by bringing you closer to the great minds behind these inspiring businesses, we hope that you will find motivation and survival tips for building yours.

Our next inspiring business story is told by Brandy O’Briant, the founder of Page 1 Books, a hand picked book subscription business based in Chicago. Enjoy!

What is it that you do?

Page 1 Books is a bespoke book subscription business, think Book of the Month Club meets StitchFix.  We believe that readers are not algorithms and we offer the hand-selling you would find in your local independent bookstore in a subscription box.  When you sign up for a Page 1 subscription, you fill out a questionnaire about books and authors you like, don’t like, and why.  We also will ask for a Goodreads link, if you have one, so we can dig a little deeper into a reader’s literary life.  Then each month, the reader will receive a box with a book picked especially for them, beautifully wrapped, a literary-type treat, a literary themed candle, book darts, etc.  And sometimes a literary postcard.  Always a seasonally appropriate literary quote on a note from us, The Literary Matchmakers.  

We want the experience to be as easy for the reader as possible.  If they have the book or don’t like what we chose, we will send them a new one straight away. No need to even go to the post office and return the original one. We ask that they pass it along to someone who may enjoy it or pop it in a Free Little Library with our compliments. We think sharing good books is good karma.  (And good marketing!)

What’s the story behind your business?

Page 1 was conceived a bit on a whim.  My career has been in advertising and marketing, mostly consumer retail products, and I was an SVP at an agency here in Chicago.  Reading has always been my passion.  And I am that friend you go to asking, what should I read next?  No one ever leaves my house without a book I pushed into their hands.  Going to Romania?  Here, you must read The Historian.  Major disappointing life change?  You must read When Things Fall Apart.  And so on.  I was out one night with some of my colleagues that I really enjoy (having had a massage and a few martinis!), and so relaxed and feeling brave, I floated the idea by them after one asked me for a book recommendation.  Their response was enthusiastic, so I also floated it with some readers I really trusted.  People seemed to crave that sweet spot between the impersonal Amazon and the standard type of book box. 

Readers like that personal interaction of an independent bookstore, but not everyone has access to one.  That weekend, with the help of my daughter, we put up a Shopify website, started some social media feeds, put about $5 behind a Facebook post, and sat back to see what happened.  Looking back, I can see that this was the way I had to start a business.  I am naturally somewhat risk averse and if I’d thought to much about it, I probably wouldn’t have done it.  I had to jump in with whatever resources I had and just do it.  And learn along the way.

As we evolved, I also recognized I need to be flexible and accept what I don’t know.  I originally ran the kids subscription and realized I just wasn’t in touch with Children’s Literature because my kids were older and I had been away from it for so long.  But my sister, in Seattle, who has two young kids, is.  So, I handed off that part of the business for her to run.  Also, I am one person and this is a lot of physical and mental work.  I was lucky to meet someone in the #bookstagram world who was just as into Page 1 as I was.  Kristen is now my book choosing and book wrapping partner and she’s also great with display, design, and event marketing, none of which are my forte.  We are building a team based on everyone’s strengths and that is the happiest place to be.

What inspired you to start your own business?

I don’t think I set out to start a real business.  I set out to develop a mechanism to share recommendations with my friends and any other person who might be interested.  Page 1 was my side-hustle for about 18 months and I knew I was reaching critical mass balancing it with my day job.  And then the luckiest thing happened that definitely did not seem lucky at the time.  I was laid off.  It was a shock, but not entirely uncommon in the ad business.  I gave myself a week to mourn and adjust.  I meditated.  I asked the universe what I was supposed to learn from this.  And the response was always Page 1.  In hindsight, I acknowledge that as a parent with older kids and college payments, I probably never would have made that leap on my own.  But it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

What is the most difficult aspect of running your own business?

Knowing that there are so many things I don’t know.  What kind of business entity do I want to be?  How to manage minor bookkeeping as we got ramped up.  To bootstrap or to finance? If I was more of a people person, I would have joined some kind of small business group or something of that ilk.  But that’s just not in my nature.  I like to learn on the job and the learning curve was steep and keeps on going!

What is the best thing about running your own business?

Three things:

  1. Control over my time.  I am thrilled to choose where I work and when.  My days are completely flexible if I need them to be.  If I want to work from 6am to 2pm, so be it.  I want to not work on Friday but work on Sunday, so be it.  And definitely not having a 2+ hour total commute into the city everyday…heaven.

  2. Doing something I am interested in.  I read somewhere that your work should be whatever it is you do in your spare time.  For me, I was always reading or thinking about reading or investigating new books and writers.  On vacation, I always want to go to literary destinations, Charles Dickens house, the setting of The House with Seven Gables, Bath, etc.  Now if I want, I can plan those and they are actually part of my job.  For example, every April, I would participate in Independent Bookstore Day and go to as many independent bookstores as I could.  This year, we have created a IBD Field Trip in Chicagoland and are chauffeuring people to the stores, hosting a nice lunch, and giving them all kinds of the treats bookish people go crazy for.  And getting paid for it!

  3. Involving my family.  We are a family of readers and everyone has had their hand in the business in one way or another.  Our oldest took all the photos for the original website.  Two others have helped with wrapping and boxing.  Another has great book recommendations.  It’s fun to have older kids now and have them be a part of something with me.  Honestly, I couldn’t have done this without them and the support of my husband.

To find out more about Page 1 Books visit their website or follow them on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.

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