By Mike Vaggalis ’18
Co-Founder of Keepsake Tales
The idea of being a startup founder is alluring. It promises freedom, the ability to blaze our own trail, and to make an impact in this wild world. For me, my “big idea” started with a dream about creating a personalized children’s book which, I thought, could make kids excited to read books and solve the looming “screen-time problem”.
Throughout my entrepreneurial journey, I learned very quickly that your first idea is almost always wrong. I learned at Kellogg that the biggest reason founders fail, is that they cling too tightly to their initial “big idea”, don’t do any market research, and then spend a lot of time and money solving a problem that nobody actually has.
It was because of my education at Kellogg that I started Keepsake Tales with an early advantage in this way. In 2019, I took Professor Jeff Eschbach’s New Venture Discovery course, where I “got out of the building” and interviewed hundreds of people. I learned that, while people are excited about the idea of a more personalized children’s book, it’s not because they need a solution to a screen-time problem. Instead, I learned that there’s immense underrepresentation in traditionally published children’s literature and that when kids don’t see themselves represented in the books that they read, they start to question their value and self-worth. I realized that the problem to be solved wasn’t “screen time,” but instead on value.
This insight reframed our thinking about the business and brought us to our current vision statement: to show every child that they are one of a kind and intrinsically valuable. This vision underpins every decision that we make every single day.
The challenges of entrepreneurship
Now, I wish that I could say it’s been smooth sailing since that time. I can’t. In reality, my entrepreneurial journey has broken me. That sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not. In the breaking, I’ve learned more about our market, our customers, and business in general. It’s also been in the fracture points that I’ve learned about faith, myself, and about what really matters in this life.
In the spring of 2020, we entered a business competition with about 150 other startups. The top five companies earned a $50,000 non-dilutive grant. Keepsake Tales was company number six. At the time, we were dreaming of an automated personalization platform and a real marketing budget and losing the grant was devastating, almost business killing.
But, we rallied. We got scrappy and got back to market with our second (non-tech enabled) book. We relied on revenue share-based partnerships to get to market and we learned a ton.
Ironically, if we had earned that grant, or if we had closed an initial funding round in those early days, we would have spent the money all wrong. In truth, we still needed to learn lessons from our customers that we could only learn in market. We needed to learn by selling real books to real people and getting real feedback.
Even today, I often go back to my slides from Kellogg, and I talk with my Kellogg community constantly. My classmates, and several professors from Kellogg have been with me on every step of this journey. They are there for encouragement, coaching and guidance. I am so thankful to be a part of the Kellogg family. There’s a major difference between learning concepts in a classroom and learning them by getting punched in the face, and yet If it weren’t for my Kellogg foundation, I would have been sunk on this journey a long time ago.
Continuing to grow
So. Where are we today? We did finally close that first round of funding, and we built a technology that really works. We’re continuing to learn from our customers every day. We’re testing new business models, growing our team, and gearing up for our first ever fully tech enabled sale. In everything we do, we’re pursuing our single vision – to help every child understand that they are one of a kind and intrinsically valuable. We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way.
I’d invite you check out our work at www.keepsaketales.com. As we work to share the news about our new personalized children’s books, we can’t think of a better place to start than right here with this wonderful Kellogg community.