Defeated by the cost of childcare for two young children, Jenny Thomas decided to leave her 9-5 and set up an online shop selling “children’s books that are so cool parents want to steal them”. Here’s her story…
Jenny, 32, lives in Forest Hill, south east London, with her husband and their two children: Bess, four, and Gabriel, 21 months
When and why did you decide to set up shop?
I started thinking about it when I was on maternity leave last year. Amidst the nappies and sleepless nights and seemingly endless days, I was sadly pre-occupied with thoughts of returning to work.
I had paused my ‘career’ [in fashion PR] when I had Bess and I already knew that I wouldn’t return to it. Subsequently I became a part-time copywriter, which paid the bills and was mildly interesting but I knew my heart wasn’t in it and I hoped to have another child at some point.
After doing the sums for two sets of childcare and forecasting a future of sorting out wraparound school care, drop-offs, homework, school holidays and sick days, it seemed nonsensical to go back to a job that wasn’t going anywhere.
Smallprint was born over the space of about nine months and aside from some Christmas markets in 2014, we launched the shop online in March of this year.
What are you selling?
Children’s books that are so cool parents want to steal them. We source from as many small and independent publishers as possible to find unusual titles, but they all have to be well designed, beautifully executed and illustrated, and stimulating for adults and kids alike.
We have pop-ups, paper art, poetry, board books, lift-the-flap books, pictures and story books. We concentrate on newborn-six years but we’re looking to grow a collection for five-eight year olds. We sell books that make thoughtful gifts and will take pride of place in the nursery or on the coffee table.
I love the Mamoko books for their modern ‘seek and find’ approach to interactive reading
As a family we enjoy reading books together but we found that the ones on our shelves were the usual suspects. There’s definitely a place for all of these amazing books in the home but we wondered if there were any books out there that would motivate us to put a bit of extra effort into the witching hour before bed.
When Gabriel was born, Bess craved some support and attention, and story-time was the only one-on-one time each day. It saddened me to think I was wishing it away whilst reading the same, generic and heavily branded paperback every night so I looked to find books I enjoyed as well.
How’s the business going?
Slowly. I am first and foremost a mother and following the summer holidays and an emotional reception start, I’ve found myself lacking in time to concentrate on the shop… but we’re still growing and getting orders and a positive response.
We do very well when we take the bookshop to festivals and fairs and I have a loyal customer base. It would be my dream to have a bricks and mortar shop one day. I’m concentrating on growing my audience so I can increase orders and reinvest in more stock.
What’s most difficult about setting up on your own?
I find it really hard to motivate myself. When I had the initial idea and vision for the brand I ploughed loads of effort into researching and was very proactive. When it launched, I took a short rest and now there are some days when I would love to have someone here working alongside me sharing my passion and giving me a kick up the backside.
I work from home, which is hard as I have to try and ignore the jobs that need doing and stop clock-watching for nursery or school pickup time. It’s also hard trying to learn everything myself and trust that I’m making good decisions, particularly about where to invest money and where to cut back.
Has your attitude towards reading changed since having children?
My interest in picture books has blown up into an obsession. When I started to realise how much sensory discovery assisted the development of babies as young as a few weeks, I found it interesting to see what was out there.
Bess is interested in learning to read and we have always done extensive book-time before bed. Now that she’s at school, I’m paying more attention to the types of books we have and we spend a lot of time looking at good rhyming text.
Why are books important for our kids?
Books are places where you can learn about the world, where you can discover the familiar and unfamiliar, grasp new concepts, let your mind wonder and ultimately fuel that amazing imagination that young children have before it becomes full of answers and the questions dry up.
I often crawl into bed by 10pm. Wild
We really enjoy wordless books as they encourage endless daydreaming about who is feeling what, where are they going, what are they doing. TV has a place in everyone’s lives (ours probably more than most) but I will always be in love with books and want my children to feel the same way.
What’s your favourite children’s book?
I love the Mamoko books for their modern ‘seek and find’ approach to interactive reading, I love Alice Melvin’s The High Street, for the beautiful text and illustrations and I’m mad about Benjamin Chad’s ‘The Bear’s Song’ because it’s oversized and just has something very special about it.
What does an average day look like for you and your family?
At the moment Gabriel alerts us to his presence anywhere from 5-6am, Bess is usually up at 7am and my husband and I will generally both get up around the same time or if I’ve been up in the night, he’ll take them down.
Breakfast is usually Shreddies or Weetabix with raisins or fruit for the kids and the same for the adults although I don’t actually eat breakfast until about 10am. It’s a mad and chaotic scene of disorganisation where cereal ends up squashed into your socks, we use every utensil in the house and the kids are still crying.
In amongst this mess I always have a hot chocolate without fail. I’m sure it should be hot water and lemon but that wouldn’t cut it, I’m afraid. We then share being ‘on call’ for the demands of the kids, steal a shower, get dressed, and two minutes to do make-up is a must.
My husband usually heads off to work around 8.30am. Now that we’re doing the school run, I chase Bess around until she has some clothes on (uniform is optional and she always finds a way to fight the choice) and brush her hair whilst she complains.
Gabriel is usually snotty, still in his nighttime nappy and covered in crusty cereal. He gets a quick change; we do teeth, gather belongings and head off to school. Two days a week I then take him to nursery and rush home to start squeezing work in.
Try to get some childcare plans in place so that you can have at least a bit of time to work each week
I work at home in my living room at the dining table and my books are all stored in boxes on shelves. I grab a sandwich for lunch but try not to leave my seat, as it’s too easy to get distracted. If I have orders to send I package them up and head off to the post office. The doorbell always goes for deliveries.
Work stops at 3.30pm to get Bess from school and sometimes I bring her friends home too, Gabriel is picked up at 5.30pm. On the other three days of the week I have Gabriel at home and we do the usual mixture of playdates, park, music – interspersed with cleaning, shopping, tidying and working when I can.
Both of my kids are fussy eaters so I struggle with ideas; quite often dinner will be pasta and sausage-based but with loads of veggies and fruit. I then wrestle them into the bath and Gabriel goes to bed around 7pm, I do books with Bess and it’s lights off by 8pm latest (she doesn’t usually go to sleep, though, and we’re often in and out for some time putting on CDs, fetching tissues, removing imaginary goblins).
Then it’s downstairs to cook dinner for me and my husband – who returns anywhere between 7-9pm – and clear up the chaos, do the washing up, put away work etc and I often crawl into bed by 10pm. Wild.
You wanted to have both time with your family and a way to generate your own income – have you succeeded in your quest?
No, not yet. I have succeeded at time with the family, as I’m fortunate to be the one who picks up Bess each day. Gabriel hates nursery so cries a lot, he is very clingy at home but that’s ok as I’m able to be here for him.
I’m ALWAYS the one the kids want at every waking moment, which is hard for me but also hard for Joe, as he wants to help more. I’m working on the income thing but it will be some time before we have a profit – for now I’m happy to just grow the business and try to cut back on our family spending.
That said, we can’t exist on my husband’s salary forever and there is a real possibility that Gabriel won’t be able to stay in nursery – but that would leave a chicken and egg situation when it comes to moving the business on.
Any advice for other new mums setting up a business?
Work out how long you are going to try before you decide whether it is going somewhere or not. Joe and I said at the beginning that you only get the repercussions of a failed business if you don’t acknowledge it in time.
Try to get some childcare plans in place so that you can have at least a bit of time to work each week. I have two (broken up) days and had the best intentions of working evenings and weekends but with a toddler who has decided to feed again in the night I’m too tired.