Jasmine Richards is the author of over 15 books for children including Keeper of Myths published by Harper Collins US and several books in the Beast Quest series under a pen name. She is a former publisher who has worked at Puffin and OUP children’s books and she has edited hundreds of books. Jasmine is also the founder of Storymix: a children’s book incubator with a social purpose that creates stories with inclusive casts of characters. All children, regardless of background, get to be the heroes in these stories. Aziza’s Secret Fairy Door is the first title to be developed by Storymix and publishes in June 2021.
I’m the founder of a business called Storymix, a fiction packager. It works like a movie production company but for books! I come up with an idea for a children’s fiction book series, plot it, make a story-deck, find a writer and illustrator to help bring that to life through a few samples, and then pitch that to publishers. Storymix has a specific focus on inclusiveness and representation in children’s fiction. In the UK, 33% of children come from a minority background compared to just 5% of lead characters of colour in children’s books. Seeing all kids as heroes in books matters and we’re trying to tackle that problem by creating fiction that is inclusive. At the same time, Storymix also works on improving access for creators, both writers and illustrators, from BME background to get into publishing. Working with us is effectively like an apprenticeship – we can give lots of support and give important exposure and access to the publishing world.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
My background is in publishing as that’s what I did after university, alongside writing books for children. I worked in publishing houses for a long time and while I did enjoy that, once I had my second baby, the idea of going back and having less control over my time was problematic. The balance between being a parent and working to make a difference became harder. I tried freelancing and hated it – I felt like I had no power and was just offering a service. I missed the cut and thrust of business and found that those parts of my personality weren’t being fed by freelancing; I needed to run my own business.
At the same time, my eldest child was starting to read independently, and we found ourselves facing the very real problem that he was invisible in the stories he was reading. I realised I could use all my skills as an author and editor and make a business that would make a difference and actually fix this issue.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
For me, it’s about more than just noticing that a problem exists – it’s about recognising it and deciding that you’re the one that’s going to fix it. Many people can see that there’s something lacking but entrepreneurship is about the actual decision to tackle that lack.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
As soon as I had the idea of Storymix, I could immediately see both as a parent, and having worked in publishing, that creating series fiction with diverse characters would directly address a problem that needed fixing. It would have an immediate impact on what was available in the marketplace. Impact is the core premise of series fiction: you’re creating a lot of books at once. Once I thought about it, I knew it would be effective, but I still needed to test it in the industry. I had quite a few frank conversations with people in the industry and it was through these conversations that it was confirmed the idea had traction. When people tell you “I would buy your books, I think your idea would work”, that really gives you the confidence to pursue it.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I’d say the first one would definitely be being good at networking. As an entrepreneur, you need to be able to talk about what your business is with many different people with different backgrounds; you never know when an opportunity is going to arise. If you can get other people to be inspired by you business idea, then they can essentially do your work for you and spread the word about your business beyond your connections. Connected to this, therefore, I think being able to create a very clear mission statement about what your business is really important. It’s part of the reason why I think Storymix is so powerful because its mission is so strong, making it easier for others to understand what exactly it is that you’re pursuing as a business.
Another important skill, is storytelling. Being able to talk about your business as a story is key because, ultimately, people connect to stories and always have done
Finally, I’d say that it’s important to realise that you can and should sometimes ask for help. You shouldn’t feel like you need to do all parts of the business yourself because, no matter how skilled you are, that’s just not possible. Recognising your own strengths and weaknesses is key because it lets you reach out to people and fulfil roles and functions you could never do on your own.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
My favourite part is the fact that I get to choose which projects, specifically individual book series, I pursue. I’m not being told by someone else where to put my energy and I really value that.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
This is something I’ve actually thought about quite a lot and I’d have to go with Shonda Rhimes and her production company Shondaland. Shonda Rhimes is an American writer and producer, known for shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Bridgerton, and How to Get Away with Murder. She started as a writer but then created her own production company, which became massively successful and has allowed her to create her own content but also empower loads of other writers. She’s undeniably a real creative powerhouse and I’d love to be something similar in the world of books.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
At the stage I’m at with my business right now, I’d want to ask her how I can scale it. Currently, so much is rooted in my own creativity – how do I move from that to empowering other people’s creativity? How did she move from being a writer to having a production company where so many other people have their own agency but, at the end of the day, it all remains a Shondaland production?
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
I think that would definitely be selling my first series idea because at that point I didn’t have a proof of concept yet. Proof that this business really would work. This first series is shaping up to be everything I hoped it would be. The protagonist is a little Black girl having adventures in a magical fairyland, the story isn’t about trauma and her ethnicity is not a plot-point. The creators themselves have been given visibility and a platform for their talent as a result of the series. This series did everything I could wish for in every aspect. It’s a definite point of pride in the business’ story.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I’d say this is really a lesson I’m still learning, rather than a lesson I’ve already learnt. It would be not to spread yourself too thin and across too many projects – something will suffer, if not work it’s your home life. Starting a business requires intense focus but I also have a family, so it requires a lot of balancing and choosing of priorities.
How have you funded your ideas?
The funding has come from a combination of areas. I still write fiction and am a screenwriter so a large part of the funding has still been that, allowing me to pay for illustration and writing samples. I also received funding from the art council quite early on which was really useful in both giving me some breathing room and allowing me to focus more attention on the business itself, and in acting as a real vote of confidence so I could get it up and running. I also won a pitching competition in Oxfordshire, which was amazing and again provided a major confidence boost. You had to talk about your business for 2 minutes and then people voted, which really allowed me to learn the importance of storytelling.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The really good thing about Oxfordshire is that there’s this sprawling ecosystem of business support, with lots of different organisations feeding into the support of entrepreneurship. The good can also be the bad, however, as it can be hard to know exactly who does what, who provides what kind of support, who to reach out to. It can be quite overwhelming to figure it all out at first.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Because the ecosystem can be so confusing, I would definitely recommend them to get in touch with someone who does understand the ecosystem and can direct you to the right resources. I’d also recommend trying to get a mentor – I was very lucky that my mentor was a really impressive woman who had worked at Oxford University Press and was setting up her own coaching and mentoring business. I reached out and it’s really been invaluable since. The amazing thing about Oxford is that it’s so full of people who have done so many interesting things and who are all really willing to network and to help. Especially with the pandemic, it can be as easy as setting up a Zoom coffee and just starting to talk to them.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I think this comes down to the question of if you have children, who in your household is their primary carer? In my household, that would be me as my husband is a key worker. His work is literally life or death! That can really be a challenge when starting a business, especially with the pandemic and the increased housework as a result of it. I think that’s something that’s affected a lot of people, women specifically, in terms of who exactly is picking up the slack in the home and therefore can’t dedicate as much time to their business as they’d like.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I’ve been doing a lot of outsourcing recently which has been really useful. I accept that many might not be in a position financially to do this but doing what you can to really lift a burden off your shoulders is important. I’ve started outsourcing some of the cooking during the week for example. I don’t think I would’ve done this pre-pandemic.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
When the university put on events about entrepreneurship, especially before the pandemic when events were in person, I found that the times they would be held would typically be during the school run which made things inaccessible.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I think the two major things I’ve already touched upon would be mentorships and outsourcing if possible – I can’t recommend them enough.
Any last words of advice? Do you have any advice for people from a BME background who want to be entrepreneurs? What I think is really interesting right now is that there’s a lot of energy being put into supporting people from BME backgrounds. I’m of the opinion that if the offer of support is there, to go for it – it’s all about building up skills and networks to succeed. The fact that so many opportunities are opening up at the moment feels really positive.