Meet Reem Makhoul
Founder of Ossass Stories
When Reem couldn’t find any books written in colloquial Arabic to share with her two young daughters, she teamed up with her partner Stephen, set up a publishing company and decided to write her own. Here she shares her startup story…
Tell us about Ossass Stories.
It’s a small publishing company that my husband and I set up in New York in 2015. We write illustrated children’s books in conversational Arabic instead of the very stylized, formal, language that you find in most Arabic children’s books. We think that children engage more with a book if it is written in a style that they can relate to. Like The Cat in the Hat or Winnie the Pooh. We write the books ourselves. An illustrator does the drawings. We send them to small printing houses. Then we market and distribute the books ourselves.
What inspired you to start your own business?
Teaching my daughter Arabic was the catalyst. Nobody else was writing the kind of books that engaged her, so I decided to do it myself. My husband and I are both journalists, so writing comes easily to us. Our first daughter was the initial inspiration behind the stories that we write. The heroine of our first series of books is called Sheherazade — our daughter’s name, but also the name of the fictional narrator of the ’Tales of 1001 Nights.’ The books show how she thinks, what she sees and how her imagination is developing as she gets older. They also show a young Arab girl growing up in a big Western city, which is not the usual setting for Arabic books.
How did you turn your idea into a reality?
We started from scratch, and just took it step by step. Write a story. Search the internet to find an Arabic-speaking illustrator whose style suited ours. Hire a lawyer who knew the world of publishing. Find a printer. Set up a commercial website. Figure out how to publicize the books on social media. Store the books at home or in friends’ garages. Come up with a cheap and simple system for registering orders and stock-taking. There was no single ‘we have built a company’ moment. We just keep adding new cogs or wheel to the machine as we need them.
What has been your biggest business success so far?
I think the one thing that turned it from just a garage full of books to a functioning sales business was that our business model of generating sales through social media worked. As journalists we know how to write catchy headlines and interesting blog posts, so we were able to create free, reasonably interesting publicity material on social medias sites. We knew that would eventually generate interest from Arab newspapers, and it did. That in turn generated more interest on social media. So we got to the stage where we were telephoning bookshops and they were saying, “Yes, we read about you guys. Tell us more.”
What is the most challenging aspect of running your own business?
Two things: managing time and overcoming traditionalist ideas. It is hard running a business with (now) two daughters running around the house. And it is hard selling the idea of books written in a casual, colloquial, style to booksellers and language teachers who were brought up to believe that all Arabic books should be written in the same formal style — whether for children or for lawyers, bankers and newspapers.
What do you enjoy most about working for yourself?
Making all the creative decisions for ourselves without interference from anyone else. We get to see our ideas turned into beautiful words and pictures, and see a cute phrase that our daughter says get turned into an illustrated book that is read by hundreds of other children.
What’s your secret to balancing a growing business while raising a family?
Compartmentalization. I give my children my attention when they are around. Then as soon as they are in school, or having a playdate with friends, I use that two or six-hour window to knock one or two things off the business ‘to-do’ list. Sometimes one of those ‘to-do’ things just has to be ‘sleep’.
What tips do you have for other mums who want to venture out on their own?
Taking days off from your kids, and not working from home. My daughter was 5 years old, and I was 9 months pregnant when we published our first book, and a few months later we moved from New York to London. After settling down I wanted to focus on my business, so I hired a nanny to watch my then 10-month-old daughter twice a week, and a few months later I put her in nursery twice a week. The days she was in the nursery or with the nanny were by far the most productive business days for me. It was a win-win situation, because she was anyway at the stage where she needed to be getting stimulation by being around other children and new people, and I had the chance to focus on growing Ossass and focusing on work. I also made sure to work in a café and not at home because when I was at home, I always ended up either washing dishes, doing laundry, cooking, tidying. The café was like an office, and I had a deadline of my daughters’ school pick up as my end of day at work.
What’s next for Ossass Stories?
We are thinking laterally. We now know how to print books, so we are exploring different multimedia projects — audio books, phone apps, music, and perhaps publishing books by other authors. We have had some people asking us if we can print their books, and we’ve seen some really good submissions. All that might help cross-fertilize interest in our own books. It’s really exciting.
To find out more about Ossass Stories visit their website: http://www.ossass-stories.com.