The Entrepreneurial Spirit: An "Accidental Entrepreneur" - Sarah Towle's Path from Creative Writer to Agile Publisher


I've been delighted to be consulting for the past few years with Sarah Towle, a woman who's been transforming herself from a hardworking author to an even harder working author and publisher striving to, as Sarah says, “combine the traditional power of storytelling with the magic of the touchscreen to create portals to the past.” A few weeks ago, at a splendid event hosted by KidLit TV in New York City, Sarah officially launched her company, Time Traveler Tours & Tales, which is a digital-first multiformat publishing company with the goal of turning kids on to history by turning history on. I’m delighted to have Sarah with us on “our stories, ourselves” to talk about what led her to start her own company and to share some advice and lessons she’s learning along the way. Welcome, Sarah!


[edd] How did you come to start Time Traveler Tours &Tales? What problem do you see Time Traveler Tours &Tales positioned to solve?

[st] I didn’t set out to forge this path. Far from it. I was content in my career as a language and literacy educator. In my last role, I helped to run a citywide initiative in New York City to train whole school populations—from admin to teachers to students to janitorial staff—in how to negotiate conflict creatively. We taught the concepts through children’s literature, then developed skills through dramatic role-play. It was a fabulous job. I was changing lives. And I loved it.

Then, in 2004, my husband’s job took us to France. Two years sounded like the perfect amount of time for a mid-career sabbatical. I would learn French, be a full-time mom, and discover everything I possibly could about the history and culture of Paris. I would return to my career smart and refreshed. But two years turned into five, and the French authorities refused to let me teach. Then the global economic crisis wiped out my job back home. So at what should have been the pinnacle of my professional life, I was forced to start over.

At that point, my daughter was a tween and I came face to face with a huge issue in education: At the secondary level, school cultures worldwide make a dramatic shift. Kids are suddenly swamped by the tyranny of testing and rigor. Instead of getting out and about to explore the world around them, they are constrained by textbooks, timetables, and walls. Even in Paris, where history whispers from every cobblestone, field trips to local museums, monuments, and other historic sites are few and far between.

Paris at the outbreak of French Revolution
Ironically, as I was growing more enamored of my adopted home and more appreciative of how its history affects and influences its culture today, my daughter and her friends were turning off to history. I resolved to use my skills as an educator to write a fun interactive book of the history of Paris for them that would include a story and great characters layered among the historical details. Folks are now calling this concept “Place-Based Education”—learning through the unique history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular location. But when I tested a chapter of my book on a group of forty-eight 14-year-olds, they insisted it would make a better app than book.

the app
As a teacher, I had cut my teeth on CD-Roms and other web-based learning tools. I was already thinking digitally, but didn’t know it. Many editors had at that point lauded my concept and the execution of my manuscript and vision, but they didn’t know where it fit on a bookstore shelf. What’s more, in the economic climate of 2009-10, publishers were unwilling to take a risk on something so new and different, particularly historical fiction/creative nonfiction.

So I ran with the kids’ advice. I created a company, Time Traveler Tours, set up an embarrassingly ugly website, and in July 2011, I launched our proof-of-concept StoryAppTour, Beware Madame la Guillotine: A RevolutionaryTour of Paris. (link here)

the book
The app was a critical success, but its use was limited to people with an iPhone in Paris. So when Apple introduced iBooksAuthor in 2012, I republished the story as an interactive book for iPad 
(link here) for the school and library markets. Then, recognizing that there are still many learning environments that can’t afford new technologies, I released a print version (link here) of my revolutionary tale in 2014. A curriculum guide soon followed. With all of these various formats of the story now in circulation, I created a second imprint, Time Traveler Tales, and the Time Traveler Tours & Tales “title suite” was born. 

What an amazing creative evolution you and your work are going through! So, what inspired you to make the (huge!) leap from self-produced author to independent publisher?

Honestly, this has all been a sort of happy accident brought on by loss and change, the need to adapt and the willingness to listen to the muse. That’s why I call myself an “accidental entrepreneur.”

While Beware Madame La Guillotine continues to be a critical success, it’s not been a commercial one. However, the interactive story-history-tour concept seemed to be touching hearts and minds, a “hiding in plain sight” kind of idea. I realized I needed to gain some business acumen before deciding which way to move forward, if at all. I sought advice wherever I could find it, and fell into a start-up meet-up community at the suggestion of Dominique Raccah, Publisher of Sourcebooks. Thus began my education into the world of agile publishing.

In 2013, I attended a “Startup Weekend” in Paris—it was basically speed dating for visionaries and geeks. In fifty-four hours, the motley crew I was able to assemble there produced an app based on my concepts for Beware Madame La Guillotine and we went on to achieve a stunning 2nd place victory. With that came a touch of free mentoring and a bit of seed capital and the confidence that my idea could be scaled into a business with multiple revenue streams.

I loved the idea of expanding this platform to showcase stories and content by authors other than myself. And in April, 2014, while we were both teaching at Julie Hedlund’s Writers Renaissance Retreat in Florence, bestselling author Mary Hoffman pitched me an idea for an interactive tour to the world of Michelangelo through a story from the point of view of the model who stood for the artist’s famous statue of David.
Sarah's Kickstarter Campaign home page
Mary Hoffman, David, Sarah 
with original map of Florence by Roxie Munro
That's when it all clicked: I now had a world- renowned author interested in working with me as well as a bit of money and a few trusted consultants and advisers to guide the process. It was time to create a real team to help make it all a reality. I’m lucky enough to have found a terrific team of people to help me brainstorm every bit of this new company (from the creative aspects to the marketing and business aspects and everything in between) and together we decided to use Kickstarter to raise funds for—and spread the word about—our launch title by Mary Hoffman which is called In the Footsteps of Giants. (link here

[Note from edd: Sarah has written a series of informative and honest "case study" posts that chronicle her team's decision to use Kickstarter, what's required of a good Kickstarter campaign, and what the entire Kickstarter process for this project has been like from beginning to end. For more information, see her blog here.]

Congratulations on your successful Kickstarter Campaign! I think your mission to bring history to life for contemporary audiences is so exciting and I'm honored to have contributed a backer reward for authors! You sure are wearing a lot of hats. How do you manage a life/work balance?

Oh boy! Balance has been elusive since the Kickstarter campaign began on May 19. But I know I will find it again when the campaign concludes on June 26. Prior to the kick-off, I found balance thanks to the routines imposed on me by my four-legged companion, Gryffindog. He forces me out of my chair at regular intervals. I also endeavor to practice yoga every morning as I listen to the news, and I sing with a local choir every Monday evening.

Because I live five hours ahead of the business day in New York, I can give myself over to pure creative writing time each morning while my colleagues are sleeping. I return to “business” and social media and the buzz of life after my first long walk with Gryffin. This means I put in very long hours, starting my day in London GMT and ending in EST. But it’s the only way I manage to get everything done.

I’m also very fortunate to have a husband who loves to shop and cook. He keeps me fed. We recently emptied the nest—our daughter, Lily, is now at university—and simultaneously relocated to London. I now have few friends and no children at home. So it’s a good time to be working twelve- to fifteen-hour days  six or seven days a week, which is par for the course for any one starting up a business.

What are three lessons and/or surprises you've experienced as an accidental entrepreneur? What does anyone thinking about becoming their own boss and business owner need to know?

* Very few companies are making it by just producing apps. That’s why I wish to re-purpose the creative assets of our future StoryAppTours to produce story content across multiple formats. I also believe we should make our stories accessible where our young audiences want them most. And not everyone has a smartphone or tablet.

* Making one app that contains a single story is not a commercially viable business model. For this reason, our goal now is to build a single app framework that can contain a multitude of stories. With that framework we can produce TTT&T-branded apps as well as white-label apps for any future company clients, museums, or other cultural institutions, which will provide us with multiple revenue streams.

* In the digital age, collaboration is key. Sharing ideas and tips, even code, makes great business sense.

This is such great advice. Three warnings you might give others seeking to start their own businesses?

* Be ready to work hard. And then work harder. And then work even harder again.

* Don’t expect your nearest and dearest to understand or even be supportive. And don’t fault them for it. You’ll find your support in unexpected places and it will come to you via mysterious ways.

* Be prepared for everything to take longer than you think it will and for your path forward to be fraught with some frustration and some rejection. But stay the course and remain focused on your dream. If it’s a good one, it will eventually take flight.

These are terrifically honest and helpful answers. I love the entrepreneurial community--people like you, who are paving new paths, are always willing to help others along with advice, guidance, and more. So, did you always consider yourself an "authorpreneur"?

When I was strictly authoring, I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. But then I realized that all of us trying to live by our craft must act as our own little businesses. In contrast to, say, Michelangelo’s day, there are few patrons like the de’ Medicis today who support artists. All creative people are therefore entrepreneurs. And it’s in working together and supporting each other that we make magic happen.

Here's to making magic happen!  UPDATE:  Sarah's Kickstarter campaign was fully funded before the end of the campaign. Congratulations, Sarah!


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  3. Then the global economic crisis wiped out my job back home. So at what should have been the pinnacle of my professional life, I was forced to start over.


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