In these strange times, the power of positivity has never been more important.
Whilst many businesses have temporarily paused their operations due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, others have kept things ticking over to offer a little slice of happiness.
With this in mind, Michelle Connolly caught up with Astra McNicholl, who established the Itty Bitty Book Company along with her husband, Al. Check it out and don’t forget to subscribe to ProfileTree’s Business Leader series for more industry-leading insights!
Bringing Happy Vibes to the World
Growing up in an adventurous family, Astra spent her childhood living and travelling across South Africa, the Carribean, Australia, England and America. She met her husband, Al, 13 years ago in England before moving to Northern Ireland three months into their relationship. The couple fell in love with the country, settling down into life in Ireland.
But how did Astra get the inspiration behind The Itty Bitty Book Company? She casts her memory back to her childhood, when she loved quotes and scribbled them into her school notebooks.
“I’ve also been fascinated how combinations of words can come together to help people feel better,” she explains. “The first book was created in Christmas 2012, when my sister was preparing to make a long journey by boat. She loves my happy vibes and my positivity, so I wanted to pour a little bit of that into something that she could take with her. She loved it, showed it to her friends and the idea really took off.”
For Astra, putting together such a book helped her to bring out the very best of her personality for the enjoyment of the rest of the world.
“I was pregnant with my son, and I began to wonder about how I could potentially make a business out of this. We opened up our Etsy store that Christmas and sold our first couple of books online. My son was born in February, and my husband handed his notice in to his graphic designer job. Before I let him get stuck into freelance work, I roped him into working with me on designing the books. He stayed with it, we made a great team, and now Al and I have been in business together since 2013.”
The driver behind The Itty Bitty Company highlights that having her first child was the main catalyst behind launching the brand.
“When you have a child, you do acknowledge that aspects of your life will fall apart, and certain parts will have to rebuild. After the birth of our son, we decided that we would rebuild our lives in a way which was better than before. Looking back on this now, we know how risky this was,” says Astra.
“We set up the business with £700 – but I always joke that enthusiasm and passion got us through the first two years!”
Growing Pains and Learning Curves
What challenges did Astra and Al face as they set up The Itty Bitty Book Company? As the founder explains, some of the biggest challenges were in realising what they needed to start out with.
“There’s a lot of support out there for new businesses in Northern Ireland, which is great. However, in those early days, we didn’t know how to be specific enough to get the help I needed, and that came years down the line. I was eventually able to ask for help with SEO for my website, and people don’t know how to help you with things like that unless you’re really specific. Knowing what we needed was one of the biggest early challenges.”
Astra has one pertinent piece of advice for business owners: always remember that there are just 24 hours in day.
“We both quit our jobs, so it was quite pressured at the beginning. We set up as market traders at St. George’s Market to get some income to support us through it. It was a lot of work and a lot of hours – way more than you actually think it’s going to be. However, the experience in the market was amazing, and meeting other business owners who had the same challenges as me was really rewarding.”
The couple made a marked shift in their business model, moving out of St. George’s Market and setting up a fully online eCommerce platform to sell their books. According to Astra, this was a business risk that paid off in the long-run.
“I wrote a personal blog before we set up the business, so I was already familiar with this aspect of digital. Admittedly, it took a while for us to realise the value of sharing that authentic side of us – it’s such a scary thing to do, especially when we are supposed to be positive?” she laughs.
“The last two years have really helped push us along that road, and we’ve had our own amazing journey to go through and share together.”
Encouraging Positive Mental Health
The couple have worked together as a team through difficult times, and have recently celebrated the conclusion of a successful fundraising round.
“We wanted to bring positive mental health and kindness into schools. A lot of people had been buying our journals to do at home with their families, which is amazing. But we did realise that those children were privileged to have those books purchased for them, and privileged enough to have the emotional intelligence to understand them.
“We asked our community to help us bring out gratitude journals into 50 of our schools. We hit our target thanks to donations from Council and our supporters. We hand-delivered the books and met the teachers, and we’ve had amazing feedback from our 30-day challenge. They’ve noticed a real difference in the kids – even if it’s something as simple as saying thank-you to each other more often. When you hear this feedback over and over again and you know you’re making an impact – that’s just so rewarding. Individually, teachers noticed a big difference with certain people – especially with stress around exam time.”
Where does the future lie for The Itty Bitty Book Company? Astra projects hope for the future – but is always mindful of taking care of life at home first.
“We had huge plans about targeting America, expanding and more. But we have our own challenges to overcome closer to home. We want to keep making those personal connections and we want to keep hearing the stories we’re hearing about making people feel better. Keeping that at the forefront whilst making a positive impact is our goal. Then, maybe after a few years we can focus on running the world!”
Those wishing to learn more about The Itty Bitty Book Company can view a full range of products on the brand’s official website. Interested parties are also invited to reach out to Astra McNicholl directly via LinkedIn.
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