We're About to Inspire You to Be the Boss
How a Lean-in-15 lightbulb moment turned one businesswoman global
Have you ever thought about starting your own business? Seriously, have you ever sat on your commute and thought, I wish I was doing something else? Something that I love, day in, day out? It's daunting though, isn't it, throwing caution to the wind and embarking on something new. What if it doesn't make any money? What if nobody likes it?
Well so what? At least you'll have tried.
Today we're talking to Mel Taylor-Bessent, founder of Authorfy, a company that creates engaging, accessible and interactive creative writing classes and delivers them to thousands of children in conjunction with schools, publishing houses and kid's authors. Mel is full of entrepreneurial wisdom and I'm so pleased she's on board to share with you her background, her motivation, her business prowess and her highlights of Authorfy and being her own boss. I hope you'll find her as inspiring as I do...
Everything about Authorfy - from the concept to the people you work with to the website itself - is amazing. Can you tell us how it all began, and your motivation for this idea?
I studied Creative Writing at uni and came close to becoming a published children’s author at the tender age of 20. I thought I was going to be rich, famous, and published on bookshelves all around the world (I can hear the publishing community laughing from here!). I had whole folders of cover ideas and was planning a launch party to end all launch parties. I was going to be the next JK Rowling, and maybe even have the book turned into a film. I even picked out the perfect actors and actresses to star in it! As you can probably guess, that wasn’t quite how it played out. Cue my literary agent announcing a career change before the first round of submissions and a sudden boom of angel novels flooding the shelves – yep, guess who else wrote an entire trilogy about a rebellious angel!? I soon realised that angel novels were ‘old news’ and my plans for overnight fame and riches would have to wait.
Despite everyone encouraging me to find a ‘real job’ after uni, it was the height of the recession, vacancies were scarce, and finding a job I loved that was close to home and allowed me the time to write were non-existent. So… I created one.
I combined my love of writing and working with children to launch creative writing workshops that helped children discover a love for literacy. I found a local school who were happy for me to conduct a 5-week trial, I paid £200 for a printer and some ink to create worksheets and activities, and I designed a do-it-yourself website from the computer in the corner of my bedroom. 5 years later, Little Star Writing workshops are now held in 30+ schools in South West London, I’ve hired over 50 tutors, won ‘Best Start Up 2012’ and ‘Best Educational Provider 2016’ awards, partnered with some of the world’s biggest children’s publishers, and taught thousands of children aged 6-16.
As you may have gathered from my dreams of becoming an author, I don’t do anything by half. I don’t want to be one step ahead of the game. I want to be ten steps ahead. This meant that as Little Star Writing grew and we began to receive emails from schools all over the UK (and even as far as Europe, Africa and Australia), it was time to think to the future.
Strangely, this came at a time when someone else in South West London was trying to expand their business after being inundated with requests from clients all over the country. Take a bow, Mr Joe Wicks, AKA ‘The Body Coach’ and creator of ‘Lean in 15’. I spent months brainstorming ideas and trying to think of a way to expand Little Star Writing, but kept coming back to the ‘Lean in 15’ book on my coffee table. As well as using it to get in shape for my wedding (also in 2016 – I did say I don’t do things by half!), the ‘Lean in 15’ approach gave me the lightbulb moment I was looking for. Joe Wicks created an online workout plan so clients could access it from anywhere in the world, so why couldn’t I create an online literacy platform that teachers and parents could use in the same way?
From that initial ‘lightbulb moment’, it took just 6 weeks to write a business plan, hire a Development Officer, select a web developer and secure an investor. The plan? To inspire more children, support more teachers, and promote more children’s authors. In a time when exams were becoming more stringent and children had tick-lists of academic targets, I wanted to add creativity to the classroom and introduce children to the rewarding nature of reading and writing. In a time of budget cuts and strict curriculum guidelines, I wanted to support teachers and provide them with easy-to-access resources that were educational, inspiring and enjoyable. In a time when children’s books were receiving less media coverage and authors were unable to meet the demand for school events, I wanted to promote more authors, books and genres in a way that appealed to the YouTube generation. In short, I wanted to start a #LiteracyRevolution. I called the platform AUTHORFY.
The website took ten months to build and in April 2017 we gave 50 schools an exclusive preview of the site, including schools in Dubai, Trindad & Tobago, and Argentina. With author masterclasses from bestselling, award-winning children’s authors, activity packs full of worksheets, writing challenges and learning resources, Author Advice videos, competitions, and so much more, I can’t wait to see what the future of Authorfy holds and look forward to opening it to all teachers, librarians, home-schoolers and parents in September 2017. As always, I want to be ten steps ahead so there are already plans for the ‘Authorfy Awards’, an Authorfy tour or literary festival, the ‘Authorfy Challenge’, Authorfy Twitter Takeovers and more!
Mel, you and I met back when you came to do work experience with Transworld, where I was an Editorial Assistant, back in 2009-ish. Now you run your own business! You’ve come a long way, baby. What advice would tell yourself, the girl starting out her career, now that you’re eight years down the line?
‘Play to your strengths, believe in yourself, don’t be afraid to dream big, think ten steps ahead, and if someone tells you you can’t do something, prove them wrong.’
Can you tell us one or two of your Authorfy highlights?
It was incredible to see children watching the author videos for the first time. They were completely entranced, and so keen to get writing afterwards. Their reaction couldn’t have been more perfect. Seeing children get excited about books is exactly what we hoped for, but their enthusiasm to ask questions, learn more about the author, read their book, write their own stories and talk about the whole process as if it was ‘cool’, reaffirmed why I launched Authorfy in the first place.
Another highlight has to be our video shoot days – already we’ve climbed cliffs and explored caves with Abi Elphinstone, used drones to film an elaborate Country Manor concept with Guy Bass, had exclusive access to Kew Illuminations and their installations with Lara Williamson, and even filmed in Absolute Radio Station with Christian O’Connell. It’s safe to say, no two days at Authorfy are the same!
You work with a lot of children, as well as the authors who write for them. Who have you met along this journey that's really inspired you?
Without a doubt, it’s all about the children I work with. They’re so funny, quirky, creative and ‘on the ball’. Their writing continues to blow me away and there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing them have fun with writing and create something they’re proud of.
My other two huge inspirations are children’s authors, Laura Dockrill and Abi Elphinstone. Laura’s school event was the first one I ever arranged, and within two minutes of seeing how passionately she talked about words and the power of writing, I was hooked. She spun around in a multicoloured rainbow dress, talking openly and honestly about writing in a way that all children and adults could relate to, and had us laughing from start to finish. Then there’s Abi - explorer, adventurer, ex-English teacher, and one of the strongest, kindest people I’ve ever met. She travels the country promoting the enjoyment of reading and writing, talking to kids about having adventures and not living their lives via social media, and generally being an all-round rockstar who wrote a tweet about standing up to SATs tests and went viral within a few hours!
Both Laura and Abi are forces to be reckoned with, and they are perfect candidates for the ‘Strong Women Squad.’ You can find them @LauraDockrill / @moontrug on Twitter.
Do you stay in touch with the kids you work with?
Yes! I usually see them on a regular basis, but those that move onto secondary school or move to other schools / countries email me often and ask for feedback on their work. We’ve formed such a friendly and creative community, and this something I hope to continue as we expand Authorfy across the globe.
You are your own boss, with your own business. I'm so impressed by you. What's the best thing about this?
A lot of people might think it’s the long lunches, managing your own schedule and being able to take time off whenever you want it, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I usually work 10-hour days and then go home to work until late in the evening, and again at weekends. It’s August 2017, and I haven’t had a day off since Christmas last year, but it really doesn’t matter because it doesn’t feel like work. The best thing about running your own business is that you can do something you love, and if you don’t love it, you can change it.
What can our Strong Women Squad do to get involved in Authorfy?
If you’re a teacher, parent, librarian, home-schooler, or just someone that loves the sound of what we do, I’d love to hear from you! In September 2017, we’ll be offering ‘Authorfy in Your Class’, ‘Authorfy in your School’ and ‘Authorfy at Home’, so there really is something for everyone. We’re even offering £5.00 off when you recommend a friend, which means you can subscribe for just £14.75 a term (4 months). You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@authorfy), and we’ve got a brand new advert you can share with your friends. If you have any questions, you can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks, guys. Strong Women Squad rocks!