Next up in our “Persuasive Women” interview series is Alison Sansone. Alison is the creator of ‘Be There Bedtime Stories’, a webcam storytelling platform inspired by Alison’s own desire to connect with her two far-away toddler nieces and “be there” during the girls’ formative years. Prior to the launch of this business, Alison was running her own video marketing business – specifically producing media for the web. By partnering strategically with Reach Out and Read, Alison is working to raise awareness about the literacy benefits of reading to children each day. Alison is not only connecting families and encouraging literacy, but is supporting our troops by allowing users to donate a Webtime Story to military families — these stories are distributed through our nonprofit partner, Blue Star Families, and provide an instant family connection and morale boost for soldiers.
Can you explain “webcam storytelling” and where the idea came from?
Be There Bedtime Stories is a website that combines a webcam with bedtime stories to deliver “Webtime Stories™”. We position webcam-recorded video of a storyteller onto the page of a children’s e-book, so families far apart – such as grandparents, traveling parents, military parents or even aunts and uncles – can still ‘be there’ for this age-old storytelling tradition.
I came up with the idea because I don’t have children of my own and my only two nieces live 2000 miles away, in Chicago. It was really frustrating to not be recognized when I would visit and I wanted to be a part of those really neat memories that we all have from childhood – I wanted to make an impact on their lives. I was running my own video marketing production company at the time and, so, the idea of combining video media with something for kids kept making its way to the frontal lobe region of my brain and… wah-lah! Video bedtime stories appeared!
I like to think that families can build relationships and build readers through these read-aloud video recordings. We’re really proud to have Reach Out and Read as a strategic partner in raising awareness about the literacy benefits of simply reading aloud daily to a child. It can easily dispel the concerns of introducing digital media to kids.
Once you had the initial idea to start a business, how did you begin the process of actually getting the business up and running? Did you encounter any obstacles at this stage?
First thing I did was build a demo, to make sure that my 3- and 5-year-old nieces would actually dig the concept – they are the ultimate customer! This was the easiest part – can’t say I hit any obstacles here. Because of my background in video production, I was able to shoot video of my parents – their grandparents – reading a story, then edit it according to my vision of the product. They loved it! My father naturally paused on one page to count the hippos and they counted out loud with him. Then at the end of the story, my father made mention of a little inside joke before saying goodnight. Then, right on queue, my niece popped up from her pillow and bantered right back at her grandpa in the video. Both girls were glued to the screen and engaged, yet it was organically interactive despite the fact that it was a recording.
Beyond the demo, I’m a proponent of writing a business plan. The discipline of identifying market research and asking all the product questions before building gave me confidence in the concept and a foundation to stand on when pitching to investors or partners. I was fortunate to have an ace web designer join me in exchange for equity, but not having any other team members to help implement was my biggest obstacle at that point. The work-around was that I had a rockstar advisory team with diverse backgrounds, so I could harvest ideas and affirm certain strategies. Of course, lack of capital is always somewhat of an obstacle, but you just have to be patient with the pace of the build.
The first half of your career was in hospitality. How do you think this experience prepared you to become an entrepreneur?
It was more my corporate experience that has helped than the hospitality aspect. I’ve worked directly with executive level leadership throughout my career and have adopted important management skills as a result.
If you could offer one piece of advice to someone who is considering launching a new start up, what would that be?
Be patient and don’t forget to have fun! Okay, that’s two things, but the balance of those two is the trick. If you can have at least half the skill-set necessary to apply to the project, it will really help; but perhaps of more importance is being patient with what you don’t know. Otherwise, you’ll set unrealistic benchmarks and the frustration will overcrowd the fun. You can still be a learner and a leader at the same time. You’ll find that your passion can be contagious – I am amazed at some of the things people have done for me because I wasn’t afraid to recognize my limitations and ask for help.
Can you tell us a little bit about the types of books you promote on your site (feel free to promote any new ones here)?
Getting quality books in our bookstore is a full-time job in itself. The publishing industry has been completely turned upside down with the e-book revolution over the past 2-3 years, so this is where the patience comes into play, as they are slow to make decisions. I’m so grateful for the handful of smaller publishers that were instantly willing to offer their books for sale on an ‘experimental’ platform. Without Sylvan Dell, Lobster Press, Guardian Angel and Illumination Arts Publishing, I would not have made it this far. And one of my more recent publishers, Faux Paw Productions, offers puppets of the characters in their books, which is the perfect prop for video storytelling.
On the other hand, who doesn’t know of someone that has always wanted to write a children’s book? It’s a classic unfulfilled fantasy. Publishing a storybook in a digital medium is far easier than print, so the playing field has grown tenfold. We’ve had independent artists submit manuscripts from the very beginning and have roughly ten in-house titles in production or on the site, so far. It’s a fantastic bonus part of the business that I didn’t really consider in the plan.
I’m super thrilled about our newest in-house title, by Judy Rubin and Milla Zeltzer, because it happens to tell the story of our product! The title is “When Mama Reads to Me” and it’s about the spark inside a child’s imagination whenever any family member reads a story. It’s a must-read!
What motivates you?
Well, bonding with my little nieces was a mega motivation for me to get started; but the ongoing motivation is fueled by surrounding myself with creative and fun people that share a belief in the value my product brings. I suppose that would include the customers that keep returning because they’ve had the same experience in their family as mine!
What is your favorite book or author and why?
At the risk of sounding cliche, there’s far too many to name. I participate in a book club with a great group of women and run a business in the children’s realm, so you can imagine how difficult it is for me to name just one title.
Can you tell us a little bit about what is next for Be There Bedtime Stories and for yourself?
Most exciting is our tablet app coming out next month – for both the iPad or Android. The holidays are pretty much here, and our Military Family donation drive was a huge success during the holiday season last year – and we expect the same this year. Anyone can visit our website and donate a Webtime Story to our partners at Blue Star Families, so soldiers can connect with their kids while overseas. And, finally, we have an exciting joint campaign in the works for Boston Logan Airport and CBS Radio, which may serve as a pilot program for other airports across the nation.