This is a follow up story for The Adventurous Mailbox. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published almost 2 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
I’m Andrew Bliss, originally from Cincinnati, OH, now an 18-year expat. My labor of love is The Adventurous Mailbox, created with the goal of inspiring kids to travel the world, pick up an extra language or two, and develop a respectful curiosity about the world. The result is an adventurous, STEAM-focused package of materials that includes eight adventure books, a top-secret computer coding manual based on our missions, an online community for the kids, and 100s of lessons for teachers and homeschooling parents to use based on our books and characters.
We keep garnering amazing reviews but have plateaued recently in terms of profit and sales. I think I am realizing the limits of what one person can do to market a niche business from the other side of the world.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
Over the past year, we launched our new workbook teaching kids the basics of coding through fun missions, and the response was great. The critical response, anyway… I imagined that this would be the thing that would perfectly round out our packages and tick off just one more box that would then let my company zoom to the stratosphere and become the huge success it was destined to become. It helped, and the reviews felt nice, but it was frustrating that the homeschool market was still reluctant to buy a “foreign” product.
So, I went after YouTube influencers that I could afford. Mommy and teacher vloggers can charge anywhere from $350 to $10,000 for a review or even just a mention. After a few really great reviews (better than I even hoped for) and post sponsorships, our sales grew but still didn’t sustain.
We are now in a new phase. I am phasing out our printed books (all now up to 70% off) and focusing on our digital materials. I want to sell a content-rich, on-trend, and an educationally sound bundle of materials that will have almost zero overhead. For about $25, parents will get eight enhanced e-books, a digital version of the coding manual and all necessary original image files, 100s of lessons for their kids, and lifetime membership to an online community with games, forums, activities, and more.
My hope is to run with this while I look for a partner Stateside. For this type of business to succeed, it needs an established distribution channel and association with a trusted and proven name. It also needs representation at trade shows, book fairs, and homeschool conventions -- none of which I can do from abroad. So, for the right partner, I am ready to hand off a complete product ready to go: an exceptionally well-reviewed series of books and materials that is quality-focused, fun, and really kind of cool. I can keep supplying the content if the partner can help me get it in front of the right people.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
In short, I learned when to stop beating a dead horse. Well, not dead really, just running annoyingly slow around the track. My reviews kept me convinced that the company was going to be huge, and I naively hung on to that at the expense of other opportunities. I love this project and always will, and I sincerely believe the right partner can make my vision for it come true, but I learned that I just simply couldn’t get it there on my own.
Passion is wonderful, but sometimes you just need to be clever and realize your talents.
I had to wear way too many hats (teacher, author, social media manager, accountant, business manager, etc…) and needed way too many hours to just keep it going. I overestimated myself, underestimated the endeavor, and now just really need a nap.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
I will never give up on this project, and as I said, I hope to find the right partnership for my materials. In the meantime, I have launched a sourcing company here in Taiwan: Spark Solutions. I realized that I was ideally situated to open up a company like this. I can speak the language and understand the culture pretty well, having lived here for over 15 years. I also have contacts island-wide thanks to a decade of teaching in top-tier universities. Taiwan itself is poised to take advantage of people looking for options to sourcing from China, and it offers quality-forward cost-effective options.
I started focusing on manufacturing at first, as southern Taiwan is fastener heaven, but over the past few months, I’ve focused on finding quality PPE for folks back home. I had the connections in China and speak the language, so I was able to put together a list of masks, gloves, thermometers, etc that are 100% quality and all from legit sources. Once they started price gouging, though, I got out. That is not the thing I want to be associated with.
I also signed a partnership with a local biotech firm to wholesale and private label their HOCl. This is huge over here, but not yet back home. It’s a 100% safe and natural sanitizer and disinfectant that is potent on germs and viruses and can be used on surfaces or on skin. It can totally be marketed as a high-end alternative to the glut of alcohol-based sanitizers out there. Great stuff, and I use it every day here. I also am focusing more on sourcing for the hospitality industry, since that was the first industry I became professionally involved in, and since Taiwan provides a solid percentage of the disposables used around the world. They are also a leader in developing green options.
Something else Spark does, which I really enjoy, is helping other people find solutions for their businesses. Whether it is sourcing materials, getting things made to spec, or coordinating all steps in a production process, we are able to help people in the West make their projects happen, which is rather rewarding.
All together, in one year Spark has made more than five times what The Adventurous Mailbox has made over its run to date. That said, I miss my characters and I miss writing adventure books. My hope is to find that partner so I can get back to it, and keep the sourcing company as my side hustle. We’ll see how the adventure plays out.
My priorities have also changed recently, as I am a married man as of December 25, 2019. To this guy:
Have you read any good books in the last year?
I wish I had more time to read, and I have a nightstand full of books to prove it. I generally get 10 minutes in before I am out. I am trying to finish Homo Deus, which is great fun and a nice follow up to Sapiens.
Ironically, the book The Power of Habit sits there with just 50 unread pages left. I am also slowly going through an overview of quantum physics, just to see how much I can understand and to keep my old brain from shriveling up.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
Passion is wonderful, but sometimes you just need to be clever and realize your talents. I tried like hell to force The Adventurous Mailbox into the market, so I could be that person I imagined who got to travel the world, inspire and teach kids, and do so rather comfortably. I had to face the truth of capitalism though.
If I really wanted to reach the next level financially, I had to give up that passion (temporarily!!!!!), step back and look at the capitalistic truth I was living in, and then figure which of my skills, talents, or luck of situation I could best utilize to carve out my space in the jungle.
So yeah… sometimes passion and vision might need to be temporarily put aside. I stubbornly held on to mine too long, as if writing adventure stories could save the world.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
The Adventurous Mailbox is looking for the aforementioned partner, and Spark Solutions is looking for someone to help us find clients for our sourcing or for our HOCl. Due to the time difference, there are just a couple of hours in the AM and PM that we can make calls from Taiwan.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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