Startup Diaries: From Company to Family Business

[Startup Diaries is a new original series of articles from Yahoo! Small Business Advisor that chronicles the day-to-day and week-to-week struggles of a variety of startup and new small businesses.]

Nicholas Bradvica and his sister, Marie, started Marie's Words Inc. in 2010, when Marie was a junior in high school and studying for the SATs. Today, Marie's Words is a global business.

It was the summer of 2010, and I had just returned home from my freshman year at the University of Southern California, where I began with an ambitious workload -- I had a triple major of creative writing, political science, and economics, with a minor in German. I relaxed for a few days, expecting to find a normal job for three months before I went back to college in fall. That didn't happen. At least, not the normal part.

My sister, Marie, approached me that first week of summer with a long, white, rectangular box. She opened the lid, revealing rectangular SAT flash cards that were white on one side and blue on the other. They were typical flash cards. Each had a vocabulary word on the front, and the word's part of speech and definition on the back. However, my sister also had drawn rudimentary sketches and stick figures on the white side, and she had added and detracted letters from words, and highlighted words within words to make sense of their meanings on the back sides.

Some of my favorite ideas were the simplest! She remembered that the verb assail means "to attack vigorously" by drawing two sail ships -- a galleon and a pirate ship -- engaged in a cannon fight. Another one of my favorite mnemonics was for the verb foil, which means "to thwart or defeat." In a fencing match, the instrument (the long thin sword) is called a foil, so the illustration depicts a fencer who foils his opponent with a foil. Lastly, the verb promulgate, which means "to announce or declare," stood out. My sister highlighted the word prom and drew a boy in a bi-plane with a long, streaming banner, reading: prom? The idea being, high school juniors and seniors promulgate in special ways to their dates to go to the prom.

There were hundreds and hundreds of these small sketches, some better than others, but all of them incredibly creative, unique, and fun(ny). My dad was sitting in our home office (my bedroom) at the big, brown desk that our family has owned since before my birth. On the desk were stacks of papers, letters, envelopes, and cards. The evolution of the desk's contents over the next two years would best document our company's progression (I would know, since my room is still the company office!). As my dad sat there, most likely paying the bills, my sister began to explain her vocabulary flash card idea, which was unnamed thus far.

She explained how her visual mnemonics improved her SAT score by 260 points. She said to me, "You remember how, on the SAT vocabulary section, they give you a sentence with a blank, and you have to fill in the blank with one of the four provided vocabulary words? Well, because of my cards, I knew which word was supposed to go in the blank before I even looked at the multiple choices. I improved my writing score too."

I was somewhat jealous (though mostly proud). It was just that I had worked really, really hard studying for the SAT, and I had improved my overall score by merely 30 points (scoring an 1830 out of 2400 both times). My writing never improved from an 8 out of 12 from any of my practice essays, practice SATs, or actual SATs. Yet, Marie improved all of her scores instantly and dramatically just by learning the most-used SAT vocabulary words, and she did it through pictures! It was genius. (Marie has a story of a softball friend who bought a box of Marie's Words a couple of days before the SAT, learned hundreds of Marie's Words in those few days, and improved her score by 80 points!)

I wanted to get on board at this point, seeing just how brilliant and effective her ideas were, but I continued to listen to Marie as she showed me more and more of her sketches. She and my dad then explained that they had hired a professional artist to turn her black-and-white sketches into full-color visuals, but several problems had arisen. My sister wasn't completely happy with some of the illustrations the artist had done, she didn't have the control over the process, and she didn't even get to watch their creation. That is not to say the artist was doing a bad job -- indeed, the few illustrations he had sent were instrumental for my own development of style, but the situation wasn't working. We all had the same idea at the same time -- I could do the artwork. I always had been drawing, painting, doodling, and writing calligraphy in my spare time. This was the exact same thing.

The biggest problem with hiring an artist was the price. Each picture cost $80, and that was not including any re-do’s or alterations. Tip #1: Never pay anyone to do a job that you can do just as well! There are exceptions to every rule, of course. For instance, you have to find out how much money your time is worth, for it might actually be cheaper to pay someone to do work if you can do different work that pays more for the same amount of hours. I was willing to work for free because I saw the potential and I wanted to help my sister. Of course, I still had to qualify for the position by drawing three to six illustrations and presenting them.

My dad and sister were discussing the creation of 1,000 cards at the beginning of the summer, which would have cost us $80,000 and substantially increased startup costs (we gradually decreased that number to 550 for many reasons as the summer wound down). But looking back at that day, all of us would agree that Marie's Words would not have worked had we pursued with a "professional" artist. Because we didn't have investors or loans, my dad put up the money for us to start our own company. He believed in my sister's ideas and our abilities. Although it was a risk to do the artwork myself, the decision paid off. We saved at least $80,000 in costs, and based on thousands of reviews and comments, we didn't sacrifice quality. Tip #2: People make the world go round. Sometimes, it's better to invest in people than ideas.

The realization that I could do the art changed the whole course of history of Marie's Words. In that moment, the company became a family business, and my father, brother, sister and I embarked on a truly remarkable and life-changing wave of experiences. However, little did I know at the time what I got myself into; the next three months of illustrating would be one of the toughest professional challenges of my life.

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