Deanna Bufo Novak’s daughter, Samantha, was only a month old when a curious thing began happening. Deanna’s, mom, Linda Bufo, suddenly was talking more about her Italian heritage, and Deanna’s mother-in-law, Sharon Novak, was talking more about her Polish ancestry. One day, Deanna was reading Samantha a personalized baby book when Linda began talking to the baby about the family tradition of making meatballs on Sundays. Deanna had an epiphany: Wouldn’t it be great if there were personalized kids’ books that taught about heritage?
A year and a half later, Novak launched My Heritage Book. Here’s how she did it.
The Big Idea
My Heritage Book offers personalized books that teach children about their heritage. The child’s name is woven into the stories, which can include information on up to four countries. A letter from the gift-giver and a family tree page are included in the book. Hardbound books are 31-65 pages and are geared to kids up to age 12. The cost is $39.95 plus tax and shipping.
Born "100 percent Italian" in New York, Novak, now living in Plantation, earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Miami, a law degree from Nova Southeastern University, and a master’s in tax law from UM. Always interested in writing and heritage, Novak worked three years as a tax attorney before starting her company in 2004. She still does occasional legal consulting. "But after my daughter was born, I didn’t want to go back to work, work all those crazy hours and not be around for my daughter," Novak said. "This gives me flexibility."
After getting the initial idea in February 2004, Novak began to research the field, looking for personalized books that taught heritage. She asked friends, searched online, and scoured bookstores.
"I would see books on being Italian, but nothing on combined heritage," Novak said. "Most people come from a combination of different heritages."
She conducted focus groups of parents, kids, grandparents and educators to learn what they would want in a book. She began researching countries, starting with 20, and started her own research library at home with atlases and children’s books. She began interviewing people from different countries about their cultures and traditions.
"Being down in South Florida was so wonderful because so many countries are represented here," Novak said. "The personal interviews helped because there is only so much information you can get from books. There is so much about heritage that is personal."
A pattern began to emerge of what information she needed to collect for each country, starting with food and geography, and moving to topics such as folklore, dance and music, depending on the locale. Now Novak offers a choice of 72 countries.
Novak began writing the stories, compiling the pieces that would make up her books. She had a website built in the fall of 2005 and launched in October that year.
Novak found illustrator Alicia Bresee of Fort Lauderdale through friends. She recruited law school pal Heather Baxter to proofread and edits the books. She searched seven months for a manufacturer before finding Docuvision in Davie, which had just purchased a digital printer and could print one personalized book at a time. She purchased binding equipment and book cover material and struck a deal with Docuvision to bind the books. Novak and family members handle packing and shipping.
Novak’s initial investment came to about $25,000, for website development, an initial order of 1,000 book covers, binding equipment and an advance to the illustrator. This also included initial marketing materials, such as brochures, a launch party and the building of her own research library.
Novak kicked off school fundraisers to generate sales, offering 15 percent back to schools for orders. She also visited schools to promote her books and started a commission-based sales consultant program. She uses social media such as Facebook to get feedback and interact with customers, and emails promotional codes to customers in her database. Besides through her website, Novak sells through online retailers such as www.BabyBox.com, and through upscale childrens’ boutiques such as Flora Ottimer in Fort Lauderdale and Red Wagon Toy Store in Coral Springs.
Novak also has garnered media attention through awards such as the 2011 Book of the Year by Creative Child magazine.
She does very little paid advertising, but seasonally tries Google Ad Words, in which she pays by the click to her site, and Facebook ads, which can target her advertising to specific populations.
Her average monthly sales are 50 to 100 books. Novak is not yet profitable and does not draw a salary.
An ABC’s Around the World book that teaches children the alphabet using the names of countries is next, Novak said. The books are available personalized and non-personalized and will be introduced this holiday season. A floor puzzle with the same theme will be introduced next year. Novak would like to create an "Around the World" series, using her current research as a jumping off point. She would like to start pairing music CDs with her heritage books, and she would like to improve her distribution system.
"The product is so unique that there is a difficulty in getting the message out about what it really is," Novak said. "Typically, seeing it is the key."
Getting the word out nationally also is challenging without a marketing budget, she said.
Balancing Family Life
Novak rises at 6:30 a.m. to begin readying Samantha, 7, and Nicholas, 5, for school. Husband, Scott, drops the kids off, while Novak works out and then heads to her home office by 8:30 a.m. There she answers emails and calls, follows up with retailers, packs and ships orders. Mom and sisters, Tara Drewes and Fara Lanave, often pitch in to help, packing orders, making post office runs or picking up the kids.
Novak stops at 2 p.m. to pick up the kids and handle homework, after school activities and dinner. After the kids are in bed by 7:30 p.m., Novak wraps up any business matters then has couple time. "I make that a priority," she said. "Having your own business can really run your life. You have to make sure that it doesn’t."
"Surround yourself with other women who are doing it, such as NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners," Novak said. "It’s an amazing source of support and opportunity. It makes you feel like you’re not alone. Joining this group was one of the best business decisions I ever made."