Inspired and supported by her daughters, Dr. Melissa-Sue John founded Lauren Simone Publishing House with a mission of publishing diverse authors and illustrators and creating diverse, multicultural, and inclusive children’s books.
MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Melissa-Sue about her journey as a business owner and what she hopes to gain from participating in the reSET 2022 Impact Accelerator.
NAN PRICE: Have you always been entrepreneurial?
MELISSA-SUE JOHN: That’s a great question. I’ve always been academic—always studying, writing, researching, and teaching. I never had any immediate goals to be an entrepreneur. I was challenged to become an entrepreneur by my daughters.
NAN: Tell us more about that.
MELISSA-SUE: I was conducting a research study that used children’s literature to teach the engineering design cycle to preschoolers and realized that the books didn’t represent the children at all. The students were of color or children of immigrants residing in Worcester, MA, but the book characters were predominantly talking animals, inanimate objects, and white characters.
I came home one evening from work and was sharing with my two my daughters, Alyssa Simone and Olivia Lauren, “We’re in the 2000s and we still can’t find books that have characters who look like us, kids with dark skin that aren’t about athletes or the first to do something. Just regular stories about everyday kids.” And my daughter said, “Stop complaining about the problem and be the solution.”
Around this time, I met another parent who said she had also written children’s books but didn’t know how to publish, and believed I would be the right person to accomplish the task Later, another parent, Sabrena Bishop, asked if I could publish a series of books she had written called The Madison and Elijah series. I was encouraged by having my daughter challenge me and other of people see something in me that I didn’t see in myself.
I researched how to self-publish and I published five books in 2017 with my daughters. They helped me write them. And with success brought confidence to publish other’s books. Gradually, other people started reaching out to me to publish their books. At first, I offered to teach them, but they didn’t want to learn how to publish books, they wanted me to do it for them. That’s how the business started.
NAN: I love when things fall into place like that. When did you officially start your company?
MELISSA-SUE: At the end of 2017 I started recruiting illustrators, graphic artists, and editors and we became official. I got my LLC, applied for my trademark, and got the copyrights for all the books. I never even advertised; everything was word of mouth. Referrals took over and that’s how we grew.
NAN: Without the background to run a business, how did you figure that out?
MELISSA-SUE: I saw my mom and dad run businesses when I was young, but I still had to conduct my own research because it was an entirely different industry. I Googled everything: how to start an LLC, how to pay your taxes, how to hire. I read articles on the Small Business Administration (SBA) website, I reached out to the Connecticut Small Business Development Center (CTSBDC), the Women’s Business Development Council, and SCORE, which is how I connected to one of my mentors, Denise Whitford, who happened to tell me about reSET and other business accelerators including ICIC, Urban Hope, and the Girls for Technology pitch competition.
NAN: You’re five years into your business. Why an accelerator, why now?
MELISSA-SUE: The more prepared I am from the business side, the easier it is for me to write grant proposals, project financials, and strategize for the long term. It has been five years, but my business plan is still in development. By now, it should be more formalized.
NAN: What do you hope to learn from being part of the reSET 2022 cohort?
MELISSA-SUE: It’s helpful to have the support system that comes from being in a room with other people who have the same kind of questions and entrepreneurial goals. It also gives me access to a lot of wisdom from our instructors and the reSET team that I would not otherwise have.
NAN: What advice would you give to others who are launching a new business?
MELISSA-SUE: It changes from year to year the more I know, but right now my biggest advice to anyone is, “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.” If you don’t know what to do, just ask someone who you think knows. They may give you advice or they may tell you to find the answer yourself. If you want an opportunity, seek it whether it’s an interview, event, or grant. But you never know until you ask.
The other thing is overcoming your fear. I think a lot of people never start their business, blog, or podcast because they’re afraid to fail. John Maxwell says you have to be willing to fail forward to learn, innovate, and build resilience. That’s one thing I learned from the engineering institution.
NAN: Is this business your full-time job?
MELISSA-SUE: Although I am part-time teaching as an adjunct professor at Gateway Community College, I think of my business as a full-time endeavor. I think about it when I first wake up in the morning and right before I go to bed. But I was trained to be an educator, so I’m always going to educate. And my business helps to inform that. I’m going to start using it in my research to look at how diversity affects literacy.
NAN: What’s next?
MELISSA-SUE: What’s next is we want to scale. I want to hire. My daughters help me with the business, but one’s in college and one’s in high school. I have an advisory board that provides great advice. But I want full-time staff. I want to be able to delegate the marketing, finances, social media, and events. That’s where I am in the next stage of my business, to have full-time staff working on my business while I’m teaching, that way it’s never sleeping.
Also, because my daughters were the ones who really motivated me to start this business, we want the company to be legacy to help the community.
Many of our illustrators and authors are youth. I want to form collaborations with programs and schools where we can help more talented youth artists and writers get published and build their portfolios. That way, when they apply to colleges for an art program or an English literature program they can say, “I already have a dozen published books.”
This business isn’t just about me, but it’s about building the community around me and people seeing that there’s value in the community. And these kids have so much to offer and we want to hear their voices.