In today’s podcast I speak with Chris Sonjeow of LoveBookOnline.com (just in time for Valentine’s Day). Chris’ company designs personalized gift books for special occasions. Chris shares some excellent tips for starting a business with friends and marketing a unique product. He also shares the story of how the got their product featured on Digg Nation and the Today Show. If you’re in the product business for yourself, you don’t want to miss that part. Here’s a quick synopsis from Chris about his story.
Myself and 3 other friends started a business called LoveBookOnline.com as a side project. We can officially say that we are all now full time employees to our own business and loving it. We have also hired on two new people and moved into our own office. Ours is a rare success story during an economic downturn. We would love to share how we did it and some of the pitfalls to overcome.
Listen to the Podcast
Here are the questions I ask Chris:
- Why did you want to make part-time money?
- Where were you working at the time?
- Who came up with the idea for the lovebook?
- When did you spend your time working on the business?
- What drove you to stick with the project, spending extra time doing this?
- What were you doing at the design company? were your partners working there?
- What was your financial motivation for this?
- What skills did you need to start the business?
- How did you start selling your idea to the general public?
- How did you get on the today show?
- How did you structure the business to protect each others interest?
- When did you go full-time? was that scary?
- How did you handle health insurance?
- What mistakes do people make when starting a business with friends?
- Tell me the unique value proposition of lovebookonline.com and tell me what’s next for you guys.
Win a LoveBook™!
Chris at LoveBookOnline.com has generously offered to give away a free LoveBook™ (a $24.95 value) to one lucky listener.
To enter the giveaway, simply leave a comment below telling us what your favorite Valentine’s Day gift is. I’ll select a winner randomly next Friday, the 11th and email you the promocode. One entry per person, thanks! This giveaway is now closed. Sorry.
To see the full transcript click show
Alright, today I am here with Chris Sonjeow of LoveBookOnline.com. Chris’ company makes personalized gift books for special occasions. It is really hard to describe Chris’ product, so if you go to LoveBookOnline.com you will see what I am talking about. It is definitely a cool gift to give someone. In the past year they have been featured on Digg Nation, an episode that I actually caught, and they actually were also featured on the Today Show. Chris started his business on the side with 3 other friends, and now he has grown it into a full-time business.
Philip Taylor: So, Chris, welcome to the show.
Chris Sonjeow: Well, thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.
Philip Taylor: What made you want to start making some part-time money?
Chris Sonjeow: Well, it all kind of started with just an idea to do something a little different. We wanted to develop something for ourselves. We had always been working on things on the side. We have always had things, like my history has to do with a lot of design and advertising stuff. As a designer, you are always doing freelance stuff here and there. So, that just spiraled into this unique business, and that is where we ended up. We all just had this passion to want to do something for ourselves.
Philip Taylor: What were you working on when you started Love Book Online?
Chris Sonjeow: We were working for a design company, basically like a housewares company that designs products, and we were happy with what we were doing. We were just all looking for something a little different and we stumbled upon an idea that we thought had some legs. We just little by little after hours started chiseling away at it, a lot of late nights definitely.
Philip Taylor: Okay, so you were working at the design company. Was that a 9-5 job?
Chris Sonjeow: Oh, yeah.
Philip Taylor: Was it a fairly big company?
Chris Sonjeow: It was a midsized company, definitely had a lot of people in there. It was a very successful company too. We were happy doing what we were doing. It just seemed like the timing was right, and that spark of the idea pushed us over the edge. It was one of those things where it was like we would be dumb not to do it.
Philip Taylor: Okay. So, it sounds like the idea really drove the decision. So, who came up with the idea?
Chris Sonjeow: It is an interesting story actually. Just as a quick explanation to some of the listeners, the Love Book is basically, like you said, a personalized book. Inside the book each page lists a reason why you love somebody. We were sitting around the table at lunch, and we were talking about what we were going to get our wives or girlfriends at the time for Christmas. We needed some gift ideas. Like I said, we all are artists and designers and worked in advertising, so we were good on the communication side. One of our friends pulled this little book out, a 79-cent little notebook that you get from any drugstore, and inside each page were these really tiny rudimentary sketches of little stick figures, and on top of them were little reasons why he loved his wife. It was a tattered notebook and was about 100 pages long. We were like, “That’s the coolest thing in the world!” He was like, “This is actually the third or fourth volume that I have done.” He does it every year. We were like, “That is such a cool idea!” As artists, like I said, we decided to do one for ourselves, going into Photoshop and doing it to the next degree up, sketching them out really nicely. That also happened to be around the same time that the new rich web applications were coming out. You were seeing a lot of really cool flash stuff happening and a lot of stuff being done in Flex Developer. That was something that we were dabbling in as well, so what we did was just decided to combine the 2 and allow this product to be shared with everybody. So, the time was right to be able to make this gift accessible for everyone.
Philip Taylor: So, when did you spend your time working on this project?
Chris Sonjeow: You know, it was whenever we had a free moment. I remember we would take lunches and spend a little time there. Then after work was the bulk of it. We would punch out, and we would head up to the local pub, crack our laptops open, and just sit there and work until 9, 10, 11, sometimes midnight, keep just chiseling away, chiseling away.
Philip Taylor: Yeah. So, it was really just being around friends and having a good idea to work on that seemed to drive the decision to do this. Obviously, you could have gone home and sat on your couch every night or gone and worked out or whatever it is you wanted to do other than this, so what was really behind pushing you to do this? Was it really just the idea and being with friends?
Chris Sonjeow: It was a mix of a lot of things. A lot of puzzle pieces fell in the right place at the right time. For your listeners I think this is probably one of the most important things. The group of people that you work with is so important because those are the people who are going to get you from point A to point B. You have to make sure that you have a diverse group. Like I said, I am a designer, so I have a lot of friends who are in design, but to be able to expand outside of that and have friends who are not only designers but marketers and programmers, it is really engaging with people who are just outside of your expertise that you could partner with. We found that to be so helpful because literally it is the best feeling when I am designing something and I hand it over to a programmer, and he goes, “Oh yeah, I can do that. No problem.” It is just such a great feeling because I know if I were by myself, I would be sitting there looking at that design going, “Oh my gosh! Who am I going to find to be able to do what I want to have happen here?”
Philip Taylor: Can you trust them? How much are you going to have to pay them? And all that.
Chris Sonjeow: Exactly!
Philip Taylor: So, backing up a little bit, one more kind of back story question, what exactly were you doing at the design company again, and was everyone in the new business from that company?
Chris Sonjeow: We were in a round about way. Most of us were all friends prior to even being there. Actually 1 of the partners that I am with I have been friends with for a long time, so yes, it really was just kind of a group effort that we were all friends prior to.
Philip Taylor: Was there any financial motivation for going into this, or were you being compensated well with the design company? Was this kind of an effort to maybe have something that you could grow on your own?
Chris Sonjeow: You know, like I said, the idea is what really drove it mainly, but were we compensated well? Absolutely. It was a good company that we were with, and they definitely took care of us. We did not do this really for financial reasons. The reason is we did not know if it would work or not. It was a shot in the dark. We knew we had an idea that had not been done, and we knew we had the talent to pull it off. Of course, we did a few tests, like I said. For the Christmas gifts we created our prototypes, I guess you could call them, and the response was overwhelming. Tears, laughter, and all that good stuff that you hope to get out of a gift, we got. So, we knew that okay, maybe this is something we should push forward with. Remember that this was actually in late 2007 that we really kind of started kicking the idea around. It really did not come to fruition until late 2009, early 2010.
Philip Taylor: Okay. So, when did you come up with the prototype?
Chris Sonjeow: That was in November 2007, just before Christmas.
Philip Taylor: Okay. So, that is the one you gave out to friends and family?
Chris Sonjeow: I did it for my girlfriend at the time who is now my wife, so something must have worked.
Philip Taylor: That is a good story. That is great. Backing up a little bit, when you got started with the idea, you already had the set of friends in place. Was there any specific talent or skill that you needed to be able to perform with the idea and with this new emerging company?
Chris Sonjeow: Yes, we definitely had to have a diverse group. I was the marketing side. We had the programming side. We had the database side. Then, 1 of the most key elements is we had to have a guy who could kind of glue everyone together. He is kind of the mediator between all of us because we all have extreme ideas, and you know I want something designed 1 way, and the programmers and engineers can only do so much in a certain direction. That 1 guy, the glue that holds everything together, he is a key person.
Philip Taylor: I see. Which of the guys actually came up with the book?
Chris Sonjeow: The original designer was our friend named Rob.
Philip Taylor: Is he the glue, or is he 1 of the programmers?
Chris Sonjeow: He is the glue. He was the original glue. He is the guy that used to do the little sketch books.
Philip Taylor: That’s awesome! Well, let’s see what we can talk about. I have gone to the website, and it looks great. You obviously have some big press mentions. Let’s talk about maybe how you started selling the idea of these books to people. You talk about showing to friends and family and getting a good response. How did you then take that and get it out to the general public to see if it was something that was marketable I guess?
Chris Sonjeow: What we did is once we had the prototype down and once we started work on the application, there were a lot of hiccups along the way because you are building something that has not been done before. You have to convey a message not only to the consumer so they understand what they are getting themselves into but what those benefits are. So, early on, to be honest, the very first version of this was meant to be a helper for a guy, a guy who did not have a romantic bone in his body and needed help. So, everything was kind of geared toward guys giving this gift to a girl. So, we developed a database which is user generated. People come in and create their books, and we go and hand select some of the better, more artistically created pages and add them to this ever-growing database of ideas, so it just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and the keywords keep getting more and more elaborate and precise. We found, as time went on, that it actually was not guys who were super interested. It was actually the girls who were doing this. They just fell in love with the idea. So, what we did was we had to go and revamp the entire website. We had to go in and change the color schemes. We changed the logos around. It was good because we were still kind of new and really unheard of at the time. In an effort to get the name out and to get the word out, we used things like Facebook, we used things like Twitter. We used the social media route, but we do not rely on it. I love Facebook. I love Twitter. I love their abilities and what they are able to do, but sometimes I feel that if you get too wrapped up in it, you kind of lose focus on some of the mainstream media that has kind of gotten the cold shoulder as of late.
Philip Taylor: Right.
Chris Sonjeow: I will be honest with you, the mainstream media is still wonderful. All media, any type of PR that we get, whether it is the smallest little blog or ending up on the Today Show, it is excellent. We love it because it is just more and more people.
Philip Taylor: That’s good.
Chris Sonjeow: Things like Digg Nation definitely help. Things like the Today Show definitely help. Each of those opportunities came at odd times, very random.
Philip Taylor: If you were to advise someone to get their product on the Today Show, what would you tell them? How would you go about trying to do it?
Chris Sonjeow: The first thing you do is you have to study your category.
Philip Taylor: Okay.
Chris Sonjeow: Know what you are selling and who you are selling it to. Then you have to watch these shows. You have to see who is doing this. There is this whole circuit of people out there who go on these shows, and they tour around. Maybe they are authors. Robyn Spizman was our friend. She is from TheGiftionary.com. She took us on the Today Show. It was simple. We called her. We knew that she had done extra spots. We knew that she wrote a book about gifting, and we just contacted her and sent her some samples. We actually created some very personalized books for her and her family and stuff, and she loved the idea, so she took it.
Philip Taylor: I see. So, you went out and found the person who had been on the show already and goes on to sort of highlight different gifts from time to time, and you reached out to her. Your product spoke for itself with her obviously.
Chris Sonjeow: Yes. That is the thing. You have to be honest with yourself. If you are not doing something different or doing something new, do not expect somebody to fall all over your product if there are already 10 of them out there. They are just like anybody else who is trying to generate some buzz. They want something new. They want to deliver a different idea that has not been done before. That is the phase that we are in right now. We are introducing this to so many different people, and they are loving the idea of it, so they are more willing to take it with them onto different shows.
Philip Taylor: Okay. Backing up a little bit, when you guys started kicking this off and you started spending the time together doing this, working on this, I imagine you started not only investing time, but money. So, how did you structure this whole deal, this part-time business if you will, on the side with your friends so that everyone, I guess, would be protected or their interests would be protected?
Chris Sonjeow: Well, it is always a risk, right? Everytime you go into a business venture, you are always taking some sort of risk. You have to be willing to do that. To be honest with you, at the very beginning, we were able to do a lot of it ourselves just because of the skill set. So, we did not have to go search VC Money. We did not have to go look for angels. We just simply saved up a couple bucks each of us, put it into it, and went from there. We did all of the design work ourselves, all of the marketing ourselves, all of the programming ourselves for the most part. We did have a little bit of outsource help out there for a little while just to do some of the more tricky programming stuff that we were not super well versed in, but it does not take a whole lot of money if you have the right people. That is why I stress that so much.
Philip Taylor: Right. Right. You were all personally investing money. Did you form any type of organization officially, or when did that happen?
Chris Sonjeow: Yes absolutely. We did that right away. We formed an LLC. We had an operating agreement put together, and I also stress that. If you are ever going to go into a business with a bunch of partners, save a couple of bucks up, go find a lawyer that will help you, somebody who understands how to set up an operating agreement between the partners so everyone has a clear understanding of what their responsibilities are, where they stand, and what happens in the future because how many times have you heard the horror stories about big fallouts of companies and things just going awry, so it is good to have that up front so everyone has a clear understanding of what they have to do.
Philip Taylor: Okay. Good. Good. Good. So talk about the time when you decided to leave the design company. Did that all happen at once for you guys?
Chris Sonjeow: No. No. It did not. It was on an as-needed basis really. A small fledgling company like we were developing could not handle everybody, it just could not. So, everybody did what they could. Some people kind of took steps backwards a little bit. Some people just kind of took what they had to. There were sacrifices that were made in order to devote the amount of time that was needed for it.
Philip Taylor: Okay.
Chris Sonjeow: So, as time went on, there was a trickling process I guess you could call it.
Philip Taylor: Okay. When did you leave the design company?
Chris Sonjeow: I went full time about 2 months ago.
Philip Taylor: Okay, so just recently here?
Chris Sonjeow: Very recently, yes. Very recently.
Philip Taylor: So, was that scary at that point, or was it kind of a sure bet?
Chris Sonjeow: Oh yes. No, no, no. It was the most frightening thing I have ever done in my life. I did not realize it. I was actually just talking to my wife last night. I have actually owned my own businesses since I was 20, and I never realized it until last night. So, I was sitting there thinking back, “How did this whole thing get started?” I was trying to figure out what I was going to be saying today. I realized that it has been a continuing process for me. It has been a growing process. I have always had some sort of side business, something going on on the side, but I have always had a full-time job as well.
Philip Taylor: Right.
Chris Sonjeow: Working in the ad industry for 10 years and then finally just exiting it to start my own thing full time was a scary proposition. I mean, no insurance, no sick days, the same thing you hear from most people. It is 24 hours a day.
Philip Taylor: So, can you get into numbers for me? Were you able to replace your old salary with the salary from the new company?
Chris Sonjeow: I do not want to get into specifics per se, but yes I guess you could say it was a lateral move.
Philip Taylor: Gotcha. Good. Okay.
Chris Sonjeow: My main concern that I told everyone was, “This is what I need: I need to pay my mortgage. I need to pay for my car. That’s what I need. As long as I can do that, then everything else will be okay.”
Philip Taylor: Is your wife still employed?
Chris Sonjeow: She is. She actually owns her own business as well which I helped develop for her.
Philip Taylor: Okay, so insurance is still an issue for you. Did you go out and get some private insurance yet?
Chris Sonjeow: Yes. It is funny. Everyone always makes such a big deal out of insurance. It is not as bad for me, I understand, because we do not have children. We are newly married. We do not have a family per se. It is just us 2. So, insurance was actually very, very easy for us, and we got hold of one of our broker friends who is in the business. He set us up with a plan which was equal to the plan that we had prior to my leaving.
Philip Taylor: Oh wow!
Chris Sonjeow: It really was not bad at all.
Philip Taylor: Yes. Most people have to drop down to a high-deductible plan with an HSA to be able to have similar payments. So, that is impressive that you were able to get a plan that sort of kept you with the same coverage.
Chris Sonjeow: Granted, we are paying a little bit more than was coming out of my salary every week, but it really was not too bad of an experience.
Philip Taylor: Good. Good. Good. Well, any mistakes you have made along the way that you could share with anyone if they are getting together with friends to form a company like this, work on it on the side, and grow it to a full-time business? Any mistakes you could sort of help people avoid if they are doing a similar thing?
Chris Sonjeow: Sure. Sure. I see this a lot because now I am full time. We do get a lot of people coming up to us, asking what they can do to start theirs or what steps do they need to take. The first and most important thing is you have to have a business plan. You have to have a business model. So many times people are like, “Yeah, I want to do this. I want to have my own business.” My number one question is, “Well, who is writing you your check? Who is writing checks to you?” That is the most important thing. If you cannot figure out who is going to write you a check for the service you provide, you are going to be dead in the water before you even start.
Philip Taylor: Gotcha.
Chris Sonjeow: So, have your business plan ready. Know who you are selling to and know where those people are going to be. The people you are selling to, once you know that, where are they at? Where are they going? Why are they looking for your product? What makes you better than the next person? Is it price? Is it quality? Is it style? What is the unique value proposition (UVP)? It is so important.
Philip Taylor: Okay. Well, alright, that leads me into the last question. Tell me the UVP of Love Book Online and what the future is for you guys.
Chris Sonjeow: Perfect – the elevator pitch. Real quick here, right? Okay, so Love Book Online is a gift that truly there is nothing like. It is basically a book that you can get in hardcover or softcover. Hardcovers are $39.95. Softcovers are $24.95. Inside each book you can create your own content that lists all the reasons why you love somebody. Underneath each reason that you love somebody there is a little stick figure drawing to help illustrate that particular page. We developed an online system at LoveBookOnline.com where you go and create an account and you get to select what book type you want. You get to select your cover type. We have over 70 different cover designs. You can add your own text and title. Once you are done with that, you get entered into our Love Book Creator where basically you start searching for pages for reasons that you love somebody. As you search through those pages, you can go through and edit each one of those pages to express a more personal side of it. So, like if you have inside jokes or something more specific or places you have vacationed (for instance, “I loved going to Las Vegas with you” is a popular one), so you can search for different little stamps. We have actually a giant library of all of these little clipart-type characters, places, and things that they can use as illustrations. Once you are done with your book, you make your purchase, and we actually print it, bind it, and ship it to you in a package.
Philip Taylor: How long does that take to get to you?
Chris Sonjeow: We ship all over the world, so it depends on where you are at in the world. We ship from the US and from the UK, and pretty soon we will be shipping from Australia, just to kind of reduce ship times, but generally domestically in the US, for a hardcover book it will take about 5-7 business days and for a softcover about 3-5 business days to have developed.
Philip Taylor: Awesome! So what is next for you guys? What do you see in the future?
Chris Sonjeow: What we are doing now is we are actually in the middle of developing a relationship workbook. What that is is basically a book where couples kind of sit down together. It is fun. It is like an activity book where you answer questions about each other. You play little games. The entire concept we are finding is all about making connections with people. It is not just I buy you flowers, here you go, take your flowers, and that is it. It is how do you bind one person to another person. We find that each individual page or the workbook are ways to bind people together so their relationships can be stronger.
Philip Taylor: I see. Good.
Chris Sonjeow: That is what we are about.
Philip Taylor: Help and improve relationships. I love it!
Chris Sonjeow: Yes sir!
Philip Taylor: Well, I appreciate you joining me today, Chris. This has been a very insightful interview. I am lucky to have you guys on. It looks like you are having some great success with the site and with the products. You have something really unique here. So, thank you for sharing everything, and it was great talking with you.
Chris Sonjeow: Thank you, PT. It was great having the chance to do this with you.
That does it for this week’s podcast. This has been Phil Taylor with the Part-Time Money Podcast. You can contact me at PT@ptmoney.com or just visit me online at ptmoney.com. Again, thanks for listening, and see you next week.