Using an eCommerce Subscription to Change the World with OurShelves’ Alli Harper
Most subscription entrepreneurs initially are attracted to the model for its predictable recurring revenue, but there are other benefits to having an ongoing relationship with members. Our guest, Alli Harper, works at the intersection of subscription eCommerce and social impact. Her subscription business is an intentional tactic to advance change in the picture book industry and to achieve that impact. Alli is building a scalable enterprise that serves the currently underestimated audience for diverse children’s books. Alli is the founder and owner of OurShelves, a diverse children’s books subscription service and advocacy effort. OurShelves has a dual mission, to connect high-quality curated, diverse children’s books to the families, teachers, and librarians seeking them, and to leverage the collective consumer power to advocate for the many more diverse books still needed. Alli who was trained as a lawyer and community organizer launched OurShelves from her kitchen table in the home she shares with her wife, Jenn and their two children. I featured her launch story in my recent book, The Forever Transaction.
I invited her to share the way she’s using her subscription business to persuade publishers to include more diverse families in the everyday stories they tell in their children’s books. In this conversation, we talk about what it takes to bootstrap a subscription eCommerce business, what metrics are most important when profitability isn’t the highest priority, and how her training in law and advocacy has helped her build a vibrant community of parents, librarians, and schools around her subscription offering.
The following interview is adapted from my podcast, Subscription Stories: True Tales from the Trenches.
Robbie Baxter: What prompted you to launch OurShelves?
Alli Harper: The beginning of OurShelves goes back to the beginning of me and my wife, Jenn, beginning as parents, which I will say right around the birth of our oldest child, Anna, which by the way, was in a Subaru Outback because we didn’t quite make it to the hospital. That’s a whole other story. It very much fits her personality, but books have always been important to me and Jenn. We were married in a library. When we were preparing for our first child, we started looking for books for her. I would say maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised, but we were surprised at how hard it was to find high-quality age-appropriate kids’ books that affirmed our two-mom family type. We knew it was important for her to see her family affirmed in the books that she enjoys. It was also hard to find books featuring many other kinds of kids and families. It was also important to us to have books that cultivated our values of inclusion, equity, and social justice. We started asking around. We had friends across the country, many of whom were starting to have kids. We found that this was a common problem. People were looking for these books and having a hard time finding them.
Robbie Baxter: A lot of people have those kinds of challenges and then they back-burner it because they’re new parents, they have other things going on. What was it that made you say, “I think I’m going to take this one on and make it my work?” What was it that made you say this is a battle worth fighting for?
Alli Harper: We were new parents. I thought this problem would take care of itself. I was aware there was a tremendous audience for these books. I continued with my life as it had been, now with a new child, and continuing that line of work. It was when Anna started to read chapter books that a piece of me was devastated. I couldn’t believe my child had just aged out if it’s possible to age out. It’s not really possible to age out of picture books. She was starting to read chapter books and another child missed the chance, like so many other children and families, to see herself adequately represented in kids’ books. It wasn’t actually until that point.
Robbie Baxter: How old was she when she was reading her chapter books, your precocious Anna?
Alli Harper: She was probably five or six. For those first five years, we had been asking everybody, librarians, bookseller, teachers, every friend. I remember visiting San Francisco and going to the gayest neighborhoods and the most independent bookstores and saying, “What do you have?” It was one of those San Francisco trips where I visited some of those bookstores, and they were showing still some of the older books and didn’t know about some of the newer books that now are for me, just as a parent consumer looking for these books, being scrappy and committed. They didn’t even know about some of these books that I was starting to find. I was starting to build some confidence that this isn’t just me. Sometimes as new parents, you think, “I feel guilty about everything. This must be me. I can’t find these books.”
I started to gain the confidence that this was not just me. This was a systemic structural problem that needed to be addressed. To your question of, why was it something worth pursuing? We’ll talk more about this later. There’s a tremendous opportunity because there’s such an incredible market audience that’s underestimated and untapped. It was that piece that I said, “We need to connect some dots here. This is a solvable problem.” I will also say that at that point, we were now having our second child. We launched OurShelves when we were having our second child, which again is a different story. It was having a second child that I was saying, “I’m not going to sit this one out.”
Robbie Baxter: That makes great sense. You decided not to sit it out. You’re a community advocate and organizer, you’re a lawyer. What made you decide to do a subscription business? That seems like not the most obvious tactic to achieve the goals that you described.
Alli Harper: We realized this initially as a personal challenge, and then we realized that this personal challenge faced by many people. We had an everyday problem that a lot of people were facing. When I started to pay more attention to it through my community organizer lens. I’m an organizer with a lens towards systems change and structural change. I started to try to understand what was going on in the picture book industry. I came away with two observations of two systemic problems that informed the choice to set up OurShelves the way we set it up. The first problem is there are not enough high-quality, diverse children’s books therein. That’s the first problem. The second problem is that there are more books than I thought there were, but they are often too hard to find. OurShelves and our dual mission is a direct response to those two problems.
The first part of our mission is in direct response to these books that can be too hard to find. The first part of the mission is we have assembled an incredible curation team that selects and reviews these books, and then we deliver. We make them easier to find. We connect these books to busy families, teachers, and librarians. That’s the first part of the mission addressing one of those problems. Our second part of the mission addresses the second problem being there are not enough books, period. The second part of the mission is we are advocating for the many more diverse books still needed. We can talk about how we do that, but those two together led to the dual mission. I’ll also share that those two problems are interconnected.
Robbie Baxter: I want to talk a little bit about the subscription itself. Can you give us a sense of the order of magnitude of where you are in terms of your subscription operations? How many books? Where are you getting the books from? How many shipments are you making? How many subscribers? Anything that you can share with the audience to give them a sense of how you’re running the subscription part of the initiative of your organization.
Alli Harper: We started in our home right around the birth of my second child.
Robbie Baxter: What was that like?
Alli Harper: I don’t even remember it to be honest. We launched and I assumed because it was my wife’s first child, that first children often come later but he didn’t. He came early because she was working overnight shifts. She’s in the healthcare profession. He came early and so he ended up coming during our first round of shipments. That first shipment, we had thought this was just going to be some friends and family, just to get the boxes out the door to figure out, “Where do we order boxes? How do we work with publishers?” It’s very basic, get a few boxes out the door and then figure this out. We put up blog posts and quickly got over three hundred orders, which was overwhelming. Given the circumstances that we knew very little about what we were doing and that we had a new baby being born, but we had some great help.
Robbie Baxter: Who helped you?
Alli Harper: My babysitter. I have many pictures of all of us packing, alternating between holding a new baby, playing with the older child, and packing books. It was a very special, challenging time that I don’t remember. I don’t think I slept much during that time. My wife certainly was not sleeping during that time because she had just birthed the child, but it was a great problem to have. We were very excited. The other interesting thing about our launch was that of the subscribers, seventy-six percent of the subscribers signed up to prepay for a year. That was a powerful signal to me that people experienced a high pain point with this problem because we were unproven. I had a blog post, but we had never delivered a box. To prepay for a year of something that has never existed, you do that when you feel like you need it and you don’t feel like you have some other options. That was a very interesting moment.
Robbie Baxter: It’s not an insignificant cost. Can you share what a year of prepay would cost?
Alli Harper: We offer boxes curated by age. Our Sunshine boxes, which are baby book boxes for ages zero to two, a year, a three-book boxes and we ship quarterly. You get four boxes. It is $131.88. For Rainbow and Treehouse books, Rainbow boxes are for ages 2 to 5-year-olds, and Treehouse boxes are for ages 5 to 8. Those are both picture books. They have the same cost and those are $179.88 for the year. That was an interesting moment of people looking for this like my family was. It came from a real personal pain point for the family.
OurShelves solves the problem of not having enough children’s books that cultivate the values of inclusion, equity and social justice.
Robbie Baxter: The reason I asked about the cost is that a lot of people, especially in what I would call the curated eCommerce box subscription area, they have trouble keeping people for three months. There’s an overwhelm like, “I have too many ties now,” or “I have too many snacks now,” or “Too many lipsticks, I’m overwhelmed. That’s all I needed. I’m tired of it. By the way, I can buy it myself at the store.” It’s fascinating to me that you found this niche, this space where there was so much pain and pent-up demand that people were willing to commit to a year with an unproven model, with an unproven founder. Very few subscription businesses get that early connection with their audience. It’s because your forever promise was so compelling.
Alli Harper: It’s interesting too because I know in your book you speak about who are your best customers. What’s interesting about who those early founding members were and who our members continue to be is we have two batches of best customers. One is the people like my family, whose kids and their families are traditionally underrepresented in kids’ books. They had experienced the struggle of trying to find these books, lying there at bedtime, pulling out another book that doesn’t show their family and how that feels. They’re worried about how that impacts their child. That is one audience that experiences a high pain point. Also, we have many members who do not have a child, or they are not traditionally underrepresented. They understand and are committed to having books that affirm their values of inclusion, equity, and social justice. That’s also been very powerful. We’re not just talking about folks who are traditionally underrepresented. More than half the babies in the United States are now babies of color. There are nine point five million LGBTQ millennials looking to grow their families. There are also twelve million allied millennial moms who support diverse families. We’re seeing our best customer audiences. We’re seeing both of those audiences.
Robbie Baxter: What are the metrics that you use to both make sure that the subscription business is healthy and that you’re optimizing it? Also to tie it back, I don’t know if this is double bottom line investing or triple bottom line, but you have multiple objectives here. One of which is to have a successful subscription book business, but another bigger one, which is to drive change in the world. I’m curious, what are the metrics that you look at to tell yourself if you’re on the right track and where more attention is needed?
Alli Harper: The two objectives you mentioned are integrally related. I am very committed to having an excellent subscription eCommerce business and learning from people like you and others how to run and scale an excellent subscription eCommerce business. That is the way we will scale and have the impact we need to have with publishers. The two are very much related. Ultimately this is a tactic to change the picture book industry. Also, we need to be very strong in terms of putting a sustainable well-run business enterprise. What we’re trying to do is the number of members and the number of books we buy matters the most.
On the acquisition front, we’re spending the next couple of months focusing on operations. We have not hit a green light go button on a significant investment in marketing thus far. We have members in all fifty states. In 2020, we tripled the size of our membership base. We are growing, but that growth so far has not been through a marketing financial investment. It has been through the loyalty of our members. Our cost of acquiring customers has been very well, but that will certainly go up. That will be something that we will be tracking when we hit the green light button even more so. Right now we do track it, but it’s very low. The growth has been organic. We are paying attention on the acquisition side, new members in terms of where they’re coming from. We look daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually at the acquisitions for sure.
Where we’ve spent the most of our attention is on retention. Our members are extremely loyal. We have extremely high retention rates, extremely low turn rates. After shipments, we send a feedback survey where we ask a variety of questions, including a net promoter score question. That’s a place that we pay close attention on the retention front. On the engagement front, that’s the piece where we can’t get a piece of data that says like, how many times did they read a book every night, but we can get proxy indicators that people send. A member sent me an email and said, “My child has memorized these books because we read them every night.” We can’t get it going on NewYorkTimes.com and we don’t have the ability to see if someone clicked on NewYorkTimes.com ten times today and read fourteen different articles.
We have to do a little bit of relying on feedback surveys and other proxies, “How many times do they engage with social media posts?” When we ask people to fill out surveys or upcoming more advocacy that we’re doing, to what extent do they participate in that? That’s going to be what we have and what we will measure on the engagement front. We’re building out how to do this. One of the best things that have happened to us is we brought on somebody who has a background in analytics, engineering, and operations. He’s been able to play with and manipulate the data we have to look at it from a lot of different angles, particularly breaking it down to cohort analyses and things that before I couldn’t do, and now we can do that.
Robbie Baxter: What kinds of cohorts?
Alli Harper: What we’ve looked at so far is comparing and trying to see the trends we can see between when people signed up. What have been the patterns of our founding members versus people who have signed up at different moments that have been interesting for one reason or another? Maybe it’s a holiday, or we looked at after George Floyd’s murder when people were looking for diverse kids’ books. We received a lot of new members looking for our books. We’re looking at those members. We’ve also compared across products, how different the products, people who prepay versus people who pay quarterly. What’s their customer lifetime value? How long do they stay with us? Those are the things we’re starting to look at.
Robbie Baxter: It’s so important. It’s funny, I’m interviewing you and the person I interviewed before you was Matt Fiedler who started Vinyl Me, Please, which is a curated subscription to records. There are lots of interesting analogies that I’m thinking about. We talked a lot about his scaling process, building and operations, outsourcing shipments, and fulfillment, which I have to introduce you to him because I think you guys will have a great conversation. One of the things that he talked about was that when he reached a certain scale, he couldn’t get the inventory. It was hard to get the inventory from the publishers because the quantities were too great. A lot of times these were older titles, but also he was able to create his own content. He might take the music from a particular artist and create new cover art or commission something a little bit different because he had gotten to know his subscribers so well. I can’t help but think about this in the context of what you’re doing at what point where you might either hit a number where you’re like, “They cannot fulfill these orders,” or even more powerfully, we can pick an author and a book and bring it to the publisher and say, “We’re going to pre-buy the books.” Where are you on that journey?
Alli Harper: I would love to talk to that person because all of those questions are so live for us, externalize internalize, fulfillment, but it’s the question of content development. To give an example, we’ve been curating our Baby Board book boxes for upcoming shipments. I have had such a hard time finding more books with LGBTQ kids and families. It has forced the question earlier than I might have wished of we need more and better content. In that conversation, we have been brainstorming and speaking with other advocates about how we can partner with publishers on content development, and had begun those conversations. Those are very much live conversations for us. I think that partnering with publishers, there are a lot of potentials there. On the operational front, the great thing about kids’ books is we can work with publishers to pre-order books, request our own print runs. That is exciting.
Robbie Baxter: Do you need to be a certain size to do that?
Alli Harper: It depends on the publisher. We have run into problems where we have requested inventory and there hasn’t been enough that we’ve had to shift books to be used. I feel like we’re at the point now where some of our book choices for a particular box end up being dictated by that logistical challenge, particularly with the pandemic. Publishers will think they’re getting a book in, and then it’s three weeks late because it’s coming from China. There’s a pandemic piece of that. It is impacting our operations to that extent. It doesn’t mean we won’t get the book in, but we have to wait for a reprint to arrive. Maybe we have to switch it to a different box. On the print run size, in terms of size, it depends on the publisher. Some smaller publishers, it’s a few thousand of a certain type of book. Sometimes it’s five thousand of a certain type of book, depending on the book and the publisher.
Robbie Baxter: You talked about partnerships. I know one of the partnerships that you’ve embarked on is with the Maine Technology Institute, and you received a grant from them. Did you consider taking outside investment as a means of accelerating growth? How do you think about who you want to partner with, and make the trade-offs of accelerating growth versus staying true to the mission as you move forward?
Alli Harper: The Maine Technology Institute, MTI, we love them. They have given us two grants. They gave us an initial grant to test the concept. With that small grant, we were able to do all of those four to five hundred interviews, surveys, and then launch our MVP website, which then we validated the concept. We went back to them and told them there is a demand. We know there’s a pain point here and now we need to improve our operations in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. They gave us a second round of money for that. They stand for innovation, iteration, thinking outside the box. We’ve been incredibly grateful for their support. They’re building infrastructure in Maine for innovation and creating jobs to the extent that folks have state entities like that. They are great partners.
In terms of your question of other partners, we were fortunate both to have access to the MTI grant funding. Also, because that initial cohort, seventy-six percent of the subscribers prepay for their subscription, we had a fair amount of money upfront. We’ve been able to have enough money in the bank to run our business. Having said that, we are spending now. We are cleaning up operations. We’ve been growing faster than in some ways our operations can handle. We’re trying to focus on the operations for the next couple of months. It begs your question of, when are we ready to hit the go button with a significant investment? What kinds of partners will we look for? How will we get the resources we need for that growth? That is a live conversation now.
Robbie Baxter: Back to this interview with Matt Fiedler, from Vinyl Me, Please. One of the things he said that stuck with me was, “Every time you double in size, everything breaks,” as a rule.
Alli Harper: I can relate to that.
Robbie Baxter: You are trained as a lawyer. I never thought of lawyers as being entrepreneurial, certainly when I was thinking about grad school, but you’re not the first lawyer-entrepreneur that I’ve even had on this show. Joanna Strober, the Founder of Kurbo by Weight Watchers, which is a children’s weight loss program available through digital means, was my first Subscription Stories guest, and she also went to law school. I have to ask, how did your legal training and your background in community organizing impact the way you run your business, the way you run the subscription?
Alli Harper: As an attorney, when I went to law school, I was focused on studying how one changes systems at the intersection of organizing a lawyering strategy. That’s a general analysis of when I see a problem, I look at the system and try to understand it, and then figure out where the breakdowns and the disconnects are. How can I have an impact with my skillset to advance change? That lens was helpful from law school. In law school, we also studied power dynamics. Having a lens of how power works in big systems also informed my analysis of this problem, and how we might solve the problem. In terms of the nuts and bolts of running the business, I’m a community organizer. What’s interesting about community organizing is when I was reading your second book, The Forever Transaction, and you talk about member-centric thinking. Many of the themes of community organizing, we use different languages often, but so many of the themes are there. Community organizing is all about building authentic relationships with an eye towards the long-term building of a collective that is working together to achieve a mission.
As part of community organizing, we’re extremely strategic about who we’re targeting and how we bring those people into our community. In community organizing, we are always thinking about how you empower the people in your community, listen to them, and value their expertise. It’s been so interesting as a subscription eCommerce startup because our members had expertise. We’ve already spoken a little bit about their expertise in knowing what they’re looking for in kids’ books, who’s missing, which characters, which storylines. It is still our members who tell us when something on the website isn’t working. It’s incredible. Every time somebody writes with a little thing, I’m grateful because it’s something we missed. Listening and valuing that expertise is valuable.
The other piece that resonates about what you’ve written in community organizing is I like to think of organizing as you’re moving people along a continuum of taking action. If somebody first interacts with you by liking a post on Facebook, or we’ve been talking a lot about NASA and space, they see that we put out a book called Rocket Says Look Up! It’s about a little black girl who loves meteor showers and wants to be an astronaut. They shared that book and buy that book for their kids. They take some actions and then they maybe subscribe to OurShelves and receive our books. They suggest to their teachers that they might want to read these books, to bring these books into their classroom. They’re continually offering encouragement and opportunity for strategically chosen actions that they take, that are strategically chosen to build connection and investment in your mission.
It’s exciting when your members feel so invested in the mission that they become leaders and spokespeople for the cause themselves.
It’s also exciting when our members feel so invested in the mission that they become leaders and they become spokespeople for Debra’s kids’ books. That could look like they’re sharing, It’s Halloween Time, and there’s a great book, Harriet Gets Carried Away. It’s about a little girl who looks for all kinds of costumes. She said, “I’m a multiracial two-dad family.” Maybe they’re sharing books with teachers and librarians, or they are sharing that with their networks, or in their Facebook parent group, “Did you know that babies can see race in the first six months of life? Did you know that by the age of two, kids have internalized identity-based bias?” In these early years, all of this bias formation can happen much earlier than we think. Whether it’s education, whether it’s sharing books, there are so many different ways that we’ve seen our members grab onto the information and the books and extend their reach, which helps to fulfill our mission of more people realizing the importance of their kids’ books and having them in their homes, classrooms, and libraries.
Robbie Baxter: What’s so important about what you said for people reading, two things. One of them is the idea of superusers, which is something that I think about a lot, which is the people that go beyond paying you for the great value that your subscription provides, which is wonderful. We’re very excited when we find subscribers who get great value from what we’re providing. A superuser is someone who goes beyond that and contributes their own time and resources to the benefit of the organization. I’m investing in the organization because I believe in what they’re doing so much because it brings me so much value. That’s when people make referrals, they go deeper and take deeper action, they give you feedback, like you said, when they say, “I see an error on your website. I hope you fix it because that’ll help other people.” That’s important how thoughtful you’ve been about superusers. I think it speaks to your community organizer training. For those of you who are trying to do some hiring now, which I know a lot of subscription businesses are, maybe that’s an interesting place to look, is with people in this kind of background, especially if you have a noble purpose or mission driving your business.
The other thing that you said that is important is understanding your member journey. Being able to see around the corners and to know, “If they get these books, the next thing they’re probably going to want to do,” and they’re going to think they came up with this idea, is tell their librarian or tell their school teacher. How can we anticipate that and make it easy for them to go on that journey? We’re aligned together on the journey and we’re helping them every step of the way to achieve that forever promise, which is to help your double mission of there are more books and more people who have access to these books. Step one is getting these people those books, but then there’s step two, step three, and step four. I love how you described how you’re doing that with OurShelves. We’re getting to the end of our time. It’s gone by fast. It’s fun to talk to you. It’s so interesting. I want to do a speed round if you’re up for it. Just say what pops into your mind, quick answer. Advice for community advocates who are considering incorporating a for-profit initiative into their mission.
Alli Harper: Following the same principles, even though it’s a different model, following the same principles of building relationships and empowering the people in your community to achieve the mission that you jointly are out to achieve.
Robbie Baxter: Advice for non-business people more generally who want to bootstrap a subscription business.
Alli Harper: Find a network of people who have done this before. There is a lot to learn and it’s helpful to have people. I’ve been grateful for people like you and other people who’ve been willing to share so much about just from terminology to nuts and bolts.
Robbie Baxter: The last book you read aloud to your kids?
Alli Harper: We read a million books every day. Rosa Loves Cars.
Robbie Baxter: What are you reading right now?
Alli Harper: I’ve got to say The Forever Transaction because we were just reading it in a meeting. I just finished Braiding Sweetgrass.
Robbie Baxter: Your first subscription?
Alli Harper: National Geographic.
Robbie Baxter: I love that, Geographic Society. Remember the Geographic Society?
Alli Harper: My kids still get that. That’s still probably our favorite subscription as my kids now get it. It’s broken down for different ages for different kids and it’s so fun. It’s really good.
Robbie Baxter: That answers my next question which was, what is your favorite subscription, for the family as well? A time you felt like a member, like you belong?
Alli Harper: We had a parent-school evening where the teacher introduced herself and shared her pronouns. It was a signal that that’s something that people do when they’re trying to be proactively inclusive, and she did that. It was a signal to me that she was trying intentionally to make it an inclusive community. I felt like I belonged.