Phil Haussler is a busy guy.
By day, the 33-year-old Hastings, Neb., native is the director of product development for Quantum Workplace, an Omaha-based firm that helps companies measure employee engagement and other things. It's the company that helps cities across the country, including Omaha, determine the community's top employers.
By night, he's an entrepreneur — the founder and one of three partners in MarbleSpark, a personalized children's book firm he started working on in 2005 that later turned into a full-fledged start-up in late 2009.
Meanwhile, while juggling the roles of entrepreneur and professional, Haussler is also a husband and the father of three youngsters: McCoy, 5; Lincoln, 2; and 6-month-old Grady.
As is the case with many entrepreneurs, Haussler launched MarbleSpark by pursuing his passions — writing and storytelling.
“I've always kind of been looking for something I could do on my own, a small business I could grow,” he said.
However, unlike most people who launch start-ups, Haussler wasn't looking for a way out of his day job.
“That's not the case for me. My problem is I have these dual passions and both of them require a lot of energy.”
The MarbleSpark story starts with Haussler and his wife, Stacey — who works at Union Bank in Omaha and also handles MarbleSpark's finances while keeping the Haussler family train on the tracks — expecting the birth of McCoy, their first child.
Phil, thinking it would be cool to create a book, wrote and illustrated a short story.
The first story wasn't any good, Haussler said, but it led to “Following Featherbottom,” a story about a stork (Felix Featherbottom) who travels to countries and cities around the world based on the letters in a child's name.
So, for example, for a child named Emma, Felix might go to Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mexico and Antarctica. For a Charles, Felix's adventures could take him to Cairo, Hawaii, Argentina, Rio, Lebanon, England and Sydney.
Customers can pick from a number of locations for each letter, choose a personalized hardcover with the child's name and get the custom book shipped and at their door in about a week.
Haussler handled the writing for the book and artist Brad Sneed, of Prairie Village, Kan., worked for years on the artwork. Unlike most children's books, Sneed had to do more work than normal because each letter could match a number of countries, so he created watercolor on canvas paintings for 75 cities and countries.
Another partner, Ken Wiebke, of Overland Park, Kan., oversees the company's website, ordering platform and all other matters of technology, Haussler said.
Haussler thought the project might take a year to get to market. It took four. And, because of the recession and the digital publishing push, the time to launch MarbleSpark wasn't optimal.
“You could not pick a worse time in the last 50 to 100 years to start a children's book publishing company,” Haussler said. “That's partly to do with the shift to digital, it's partly to do with parents raising their expectations around when kids should start reading chapter books.”
But with those challenges, Haussler, a curious optimist, saw opportunity.
“It's been positive for us because we didn't require huge amounts of seed funding or angel investing,” he said. “It's all boot-strapped from our personal piggy banks. It's been kind of a blessing to be in an environment, like Omaha, where we can do it on the side and just kind of go about our business.”
In 2010, MarbleSpark sold “a couple thousand” Felix Featherbottom books, which retail for $33 apiece on Marblespark.com. The company also struck a partnership with Pottery Barn Kids, which sells the book on its website, giving wide exposure to a well-to-do demographic.
“Our partnership with Pottery Barn Kids started with a middle-of-the-night, cold email,” Haussler said. “I emailed somebody in the wrong division and, through dumb luck, they put me in touch with the right contact. She immediately replied with ‘We want it.'”
On the Pottery Barn Kids website, “Following Featherbottom” has received rave reviews.
One reviewer from Marysville, Wash., said her 6-year-old loves the book and “could not believe there was a book made with her name in it.” Another customer, from Greensboro, N.C., said the book is now her gift of choice for children's birthdays.
The books also are available at the Bookworm and at various bookstores in New York and Colorado.
Ellen Scott, manager of the children's book department at the Bookworm, said the custom Featherbottom books aren't overly popular at the Bookworm because it's easier to order them online. But the people that do buy them “are pleased with them,” Scott said.
Otherwise,MarbleSpark's sales and customizing are done online. That also makes the company easy for Haussler, Sneed and Wiebke to operate because there are no overhead costs.
Haussler said the company is on track to double sales this year and is pursuing ways to bring “Following Featherbottom” and other books that are now in the working stages to digital platforms, especially tablet computers.
Haussler's vision for MarbleSpark is in part inspired by a Walt Disney quote: “We don't make movies to make more money. We make money to make more movies.”
“We're dumping most of our money back into the business to release our second personalized book this winter,” he said. “And we're just going to stay focused on creating books that blow your kid's mind.”
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