[Transcript] Episode 072 – Kathrine Fisher and Julie Knerr Hague
Transcript: Episode 072 – Kathrine Fisher and Julie Knerr Hague
072 – Katherine Fisher and Dr. Julie Knerr Hague on Developing and Publishing a Piano Method
Today I’m interviewing two piano teachers who, although they didn’t set out to start a business have, over the last decade, built a thriving enterprise and made a noticeable mark on the world of piano pedagogy.
You’ll hear about how they came to develop their own piano method, the humble beginnings of their first print runs, how they’ve expanded their distributor network to reach a global audience, and how they’ve grown as entrepreneurs through the process.
Here’s my conversation with Katherine and Julie:
Andrea: Hi Julie and Katherine. Thank you so much for being here today. Can you introduce yourselves and tell us what you do?
Katherine: Sure. I’m Katherine Fisher. I live in Athens, which is a small town in southeastern Ohio where Ohio University is located. So right now I’m part of the piano faculty there. I teach piano pedagogy, coordinate the group piano program and I also teach private lessons. So I do that in addition to running Piano Safari which of course we’re going to be talking about today during the podcast. And I also homeschool my children who are now 12 and 10 so it is quite a balancing act.
Andrea: Quite a balancing act and that’s like not Covid homeschooling but like real homeschooling?
Katherine: Exactly, yeah. I home schooled them since from the beginning.
Andrea: Alright, yeah. You’ve got a lot going on.
Julie: And I’m Dr. Julie Knerr Hague and I live in Connecticut, in the oldest town in Connecticut, just kind of fun with all the history is one of the reasons I moved back to assist my home state. And I teach a small number of private students of all ages and the co-author of Piano Safari so spend quite a bit of time working on that and I also do research in old lost piano repertoire.
Andrea: Okay. So history runs throughout all of what you do. That’s really fun. Our topic today is really about Piano Safari and that’s the method that you developed and the business side of that, what it was like to put together a curriculum and bring it to market and what you learned in that process. Thanks for being here today. Can you bring us back to the beginning and tell us how Piano Safari came to be?
Katherine: Sure. So Julie and I met at the University of Oklahoma. July was working on her first year of doctoral studies and I had just arrived to work on my first year of my Master’s Degree in Piano Performance and Pedagogy. We quickly discovered we had this mutual dream of writing a piano method and we began to just meet regularly and sketch out our ideas which I think those are some of my best memories from grad school, even just those times when we were kind of dreaming and planning. But it did take us 10 years or more to get our first level to the point similar to what it is now. So we became a business in 2013 with our first level ready to go and that I guess is the official year that Piano Safari became a business.
Andrea: Were you both interested in the concepts and the methodology behind it before you decided you want to start a program or did the passion to start a method come before the actual method itself?
Katherine: I mean, I think for me I became really interested in just educational philosophy and kind of methodology when I was a senior at Wheaton College in my pedagogy class. I began reviewing other methods and I was really interested in some of the ones that weren’t quite as similar or run of the mill. I like the ones that were creative and have some different ideas and I just like thinking about the process of education, so like I just had this seed planted in my head about wanting to write my own and that’s when I entered grad school and met Julie.
Julie: Yeah, I think I was similar. We had to do method review projects in our pedagogy classes but the OU pedagogy library is this wonderful room where they have so many materials and all the pedagogy students would gather there and talk about things and they had quite a few older methods that I had never seen before. So I think just looking at what people had done in the past really sparked the desire to write a method and then Kathy and I met and we were like “Hey, I want to write a method,” and she’s like “I want to write a method,” and we have very similar ideas from the beginning so we didn’t realize it would grow into a business or grow into this lifelong thing. We were friends to begin with but now we’re friends and business partners and so it’s been great.
Andrea: Yeah, I imagine it takes some special alignment like not just you got to be similar pedagogically and then also to be able to work in business together at that. It sounds like a special relationship. We’ll just dig in into the finances right off the bat because you were developing this program in grad school. Grad students are not known for having deep pockets of cash. What kind of financial investment did you do to start and how do you fund it?
Katherine: Well we really didn’t mean for it to become a business. We were completely focused on the pedagogy and we originally wrote it because we wanted the best possible program to teach our own students with. But then as we started telling other teachers about it they were very interested. So then, it slowly grew into selling books and I remember at the beginning going to the printer to print off one or two copies because we’d get one or two orders every couple of months. You know it was very small. It was still evolving at that point into more of the form it is today. But when we did decide, you know, this is something we really want to do, we want to sell these books, my dad gave us a small loan and that got us started and we didn’t really have that much upfront cost because basically it was just funding print runs so we could print some books.
Andrea: And that was you’re just running like to Kinko’s and printing there?
Katherine: It wasn’t even Kinko’s. It was like some small OU printing service where all the grad students went in Oklahoma.
Andrea: And maybe we should step back in further. Can you just briefly describe what is the pedagogical difference between your method and some of the others that people might be familiar with? I know that’s probably not a brief question.
Katherine: I’ll try to summarize that. Basically, we merged this idea that students can learn by rote, by watching the teacher and modeling them and memorizing patterns, listening to the sound and paying attention to their technique, before they become acquainted with a notation for that piece. So we incorporated that idea with the inner [00:07:10] reading approach and we put them together in the same method. So basically, we built upon some pedagogical ideas that were already out there from maybe the Suzuki method and methods like Frances Clark, The Music Tree, and kind of made them our own, build upon them and merged them together.
Julie: Yeah, plus the technique section comes from my dissertation research too, so that was another big component. But we believe that there are such benefits for learning by rote and there are such benefits from learning to read. But we don’t want to delay either one of those so the students learn both of those things, the rote and the reading, from the very beginning but with different types of pieces, so that’s the main idea.
Andrea: Yeah, and I’ve enjoyed using it in my studio. When I first heard about it it’s very different from anything I had experienced before and we’ll get into it later but I imagine the marketing has been interesting because it is kind of different from what other method books are out there. So you had this curriculum and you’re using it in your own studios, other teachers were kind of finding out about it, how were they finding out at that time?
Katherine: I’m not even sure—word of mouth for a lot of it. Our business has really grown a lot through word of mouth and then we started our Facebook page and eventually started going to conferences, so yeah, I think the growth has been just very organic. It’s been word of mouth and social media in the 90% range and I think since we are so focused pedagogically and not necessarily of the mindset at the beginning to grow a business like that’s why we weren’t aggressively marketing it, but yes, we were somewhat surprised it just kept growing very, very quickly. So really, a challenge for us has always been to learn the ropes of running a business and keep up with the growth of our business.
Julie: If we have been offered to take a business class in grad school or something, I don’t think I would have taken advantage of it just because I never saw myself doing that. In fact, I did not like selling things at all to the most extreme in that one of our first conferences we went to was a state conference and I got a migraine from the thought of trying to get someone to sell the book and I have to leave and let Katie do that. That was awful like just having someone approach our table and showing them the book was just overwhelming for me. Now we understand how to do it and that teachers just want to know about it.
Andrea: It can be a very uncomfortable leap to make but I’m sure you made that. So one of the first business decisions we have to make is how to price our products or services. How did you decide how to price your book way back at the beginning when it was just a teacher here or there asking about it?
Katherine: Basically, we just took what we needed to pay the printer and what we needed to pay for shipping materials and then try to get a margin we could live with above that that wasn’t too expensive for the market. Our books are considerably longer than other method books. Book 1 is about three times the size of a standard method book, it’s 113 pages or something plus the side reading cards. It’s a lot of content for the price. Sometimes teachers ask us “Why are your books more expensive than other method books?” It’s because it’s thick and has a lot of content in it and last students a whole year and we really pedagogically did not want to divide it into several smaller books just for the price. So it’s like a year-long curriculum for each level at least. We just have to make a good enough margin to keep ourselves afloat.
Andrea: And were you just kind of winging it? Were you basing it on any research you had read about, how to build in margin for publishing or–
Katherine: No, we wing it. For better or worse, all these years with the business. Now I wish we have had some business training. We get advice from people as well but basically we’ve been learning as we go every step of the way everything that comes up like websites and pricing and printing, all that stuff. We had to learn as we go.
Andrea: Well I can say even as someone with a degree in Entrepreneurship I would say the degree gave me a lot of tools and reference for how to approach problems but I’m still learning, too, every day and every situation is unique, so learning how to apply the tools or whatever.
Julie: Some things change all the time too, like Covid has changed things a lot so we can’t learn it all at one time.
Andrea: Definitely, yeah.
Katherine: I think another principle with pricing the books for us was that we only did print run sizes that we could afford like we’ve never gone into debt in order to do that. So for the first few years of running our business we just worked hard and really did not pay ourselves because we are building it all back into the business. And I think that was a really sound decision and it set us up well for the future.
Andrea: When did you start paying yourselves?
Katherine: I feel like it was maybe three years of running the business.
Julie: Maybe five; I’m not sure.
Andrea: A few years then. And did you take a percentage? Do you pay yourselves a salary or how do you think about that?
Julie: Well at the beginning I think we just took a little bit of what we felt we could afford. As Katie says we’ve never gone into debt. That was one of the things we really didn’t want to do aside from the small loan from my dad which we were able to pay off pretty quickly. And now with taxes it’s a more complicated thing about how we pay ourselves. We want to make sure that the business stays healthy no matter what.
Andrea: And then you’ve self-published books, right?
Andrea: And what led you to make that decision?
Katherine: So back in 2013 when we started our business officially, this decision was made out of necessity because the market was already saturated with piano methods and all of the main publishers were already promoting their own methods. So at that point, approaching a publisher with an unknown product like Piano Safari it wasn’t a given to the publisher that this book would be successful like they knew nothing about us. They knew nothing about the product and also it had different pedagogy behind it. So when we spoke to professionals on the field about publishing Piano Safari, this is before we started officially selling it.
We received advice from them to start small, to start with maybe a supplemental book or just composing some music so that people would get to know our name and then move toward publishing a method because it was the belief that no one would buy a method by people they haven’t heard of before, which I understand where they were coming from. But Julie and I just really were passionate about writing Piano Safari so we just kind of kept on with that and decided to go ahead and self-publish and in our minds it was just self-publishing is going to be just a step along the process toward being published by a larger publishing company. But ultimately, we found that self-publishing is by far one of the best decisions we ever made and we have complete control of our product as well as the timing and production and we love running our own business.
Andrea: And now you’ve essentially become the publishing company because you’ve got other composers publishing through Piano Safari, right?
Katherine: Exactly, yes. We started by being self-published like even when we were getting one order a month and I was running to the print store to get it. That was self-publishing so I just sort of grew from there. Yeah, we love doing it.
Andrea: When it came to graduate from the Oklahoma print shop, how did you go about finding the printer?
Julie: Well I moved to Connecticut and somehow the printing ended up being in my wing of the company. I just went to local print shops like Minuteman Press and got quotes for Repertoire 1 book. I brought the book in and said “We need a bunch of this. How much would it cost per book?” And I think I went to three print shops and one of them was considerably less per book than the others like about half and they turned out to be wonderful. So we used them for all the years. I guess it’s been about seven years but then this last April we moved the whole printing operation from my basement to Ohio, to one of our independent contractors’ basements. Me and my husband now run the shipping department so we found a different printer in Ohio now.
Andrea: Okay. What did you learn in that process? I’m always surprised when I get into a new business. There are all these little decisions like how are you going to bind the book or what weight of card stock are you using for the cover. So what kinds of things came up in that process?
Julie: Oh yeah. I don’t know anything about paper weights but I learned from talking to the printer and each showed me a sample and I’d say “Well we can sort of see through this page. Is there any way to fix that?” He’d be like “Oh, we could go up on the poundage a little. That will add this much to the price,” and so we found paper weights that way. Binding was pretty easy because the books are so thick. We wanted them to make sure they stayed open well on the piano and those spiral binding is way more expensive. That was definitely what we wanted to go with for the binding of the bigger books. And then I spent a lot of back and forth with the printer about files and corrections and actually printing in black even though it says it’s printing in black but it didn’t come out very black. When we first started writing it we put it, our book, on Word, on a Word document. Then we discovered Pages and put everything on Pages. Now we graduated to InDesign so now we’re in the process of putting all the books on InDesign because we found that it makes better PDFs which print more clearly. So yeah, there’s so much to learn about the printing and it’s been very time-consuming but we hope that we’ll get the absolute best clearest print every time we upgrade.
Andrea: Yeah. Did you have a designer working with you and guiding you through that process or was it just–
Katherine: No. We did all the layout ourselves. We do have a graphic artist that does projects for us and did the pictures for the books, the illustrations, but the first round of Piano Safari was clipart that we found and bought. So it’s nice to have a graphic artist that we trust to go to with these things but all the page layout we’ve done ourselves.
Julie: Yeah, and we’ve also grown a lot in that process. It’s really fun like to actually–and kind of terrifying–to look back at our initial books like back before we are even a business when we are working on those kind of final drafts of Level 1 before it was released. They look so different and to us, now, so amateur compared to what they look like now. Changing fonts was a big upgrade. That was one of the main overhaul is changing to better fonts. I do all the finale input.
So now we finally settled on a system for writing new books like we use an old book as a template and then Katie does all the layout with the text and I do all the music and then we jointly proofread in our own separate ways. I like to proofread by looking at one category through the whole book, so like all the headings, I’ll go look at all the headings, then all the text, then all the music, then all the key signatures, all the time signatures, all the page numbers, and then Katie– you can explain how you like to do your proofreading.
Katherine: Yeah, when I’m proofreading I literally take a copy of the book that’s printed out and hold it next to the proof copy and my computer like I have multiple ones open and I compare them all like every single item one page at a time. We have found over the years that you proofread and then you proofread again and then you proofread again and you have to give it multiple proofs and not just one proof. And so with the different systems that Julie and I used for proofing, we finally got into a point where we can weed out those pesky little typos that are just so easy to overlook.
Andrea: So easy and you still get the emails, don’t you? I remember always feeling– I don’t know if I felt smart or just like I had won when I found a typo in a book as a kid. I have never found a typo on one of your books but I think my students get excited when they see that too.
Katherine: I find myself proofreading my entire life every waking moment like my husband and I are watching the news on TV and I’ll be like “They spelled that wrong” or “That’s not centered.”
Andrea: I know you’ve printed a second edition of at least one book. Have you done second edition of others?
Julie: We’ve done second editions of the core method so Level 1, 2 and 3.
Andrea: And when did you decide it’s time for a second edition?
Katherine: So over multiple years of teaching through the books and as we’ve grown as pedagogues, we’ve naturally found some things we wanted to tweak and change. So these changes in general were not major pedagogical changes but they were basically small things to improve presentation and sometimes order of pieces. In the second edition of Repertoire Book 1 we also added quite a bit of improvisation compared to the first version that we had.
We also received regular correspondence from teachers with questions and suggestions about the materials so we always consider those. And a lot of the questions that people have will lead us to find ways to make things more clear on the page. So a lot of the changes you see in the second editions are just adjustments to help things make sense and make the books really easy to use for teachers and students.
Julie: Yeah, and as we’ve taught them to our own students over the years like multiple dozen of students have gone through the curriculum in our own personal studios, we find things that we’re like “Oh, I wish that piece was here and that there was another piece that introduce this concept here.” After several years, we clearly saw how we could improve it.
Andrea: How do you know when it’s time to do that? Have you just decided we’ve accumulated enough changes we’d like to make, let’s do another edition?
Katherine: Well I think part of our new additions recently were also because we are transitioning to InDesign. So when we were doing that process, for example, on Level 3, it was a natural time for us to kind of revamp that book because when we took it from Pages to InDesign we literally have to redo every single thing on every single page.
Andrea: Me as well, yeah.
Katherine: Yeah, and then I think Levels 1 and 2 it was just after many years of having the books in a certain form and just feeling like it was time.
Andrea: And you touched a little bit about marketing but can we dig into that? How did you get the word out about the method when you decided you were really turning this into a business? Did anything change there?
Julie: Every time someone ordered books we would add them to our mailing list. So we gradually, over time, built up a mailing list or for conferences and people would like to be added to our mailing list so then we can send them direct emails. I know when I get a lot of emails every day I delete most of them so that’s not the only way of marketing a course. And then Facebook has been huge. We haven’t gone on Instagram or anything else because Katie and I are both rather technologically conservative in terms of we don’t really like going on Facebook but we know our business needs to have it and we enjoy seeing what the teachers have to say on there all the time. We have Facebook but we have not dived into the world of Instagram even though I think that’s what the young people use.
Andrea: Instagram is more friendly than Facebook so you might enjoy it more.
Katherine: We might consider that.
Julie: The conferences have been a major part of getting the word out. At the beginning, people didn’t know who we were but then over the years, we tried to give as many lectures and showcase this as we can so that people get to know us and become our fans and like our materials and start using them.
Andrea: Yeah, I think because the method is pretty different from others that are out there, the education part has been really important. I know that was really important for me to see like I went to one of your showcases. I don’t think it’s my first exposure. I think maybe I’d heard you talking to podcast or something early on and then went to this showcase and that was like the thing that really told me “Oh, this is how it works and this is how it will work in my studio.” So what role do you think that education part has played in your overall marketing and brand awareness?
Katherine: That’s such a great question and you’re definitely right. It’s so different than other methods and it’s hard to be really concise and explain it to a teacher briefly. So in regard to conferences, a key component has been the showcase because you can speak to several hundred people at once rather than having people up by your booth and say “What is this? Can you tell me about it?” which is also fine, but to get the word out to a lot of people and kind of dig in into the pedagogy more in-depth, the showcases have been really helpful. And then those teachers can come by the booth and we can dialogue with them about it and answer any questions that they have.
The other great thing about conferences is that we have all the books there in person and since we sell primarily online, teachers aren’t always able to pick up a book and feel it and look at it and at conferences that’s something that I know that’s really helpful to see everything in front of you. I really miss conferences. I can’t wait to go to face-to-face conferences again. I think it’s always one of the highlights of our years because so much of what Julie and I do is like work from home and sell from our website and a lot of this is just like an idea like we’re selling all these books but when you meet a teacher and they tell you about their experience with it and with their students, it’s like this is real, this is happening. People are using this. If you understand it in a different way that what you’re doing is making a difference and yeah, I look forward to that again in the future.
Andrea: Has Covid led you to transition any of those showcases to online or formats like that?
Julie: Yes. We have made several online showcase videos. We did the Florida State Conference which was virtual and then MKCP is coming up virtual. So that’s been really convenient to be able to do some things online and not have to travel everywhere though we miss travelling. We’ve also, since now we know how to use Zoom, we’ve all had a crash course in technology this year. We’ve been doing more webinars and planning more online educational content.
Andrea: Do you think that will continue to be part of your strategy in the future?
Katherine: Yes. In fact, we’re working on a series of videos that will train people to use each element of the method. So right now we’re working on the reading and rhythm and how to teach reading and rhythm using the Piano Safari method and then we’re going to have another video series on technique and another on rote teaching. So those will all be available for people just to watch rather than have to attend a live event, which is hard because we can’t be everywhere at once and those teachers certainly can’t. A lot of teachers have a hard time taking time off to travel with their teaching schedules. I feel like moving more virtual is a way to reach more people and to educate them about the best way to use Piano Safari.
Julie: Our website has also been one of the main marketing tools, of course, because we’re an online business. From the beginning, we wanted to provide as much information for teachers about how to successfully use Piano Safari as we could. So on our website people are always telling us how thankful they are for all the resources. It’s not just the store but it’s also mini essays. My full dissertation is on there, teacher guides for everything, videos, as much as we can put on there to help teachers so it’s a very rich website. And when we started it, I built it myself with the help of my uncle and that lasted us for several years. But then, one of the main investments we made in the business was to hire web designers to do our website and that’s a huge and wonderful step in our business when we got that website and then they did an overhaul of it a few years ago to upgrade it a little bit.
Andrea: How is the store integrated with your other systems like your shipping and all of that?
Julie: We use ShipStation so people buy it on the website and then it goes through ShipStation and then we have when do you need and who at the boxes and send it out and keep track of it all which for a while when it was here in my basement I did all the shipping myself and that became overwhelming. So then I hired some helpers who would come to my basement and do it but it’s nice to have it in Ohio fully in control with Wendy and Nathan handling it all so that we can do more of the content of writing new materials and all the other things that a business takes.
Andrea: There’s plenty. How do you decide when you’re looking at this giant long list of potential conferences? How do you decide which ones would be good for you to exhibit that?
Katherine: So we always try to attend the national conferences, so NTNA and then NCKP which is every two years. We also have contacts in England because Alfred UK distributes for us in the UK and Europe. So we’ve done quite a bit of touring and speaking there. We were both thrilled to go there in 2018 and 2019 and do some workshop tours. It was good timing before Covid hit. We got a lot of opportunities to travel all over England and meet teachers. So then, in the US, we also do state conferences. We’re often asked to be the conference presenters. So if that’s the case, we’ll travel there and exhibit and speak. But definitely, the national conferences are what we focus on.
Andrea: Are there any factors that you consider like we know it needs to have attendance of this much to be worthwhile or anything like that?
Katherine: Usually, if we’re allowed to do a lecture or a showcase then we’ll go. If it’s just exhibiting without that, we might not.
Andrea: And for someone who hasn’t been to a conference, a showcase is like an hour-long presentation where you get to showcase the music from a book. It can be a sales pitch although they’re very informational but it gives you a little more opportunity there. Is that why that makes sense?
Katherine: Yes, exactly. So if you’re just presenting at a conference like a general session it’s not a time to sell materials at all. But the showcase is the time for you to actually showcase the materials that you sell. But with Julie and I, we’ve always tried like you said, Andrea, education is such an important component of Piano Safari, so actually our showcases are very pedagogically oriented. They’re like a pedagogy workshop but we do at that point, also, explain like what materials that we sell also. Our showcases usually have freebies that we give out.
Andrea: Yeah, they’re a lot of fun. Let’s talk about the business management. So there are two of you. How are your roles in the business different? Are you doing the same thing? How did you divide work?
Julie: Our roles have evolved over the years and so now they settled into what our _ teams are. Unfortunately, sometimes, we’re so similar that sometimes neither of us has a gift in a certain area like calling people on the phone maybe, so we’ll say “Well, how about you do it?” “No, how about you do it?” Then we’ll get one of husbands to do it. But in general, we found after all these years roles that we each like better or feel like we can handle at that point. So right now I’m working on all the taxes to send to our accountant and Katie does a little bit of that as well. And then I do all the finale music and she does the layout. We share the proofing. She and Wendy do customer service emails and so we’ve divided things into categories like that so we know who’s in charge of what things and then we cc each other on a lot of emails so everyone’s in the loop. We just settled into that. We use to have different roles at different times in the business but that’s how we do it now.
Katherine: And we also have weekly meetings over Skype or Zoom so that we can plan for the week ahead and so we each know what the other is working on that week. That’s really helpful and then text back and forth. Basically you have to be in communication a lot when you’re creating new materials and running a business at the same time.
Julie: Lots of emails and texts flying back and forth in between our weekly meetings.
Andrea: What do you cover in those weekly meetings? Is there a regular agenda or is it whatever is coming up that week?
Katherine: We have a spreadsheet where we can both individually go in and kind of put topics down that need to be addressed if things come up. But typically, the beginning of our meetings will be logistical, talking about different elements of running the business and then we get to do the fun part and we save that for the end which is talking about pedagogy or designing new materials and working on projects.
Andrea: And is there anyone else on your team? You’ve mentioned a few people.
Katherine: Yes, so our independent contractors are Wendy and Nathan Blackwood. Wendy is the person that most teachers will write to and receive a response from. She does the majority of the customer service and her husband Nathan then is in charge of shipping and inventory so he packs all the boxes, takes them to the post office, picks up all of the print runs from the printer and those kinds of things. They are both wonderful and absolutely key to running the business. We also have a distributor in Australia, Rachel [00:34:04], and she is in charge of picking up print runs that we print in Australia and she stores them in a warehouse and she ships them out for us from there. And I mentioned before, we also have Alfred UK to handle the UK and Europe. They can also ship in places like Russia and Africa and many other places because they have such a broad shipping network. And then in Canada, we have Kings Music which is a store in British Columbia. They have two locations there and they can ship all the way to Canada and we’re also now working with Long & McQuade. So that’s kind of our distribution team. We mentioned before we have a graphic designer, Lisa Campos, in Spain and her husband is Juan Cabeza, he is a composer for Piano Safari. He’s written Diversions and miniatures and piano train trips, so it was so awesome that his wife was a graphic designer. She’s done a lot of our covers and our illustrations in Levels 1 and 2.
Andrea: Okay. You have beautiful covers. I think parents and students are both impressed by the covers of your books. How do you develop those relationships with the distributors?
Katherine: That was a question I think early on in our business that was one of the hardest for us for there was this period of time between 2013 and 2016 that we are literally sending all orders from the US to all these international locations and it was expensive and it was problematic because a lot of times things will get stuck in customs and then once it enter customs in another country we couldn’t track it. So we definitely got to the point where we knew something had to change. And in 2016 Andrew Higgins from Alfred UK reached out to us and we’re able to form a relationship with him and he helped us kind of start small and then grow our business and they’re working with Alfred. That’s been such a positive relationship over the years. And then our Australian distributor, she came to a conference that we hosted in Ohio. She flew here from Australia which was amazing. So we got to know her in person. Now she’s in charge of that Australian distribution.
Andrea: And the Australian distribution, they print in country but the others are those all printed in Ohio and then shipped to Canada or Alfred UK?
Katherine: Good question. So yes, in Australia print in-country. In the UK we started by shipping from the US because Alfred had a good shipping network to do that but now we ended up printing everything in the UK. And in Canada, it works well because we can ship to a location in the United States and they drive over the border. They have locations that are close and they’ll pick up our packages and drive it back into Canada so we avoid international shipping with our Canadian distributors right now.
Andrea: That’s significant. Shipping costs can be really shocking. And then you’ve got all the taxes and things to that kind of are just not always something you can anticipate. You’ve mentioned that you’ve done a lot of personal growth in learning to be business owners. What have been some of your biggest lessons that you’ve learned? If you can each comment on that that would be interesting to hear.
Julie: I think I’ve learned that I can do more than I thought. I always thought I would just be a piano teacher and have my studio and that would be my career. I had a friend once who told me “You know, most of your income is going to be from Piano Safari rather than your students pretty soon,” and I’m like “That will never happen.” It’s true that Piano Safari is my main portion of our work. I have just a small number of students now and I just didn’t know that there was all this I could learn and do well like besides teach piano like deal with printers and publishing and proofreading and shipping and so many things to learn.
Katherine: Yeah, I think for me it’s helped me learn to be very organized because there are so many different elements to running the business and creating all these different materials because we have lots of projects going on at the same time and lots of connections and just trying to organize that it’s been important. It’s like the only way that we can do what we’re doing well is to have lots of lists and lots of planning and then to make sure that you are hitting those deadlines and not procrastinating, even if you don’t feel like doing something that day, just doing it anyway. Those are lessons that I’ve learned from running a business that are the first ones that jump in my head but many lessons.
Julie: We both have a lot of plate spinning, not just 10 or 15 Piano Safari plates spinning at any given time but then our students and our families and Katie’s homeschooling and her other job, so yeah, being organized is definitely a good one.
Andrea: I can totally relate to that. My freshman year of college I had a house painting business and I was so busy but it was the most beneficial busy semester because I would go home on the weekends, I teach 18 students and then I would do house painting estimates all weekend long and it forced me to be really regimented with my time during the week. It really forces you to be on everything when you’ve got so many plates spinning.
Julie: Yeah, working from home also you have to find a way to work from home that works for you. I find that for the first 15 minutes of every hour I’ll play some old music that I’ve discovered and then for the rest of the hour I have specific projects and so it’s all by the clock. That’s the way that works best for me but I know it’s different for everyone who works at home. Some people might be able to sit for four hours and work on one project but I can’t do that. I have to divide that up into 45-minute increments.
Andrea: Do you have any productivity hacks, Katherine that you use?
Katherine: I wish I could just sit down and like say “I’m going to do an hour here and that’s all I’m doing,” but I think just helping the kids with their schooling like they’re going to have questions in the morning when I’m working on Piano Safari so I have to be able to switch gears gracefully and quickly. And Julie and I are both tracking our Piano Safari hours now so I literally track every 15 minutes. Maybe someday that will be different. I’ll love it if I’m like “This morning I’m going to work from 9 to 11 doing Piano Safari stuff,” but that’s not quite the stage of life I’m in. I think just knowing that and trying to be flexible with that is important. I’m sure you understand having a 20-month-old, right?
Andrea: Yeah, you just have to be interruptible a lot. And what are your goals for Piano Safari in the coming year?
Katherine: We recently had our 2021 planning meeting which was really fun because we like to dream about everything that we want to do and it’s amazing because the more that we’re kind of publishing and getting out there the more ideas we have, like it hasn’t stopped. They just keep growing. But I think one of our goals for 2021 is to add a book for the four to five age categories and it’s going to basically be a stand-alone kind of book for preschool age and lots of teachers have asked us for that because I think Repertoire 1 for a preschooler is just a little much. There’s still a lot on the page and the concepts move a little too quickly for a child at that age. So we are really excited about adding that.
Julie: Another project we have, I’ve been working for many years on a database of teaching literature which is separate from Piano Safari but it’s like my relaxation thing that I do, read through old music. So I found so many great pieces that have been lost to history because they’re not published anymore they fell out of print. I was asked by the curious piano teachers in the UK to do a podcast about some of the women composers that I discovered and in doing more research for that I came to realize we could publish an anthology of women composers’ music. I’m really excited about that so that’s another thing we’re going to try to work on this year. And then also, we have a series of new arrangement books that we’re working on and we had so many ideas and projects that we wanted to do in 2021 but there’s only so much time. So we’re down to those three and then some little flashcards that we’re also working on which were in progress already.
Andrea: Okay, lots to look forward to.
Julie: Yeah, plus running the business and doing the taxes.
Andrea: And where can listeners get in touch with you and follow along with these new projects you’re working on?
Katherine: So Teaching Piano Safari, which is our Facebook group. We have such a vibrant group of teachers there who are so intelligent and ask really good questions. So we do communicate regularly with people on Teaching Piano Safari so if you’re listening then check that out. Also by email, if you’ve ever ordered from Piano Safari before, then you are likely on our mailing list and that is a place where we talk about our new products coming up and tell people when we’re running sales and all those kind of logistical things. And also, just on our website we try to keep that updated so you can check there for new products and new resources too.
Andrea: And you mentioned that it’s a very robust website and it does have a lot of teaching resources on there; always finding new things. Well Julie and Katherine, thank you so much for sharing your story and talking about how you’ve just grown to this whole process and sharing it with the listeners. Thanks for being here.
Julie: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
[00:44:26] [End of interview]
There were two things that really stuck out to me in this conversation with Katherine and Julie.
The first was that they just started.
They didn’t wait until they had the perfect thing. They just started producing the materials they were passionate about producing and started using them in their studios.
And it took 10 years to get to a book that somewhat resembles the Piano Safari book teachers might be familiar with today. And STILL, they look back at their first publications as looking amateurish.
I hope this is encouraging, if you’re listening and have an idea bouncing around your head.
Here’s what I’ve learned about ideas.
Sometimes we think too highly of them.
I had the idea for Music Studio Startup in 2013. I had just moved halfway across the country and left my music school behind. I was at a transition point and exceptionally bored. I wanted to start something, but for some reason, I felt like I needed to “protect” the Music Studio Startup idea. I wasn’t ready to put it out there yet, so instead I started a home blog.
Dumbest idea ever. You guys, I don’t care about home blogs! I think I posted three times and probably spent way too many hours designing a logo and then never touched it again.
It took several more years for me to finally start blogging for Music Studio Startup.
And then you know what I discovered? None of my early material was even that great! My thoughts weren’t that original and I hadn’t quite found my voice yet.
I don’t think this experience is unique to me, either. The internet is full of abandoned blogs, podcasts, and social media feeds with the same sensational headlines rehashed over and over again.
Now I look back and wonder what exactly I thought I was “protecting” all those years ago by not acting on my idea.
Maybe you’ve got your own notebook or harddrive of ideas gathering dust.
This brings me back to the encouragement to just start. Whatever the thing is that you have in mind. The studio, the curriculum, the book, the app…whatever it is you want to do, just start working on it.
I mean this in the kindest way possible, but the first iterations of these projects are likely going to be junk anyway.
Whether the project is a music studio, a blog, or some other creative endeavor, it just takes time living with an idea, to play with it, to wrestle with it, to enjoy it, to hate it, to really understand it well enough to truly offer something original to the world through it.
But it’s a part of the process that can’t be skipped, so better to just get those bad drafts out of our systems and start.
I’ve had the privilege of talking to many teachers in the last month about things they’re starting and I love it when you share these projects with me. Keep ‘em coming!
A quick heads up about some of the things I’ve been working on:
- Last month I presented a webinar on studio branding for the Music Teachers National Association. If you’re an MTNA member and missed that, you can access the replay.
- I’ve also been busy, busy putting together workshops and presentation videos for upcoming conferences, including the MTNA Virtual Conference in March. If you’re looking for professional development opportunities this spring, that’s one to check out.
- And lastly, I’ve got some special Valentine’s resources that I’ll be posting on the website – some social media and print templates you can use to share the Valentine’s love for your studio.
I’ll have links for all of these things in the show notes for this episode at musicstudiostartup.com/episode072
That’s all for today. Thanks for listening! I’ll be back next week