Allan, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
I’m Allan, creator of My Strawberry Monkey and illustrator/author of the ‘Ohhh, My Strawberry Monkey’ children’s picture book series, which is based around the cutest and clumsiest little monkey in the preschool and early years world, Strawberry Monkey! I’m kind of a jack of all trades, which has had both a positive and negative impact on me. It’s allowed me to get this far but at the same time, I haven’t always had a clear focus on where I want to go on my journey with My Strawberry Monkey, until now.
How did the character Strawberry Monkey come about?
My Strawberry Monkey was originally the name for my freelance company back in 2014. I was working on motion graphics and video editing at the time.
Who or what inspired you to create a series of books based around the character?
This is really difficult to answer, as it wasn’t my original intention for My Strawberry Monkey. The head of the character started out as a logo for my freelance company and my original idea was to turn it into a clothing brand for the adult market.
A goal I also had was to produce a weekly comic strip that I could post on Instagram which would feature witty one-liners from Strawberry Monkey. Whilst I had used Facebook and Twitter the world of Instagram was new to me and I still had to work out the platform. I think I posted about nine images between April and September 2016 before I gave up—so much for my “weekly comic strip”.
It was around this point I thought I would have a better reach aiming this at the preschool/early years world. I started with just two characters, Strawberry Monkey and Betty Giraffe, I’m now up to 18.
What are the books about?
The setting for Strawberry Monkey is based around a foster home looked after by Mummy and Daddy Monkey and where all are welcomed, hence why you don’t see parents for some of the characters.
The original idea was that this cute, pink monkey ends up in some tricky situations, hence the phrase ‘Ohhh, My Strawberry Monkey’. Fortunately, he has his best friend and big sister around to help him out. The situations he ends up in are teachable moments, which is what the first two books are focused on.
The books are designed to help children understand that it’s ok to make mistakes, as long as we learn from them and from Betty’s perspective, that we should support those around us and help them and teach them where we can.
Including positive role models was also important to me. I remember reading an article about diversity and female characters in children’s literature and that had a massive impact on the direction of the books. There are 10 female characters, one of whom is Dr Ellie. I want young girls growing up to be inspired and show them that they can be whoever they want. I have also been influenced by my diverse surroundings living in London with such a multicultural society. This is one reason why Strawberry Monkey has French neighbours, Monsieur and Madame Tiger and their cute little daughter Tilly!
As the books developed it also made me think about some of the cartoons that I’ve watched—Family Guy, American Dad, The Simpsons—now whilst I love these cartoons and they’re animated really well, the male father figure role is sometimes portrayed in a negative light and that can shape the minds of children growing up. Dads are an equal part of the family and are just as important as mum and can have a positive influence, so I want kids reading the ‘Ohhh, My Strawberry Monkey’ series to see that.
Can you talk us through your process for creating and publishing a book? How long does it take?
Great question, however, I’m laughing at the same time because I’ve never taken the traditional route and never will! The traditional route is this, write a word doc, send it to a publisher, if they like the story, they’ll find an illustrator and maybe four years later you’ll have a book on the shelves of Waterstones, if you’re lucky, extremely lucky!
I start my process by creating an image and turning that into a book. With the first book, Strawberry Monkey ‘Loves the Sun’ it started out with one image of him looking burnt so I asked myself:
- How did he get burnt?
- Where is he?
- What does he learn, is there a lesson here?
- Why is Betty there?
From questions like these, I was able to create more images, then I started to tell the story based on the images—as they say a picture paints a thousand words. It’s definitely an alternative approach.
It can take anywhere from a few days to a few months from the initial idea to publishing a book. It was a struggle in the beginning, do you pay £5,000 upfront so you can get 2000 copies cheap enough to sell them at a profit? The trouble with this is you need a huge investment and what if you don’t sell the books, it’s always a risk, right?
This made me feel uncomfortable, so I sought another solution and finally I discovered Amazon KDP, a print on demand service with no upfront costs and brilliantly printed books. Once I upload the PDF, it’s usually approved within 24 hours then I’ll order a proof, so I can look at a physical copy and check for/fix any errors, then upload again and publish to the world.
Where did you first hear about Affinity Designer and what made you want to try it out?
I clearly remember the moment like it was yesterday! Coming from a motion graphics background I remember trying to create logos and album covers in Apple Motion and finding it completely frustrating and obviously it was the wrong app to work with. I always had the desire to use professional photo editing and design software, and at the time it was Photoshop and Illustrator. I gave it a go, but as it looked so daunting, I gave up.
Then one day, whilst on my lunch as if it was meant to be, I came across this article about the beta release of Affinity Designer on Creative Bloq.
I instantly fell in love with the look of the app and it just seemed so user friendly and value for money. I bought the app in October 2014 and haven’t looked back!
As well as hard work and talent, what does it take to build a brand from scratch?
Research, research, research! Research brands within your industry niche. What are they doing really well? What opportunities do you see through things that aren’t working so great for them?
I’m a big fan of what Apple have achieved and still love their old slogan, “Think Different”. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo and be prepared to stand up and defend what you do.
Don’t be afraid to put your work out there, receive feedback and then head back to the drawing board. You’ll make many mistakes along the way—use them and grow from them.
You’ll bang your head against the wall a few times, figuratively speaking! You’ll shed a few tears, literally! But be patient with yourself, patience is key to building a brand, look at it as a marathon and not a sprint.
Create your own brand voice—this will all depend on your mission, audience, and the industry you’re in. How do you communicate with your audience and customers, how do they respond to you?
Finally, be prepared to learn some new skills, I never knew how to illustrate or how to create a website when I started out on this amazing journey, but I did have a desire to learn.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
On the surface it would appear to be winning the Small Business Sunday award from entrepreneur Theo Paphitis, which is such a highlight on this journey. Off the back of that My Strawberry Monkey was featured in a local newspaper. I didn’t even realise I was featured until I walked into my local shop and the guy behind the counter looked at me and asked if that was me on the front of the paper, yes it was!
I’ve also received a few ‘Early Years’ awards and a number of emails and messages from fellow authors and illustrators after reading about my journey, thanking me for inspiring them to keep going and helping them, by making the path clearer for them on their journey into publishing.
It’s also been amazing working with children’s presenter Jack Andrews and creating an animated version of my first book—more will come!
Whilst the award from Theo Paphitis has been the biggest achievement so far, parents sending me pictures of their own cheeky little monkeys reading my books has been the most rewarding!
On your website, mystrawberrymonkey.com, you have branded certificates, task sheets and games. How important is it to reward learning and make it fun?
Positive reinforcement: encouraging a certain behaviour through reward. I don’t want to get all psychological, but, when you do something great and you get rewarded for it, you’re going to do it again, right!
Children are still learning, and we can help shape the right behaviours by using praise and rewarding their progress. The games and activities on the website are designed for parents and children to work together and bond whilst learning and having fun!
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I guess like most boys growing up I wanted to be a footballer, inspired by the likes of John Barnes and Ian Rush (yes, I’m a Liverpool fan). Whilst I played for and represented my school and college, I was never encouraged or supported by my parents, which may have turned out to be a good thing.
When I attended secondary school and college, I got involved with the athletics team, eventually representing them in long distance events, however; without the support network that I needed, the dream of being an athlete soon faded away.
Despite the disappointments, I guess within me was always the love of books and that eventually came through.
What’s next for My Strawberry Monkey?
I’m currently exploring avenues for a clothing range—actually that was my plan from the beginning. I tested out a print from an online t-shirt printer and the quality received was horrendous and trying to receive a refund was such a hassle. It was such a poor experience that I put that idea on hold until now. Just like the printing the books, I went through a number of companies before finding an option that works well for me and more importantly my customers. I want them to have a great shopping experience and receive quality products.
I’m currently exploring Shopify and WebFlow to see what the best option is to create an e-commerce store, which will eventually have a range of clothing items, mugs, bedding, plushies etc.
I’m also starting to come out from behind the shadows and show my face, purely because I wanted the focus to be on Strawberry Monkey and not me. So, I will be arranging author visits over the coming months. I’m looking forward to connecting with schools and inspiring those young little minds! So, if you’re reading this and you work in the preschool/early years settings, reach out, let’s talk!
What is your ultimate dream for the brand?
I would love to turn the picture books into a cartoon series, that’s the dream. It would be amazing to see Strawberry Monkey and the rest of the gang on CBeebies, Milkshake TV or Nick JR, however, animation is a whole new world and requires a lot of time. So, it’s either I grow and continue to build this myself and eventually work with an animation studio or I sell the rights to the TV series and not deal with the stress—either way I want to be heavily involved.
Regarding the books, there are one or two publishers I would like to work with. Because of the resources available to them Strawberry Monkey will be able to reach a wider audience, and make ‘Ohhh, My Strawberry Monkey’ a household catchphrase, although this will mean giving up some control and say for the look and feel of the books, which may be a good thing, time will tell.
And of course, there’s the Strawberry Monkey mascot, which would turn up to events like Gloworm!
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Just do it, put yourself out there, keep going. We put up so many barriers for ourselves, ‘I can’t do it, it’s too difficult’ or ‘I can’t fund this’ and yes, you may be right, but if you put up these barriers and the world puts up barriers we’re now standing still, working a job we hate just to survive.
One of my favourite books to read is The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. It helps you to understand how you can turn these obstacles or barriers around, turn them into opportunities and create that path to success.
I love watching and seeing some of the content that Gary Vaynerchuk puts out. He makes a lot of sense and is very motivational and his book Jab, Jab, Right Hook is a great read.
Think of ways to break though the noise, ways to scale the unscalable. One thing Gary talks about is the ‘Taylor Swift rule’ and how she made waves by responding to tweets from fans to sing at their weddings. Whilst attending and singing for free for an hour or so may make no sense on paper, the publicity from it is where she gets her value.
Be realistic, stay grounded. It’s not easy, unless you’re very fortunate and become an overnight success which is very rare. It takes an extreme amount of hard work and sleepless nights to become an entrepreneur.
Stay true to who you are and your vision. You’ll meet many along the way who will try to steer you in another direction or try to take you completely of course, but be resilient! One quote that I’ve always loved is from the Will Smith film—The Pursuit of Happyness:
“Don’t ever let somebody tell you… You can’t do something. Not even me. All right? You got a dream… You gotta protect it. People can’t do somethin’ themselves, they wanna tell you, you can’t do it. If you want somethin’, go get it. Period.”