Trace the trajectory of Timbuktu Labs co-founder and CEO Elena Favilli back to the beginning and you’ll be brought to a tiny countryside town in Tuscany in the ‘80s, where she spent much of her time alone, reading, writing and roaming the woods with her dogs. “I was really the only child in town. It was a very peculiar place,” she tells us. As it turned out, all that solitary time ingrained in Elena a deeply independent streak, and the reading time, too, was formative; Elena went on to study journalism and media in Bologna, and after taking a trip to California at age 20 (“It was one of those trips; hitch hiking, sleeping in tents,” she tells us, laughing), she fell completely in love with Berkeley and the Bay Area. She then did everything she could to get a scholarship in an exchange program with Cal, where she studied for a master's in journalism and gained a new perspective on publishing and media as it functioned in the states.
After returning to Italy and working at a number of newspapers and magazines, Elena was met with a sense of restless discontent; she knew she didn’t want to simply pick a career and start climbing the ladder, and the urge to start something of her own was persistent. So circa 2010, she and creative director Francesca Cavallo began to work on what would eventually become a children’s media company, Timbuktu Labs, in a tiny kitchen in Milan.
With their eye on returning to the U.S., Favilli and Cavallo applied to every startup competition they could find. Eventually, they landed a spot in the entrepreneurship program at Mind the Bridge, a one-month residency in San Francisco intended to provide an introductory experience to the ecosystem of Silicon Valley. From there, they were in touch with the venture capital fund 500 Startups and founding partner Christine Tsai, who offered them a spot in their prestigious accelerator program in Mountain View.
Timbuktu Labs raised its first round of funding in 2012 and made its mark by launching Timbuktu Magazine, the first children’s magazine ever to be produced especially for the iPad. In the years since, Timbuktu has been an innovator in children’s digital media, combining learning games and progressive thinking skills with an aesthetic that is highly engaging. But their biggest splash yet was made earlier this year with the proposal of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, an anthology of 100 stories of women ranging from Elizabeth I to Serena Williams, illustrated by 100 women from all over the world. Intended to challenge gender stereotypes fed to children at a young age, the book’s campaigns on Kickstarter and Indiegogo have rendered it the most-funded book project in crowdfunding history, with more than $1 million in pre-sales. And with tremendous attention from the press in outlets such as TIME, Publishers Weekly, Forbes, Vanity Fair and Marie Claire, the project is a shining model of how the traditional models dominated by massive companies can be upended by savvy, feisty and dedicated upstarts. We talked with Elena more about what compelled them to create a female-centric kids anthology, how to deal with trolls, and what it’s like starting a creative media company in the domain of tech.
So let’s talk a little bit more about where the idea for the book came from. You were a big reader as a child; were you frustrated with the lack of female characters back then, or is that something you’ve come to notice later in life?
Well, Francesca and I are two female founders. We’ve experienced firsthand how hard it is for a woman to start a business and to raise money from investors. We’ve always been very passionate about empowering women, and on the children’s media side, we’ve witnessed how it is still so packed with gender stereotypes. The kind of sexism that we experience in life is reflected in the children’s products that surround us. In clothes, in movies, cartoons. And in books especially, we were shocked to see how few female characters come out every year. There are so few children’s books that have strong female characters. You don’t realize it until someone points that out to you and you’re like, wow, I spent all my childhood readings books and watching movies—great movies that I love!—with male characters as leaders and female characters in subordinate positions where they need to be saved or rescued. So the idea for the book was really coming from our personal lives and at some point our professional lives began to connect.
I found out recently that 9 out of 10 New York Times best-selling children’s books feature a male lead characters. 9 out of 10!
Yeah! It’s just crazy. Last February we were at this conference in Miami and Geena Davis was giving a speech and she gave this example about Finding Nemo, which is one of my favorite movies. And she pointed out that the only female characters are the mother, who dies within the first five minutes, and then one other female character. Across the whole ocean. Which is pretty much impossible. The ocean is huge! But you know, unless someone points that out to you, you don’t even notice it. You’re so used to seeing males everywhere! Even if they’re animals [laughs]. It’s just the status quo. And that’s the power of the status quo; it makes that seem normal.
You wrote a piece called “Silicon valley is more Flintstones than Jetsons when it comes to women” for the Guardian back in February 2015, pointing out the sexism in the tech and VC world, and there was some pretty intense backlash from basement-dwelling trolls. When that’s the environment you are in and that’s part of the reaction you get, how do you keep your focus and keep moving forward?
Ugh. That was one of the main reasons I became so obsessed with this theme of women’s empowerment. It was the tipping point for me, and that’s when I decided I really wanted to do something about it, to do something that could have an impact. And because we were working in children’s media already, we decided to focus on a product that would target young girls. Of course it makes you upset and it makes you angry, and it’s scary; you start receiving these threats on Twitter, in the comments section of the articles. It’s not pleasant. Until that happens to you, you don’t realize how difficult it is to deal with that. But in my case it just gave me more determination and commitment to this cause.
And on the flipside of that, the support has been massive. You guys are the most-funded crowdfunding book ever, and all the big publishers are trying to figure out what your secret is. What has that been like?
Yeah! It’s been great. We were really hoping the campaign would explode and take off, but weren’t anticipating it would grow so fast in such a short amount of time. We worked really hard in the eight months leading up to the campaign; we did a lot of research and a lot of audience building and customer discovery with our newsletter. So the product was shaped week after week with our user base, which was extremely helpful when we launched. We had a group of people who were waiting for a product to come out. We were expecting the campaign to be successful, yes, and we’d seen successful campaigns that were sort of similar or at least in the same vein, so we knew that we could reach a significant amount of money, but we didn’t expect to become the most funded book in the history of crowdfunding!
A million-dollar pre-sale is a really big number for people working outside the traditional publishing model. Actually, that’s a huge number for people working inside the traditional publishing model, too.
Well in the past, we had worked with traditional publishers in Europe and we had gotten a few deals. They were OK—not good, not bad. But we wanted to try and break the rules and create a new model. When you have your own audience and you start building something with them, that gives you a big advantage over every other publisher in the world.
What have been some of your biggest challenges as CEO?
The two biggest challenges for every CEO are always people and money [laughs]. You have to find the right people to work for you and your company and that’s extremely hard when you’re just starting. You need to be able to attract the best talent. And then of course when you start the company, you basically spend the first one or two years—sometimes even more—just trying to understand what’s going on [laughs]. You’re going after a new market, you’re creating a new product, you don’t really know at the beginning who your users are. It’s very complicated; there are so many things. And of course, money starts to run out very quickly—much faster than you would like it to! There were many iterations and we made many mistakes over the course of four years before getting to the point where we finally created a product that really resonated with a lot of people and took off.
Any advice for women looking to start their own company?
In my experience—and this is something that entrepreneurs always say—the best advice is to be persistent. And you can’t give up. The people who succeed are those crazy people who don’t give up and always try one more time. And this is also the message we try to convey with the book! We wanted to feature this extraordinary cast of women who accomplished incredible results despite many, many obstacles and many difficult times. It’s an example of courage and determination. You have to stay focused and trust the process.
Pre-order your copy of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls here and keep an eye out for it in November!
Interview by Deena Drewis