An Introvert as Entrepreneur
Beatrix Potter an admirable entrepreneur? Indeed. This quiet artist and author originated inventive publishing practices that made her rich and that persist in the media industry today.
In the popular imagination, an entrepreneur tends to be a swashbuckling male who has an outsized ego and a brash manner. It would be hard to find anyone more opposite to that paradigm than author/illustrator Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). Demure in public as dictated by Victorian society, she achieved fame for her stories about the antics of Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Jemima Puddle-Duck and other mischievous creatures, all rendered in charming pastel illustrations in books sized for children’s little hands. Her career also included bold, innovative publishing moves that made her rich, including the world’s first character merchandising.
About Introvert Beatrix Potter
Throughout her childhood, Potter’s emotionally indifferent yet controlling parents kept her isolated most of the time. She knew few other children or adults outside the family. When relatives visited, the young girl sat under the dining room table, ostensibly drawing but also recording details of the grownups’ conversation in minuscule printing. According to her biographer Margaret Lane, Potter blushed easily, had a “silent, disconcerting stare” and found it hard to speak to strangers. Drawing, reading, memorization of Shakespeare and lessons from a live-in governess kept the introverted young Beatrix occupied.
For three months of the year, however, the family went north, to the Scottish countryside. Allowed greater freedom there, Potter and her younger brother befriended all kinds of animals, and she invented playful stories about them. They made a house for two pet mice and for hours would watch the little rodents running around in it.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit originated in an illustrated letter she wrote in her twenties to entertain the son of her former governess when he was ill in bed. A few years later she mocked up a version of how the story would look as a book and sent it around to publishers. To preserve her vision for the book, she ended up financing the first two printings herself. “Little rabbits cannot afford to spend 6 shillings on one book, and would never buy it,” she told a friend.
Beatrix Potter’s Business Acumen
When the first 450 copies quickly sold out, one of the six publishers who had previously turned down the book reconsidered. In 1902 the first commercial printing of Peter Rabbit with Potter’s watercolors hit the market and sold extremely well. Just a year later, Potter began patenting toys based on the characters in her stories, making Peter Rabbit the first licensed literary character in the world. Besides stuffed dolls, she authorized and earned immense sums from a Peter Rabbit-branded board game, tea sets, handkerchiefs, slippers, stationery, bookcases and much more.
Throughout Beatrix Potter’s empire of eventually 23 books and the related merchandise that she called “sideshows,” she insisted on high production quality and negotiated every contract meticulously. Although she had numerous invitations to illustrate other authors’ books, she refused, believing that would dilute her brand and deplete her creative energy. When we consider the seclusion of her childhood, apart from the world of business, and the groundbreaking nature of her merchandising, we can’t help but be impressed by her strategic acumen.
In 1905 Potter used her earnings and a small inheritance to buy a house in England’s Lake District. “It is in here I go to be quiet and still with myself. This is me, the deepest me, the part one has to be alone with,” she once wrote about it. Defying her snobbish parents, she decided to marry her publisher, who became ill and died just four weeks after their unofficial engagement.
She then threw herself into her creative ventures and into farming at Hill Top, the north country estate. Neighbors there considered her practical, unpretentious, hardworking and solitary, and they helped protect her against invasions of her privacy by reporters. At age 47, again against her parents’ wishes, she married a local lawyer who had helped her manage her growing real estate holdings.
Beatrix Potter, Multimillionaire
Beatrix Potter died a multimillionaire, known for land preservation as well as for her children’s books. She donated 25 farms to Britain’s National Trust, worth $300 million today. Including translations in 35 languages, her books have sold more than 250 million copies, and her products continue to be sold in 110 countries.
The business empire she carefully and quietly nurtured is worth more than $500 million today. The merchandising practices she pioneered, now used for everything from Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures and pillows to Wonder Woman pendants and quilts, developed into a $128 billion industry. Quite an impact for a non-swashbuckling introvert.