Anne-Louise Nieto and Hanna Chiou, HABBI HABBI

Anne-Louise Nieto and Hanna Chiou, HABBI HABBI

Zibby Owens: Welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I am so excited. We’re going to be talking about Habbi Habbi today, the most amazing wand plus book bilingual combination of board books there are. Welcome. Why don’t the two of you introduce yourselves so listeners can figure out who’s who as we’re talking?

Hanna Chiou: Sure. Anne-Louise, do you want to go first?

Anne-Louise Nieto: You go ahead. Go ahead.

Hanna: Cool. I’m Hanna. We always say Habbi Habbi’s made with love by H&AL. I’m H. I am a mom of two. I grew up as your stereotypical ABC. My parents are from Taiwan, and so they speak Chinese. I really wanted my kids to be able to speak Chinese better than I can. That was one of the motivations behind us starting Habbi Habbi.

Anne-Louise: I’m Anne-Louise, the A of H&AL. Hanna and I always joke that we’re twins from opposite coasts. We have all of these different funny things that are similar about us from the sports we played growing up to our parents’ birthday too. Our brother-in-laws have the same name. We have all of these things in common. Anyway, while Hanna was growing up on the West Coast, I was growing up on the East Coast. I’m a transplant and now out here in San Francisco with my two kids and husband. We both have all these little kids running around. Similar to Hanna, we’re teaching my kiddos Spanish. Although, unlike Hanna, I don’t speak Spanish at home, so I’m learning with them. My husband speaks some Spanish. It’s been a really fun journey as a parent, as a learner, as an entrepreneur.

Zibby: Tell me about starting this company. It’s books, but it’s also — not that books aren’t a business, but it’s a whole dual language, language teaching, not ensemble — what’s the better word? System, essentially. I know both of you explained how it is in your homes and your inner motivations. How did you two pair up? What was it like getting this off the ground?

Hanna: Anne-Louise and I were — obviously, we’ve been friends for a really long time, as you can tell, since we first met in 2005. That was fifteen years ago when we first graduated from college and we were in the same company. We’ve always been in touch. We were bridesmaids at each other’s weddings. We were starting to talk about things in our new phase of life being moms. At one point, we were starting a pop-up shop. We were looking at all these different brands. During that whole brand search process, we were trying to choose intentional, thoughtful toys for our own homes and a really nice playroom. That was the same time where our kids were very young. We were going through our own journeys. For my daughter, I was wanting her to learn Chinese. There was this amazing technology that we had seen in Asia where you could tap different things in a book. It would read it to you. I said, this makes language learning accessible.

Even though I grew up with Chinese, I can’t read it because it’s character based. Whether it’s being nonnative, whether you can’t read it, basically, it makes language learning accessible. We thought it would be so much better if the books were intentional and had other languages besides just Chinese and things were more accurate. We got really excited about the technology. I just kept talking to Anne-Louise about it. At that time, we weren’t making product. We were just picking some toys. I said, this is amazing. From there, we said, we should make it. We should make it multilingual. We should make it beautiful. We should make it diverse. We should make it inclusive. We should include all these topics that we would love to talk about. We should make language learning, which is so hard for people in Western countries, especially in the US, we should make it more accessible. That was the origination. I’ll let Anne-Louise talk more about where it went from there.

Anne-Louise: You hit it. We had this experience as well from doing this pop-up store where we saw these brands from all over the world. Then we were able to see what parents and kids were interested in. We did see a really intense interest in language learning. We also, like Hanna said, had that need at home and wanted things that were really engaging. I see it now. My older one is four. My younger one is one. The four-year-old starts playing with the wand and the books and is just so deeply interested in it and wants to tap and wants to repeat. It’s creating those kind of things that are engaging for them that don’t have a screen so I don’t feel guilty that he’s playing with this over and over again. It’s fun, but it’s also gives them the language learning that we’re after. We’re trying to build that while they’re still young and they’re learning to pronounce things and their brains are so flexible.

Hanna: The other thing I’d add is that when we were exploring the technology — everybody knows conceptually that kids, if they learn when they’re young and they get exposed when they’re young, it’s so much easier. I see these videos Anne-Louise sends me of her son using our wand. The way he repeats back the tones, they’re perfect.

Anne-Louise: In Chinese. He uses the Chinese too.

Hanna: He learns it for the Chinese. At some point along as we grow older and we become adults, it’s very hard for us to sometimes hear those tones. For kids, it’s so easy. One of the big things for us when we made it was we said, how can we get families to have exposure early when kids are not necessarily — they haven’t even started reading. In English language, we just get exposure from people talking around us. How can they get exposure through play? No one’s actually intentionally reading. That’s why we made every inch of the book tappable and those types of things. We really wanted it to be fun. If they were having fun and they were just tapping all around and they got exposure, then naturally, the learning would just happen.

Zibby: Wow. It’s so neat. Also, how you did the books themselves is interesting even if you couldn’t tap it. It’s the next generation of, what does your mom do for work? It’s like, my mom’s an entrepreneur. My mom does this or that or she’s at home. I’m like, good, you’re not just a doctor or a lawyer. I feel like so many books have, here are the two careers for a job. This was so multifaceted. Now I’m, of course, forgetting the ten different careers you profiled. What were they? Entrepreneur and…

Anne-Louise: We had a product manager. We have a chief home officer. She stays at home, but we wanted to recognize that that job is really multifaceted and challenging. We have an entrepreneur. We have an art history professor. We have an investment banker. We have a surgeon. For sure, we wanted to bring up topics that are kind of provocative and interesting. We do find that as the kids are using it, then they ask questions. My son was reading the Global Celebrations book this morning. Again, he can’t read yet, but he was tapping it. We picked celebrations from all over the world, not just your typical ones you always see. We picked Carnival in Brazil. We picked Holi. We picked Eid and Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year. He was on the Holi page. Holi, they grab powder and they throw it in the air. It’s a celebration of colors and springtime and love. He just started asking all of these questions about it. That’s the kind of thing that we want, is that the kids are curious. They’re getting the language learning, but then they’re also learning about different cultures, different people, what they celebrate around the world. They start asking questions. It tees up the conversation for us as parents, too, to have with them.

Zibby: It’s so neat. What is the plan for the series going forward? I saw how they all had arrived. You have a whole bookshelf full already, so not like you have to keep producing. What’s the vision? What’s the five-year plan you must have? It sounds like you guys are into that type of thinking.

Anne-Louise: I’m like, how do we get to tomorrow?

Hanna: There’s so many directions where we could go. Like Anne-Louise said, we sort of take it a day at a time with a rough idea of where we would love to get to. We’ll see how we get there. The original vision was a global library. If you can imagine, you step into a room that looks like a combination of a playroom meets kids’ room meets just a space that you and your kids want to be in. It’s just filled, kind of like the room you’re in right now, it’s filled with books. Maybe there’s some accessory like globes and some really nice comfortable — whatever it is. You just go in and, literally, this one wand, you can tap anything. It’s just so easy. You’ve used it before. We intentionally streamlined the design so that you don’t have to toggle between languages. You don’t have to set certain settings. You don’t have to tell the wand which book it’s on. Literally, all you do is turn it on, and you touch anywhere. There’s no wrong place to touch. If you can imagine, a kid enters this room, looks up, pulls up any book, turns it on, and just taps anything. We would love to have a global library that’s so accessible and makes language learning and the idea of global citizenship come home to families. That would be amazing.

Zibby: You could do a little video of that. Have you done that yet and I just don’t know? You need to put a kid — you need to recreate that in real life now.

Hanna: Yes, yes, we need to do that.

Zibby: You could just have lots of your book. It sounds like a good ad. What’s your distribution right now? Where can you buy these? Are they in actual stores? Just online? How do people buy them?

Anne-Louise: Right now, we’re online. We sell through our website predominantly, We’ve also partnered with a couple of ecommerce retailers like The Tot, at Anthropologie, and Motherly as well. We’re really choiceful, though, about who we work with. Of course, most of our engagement comes through our site. We have set it up to engage with our community. What we love is hearing from our customers, sharing that back with them. It’s not just the transaction. We want to surprise and delight with every interaction we have a with a customer. We do all our fulfillment ourselves. We have a small team. We do our own warehouse. It’s all very personal. We pack all the boxes. We always include a personalized note. The way our operations are set up are reflective of the importance of our community to us and the importance of reaching out and interacting with that group and building that community.

Zibby: I feel like you should partner with a place like Literati. They do these book subscriptions. I was recently buying a gift for somebody, a friend who’s close to me who just had a baby. I gave them a book subscription from there. This would’ve been another great gift. Just in case people aren’t remembering to go directly to your site, the more you can have an advertiser or something, places where people are already going to look for gifts for babies.

Anne-Louise: I should check them out. I think I get Instagram ads from them.

Zibby: They’re great. They do a really nice job. There are lots of book subscriptions, some for grown-ups, some for kids. I know this is kind of a toy, kind of educational. It’s a hybrid. It’s not just a book, but still. It’s really neat. How long can a kid play with these books, do you think? What’s the target age? I know you had said your kids are one to four. What’s the perfect age for people to buy this book?

Hanna: It’s so interesting because we have heard such different things from different customers. I think fundamentally, it’s because it’s a second language. Whether you’re a more bilingual household or whether you’re introducing it more as a minority language, second language, it changes per family. For the ones where they’re like, I want my kids to be bilingual and I want to start early, we find that zero to three is when they start. Sometimes people buy it even before their kids are born. They put it on baby registry lists, things like that. They think about it as either, I’ll read it with my child or they’ll play with it, but regardless, I just want more exposure and I want exposure early. They think about it the same as English exposure. Then some would say, while my kids can’t tap it, I’m still focusing on English first. They think of the three to six as a very compelling period. I think no matter what, for most families, three to six is very compelling. Then we find that there are probably a smaller number but still a good chunk of people who buy it from six to nine. At that point, kids know how to use it. They’re not just playing. They’re tapping to read. It’s a supplement as more for education. They take a class, and they think that this is a great thing to have at home to supplement what they’re learning at school.

Anne-Louise: We often see, too, that because families have multiple kids that are across those ages, we’ll see that they might buy a set. Their two-year-old uses it in a certain way. Their five-year-old uses it a certain way. It applies across. Our books, we have simpler books like word books that you just tap the animal name or it’s numbers or colors, something very simple, all the way up through more complex sentence and story books that obviously have longer sentences and are, again, more complex for maybe some slightly more advanced kids, not necessarily age based, but more level of advanced.

Zibby: Another thing you could do — not that you were asking my opinion. There’s this company called Thatcher Wine. They do book sets where they design a logo on top of your book. Then they have their own catalogue. It would be neat to have that be one of their offerings too because you already have the spines looking so cool. They do more like spine art in a way, or sets. I’m trying to think if I have the catalogue here to show you. This is completely off topic of your book. See how they have — I’m showing you. It’s a podcast, but they’re books that they string together. Then they make them look like something .

Anne-Louise: I’ve seen those before, actually.

Zibby: Like Little House on the Prairie, they’ll have over eight books or something. You can customize however. The way I keep coming back to this is I love how your books look visually all lined up. To have something on the shelf in a publication that people are already getting, I feel like that would be your audience too. I’m sorry, Juniper Books. His name is Thatcher Wine. Anyway, just another thought. I’ll stop.

Anne-Louise: I love it.

Zibby: How are you finding running a business and dealing with your families? How are you balancing, especially in pandemic time when we’re not necessarily out in offices? I hate to use the word balance. How are you dealing with it, essentially?

Anne-Louise: When I think about my goals for next year, one of my goals for next year is stable childcare. One of the real tough things about this year has been, there’s a shutdown and you don’t have childcare. If it’s a two-parent household and you’re both trying to work from home, how do you — there’s been a ton of disruption this year, of course. Part of it is just having really great partners. We’re very lucky that our husbands are great dads. They pull their weight. They’re awesome. We also have to do a lot of moving and shaking around. I’ll tell you all a really funny story. So we have a warehouse. We have a cardboard dumpster. On Wednesday nights, we have to leave the cardboard dumpster out. The cardboard dumpster gets full. I forgot last night. My son was home for Veteran’s Day yesterday. He’d been doing the entire afternoon while I was down there. I was like, I’m just going to put the kids in the car and they’re going to come with me to the warehouse. They’re going to hang out for a second. I’ll put the dumpster out. We’ll go back home. You just have to be a little bit more flexible. It’s not the same as a nine-to-five job where you go to the office and you have somebody take care of your kids. Then you come home. Then you’re done. We’re always adjusting and making it work. It’s not always easy, but sometimes you just put the kids in the car and go put the dumpster out.

Zibby: My mom was always throwing us in the car to do anything. Oh, we’re going to the window store. I have all these memories growing up of sitting in random stores while she did other stuff. Then I feel like we got to a point where we were all so intentional with our kids’ time, maximizing everything. They should go here. They should go there. In a way, it’s almost like a throwback. Put your kids in fifty-seven classes and they’re going to go with you to the dry cleaner, okay.

Anne-Louise: Exactly. They’re not going to go to music class or going to whatever. They’ll be with you.

Zibby: I don’t know about you. My kids are super happy to not be running around. They could stay home forever.

Anne-Louise: I’d say the one upshot — Hanna and I also talk about this all the time. I feel like we do use the outdoor benefits of living in San Francisco a lot more. There are so many parks. There’s outdoor activities. Then they’ve shut down all these streets in the city. We used to, maybe on the weekend we’d do a little more. We’re in the house. We’re doing stuff. We are out. We are outdoors. You are doing stuff. That’s been a nice small benefit.

Zibby: How about you, Hanna?

Hanna: I feel every parent who’s working at home has their own challenges. I am in much admiration of Anne-Louise. She is the best juggler of all things. The example she talked about last night about — at one point, she was in LA. I was fulfilling out of my garage. There’s just so many stories we could go into about this year. It was crazy. I reiterate what she had said about it’s not like there’s home life and there’s startup life and work life. It just all melds together. When you can do certain things, then you try to make the most out of the time that you have to do that thing. For example, today, Anne-Louise dropped her kids off. She came down. This is one of the first times that we’re together besides at the warehouse because we’re doing a video shoot. Then she’s going to change and go back to the warehouse. At one point, because I live further away, I was going to the warehouse and bringing stuff back to my garage so I wouldn’t have to run to the warehouse every day to fulfill. We made a very intentional choice to do this, to take it on ourselves versus raise a bunch of money to hire tons and tons of people. As a result, it is hard to say that there is — there is balance in a very strange way. It’s more just, you make it work. You make it work. You do what you need to do. The good thing about being our own bosses is that we dictate the timeline for ourselves, and the goals. Of course, we have certain expectations for ourselves.

Sometimes we think back and we said, wow, we launched this fifteen months ago. Fifteen months ago, Anne-Louise had her second baby. We had one sample product, one hardcover book. We had a bunch of paper proofs. That’s about it. We had no website, anything else. Now today, we have a warehouse. We have a meaningful product library of forty titles. We hired our first person. When we see progress, and we obviously find fulfillment in the types of products we’re building, it helps the hard times where you’re like, wow, I’m up at all hours talking to — I haven’t pulled an all-nighter in a long time. I pretty much pulled an all-nighter that one night when — usually, in any normal year, we would go fly to our supplier, check out all the product before it gets approved and shipped. This year, we can’t do that. We just can’t get on a plane. Countries won’t let us in. I was on the phone and on video at all hours of the day trying to make sure that everything was ready. Ports are — there are so many things this year. Ports are a mess.

Anne-Louise: Ports are congested.

Hanna: Our container costs went up three times because of a combination of the trade war and fewer ships and demand and stuff like that. If we wanted to lay out COVID challenges, there are so many.

Anne-Louise: Oh, my gosh, so many.

Zibby: Wow. Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors and entrepreneurs?

Anne-Louise: I would say you got to just do it. A lot of people have ideas or things that they want to do. They want to try it. Just go ahead and try. Know that it’s not easy. You’ll probably do some things wrong. You’ll make mistakes. We have this philosophy about just putting one foot in front of the other. We were talking before about what’s going to happen tomorrow. Just keep going. Of course, we do take time to step back and think about our longer-term goals. It’s just having that stick-to-itiveness. If you’re trying to write a book, start writing a page. Then write another page. If you’re trying to start a company, just start figuring it out. The other thing I would say is that everyone already has a lot of resources around them. We have built this amazing network of friends and acquaintances and rediscovered friendships from ages and ages ago. People want to help you. Ask them. When we started, Hanna, we must have had dozens of conversations with anyone who would talk to us. If you pair that with the stick-to-itiveness and you keep going and you keep asking, and you keep going and you keep asking, you’ll get there.

Hanna: I can’t agree with that more. Everybody thinks entrepreneurship is super glamorous and it’s all about the ideas. You have a brilliant idea. It’s super fun. While it is super fun because Anne-Louise and I work together — that was one of our primary goals. This needs to be fun. There are more times that people don’t see that are unglamorous. For example, Anne-Louise describing going and pushing out the dumpster because they need to pick up the cardboard. If they don’t pick up the cardboard, we won’t have space to put the empty cardboard boxes. I think people either don’t start or they don’t continue because there are hard times. We were consultants by training because that’s what we started in after school. We loved the job and learned so much from it. There was a lot of strategy in it because we were strategy consultants.

I think entrepreneurship has given us such a deep appreciation for how much execution matters and how execution is just — when you build an actual business, the ideas are easy. That takes us two percent of the time. The ninety-eight percent of the time is, we know we have to unload the container. That’s not hard to figure out. When a container comes, you have to unload it. Troubleshooting and problem-solving and saying, how do you realistically do it — like finding a supplier. There are a million suppliers out there, but you have to find the right one. The detail and thought and actually visiting them and asking the right questions and seeing their line, those are the things that actually make a difference, not writing on a checklist, find a quality supplier. As Anne-Louise said — people say, what’s your background? Is it writing children’s books? Is it teaching language? Well, we’re moms. We hope that we can figure things out from our prior learning and jobs. We’ve asked people. We just basically said, if we need to find a supplier, who can we ask? We start with Google. We start with our friends. Then we just go from there and say, we can solve any challenge. That’s how we approached it.

Zibby: That’s a great attitude. I think that’s the key to the whole thing, is believing that you can do it.

Anne-Louise: And having each other. We’re very lucky that we have each other. It buoys you up. It keeps you going. I’m like, I can’t figure this out, but I’m sure Hanna can figure it out. If we talk about it together, we can figure — it just makes it better.

Hanna: Every big challenge or even any chore — it’s funny. We’ll go visit warehouses or we’ll go pack boxes. We used to call it packing parties even though it’d be like, oh, my god, it’s post-black Friday and we need to pack all these boxes. Having each other makes any high seem higher and any low not that low because there’s emotional support. I feel like that’s so helpful. Otherwise, it can be lonely or frustrating or something like that.

Zibby: I get it. Thank you, guys. Thank you so much for telling everybody more about Habbi Habbi and for chatting with me about your trials and tribulations of being bridesmaids-turned co-business owners and moms and all the rest. Thank you. I can’t wait to see what happens with your business. It’s so cool.

Hanna: Thank you.

Anne-Louise: Thank you. Thank you for chatting with us and sharing your beautiful library.

Zibby: Thanks a lot. Take care. Buh-bye.

Anne-Louise: Thanks. Bye.

Hanna: Bye.

Anne-Louise Nieto and Hanna Chiou, HABBI HABBI

Embed Block
Add an embed URL or code.

Learn more