Joy D’Souza kicks off our Parenting mini-series with a story about her daughter Xena and their blog. Lilmissbelle.com. I am already subscribed and following. Are you?
Joy is 31, Xena is three and half. Joy is head of Research in a suity stockbrokerage firm, Xena is in play group. Joy’s current struggle is managing her time, Xena’s is singing lullabies to her baby sister.
Between them, they share a fierce love for glamming up in all things fashion.
(Check out their Instagram feed, by the way. I spent a better part of yesterday afternoon there. You also will.)
I asked Joy how she did it: how she turned blogging from a labor of love to a money-making gig for her and her daughter. How casting Xena as its headline – the youngest in the industry – has shaped how she’s growing up. How she draws boundaries as far as sharing Xena’s photos and videos in the public space of social media goes.
BY JOY D’SOUZA
I remember when I first traveled to the UK. August 2011, the 23rd actually. It was the first time I left the country and the first time I got onto a plane. My then boyfriend, now husband (let’s call him R), planned a trip to visit his cousins in the UK and decided to tag me along cause I’d make for interesting company (ahem). I saw River Thames and shopped on Oxford Street till my feet hurt. For many months after that trip, I dreamt of the queen’s land and the high street fashion.
Fast forward to April 2015. The weekend right before Easter. It’s Sunday and I am clinging onto my duvet hoping that daylight takes its sweet time to creep in. This time I am not dreaming about lifting that ripped pair of denim jeans off the racks at Debenhams. I am dreaming about my unborn baby bonding with her two and half year old sister, Xena. Today marks the end of week 16. I have sailed through the most daunting phase of pregnancy. I am at ease.
Sharp elbow pokes on my back startle me (wonder what happened to morning kisses, sigh). As I turn over, R is staring at his phone, beaming silly. “You’ll never believe what I just came across,” he says as he hands over the phone to me. This had better be life-changing, I think to myself.
I look at the screen and I cannot believe what meets my eyes. A charming little girl with the most endearing smile I have seen. She looks like Xena, but with a fashion sense that makes me want to donate mine and Xena’s entire wardrobe. She’s dressed in all black – a black tutu, black biker jacket and black high-tops. She’s sitting on a tall stool across a kitchen counter, legs crossed, a mug of hot chocolate in one hand and a kid’s magazine in the other. I am ogling her outfit and her hot chocolate, thinking how she makes everything look so delectable. R is thinking along other more exciting lines, “We should start a children’s blog,” he blurts out.
I pause for a second, concerned about what this means for our daughter. “You know that means she will no longer have a private life, right? What if she hates us for putting her in the limelight at such a young age?”
R remains calm, he has clearly thought through his proposition. “We will keep certain aspects about her life private. Like where she goes to school and where she lives. She is quite adventurous and an extrovert. I doubt she will hate the publicity when she grows up.”
We call it Lil’missbelle. It’s a children’s lifestyle and fashion blog.
We head out in search of a professional photographer but this doesn’t work out. Most have out-of-our-reach rates, others have tight schedules. So what next? Since R takes decent photos, we decide he would do the photography and I the blogging.
Pairing outfits is a big challenge. It suddenly dawns on me that I am trying to create a New York Fashion Week look from a closet inspired by Disney t-shirts and jeans. Xena’s suggestions don’t help much either: “Mama I want to wear my tutu skirt and the pink gumboots for the photo shoot.”
This project requires a completely new wardrobe. Luckily, a pal from the UK offers to shop for Xena from Next and H&M. The stuff arrives in a week’s time. This gets Xena looking forward to the shoots. She is obsessed with her new outfits, especially the dresses and shoes.
Our self-proclaimed photographer is quite unreliable. Saturdays are our shoot day but his golf keeps coming in the way of our plan. He is unavailable on most days so I take the photos. Xena turns out to be quite the model – she poses with ease and has so much fun while at it. She loves flowers so I look for places with lots of them. And she knows how to use them as props in the shoots; she’ll grab a bunch of them and throw them in the air, or she’ll put them in the hair. She gets bored very fast, though. Which means I have to work around her short attention span.
However, my photography is mediocre, so we decide that R has to make Saturday shoots as sacrosanct as his golf. Problem solved, right? Wrong. His initial scarcity is nowhere near as frustrating as Xena’s behavior when Daddy is around. She throws tantrums. She won’t look at the camera when we need her to. At some point she runs off, leaving me giving instructions to myself. This irks me to my core, argh. Hubby in turn gets mad at me for being piqued by her tantrums.
“Just leave her alone if she’s not interested!” he retorts.
“You are the problem! All shoots in your absence go well!” I retort back.
At this rate, planned shoots will kill the blog and our marriage.
So we go with the flow instead. Carry the camera with us everywhere we go and take advantage of random moments. I target shopping malls and restaurants with lots of play equipment for kids. Such places keep Xena distracted and we get the job done without it being tiring.
We take a shortcut with creating the website: we pressured a pal to do the job for free and deliver it within in a week. I can’t tell you how shady that website was, hehe. We later get a creative to design and put together a new one. The cost is significant but the results are well worth the investment.
May 3rd, our first post goes live. It’s a travel post shot at Medina Palms, our first holiday together as a family.
Blog traffic is nonexistent until two months later when we have over 1,000 Instagram friends and 5,000 Facebook likes, thanks to some celebrity friends who give our accounts a boost.
Things are picking are up when the most awesome thing happens. Charles Ngomo – my pal and our wedding photographer – asks to partner with us. He oozes of creativity and Xena takes to him like a big brother. We shoot on weekdays at around 4PM, after Xena is back from school and has had her nap. Or 8AM on Saturdays. On any given day, we do a minimum of three shoots and a maximum of six, spanning anywhere between one to three hours. These involve a change of clothes and sceneries, something that helps to keep Xena’s energy up.
August 2015, the blog is almost four months old and I am seven months pregnant. I am convinced I hate my job. I want to quit. I want to quit so that I can focus on the blog and launch a concept I have had in mind for a while; an online kids’ apparel store featuring high-end brands and eventually launch a Kenyan brand. Perhaps if given enough attention, more blog partnerships will be secured and my new online store will be a success. Genius idea, right? I tell R about my plans to quit employment but he isn’t too hot about the idea. “You are just exhausted,” he says. “Once you give birth you will get your sanity back.”
I ignore him. I also ignore a job opportunity with some stockbroker guys from Mauritius who are setting up shop in Kenya. Never mind that it perfectly fits my profile.
I have our second daughter in mid October. I spend the first month of maternity leave working on business proposals for the blog and the online store. I show them to R, he loves them both.
“The estimates are good. They will make good incremental income for us,” he says.
I reiterate that they will more like substitute my income. Key word: substitute.
He throws me a baffled look, “How much money are you currently making from your ideas?”
I wonder if this is a trick question. “The blog is making very little and the online store is not operational yet,” I tell him, anxious to hear his response.
“Until the point your ideas can generate as much income as employment earns you, you are not quitting your job. I am not yet a billionaire!”
Initially, partnerships are hard to come by. I send countless emails to several kids clothes and shoes retailers to start with. Out of every 15 emails, three get a response and only one is positive. I don’t know what metrics sponsors look for but I believe that since most of them still ignore my emails means I have a long way to go. I wish they would respond though, saying, “Sorry, we don’t think your site commands enough readership,” then I would know what to do to get them listening.
Any money we make from the partnerships that do come through is saved in Xena’s account.
A week before I am to resume my job, hubby finally manages to drive some sense into my head: “Here’s what I think,” he says, “follow up on the job offer at the new firm, you may just be in need of a new environment and more responsibilities. If you do not like it, we will explore the possibility of you quitting employment then.”
Truth is, I am worried about being stuck with bills if my ventures don’t generate cash fast enough. So I do the wise thing, reach out to the other firm to see if the offer still stands.
It’s been a month at my new job and I couldn’t be happier. R was right all along. Striking a balance between work, blogging and family is an intricate task though. I am struggling with managing my time. As such, the blog has fallen behind schedule and Xena keeps pressing us to shoot. We are working on getting it back on track as we celebrate our first anniversary next month.
We journey on. Here’s to more partnerships, better writing and creative shoots.