FSB grad's 'Tales' get lift from entrepreneurship class work

Mike Vaggalis (left) and boy and mother looking at book (right)

Sometimes a person has to decide whether to follow their head or their heart into the future. When Mike Vaggalis came to Miami University in 2009, he found a way to do both. “I actually studied British literature because I’d always loved stories growing up. They've always been really, really important to me,” he explained. “But I was also thinking, ‘Well, I’m not sure what employment looks like with a British literature degree. So I also studied finance. I spent a lot of my time at Miami shuttling between Bachelor Hall taking classes like modern poetry and then the Farmer School taking financial accounting.”

After graduating with his finance degree (and British lit minor) in 2013, Vaggalis got a job in Allstate’s Leadership Development Program. In the following years, he got an MBA at Northwestern, moved from Chicago to Raleigh, and took a marketing position at Burt’s Bees. But Vaggalis said he also started getting an urge to do something else.

“I learned that much of the work I enjoy doing is very entrepreneurial in nature. I started thinking, ‘Yeah, I would love to start my own business,’” he recalled. “I just found myself constantly going through my head, ‘What are different ideas that could be viable?’”

“About a year ago, I thought of an idea that’s grown into Keepsake Tales. I looked at the kids in my life and I realized that most of them weren’t interested in reading. Instead, I saw so many kids becoming addicted to all sorts of technology and screens,” he said. “What if we created children’s books, where we started the illustration process with a picture of a child, and then turned that picture into a cartoon that matches the illustration so that any child, regardless of what they look like, can see themselves as the champion of their story?”

Vaggalis said he started asking everybody he knew with kids, grandkids, nieces/nephews – really anybody who had kids involved in their life in one way or another – questions about how reading fits into their lives. He discovered that many parents wished that their kids would spend less time on screens. Further, when those parents had tried other personalized children’s books that are currently available for sale, they felt that the illustrations didn’t really look like their child. Vaggalis said one mother told him, “It would be so powerful if you could put my daughter Claire in the story because she has Down Syndrome, and they don’t make books for kids like Claire.”

Vaggalis left his job at Burt’s Bees to pursue Keepsake Tales last September and, with co-founder Erin Burchik, launched their first book as a pilot in November. Vaggalis said they learned that parents, gift-givers, and kids loved the book. “Our favorite moment since launching was watching videos that parents sent us, watching their kids flipping the pages of their Keepsake Tale, pointing to pictures of themselves in the story,” Vaggalis said. “It’s at this moment that we realized that those kids were actively selecting a Keepsake Tale over an iPad. Mission accomplished!”

“When I was a student, I remembered doing a lot of work for clients. One day it just hit me. I thought, ‘I bet you there's a student group that would think that what we're doing is really interesting and this would be good practical experience for them.’ And it would be giving me the opportunity to leverage bright, young, motivated minds to go really think about my business.”

While he had worked with student groups in top MBA programs in the past, Vaggalis said he also reached out to the John W. Altman Institute for Entrepreneurship and was put in touch with Mark Lacker. “We had a really good initial conversation, and Mark said, ‘Hey, I've got this agile development class that I teach in the spring. We build real things you will be able to use right away.’ I was immediately in. I knew Miami students were bright and motivated and I had no doubt that I would get a lot of value from working with Mark’s class,” Vaggalis said.

Lacker’s class is Entrepreneurship 321: Startup Entrepreneurship, a class that uses an agile scrum project management approach to develop and test solutions that solve client problems. “The structure of the class was really different from anything that I had heard of or worked with before. Typically, you get either one student group or you get a whole class really focused on solving one topic for you. The cool thing about Mark's class was he gave each student group a different charge and they were responsible for creating plug-and-play deliverables I could use immediately.”

Maddie Zimpher’s group leveraged her previous relationship with a Women in Entrepreneurship supporter to help Vaggalis’ branding efforts. “I reached out to Kathy Bintz, CEO of Creative Retail Packaging, and asked her if she could help us out,” Zimpher recalled. “She sat down and did two digital branding workshops with Mike and our team, where we really took the time to hash out his story, establishing his brand associations and ‘Why?’ statement, better articulating what Keepsake means to him and the rest of his team.”

“There was a lot of freedom to decide how you wanted to tackle the project, a lot of communication, a lot of feedback with the client. It felt like you're actually working for a small startup. We could pivot when we found a more effective approach,” strategic communication and entrepreneurship major Chi Pham said. “To be a good client, I think it's very important to be highly responsive and to provide detailed feedback so that we can improve. Mike was able to do that perfectly, which is amazing.”

“We ended up pitching a way for Mike to reduce the front-end friction of parents customizing children's books,” media and science major and entrepreneurship co-major Maggie Miller explained. “We reached out to dozens of moms and parents, and presented Mike with a process that would help him scale his business more quickly.”

“Having such a hands-on client gave me a lot of confidence,” Miller said. “Mike was such an ideal client because he was really willing to collaborate with us. I appreciated that so much because it really motivated all of us as students, but it also motivated all of us as entrepreneurs.”

“One group did this unbelievable job of AB testing different messaging. They used Facebook to test different ads, which allowed us to better understand what kinds of messaging are most effective. This is so helpful when we think about how to position the Keepsake Tales brand,” Vaggalis explained. “Another group literally created and tested a month's worth of creative marketing content for Keepsake Tales, so we can use it to boost our social media presence and drive brand awareness and, hopefully, conversion.” 

With the students' work in hand, Keepsake Tales expects to be selling its next book in September, Vaggalis said.

“I was a little skeptical at first because I wasn’t sure how a class could operate effectively with each group working on such disparate topics.” Vaggalis noted. “I've worked with classes from some of the best programs in the country and had some really great experiences there, but this was the best student experience that I've had, hands down.”

“If they can execute this level of work in their internships or when they step from college into a corporate role or something else, if they can keep the customer at the center of what they’re doing, they’re going to be head and shoulders above the others in their hiring class,” he said.

Two children reading a Keepsake Tales book