Thirty-five years ago this month, I returned from my first Pilgrimage to the Baha’i Holy Land with an idea for a new company – a company that would not only create unique materials for teaching the Baha’i Faith, but would explain how to use them, when, where and with whom. Here’s the story of how it all began:
How I Created Special Ideas 35 Years Ago
I became a Bahá’í forty-two years ago, on June 27th, in the summer between high school and college. From the moment I signed my card, my heart was devoted to serving the Cause and teaching the Faith. In college, I majored in art, and spent most of my creative energy designing posters and fliers for the many Bahá’í Club meetings we held every week. I also created portable fair booths out of fabric, and travel-taught every summer, giving musical slide shows and talking about love, unity, and the non-existence of evil.
It was at one of those firesides that I heard about a job opening at the Bahá’í Publishing Trust. It was a dream come true to be offered a job there just a few months after I graduated. I was “Assistant Production Coordinator for Special Materials.” As exciting as that may sound, I discovered that they weren’t really interested in having me help develop any special materials. My job was to make whatever the people in charge wanted made. They were wonderful, dedicated people, but they simply weren’t as interested in teaching as I was. In the year I was there, we made greeting cards, records and jewelry, but not a single teaching card, radio spot or button. Our catalog included only one pamphlet, and no T-shirts. Needless to say, I was frustrated.
My heart wanted to teach, but working in Wilmette, I was surrounded by Bahá’ís, not seekers. I was not helping anyone else teach either. I decided to quit and spend my meager savings travel-teaching again while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.
This is where it gets interesting.
I had no intention of starting a company, but I did have one good design that everyone told me I should do something with. Maybe you remember it. It was the “United Doves” logo, with a white dove and a black dove coming together to form a heart. Well, I had offered the design to the Publishing Trust, the Race Unity Committee, the Teaching Committee and the Office of Public Affairs. None of them liked it. So I decided I would print up a few posters to sell to fund my travel-teaching. I had a printer make film and plates to print up some posters.
That is when it got REALLY interesting.
One week before my last day at the Trust, I got a call from the Pilgrimage Office. Did I have a passport? They wanted to know. It turned out that someone had cancelled at the last minute and there was an opening for pilgrimage three weeks later, the second week of June. I jumped at the chance to go, but… I would have to spend the money I had saved to pay for my travel-teaching AND for the printing of the posters.
I went on Pilgrimage to the Baha’i Holy Land in Haifa Israel – a wonderful experience – and spent much of the time praying for guidance. What should I do now?
The answer, given to me while my forehead was on the Sacred Threshold, was that I should use the posters I was printing as the seed of a new business producing the Bahá’í teaching materials that I loved.
On my way home from Haifa, I had arranged to spend two weeks travel-teaching in Norway. I was in Kristiansand, at the home of the secretary of the Norwegian National Teaching Committee for my 7th Bahá’í birthday, dreaming dreams and making plans. By the time I got home, I had the name of my new company and a dozen product ideas. Keep in mind that I was an art major and had no idea of how to run a business (and I had no money). But I was passionate about teaching. My secret marketing scheme was that I would not just tell people what I was selling, but I would give them detailed explanations as to how to use them so their teaching work would be more effective. I would teach people how to teach – and in so doing, I would help create my next customers! I would also have enough faith in the Community to risk printing things in huge quantities so that I could sell them really cheaply.
Which brings us back to those posters. If I printed 100, they would cost $5 each, but if I printed 20,000 I could sell them for 19¢ each. The problem was that I didn’t have the money to pay for any of them, but the plates were already made. So I talked the printer into giving me 90 days to pay. I then gathered the names of all the people I had met while travel teaching, and sent samples out to them. People bought them by the hundreds, then by the thousand, with one community giving out 1,500 at an Educator’s Conference a few years later. The posters got paid for, and the rest is history… sort of.
The first 15 years were a bit rough. Everyone thought I was crazy. First of all, most people didn’t think independent Bahá’í companies were allowed. Second, if they WERE allowed, they certainly couldn’t make any money. Third, if they were going to make money, it would not be by selling teaching materials! Fourth, you know, you really need to know something about business… Plus, I think I moved the company 15 times in 15 years. I’m amazed anyone could find me, but you did – and I thank you. Friends and strangers would buy more than they really needed just to help keep Special Ideas afloat. I bless you all. Then I met Karen and things fell into place. She was the stable ground that my creativity needed in order to flourish.
It has now been 35 years since I returned from Pilgrimage. I recently browsed through the fifty or more catalogs I’ve mailed out in that time. They contain literally thousands of different products – most of which we published ourselves – that represent millions of individual teaching items, from pamphlets to billboards, stickers, posters and prayer books. We have distributed over a quarter of a million copies of The Hidden Words and close to half a million prayer books. Several million assorted stickers have been given away. Countless pamphlets have been read. The name “Bahá’í” has been placed on the walls of thousands of homes and classrooms because of our posters. Who can tell how many conversations have been started because of a T-shirt, window decal, button, or piece of Bahá’í jewelry? Through all of these millions of items – each of which were sold for only pennies in profit – we have managed to fulfill our mission and our passion, while eking out enough income to keep our small family alive. It is a blessing for which I thank God every day.
Teaching is still the central mission of Special Ideas, but we’ve also expanded our vision to include interfaith fellowship, teaching virtues and emotional healing. I hope you’ve enjoyed following our evolution. Some of you, I know, were on my very first mailing list, while many others have been faithful customers for decades. I know your names. I recognize many of your voices. Sometimes I even know your parent’s names. It’s been that long.
I’ve loved serving the Bahá’í Community all these years, and I will continue to serve you as long as you let me – and as long as you all continue to need materials that make the world a better place.
Justice Saint Rain