I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonah Seyum and Deborah Haile, mom and son duo who are bestselling coauthors.
Founder and CEO of Tiny Global Footprints, writing coach, and bestselling author, Deborah is a busy working mother committed to seeing the world with her son. She loves seeing the world through his eyes and sharing stories from their travels by writing Jonah’s Global Footprints: Book 1: The Search for Elephants in Thailand, and Book 2: Finding My Amigo in Cuba, and more to come in the series.
She holds a master’s degree from George Mason University in Virginia and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Minnesota. Deborah is originally from Eritrea but grew up in Minnesota. She is passionate about teaching children about global cultures and wants to help make travel an essential part of every childhood. Deborah plans to publish more books based on the different countries she and Jonah visit.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for the opportunity. When Jonah was very little, he and I weren’t able to spend a lot of time together because of the long hours I spent at work (I had and still have a full-time job), not to mention the time required for my graduate school program. I’d work all day and then take classes at night, just trying to keep up — though I always felt like I was behind and not enough…never enough at work, at grad school, and as a mother. I hoped that if I just worked a little harder, things would somehow get better, but nothing seemed to help. And the harder I worked, the worse I felt until I began to burn out, the mental and emotional tax of “work harder” overwhelming.
In the chaos, I’d found a respite in travel — I loved seeing different places and it was a way to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life with work, school, and other responsibilities. After his first trip abroad to the Dominican Republic when Jonah was 17 months old and then his next trip at 20 months (this time to Dubai and Eritrea for a family trip), I could see that Jonah loved to travel too. I wondered if I was onto something; could there be the potential for travel to be a chance to spend some special time together, perhaps helping to make up for any time we’d lost?
Well, travel hit the spot I’d been searching for, creating a space for Jonah and me to share new experiences, go adventuring, and learn about ourselves, and the world together. (And the family travel trend continued).
Now at eight years old, Jonah has been to 10 countries around the world. Then from these travels and sharing with friends and family, we began to get questions about what it was like to travel the world with a young child and what Jonah thought.
As we began to share more of our experiences, the idea to write books came up, and we started our book series: “Jonah’s Global Footprints”. Then that became a mother and son business with Tiny Global Footprints where we aim to share the educational impact of travel in childhood and inspire other families to travel with their children!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There have been many times I struggled with my business (and continue to struggle! — a first big challenge has been working to balance my full-time job with being a mom and working on our mother/son business. I wish there were more hours in a day and that I had two of me! That’s been a challenge from the beginning and that I keep working on — work/life balance and time prioritization.
Another has been on the tactical end: Jonah and I were starting to write books and there was interest, though did I really want to start a formal business? I was debating opening an LLC for publishing the books (and maybe other business ventures) or just writing and publishing my books on my own.
All of the to-dos for setting up an LLC sounded intimidating and overwhelming. However, as I thought about our plans and dreams and what we wanted to accomplish longer-term, I knew it’d be better to go the formalized LLC route. So I took a deep breath and got the paperwork and everything else that was needed together!
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
A huge part of my drive is from my son Jonah — his smile, hugs, and encouragement keep me going. Another part has been from the families and children who have started to follow our work. We regularly get new book reviews on Amazon (which amazes me) and I receive messages sharing that our books, website, and brand encourages them to travel and write books. They ask questions and share what they’ve done or are going to do. On a hard day, those messages give me the boost I need to keep going.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today, things are going well. I won’t kid you — it’s difficult to juggle a business with a full-time demanding job (as well as being a mom and human — ing in general). However, I know our business and our books have a purpose. I’ve seen firsthand the impact of world travel on a child — the educational piece of visiting new places and experiencing different cultures including his own Eritrean culture.
I love seeing the world through his eyes as we learn about history, geography, languages, and so much more. Jonah talks about his travels and is always excited about our next trip. He’s also enjoying writing and has written his own book (Basketball or Soccer?), as well as has started to share tips, ideas, and suggestions to other kids (and adults!) interested in writing a book. His enthusiasm and growth have been amazing to see, as has the special bond we continue to develop through traveling and writing together. It’s hard at times, though so rewarding at the end.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A mistake from when I was first starting out? Oh my — the entrepreneur road is bumpy for everyone, and the bumps keep coming! Let’s see. The first one was worrying about sharing that our books, something we’d made ourselves, were for sale. Friends and family had asked and expressed interest, though I know that I don’t like feeling sold to, so I wasn’t sure how that would turn out.
I was almost afraid to start sharing that they could buy the books once we started publishing the first one! It struck me as funny how much I’d worried about what others might think and then saw how delighted people were when they were able to get a copy. They would have been disappointed if we hadn’t shared about where they could purchase them!
This mistake about worrying about how to sell something we’d created has taught me a few things.
1) Fears and worries will come up in business. Sometimes you have to sit with them and see what’s really there.
2) Especially related to selling, there are people who are looking for what you’re offering and who would be disappointed to not be able to find it! Sure, there may be some people who aren’t interested, but that’s okay. There are others who will be so excited when they hear about your book (or product/service/offer). So put it out there!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One big thing about Tiny Global Footprints is that it’s a mother and son company (we’re co-CEOs!) and that it started when Jonah was only six years old! A second really neat thing is that between the two books we’ve written together (The Search for Elephants in Thailand and Finding My Amigo in Cuba) and then the one he wrote by himself (Basketball or Soccer?) Jonah is now the youngest best-selling Eritrean published author ever. It’s great to watch his growth.
On the story end, Jonah has started doing a “Monday Tips with Jonah” series on Instagram where he is teaching other children and families about travel, being an author and how to write and publish a book, how to learn a new language (he’s currently working on Spanish), and more. The feedback we’ve been getting from his lives and posts has been amazing and heartwarming. We’re hearing that it is inspiring other families to expose their children to being creative and opening their minds to entrepreneurship!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
A first tip would be to prioritize self-care, however, that looks for you. If you love to travel, take the time for an afternoon, day, or weekend away, whether solo or with your family and/or friends. It may seem hard to juggle at the moment, though you’ll be amazed how much better you will feel coming back with a rested and refreshed brain! And it doesn’t have to be a long trip/break. What’s important is that it is something different, that you get yourself away from the daily grind.
A second tip would be to remember that the road will be bumpy and to cut yourself some slack. You’ll never get it all done (there will always be more to do because life continues) — and that’s okay. When you feel the “I must get this done or I’m not enough/a failure/…” start to play in your mind, take a deep breath (and maybe a quick nap). Whatever you are able to get done today WILL be enough — and you are enough. And you can start again tomorrow.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Jonah is the first person who I’d note. From when he was little and cuddling in my arms as I typed on my computer, working on schoolwork for grad school, or a project for my job, he would be the first person to smile at me, to kiss me, to tell me I could do it. A few months ago, I was on a work call and he came into the room. I could tell he needed something, so I wrote him a note: “What’s wrong? I’m in a meeting, Jonah.” He wrote back: “I just miss you.” I responded: “OH, I MISS YOU! A lot & can’t wait to kiss you! :)” to which he noted: “After you are done with your meeting, I can’t wait to give you a big hug!” It just touches my heart.
A second person is my second mom/BF, as she is incredibly important to me and has been there for me through so much. We recently took a trip together to St. Thomas and it was amazing. She helps me remember to have fun, laugh, and be kind to myself.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
On our social platforms and with our books (in the interviews, podcasts, and articles we’ve been honored to be a part of), we’re working hard to inspire kids and families to see the world and go adventuring — whether through the pages of our books or by getting in a car, train, plane, or boat.
We also share the process of writing a book — the ups and downs, the how-to’s — to demystify the process so hopefully others will know that it’s possible for them too! We hear from a lot of people that they want to write a book but that it feels too hard. We’re working to show them that it is possible and that they can do it, that their story is worth sharing, (and important to share).
On a different note, we’re also working to share everything Jonah is learning about his Eritrean culture because it’s important for children to know the cultures, stories, and traditions of their families and where they are from! And we hope to inspire other families to share their culture with their children, too.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Keep going when it gets hard — I’ve felt (and still feel) discouraged many times, but going back to my purpose always helps me keep going.
2. Don’t compare yourself and/or your business to anyone else. This is something that I’ve struggled with, especially around social media and followers! However, I am working to keep reminding myself that I don’t really know where anyone else’s business is or how it’s doing (nor is it any of my business). What’s important is to keep my eyes on my own business and show up for it.
3. There will always be things you will need to figure out. I can’t tell you the number of times something new has come up as an entrepreneur where I was like “What is that? I don’t know how to do that!” — whether with things about my website and figuring out how to log in and make changes or coming up with a content calendar or figuring out what platforms are best for us to use. There is always something new to learn!
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Following up on #3. There will always be new things to learn and I’m not going to be an expert in every tool, platform, and aspect of entrepreneurship. I do what I can, and when I am in over my head (or realize I don’t have the time). That means it’s time to ask for help from someone who specializes in that part of being in business. I’ve gotten help with my website, PR and marketing, social media, and more. It’s okay to ask for help!
5. Embrace flexibility and messiness. The business may go in directions you didn’t foresee or maybe your partner (like my co-CEO wanting to write his own non-travel-related books) may have different ideas about what they’d like to do. And that’s okay! Sometimes the best ideas are the ones that seem to come out of nowhere and take some time to show how they fit into the bigger business picture. 🙂
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
As a founder, there will be highs and lows — guaranteed. One thing that has been very helpful for Jonah and me has actually been our Instagram feed as it’s been a journal or diary. While some days I’ve wanted to pull my hair out while figuring out what to post, it’s been amazing to look back through our photos and posts and see everything that’s happened over the past year! When I’ve felt down, seeing the pictures have reminded me of past challenges, as well as the wonderful times that came right around the corner, which has helped me remember that it’s a messy journey and to keep showing up.
I’d also recommend keeping a “testimonial” or “fan feedback” folder, doc, or file for the days when things feel hard, and you want to quit. When you receive a note or email or review that touches your heart and makes you smile, stick it in the folder, doc, or file. Then, when a hard day comes (which will happen), pull out the folder and read through it. Seeing the words I’ve received always helps me remember my purpose and why I’m building this business!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would want to go into schools and share a “Your words matter” movement, sharing with the children (especially those in under-resourced and underserved districts) what it’s like to become an author and how they can become an author, writer, and/or speaker too. And whether or not they become a writer or speaker, it’s more that I want all children to know that their words matter and that THEY matter. Imagine if every child (and adult) in the world right now knew that and believed it — that would be amazing. I’d love to go and share that message. Because I know its importance with every fiber of my being.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much.