Chauncey Holloman has a strange project in the works: She’s writing a self-help book. It’s not that the genre itself is strange, but rather that the author seems oddly placed to be writing it. It takes no small amount of audacity to hold oneself up as a paragon of success, and motivational prose is usually reserved to those who can claim decades of hardened life experience. It is rarely the stuff of a small, enthusiastic African-American college freshman who hasn’t yet achieved her 20th birthday.
Holloman has a little more business savvy and experience than your typical 19-year-old, though — enough, at least, to know that business savvy in itself can be a commodity. Considering the ambition of Harlem Lyrics, the greeting card company she founded in 2003 that sells over 70 different cards across 13 states, it’s not really a surprise that Holloman would want to dip a toe into an industry that banks $580 million in book revenue each year. But her goals don’t stop with birthday well-wishes and tracts for would-be teen entrepreneurs. She has plans for a clothing line, she is looking to develop the characters that appear on her cards into a television show and she hopes to eventually bring an Egyptian-themed animation idea to, as she puts it, “silver screen movies.”
Holloman has set some lofty goals, but Harlem Lyrics has had enough success to convince her she can reach them. The venture began when she saw an opening in the market while shopping for a friend’s birthday.
“Hallmark cards are geared more toward adults,” she says. “They have dull, plain colors on the front, and the only alternative to that style would be the exact opposite, which is the children’s cards, which is what a lot of teen-agers have been forced to do: either buy children’s cards and make it like a joke, or print their own.” So she decided to print her own.
With the encouragement of her mother, who introduced her to the concept of a business plan, and lots of entrepreneurial spirit, Holloman geared up to attend a Georgia trade show. To raise money, she did something that a lot of teen-agers do: She tapped her mom, who contributed her tax rebate to the cause. But she also did something a bit more creative. She rented the Palace Club in Little Rock and threw a kickoff party for Harlem Lyrics. The money she raised funded her first eight cards.
Although she lacks a steady drawing hand (“That is not my talent, and I am smart enough to know that,” she says), Holloman is full of ideas for what she wants her product to represent. Four characters, each with a distinct personality, form the girl group that is the backbone of Harlem Lyrics. Holloman found inspiration for the project in her own family: Each of the girls is based on one of her younger sisters.
“I knew that I wanted this to be a family-based thing,” she says. “I was really looking for ways that I could connect these characters with me so I wouldn’t get bored down the line.”
Drawn by Damien Ford, a local artist, and with text written by Holloman, Harlem Lyrics cards soon appeared in Kroger stores. Yet, although she was attending conferences and trade shows, she doesn’t owe that success to a by-the-book strategy.
“It’s a good thing for me being so young and new in this industry, because apparently you’re supposed to go to the store in your community and pitch to them, and then go to the regional store and then go to the national headquarters,” Holloman says. “I called the headquarters first.”
The company liked the idea, and Kroger now pays Holloman a flat rate to sell the cards in its stores.
Not all of Holloman’s business dealings have gone so smoothly, however, and she’s learned hard lessons about running a small business in a big fish’s world. Her cards were for sale in Walgreen Drug Stores for about a year, but she was forced to pull them out. Walgreen policy requires card companies to make sure their products are displayed in an orderly fashion, and Holloman didn’t have the resources to do that. She has been in prolonged negotiations to sell through Wal-Mart, but she can’t seem to strike the right deal.
“I’ve been talking to Wal-Mart over the past year,” she says. “With Wal-Mart having such large numbers, they’re able to lower everybody’s prices, so we’ve been talking so long because we’re trying to find a way for me to get in Wal-Mart without bankrupting me.”
While Holloman certainly has her eye on the bottom line, she also takes pains to ensure that the harlot of commerce doesn’t tempt her creative integrity. When she decided to give her Harlem Lyrics characters a sleeker feel, she went through multiple designs before she found the one she wanted. One artist tried to sexualize their look (“They all had low-cut shirts with boobs up, and big huge ones”), a vision that wasn’t compatible with Holloman’s. She admits that there’s a monetary motive at work behind her characters’ clean image. “It’s a business strategy, because it provides a safe look into hip-hop.” But because the girls are based on her siblings, there are lines she refuses to cross, and she doesn’t plan to turn over control of their depiction for a quick payday.
“Me and Sony butted heads for a minute,” she says of trying to develop the Harlem Lyrics group into a cartoon show. “I had to pull my animation back from them because they wanted to own all rights. Understandably, that’s usually the way it’s done, but that’s only if it’s a show first and then it gets turned into products.”
For the time being, Holloman, a Parkview High School graduate, also has to attend to the more mundane duties of a college student. She’s enrolled at the University of Central Arkansas, where she majors in theater and business. That may change if Harlem Lyrics continues to expand, and there are some signs that it will. She recently introduced her revamped characters at the industry’s equivalent of the NBA draft, the National Stationery Show in New York.
“Everybody was there — Target, Wal-Mart, Macy’s — these big corporations you would want to be in,” she says. She pulled out all the stops for the show — her friends served as live models for the Harlem Lyrics girls, she had help from a fellow UCA business student receiving credit for serving as her intern, a local rapper recorded a theme song for her booth — and she made contact with national retailers. She’s also continuing previous negotiations with Macy’s, which is talking about putting Harlem Lyrics characters on T-shirts in time for the holiday season. She hopes to expand her demographic beyond the teen-agers Harlem Lyrics aims for — she’s talking to producers about “Lotus,” a cartoon inspired by Egyptian mythology and Marvel comics. If all goes to plan, Holloman will certainly have the expertise to finish her book. She’ll just have to find the time.
— By John Williams