Industry Watch

Young at heartFounder Jeff Ochs knows the value of a good read, especially for kids

Valuable lessons

How Customs Made spotted new opportunities in old fables and parables from around the world

By Pratik Joshi
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Every company has an origins story. In the case of Customs Made in St. Paul, the story involves a conversation between Minnesota entrepreneur Jeff Ochs and his Chinese-born wife.
A few years ago, while they contemplated starting a family, they spoke about the values they wanted to impart to their offspring. The conversation led naturally to the traditional fables and parables that had influenced Ochs’s wife in her native country.
That led Ochs to wonder how parents could access the treasure trove of stories handed down from generation to generation in different parts of the world. The thought of reading a Chinese, Greek, or Indian parable in English and being able to share humanity’s “collective wisdom of the ages” excited him.
He soon learned that such stories didn’t have many takers in the publishing industry, largely because the lack of copyright discouraged investment. As the brain behind an award-winning, licensed board game called Snake Oil, Ochs was familiar with the mind-set of publishers.
What if there were an online service, he wondered, that let people discover and share the world’s fables and parables, customize them into an illustrated book form, and ship them anywhere in the world. That idea would eventually become a reality with Custom Made’s Cornerstone Stories
Meanwhile, Ochs had founded the nonprofit Breakthrough St. Paul (now Breakthrough Twin Cities) and had recently been researching social enterprises, or companies that exist to make both a profit and social impact. He’d co-authored a 2013 white paper entitled, “Present at the Creation: The Emergence of Social Business, Impact Investing, and the Fourth Sector in Minnesota,” highlighting the importance of social enterprise as an engine of progressive change. He also helped draft the legislation that recently became the Minnesota Public Benefit Act, which creates clear differentiation between social enterprises, nonprofits, and traditional corporations.
Besides being a viable business, he realized, Customs Made could help people discover, share, and preserve cultural treasures. After some research, he felt confident he could find enough legally usable stories to give the business idea a try. He reached out to friends, family, and others in his network to tap what he calls “social capital” and soon lined up about a dozen artists (many in Minnesota) and a Minneapolis-based printing press. A grant from a University of Minnesota program helped him develop software for the website.
When he nominated the venture to the social entrepreneur category of last year’s Minnesota Cup business competition, it made the finalist round despite being quite new. The company website had been hurriedly put together “to have a minimum viable product,” though, and Ochs still has had little time to devote to the venture’s development (completing an MBA and a master’s in public policy at the University of Minnesota have had something to do with that).
While the service has gotten off to a slow start, Ochs believes that eventually parents, grandparents, and educators will see it as a way to share values with the next generation. Couples with children adopted from foreign lands might be especially appreciative of Cornerstone Stories, as they often want to connect their child with the land of their birth.
Meanwhile, the company’s set-up avoids the need for inventory or a warehouse — something that had appealed to Ochs early on. “Jeff really has a keen business sense,” says Brad Brown, who runs the consultancy Socentia and previously served as executive director of Social Venture Partners Minnesota. “His approach is pragmatic, and he’s keen to find a way to demonstrate to the world it’s possible to have a successful social business model. Jeff is going to be an important business leader in the community.”
Ochs plans to focus on finding the right marketing channels, and Susan Sands, for one, doesn’t doubt his ability to find them. “He’s bright, energetic, and a creative thinker,” says Sands, who along with her husband Bill has been a longtime supporter of economic development in the Twin Cities. “He’ll find different ways to solve problems.”
Over the long term, the multilingual Ochs envisions expanding the content of Cornerstone Stories, and increasing the number of languages the stories are available in (currently English, Spanish, and Chinese). He hopes to develop relationships with local partners in different countries as he grows the business. “We want to be global,” he says.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether Cornerstone Stories will capture enough imaginations to succeed. But however the tale unfolds, its lessons should prove valuable.