Secret Code is the first book of its kind, a customizable experience that gives girls a chance to see themselves kicking ass in a white male- dominated industry. Mara’s kicking ass herself; she received the GirlBoss Foundation grant for her project and she’s now a contributing writer at Girlboss.com, on top of about a dozen other exciting opportunities we can’t even mention yet.
We asked Mara all about her book, her transition from full time to freelance, and her secret to taking an idea and bringing it to life so brilliantly.
Secret Code is a personalized children’s book that stars your girl as a tech hero. My goal is to make white male-dominated fields like technology aspirational for girls of all ethnicities, by providing them the role models they lack, at an age that matters.
The way it works is that you personalize the name, skin color and hairstyle online, and two weeks later you receive a beautiful picture book at home.
I was one of the rare female creative directors in digital advertising and I was tired of hearing about the lack of diversity in technology. The reality is that girls are not raised to aspire to these fields. Stereotypes sink in between ages 5 and 7 and condition girls to like certain things, so I wanted to provide options beyond pretty princesses and girls frolicking in forest — which project values that don’t lead to fulfilling, independent futures.
It’s essential to build good relationships with the people you work with, because they are the best future partners in your next life. It’s like marriage, man! You better love each other, because you’re gonna be nagging them to do the dishes someday.
I worked with two awesome guys, Rodolfo Dengo (tech partner) and Nathan Archambault (writer and co-author) on a project at AKQA two years earlier. They were totally on board for Secret Code because we had experience together, and trust. These two men have families and they’ve spent thousands of hours working on Secret Code in their personal time, which makes me feel so blessed. When you start a company, you either have funding, or you don’t. So people working for free (including yourself) is essential for the survival of the company at the beginning. You need to be smart with your money and spend it where you can’t already get support. I paid the illustrator, a couple of devs helping Rodo, a lawyer and an accountant. But favors can’t happen if there’s no trust and mutual respect.
Just like an advertising brief, we came up with a concept that stemmed from strategic insights. I then did some learning on how to do children’s books (yay Skillshare!). I wrote the first story dozens of times, asked Nathan to come on board, brainstorm further and write it way better, with style and punch. At the same time, I found an illustrator, Jessika Von Innerebner.
I sketched out all the pages really roughly (see below), and had her do the full book with four main characters and separate layers for the skin, features and eyes.
I then had another illustrator do all the other combinations (36 girl options x 4 eye colors x 36 pages = about 5,000 layers to export). THANK GOD for scripts on Photoshop! Rodolfo then did his magic in dev which still blows my mind.
I also designed everything, from book to logo to website experience, for Rodo and team to develop. I was basically the founder, project manager, creative director, accountant, designer, co-writer, strategist, intern and PR person at the same time.
I think it’s a series of events that push you off the cliff. I had 4 x ¼ AHA moments:
1/4. I had been working in advertising for 12 years and after the decade mark, I was starting to have an itch to figure out my next move. I was tired of working my ass off on things that end up being watered down, and that no one really cares about. Like, give me work-life balance if it’s not really going to matter anyway. Or make me work my ass off to save lives. But have no life for no real impact? That just makes no sense for me. I was burned out.
2/4. I needed to find a gift for a little girl and I went to a children’s book store. I was appalled by the lack of options, and had this idea.
3/4. Three months later, I read a book called The Crossroads of Should and Must, which changed my life. The book asked me to write my own eulogy. You should do it too. My eulogy was, “Mara moved up, became CCO at a giant holding company, made a lot of money, never saw her family, retired and died.” I read it on Saturday, resigned on Monday, and Wednesday was my last day. And that’s when I was like, why don’t I do this children’s book project now?
4/4. I ended up doing a sabbatical because I’m stupidly loyal and got convinced. So, back from my sabbatical two months later, I was working like crazy again. I had serious family issues and I wasn’t able to tend to them on time because I was obsessed with my agency work. When I realized I prioritized my work over my family, it made me want to reset my priorities and just cut the cord.
"I was tired of working my ass off on things that end up being watered down, and that no one really cares about."
So I did that two-month sabbatical first. I definitely recommend this. Find out if your company does it; they usually do, but they don’t advertise it. This allows you to have a tight deadline and focus. I didn’t take the plunge — I went in the pool by taking the steps slowly.
After your sabbatical, go back to work. You’ll either a) realize you just needed a break and will be happy to come back with a fresh mind. Then you can continue your project on nights and weekends. Or b) you’ll realize the work you did the past two months was what you were meant to do. If that’s the case, leave your job and freelance. That way you still can pay the bills while slowly finding a balance between your side project and your freelance jobs.
One thing I miss: the people. I love people who work in advertising. They’re sensitive, smart, hardworking, energetic, they’re fascinated by people. I think advertisers are among the most empathetic people on earth; our job is to think like a 50-year old farmer or a 12-year old Youtuber and not judge. I love how open-minded we are.
One thing I don’t miss: meetings all day.
"I learned to be more patient in the process."
For me it will be successful if/when Secret Code becomes popular and part of general culture. We’re currently working to get it published so it can go mainstream. We’re also excited about next phases to expand in other places, and doing a boy story to further embrace equality. But building a brand takes time. It takes years to be an overnight success, right 🙂 I learned to be more patient in the process. It’s not my strong suit so I’m proud to feel less of a sense of emergency and just trust that what’s meant to happen will happen.
I’m releasing diverse families. In the story, parents play a role. We’re offering mixed-race, same-sex and single parent options, so they can finally be featured in children’s media, which tends to ignore them.
I would show her the iPhone and a VR headset. Sounds boring to us, but I’m just doing this for her — she would be SO excited, because she was crazy about technology in the 80s, and this would make her so happy. I would also ask her a million questions about memories. I’m very nostalgic of that time, and I’m afraid to forget the details of my childhood.
People on their death beds always regret what they haven’t done. They never regret what they have done. If you have something itching you, please just fucking do it. Try a class, learn about it online. A woman built a house from scratch by watching Youtube videos. No excuses today. Tell your friends about your project to hold yourself accountable. There’s nothing like the fear of public shame to motivate you to get shit done. Who cares about success. I surely don’t. Just give it a shot. I, for example, have always dreamt to be an electronic music producer. Does that sound random or what?! But it’s never left me, so I better do that before I die.
What’s your silly dream, Tobias?
Keep creating & stay awesome,