"Be A Lean Author", with Patrick Vlaskovits
Today we interview bestselling author and entrepreneur Patrick Vlaskovits, whose constant search for better ways of working has turned him into a formidable thought-leader in technology and business. His writing has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, and The Browser and he speaks at technology conferences nationally and internationally.
We asked Patrick about how he applied his thinking to his into self-publishing with his two books The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development and The Lean Entrepreneur. In his no-nonsense style, he reveals his approach and why a “Build It and They Will Come” mentality is bad for business as well as books.
Hi Patrick, great to have you here! As well as being a serial entrepreneur and startup mentor, you’re also the author of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development and The Lean Entrepreneur. What prompted you to write these books?
With The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development, back in 2009, I had just come off wasting a lot of time and a lot of my own money building a web startup that failed. Someone mentioned The 4 Steps to the Epiphany to me and I started reading it.
At the time, Steve Blank’s work was highly unorthodox – he was the only (?) person saying that “Build It and They Will Come.” is not a good strategy.
I recommended my friends start reading Steve’s book so we could discuss his ideas – but few of my friends took me up on it. Meeting up with Brant Cooper and Hiten Shah in late 2009, they had similar problems – I believe it was Hiten who said “Someone needs to write the Cliff Notes to Steve’s book.”
To which I said, “Why not us?”
We self-published the book in early 2010.
The Lean Entrepreneur, published by Wiley in 2013, was an entirely different experience. Multiple publishers had approached us because the Customer Development book had been so successful and they all wanted us to do a book with them.
None of the deals made sense until we spoke to Wiley. They made a good deal for us financially and supported our vision for the book, a book that would expand upon Lean Startup and talk about Lean Startup and how to apply it in industries and sectors beyond tech. We wanted a book that would also tell stories visually with fakegrimlock’s artwork.
The idea behind the “lean methodology” is that startups should build their products iteratively, testing and getting customer validation on each new feature before even building it. How is this concept applicable to non-fiction authors? Did you interact with your target audience while writing the books? Are you a lean author?
We absolutely interacted and engaged with our readers before, during and after writing the book.
For the Customer Development book, we did a lot of price-testing and talking about what was clear or unclear in their understanding of Customer Development.
For The Lean Entrepreneur, we pre-sold +500 books before we even started writing. We cobbled this video together on a landing page -
Later on, we had a professionally done book trailer done:
For both books, we threw a lot of ideas at them in our in-person talks and presentations, and noted what worked and what didn’t.
You self-published The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development back in 2010. What made you go “indie” back then? And why did you choose to sign with a publisher for The Lean Entrepreneur?
For the CustDev book, we had strong reason to believe that no publisher would want to touch a book that was a derivative of another cult self-published book!
Self-publishing made perfect sense. I think it was the right choice and we learned a ton.
For The Lean Entrepreneur, we wanted to try some new things from a different platform (to us).
The main struggle for many authors is marketing, reader-acquisition and discoverability. These challenges similar to those of startups, right? How do you think your background in tech/startups helped you approach marketing your book?
I think my background in marketing technology helped me tremendously.
First, I understood the tools available to market products online – but paramountly, I had no hang-ups about marketing or acquiring customers/readers. Too many authors are too wrapped up in being “artistes” and mistakenly believe that someone else (i.e. the publisher) should market their ‘art’.
We recently wrote a piece on whether it is worth indie authors partnering with a book marketer. You worked with Casey Armstrong on The Lean Entrepreneur. What did Casey do for you? More generally, do you think it makes sense for authors to “outsource” (part of) the marketing of their books?
Casey was a tremendous help. If you can afford Casey, do your best to engage him. He was instrumental in the success of The Lean Entrepreneur.
Amongst the many ways he helped – including multiple cool growth-hacks – he helped us prioritize, scale and leverage all of our marketing activities from blog and media outreach, from retargeting to email marketing.
I don’t think that authors should ‘outsource’ marketing of their books – but should try to bring a marketer onto their team, define the goal, and figure out what crossing the finish line looks like – and this is important: together hand-in-hand with the marketer.
1,000 books sold? 10,000 books sold? 100,000 books sold? And then work backwards from there to derive strategy and tactics as needed, be they SEO, social media, etc.
As entrepreneurs, founders or early employees, we live through some pretty amazing experiences, which we often want to share with the world. What would be your #1 piece of advice to aspiring authors from the startup world?
You’ll have to wait till my next book for that. 🙂
But really, in the meantime, read The War of Art by Steven Pressfied as soon as possible. Thank me later.
Do you agree that too many authors still think someone else (i.e. the publisher) should market their books? Or are expectations changing amongst authors?