In 2003, I made the jump from a career as a vice-president of a software company to being an entrepreneur. I had just enough cash in the bank to fund my venture and with more than a decade of executive-level experience, more than enough confidence to try. It was exhilarating.
I had come up with an idea for providing retailers with an analytics service to help them measure store traffic and shopper conversion rates – I called the company HeadCount. This, I thought, was a can’t miss idea.
Notwithstanding my previous big-business experience, I made many of the classic mistakes entrepreneurs make, but what I didn’t anticipate was that retailers simply wouldn’t get it. I thought there was plenty of pent-up demand for my new analytics service, but as I soon discovered, it was extremely difficult to get retailers to even take my calls, and when they did, many simply didn’t see the value.
After a year of banging on doors, I was so dejected I almost folded the company. Almost.
Creating a communication platform for your business
During my many sleepless nights, it occurred to me that I had two key issues: first, there was a legitimate lack of understanding about the benefits my analytics could provide, and, second, I couldn’t get to the real decision-makers – senior executives, who are constantly hounded by salespeople and rarely take their calls.
My obsession with trying to solve these challenges – and a desperation to keep my business alive – led to a eureka moment: I’ll write a book!
It occurred to me that, in part, most retailers didn’t see the value in what I was offering because very little had ever been said about it. While traffic counting had been part of retailing for years, the fact was there were hardly any articles about it, no academic papers and definitely no books about it – even textbooks on retailing ignored it.
Not only would a book help me make the case for why retailers should use these analytics, but it would also be a great way to reach decision-makers – I could send copies directly to CEOs.
My next challenge was to figure out how to write a book and get it published – how hard could that be?
The only problem with a ‘Book Strategy’ is that you actually need to write a book
During the day I continued to scratch on retailers’ doors and try to sell my analytics service to keep the business going and on evenings and weekends I would write. My enthusiasm for the topic and fear of business failure were all the motivation I needed. But it was hard – really hard.
As the weeks turned into months, enthusiasm tuned into drudgery and on many occasions I questioned my sanity and the whole book strategy. What if it didn’t work?
The reality was, I didn’t have any options. We continued to burn cash and just weren’t getting any traction in the business. Furthermore, I had convinced everyone on my small start-up team that the book would lead us to the entrepreneurial promise land.
After six months, the book was done. I’ll spare you the gory details on what I discovered about book publishing, but suffice it to say, unless you’re famous or a truly gifted writer – which I am neither – the only way to get your book published is through self-publishing.
CEOs don’t talk to salespeople…but they talk to authors
When the first shipment of 50 books arrived I was almost overwhelmed by a sense of accomplishment and pride – I did it! The total elapsed time from first page to published book was about a year.
But pride doesn’t pay the light bills, so I started sending out copies to CEOs and senior executives of major retail chains, and a funny thing happened – they started taking my calls. The calls led to meetings, meetings led to signed contracts, and the business started to grow. Beyond opening doors, the book proved to be an effective PR tool that helped us get some much needed coverage and, ultimately, it proved to be an effective training resource for store managers.
In fact, the book strategy was so effective, five years later I decided to write a second book. And yes, we sent the new one to retailers who hadn’t responded to the first one, and yes, it helped accelerate our business growth even more.
Words of advice to would-be business building authors
Ultimately, a book can’t make a failing business succeed. Even Shakespeare couldn’t rescue a fatally flawed business model or a business that’s trying to serve a market that doesn’t exist or an offering that has no real value proposition.
Furthermore, a poorly written book will not be helpful either. You need to have a point of view and a style of expression that’s meaningful and resonates with your intended audience. There’s a very long list of poorly written, self-published books on Amazon.
However, if you do have a sound business, the ability to articulate your ideas and you’re looking for a mechanism to educate or communicate to a market – essentially, a platform to grow from – I can now highly recommend this approach.
• Mark Ryski is author of Conversion: The Last Great Retail Metric and When Retail Customers Count, and is CEO and founder of HeadCount Corporation, a business analytics company specializing in store traffic and conversion analytics.