Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
For established entrepreneurs or executives with a budget of $20k+, we’ll create a done-for-you book, in your voice. You talk for around 15 hours, and we do everything else. It’s a systematized ghostwriting process, complete with interior and cover design, publishing, and a marketing plan.
For those who can’t or prefer not to spend $20k+, you can take my online course, Permission Publishing. It’s a step-by-step guide on going from no idea (or vague idea) to a published, successful book. Including idea validation, budget design tips, and step-by-step publishing and marketing guides.
It’s a way to self-publish professionally without failing like 99% of self-published authors (who don’t validate their ideas before wasting time and money writing). If you’re insecure about the quality of your writing, the course offers detailed writing tips, as well as a guide to dictating your book, without sacrificing quality.
For those who have no budget or prefer to do it all themselves, I offer a 220-page, DIY guide for free. It’s called, You Are an Author: So Write Your F*cking Book. For select clients, I also offer coaching, consulting and editing services.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My only “real job” came right out of college, getting paid $20,000 per year to write for a sports blog. Since our office was in NYC, I lived with my parents in the suburbs. When my request for a raise to $35,000 was considered “too much,” I nearly died of laughter -- but managed to recover and move to Prague to teach English and figure out my life.
A $450/month apartment and passable, part-time English teaching salary gave me freedom. I couldn’t stop thinking about sports betting -- as that was the small niche I had carved out during my sportswriting days. Armed with ~20,000 weekly readers for my NFL gambling column (I freelanced from Prague for $12.50/article), I figured it was time to tell my story. In college, I had turned my grandmother’s $100 birthday gift into nearly $10,000 over two years, before losing it all in two months. Yikes.
I asked column readers if they’d be interested in a book, and 46 people emailed me. Nothing crazy, but enough to give it a shot. I studied everything about self-publishing and wrote the book in two weeks (seriously). I expected nothing, but then I received my first royalty check: $1,150.06. Five years later, I’ve made almost $15,000 total (all profit, minus my $5 cover). Clearly, this “self-publishing” thing was a thing, indeed.
I thought everyone should write a book. I thought traditional (corporate) publishing was a scam. I didn’t know how to help people, but I knew I had to try. Then I read a viral Medium article by some dude who snuck into the Super Bowl, and everything changed. At the end of the article, he mentioned he was “shopping a book around to publishers.” I emailed him offering my help to self-publish (editing, marketing, general coaching), and we got on the phone.
He was interested but said no. He chose a “professional” editor with 10+ years of experience. I had zero. But I refused to take no for an answer. I edited two chapters for free, as a sample, because the “professional” had done the same. I’ll never forget his response: “Quite frankly, your edits were just as helpful as hers.” And of course, it was cheaper. I offered the first round for $450, and unlimited subsequent rounds for $1,000.
It was a horrible financial deal (the book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into the Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together wound up taking three freaking years), but I got equity in the book and built a case study and relationships.
Despite the poor financial deal, I took the experience as validation. Everything Trevor (the author) needed help with, someone else could want. I cold emailed like crazy and pitched a variety of related offers. My next deal was turning an entrepreneur’s podcast into a book. Then I got hired by Book in a Box (now called Scribe) to interview entrepreneurs and turn the transcripts into books. I kept working with Trevor on the side, and when I got tired of being a freelancer, I decided to set off 100% on my own and offer similar services to Scribe (but more personalized), as well as focusing on the online course and coaching (for those who can’t afford many tens of thousands of dollars).
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
My first “product” was my first self-published book, Smart Sports Betting. I had zero budget, zero clue, and zero design or tech skills. Fortunately, I was good at the most important things: writing and teaching. I focused 99% of my effort on making the book as good as possible and did everything else the minimalist way. I found a free software for interior design (Reedsy’s Book Editor), and bought a $5 cover on Fiverr (pro tip: if buying a cheap cover, keep it VERY simple -- just one high-quality image).
For my DFY services, I “borrowed” a lot from Scribe. They release all of their processes for free, so why reinvent the wheel? I’ve added my own spin and additions to what they do, but I can’t reiterate this enough: If someone is doing something similar to you, build on the work they’ve already done. There’s plenty of room for multiple actors in one market. It doesn’t have to be a malicious, winner-take-all competition. Scribe is killing it on a high-volume level, and I’m doing well on a personalized level, while I focus on growing my online course (so I can help more people at a lower price point). I’m not trying to conquer the market; I’m just trying to participate in it and help people.
I built my online course on Teachable, because it’s the lowest-friction creation experience, without sacrificing quality. That’s my ethos: Minimize friction to create, maximize the quality of the content (while still looking “professional,” which is especially important when self-publishing).
I’ve made one huge mistake over the past five years: Thinking that business is a competition, not a collaboration. I always looked at fellow entrepreneurs and thought we couldn’t help each other.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I never had a launch; I built my business organically and opportunistically. All of my clients have come from cold emails, word of mouth or referrals. All deals were closed via email or phone, without even directing people to my website -- just addressing their needs and concerns on a personalized basis. A handful of clients have come from my occasional blogging and social media postings. When starting a service business, you don’t need a website until you have enough traffic that you can’t address people individually.
Of course, my approach isn’t scalable, and I felt that when I went four months this year without signing a new client. That hurt (fortunately I was living in Mexico City where tacos are 25 cents). My current focus is building my email list through partnerships, and I’ve gone from 147 subscribers to 1,052 in the past few months.
I don’t have a screenshot of my original website, but I do have a picture of the original two covers for my second book, You Are An Author: So Write Your F*cking Book. They’re embarrassing. My current cover is nothing spectacular (I’ll be relaunching eventually with a professional designer), but it’s better than these.
Lessons Learned: Start by going door-to-door or reaching out to people personally. But build your email list from Day 1. Nothing beats a direct line to your ideal customer’s inbox, that they gave you permission to use. Give them free content from the outset -- so when you eventually ask for a sale, they’ll be happy to listen. 90% free content, at least. Then, be unafraid to sell the other 10% of the time.
My business is 100% bootstrapped, but since it’s content-based, recurring costs are almost nil. I pay for ConvertKit now but started with Mailchimp (free). I didn’t pay for a website until I had regular traffic. My first book cover was $5, and my second was free (I made it using Canva). All publishing costs are on an as-needed basis, so I bake them into my service prices. Teachable has a free plan when you’re starting out.
Your early profits will come from doing things that don’t scale … but your long-term profits will come from the things that do scale.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I have two simple marketing strategies and ignore everything else. First, highly personalized cold emails to your ideal customers. Second, win-win partnerships with people in related niches (using OneClick to maximize email capture without being spammy).
If you’re trying to grow your email list, make sure you’re on dozens of email lists yourself. Think a list is a good fit for you? Reply to their email, thank them for their content -- and link to something of your own. Connect. Reach out to them separately and quickly explain a win-win partnership. What can you offer their audience that they can’t? Teach it to them for free. If you have a similar number of subscribers, offer a “lead magnet swap.” This strategy has led to 90% of my email list growth (that 839 number includes duplicates -- but I gained over 400 subscribers on that one partnership).
Really, it all comes down to highly-personalized cold emails. Unless you’re already well-connected in your industry, how else do you expect to gain a foothold? If I need a high-ticket client ($20k+), I send dozens of cold emails. If I need an email list partner, I send dozens of cold emails. Until people are cold emailing you, you need to be doing consistent cold outreach.
I go deeper into cold emailing in my eBiz Facts interview, as well as my Reedsy Course on How to Get Your Book Covered By Mainstream Media (both features resulted from cold emails!), but here’s the gist:
- Open with a personalized compliment. Do not bullshit this. Show that you are a fan and/or customer of this person (or prove that you plan to become one). If you can’t find something to compliment, find someone else.
- Clearly demonstrate what you can do for them. Are you offering free content? Free specific advice, related to a specific problem or goal? Free exposure? Be clear and transparent.
- Clearly demonstrate that you’re low-risk. Offer social proof and be clear in your intentions.
- End with a clear, yes-or-no ask. Usually either: “Are you interested?” or “Wanna hop on a 10-15 minute call to discuss?”
Blogging is a secondary focus for me, but I have seen some results with my simple, two-part strategy. Either write something that lights you on fire with passion (example: F*ck the Real World: A Manifesto) or use my “One-Up Strategy.” Find solid content that already exists, and then “one-up” it so well that your article is 10x better. For example, there are lots of good “writing tips” articles online. There are none with 281 tips from world-class writers and thinkers. So I published How to Write Better: The Definitive Guide (281 Tips).
Do things your own way. Use your personality and quirks to your advantage. Let other people inspire you, but do not copy them. Put your own twist on their ideas.
The writing guide worked especially well because I emailed everyone who was featured. I didn’t ask them to share, but of course many did. I haven’t executed my full promotion strategy yet, but 2,563 views (and 42 new subscribers) from a simple email to my list (~800 at the time) plus everyone featured (all strangers) is pretty damn good.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
My business has been very up-and-down, but always profitable. It’s been occasionally lucrative, with a bunch of dry spells. Mercurial. That’s the beauty (and horror) of offering a high-ticket service to busy, hard-to-reach people. I’ve made just over $100,000 over the past two years, but I didn’t sign a client for the last three months (until I got a $21,000 deal last week). $21,000 from a few emails and a quick strategy call!
My current plan is pretty simple: Make $100,000 this year in ghostwriting profits (sign 4 clients in addition to my latest one), and keep growing my email list to eventually surpass $100,000 in yearly profits with my current online course, future courses/workshops, and coaching. To use the high-ticket stuff to fund what I’m passionate about: giving ambitious people the tools and knowledge to write books on their own, that launch and grow businesses (so they don’t need to spend $20k+).
I plan to build more courses and workshops as my audience tells me what exactly they want. (If you have any questions/goals related to writing and/or books, email me at [email protected]!)
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve made one huge mistake over the past five years: Thinking that business is a competition, not a collaboration. I always looked at fellow entrepreneurs and thought we couldn’t help each other. If they were ahead of me, that they’d never lift me up. If they were behind me, that helping them wasn’t worth my time.
I was being an idiot. Ever since I focused on creating win-win partnerships with other entrepreneurs, my email list has skyrocketed and is on track to grow exponentially (I’ve already got multiple partnerships lined up for 2020).
Every day, look to connect with someone who you admire. Don’t think they’re above or below you. Everyone has something to contribute to everyone. What do you have that they don’t? Offer them free ideas and/or content. Don’t be afraid to ask for something in return, but make sure you’re generous first.
My other mistake was waiting to build my email list. I should’ve done it five years ago. Don’t be like me. Your early profits will come from doing things that don’t scale … but your long-term profits will come from the things that do scale.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I use ConvertKit for email marketing, but I’m not particularly passionate about it. It gets the job done and is better than MailChimp. Superhuman has been a gamechanger as I’ve been sending dozens of outreach emails a day. I get through email twice as fast as before. Evernote is a game-changer for idea capture, and I try to follow Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain system to organize my notes.
Lately, I’ve been obsessed with Roam as a way to turn my scattered notes into emergent, original ideas -- using the principles of Zettelkasting. Generally, I write articles and books in Google Docs. Sometimes Microsoft Word.
I built my new website on Webflow, and that’s pretty much it. I’m a minimalist. Focus on helping people first -- and then reverse-engineering any tools needed to achieve their goals and yours. Only use new tools after the need arises.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Books have taught me pretty much everything I know about business (cuz my Economics major in college sure as hell didn’t). Check out my 22 Immutable Books on Working for Yourself for a comprehensive list, but here are some of my favorites:
Antifragile taught me a “barbell strategy” -- to focus 80% on ultra-safe activities, and 20% on high-volatility, high-upside activities. The Rich 20-Something taught me the “marsupial method” -- or how to partner with related businesses to become their “go-to provider” of something beyond their wheelhouse. Million-Dollar Consulting taught me exactly what to do and say to create a high-ticket, win-win agreement. Show Your Worktaught me how to self-promote without being annoying or feeling scammy.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
- Start an email list TODAY and reach out to (at least) one potential partner every week. I don’t care what industry you’re in -- an email list is the best, most sustainable way of building a tribe and reaching people individually, with their permission. Everyone needs outreach (connection, tribe-building) habit.
- Consider writing a book to spread your message and increase credibility. I know a guy who might be able to help! (Seriously: Being able to send people your book as proof of expertise is invaluable. Email me if you think you might have a book in you. Spoiler: Almost everyone does.)
- Do NOT try to do everything. Find one strategy that grows your business short-term (probably cold emailing) and one strategy that grows it long-term (probably partnerships or advertising). Put all of your time and money into these two strategies, until you see diminishing returns or can afford to hire someone.
- Do things your own way. Use your personality and quirks to your advantage. Let other people inspire you, but do not copy them. Put your own twist on their ideas. Put your own twist on everything. People buy from you because of you. Your uniqueness. Add hot sauce to everything you make or sell. Be spicy, be you, never cool yourself off in ranch dressing.
- Don’t go all-in on one offer. If someone wants something different than you anticipated, find a way to help them achieve their goals. That’s what business is, after all: Helping people and charging a fair price for the change you helped make. Focus on making that change above all.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I’m not actively looking to hire people, but I am looking for done-for-you book referrals (I offer a 10% commission … so $2k+). If I get enough clients, I may hire freelancers to do some ghostwriting (I would train you, and pay at least $50 an hour). I’m also always looking for talented cover designers and can pay your normal rate (or more).
If you think you can help with my mission (getting everyone to self-publish a quality book, professionally), let’s talk.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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