‘[The principles behind the book were those of] the lean startup: build, measure, learn, which meant running experiments, testing stuff with users and iterating and improving… treating it as a whole series of prototypes.’
In writing her first book – How to Have a Happy Hustle – Bec Evans drew on all her knowledge of innovation strategy as well as her expertise in writing productivity. The result is not only a superb book, but a masterclass in smart book development, testing every element from problem-finding to the table of contents to the cover.
In this episode she talks us through the process, and reveals how she overcame those two classic writers’ blockers, fear and procrastination, along the way.
Bec’s original EBBC interview: http://extraordinarybusinessbooks.com/episode-34-the-writing-habit-with-rebecca-evans/
Happy Hustle site: https://www.happyhustlebook.com/
Bec on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Eva_Bec
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge starts 29 April: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
Vote for The Extraordinary Business Book Club in the British Podcast Awards! Just type in ‘Extraordinary Business Book Club’ into the search box: https://www.britishpodcastawards.com/
Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club where I’m back again – yay! – with Bec Evans who has been on the show before and it’s brilliant to have her back. She is a writer, a speaker and a startup founder. While working in publishing, she turned her side hustle Prolifiko, a digital writing productivity coach, into a startup. Now as a consultant, she helps businesses innovate and she coaches people to build the skills and confidence to make their ideas happen. Her first book, How to Have a Happy Hustle: The Complete Guide to Making Your Ideas Happen, will be published by Icon Books in May 2019. Welcome to the show Bec. It’s very exciting.
Bec Evans: It’s very exciting. Thank you for having me.
Alison Jones: Oh, it’s great to have you back. Always love having people back when they’ve moved on and you get a different part of the story, because last time we were really focusing on writing habits and productivity – I will put a link on the show notes to that episode because it’s an absolute belter – but today I want to talk about your story. Tell us how the Happy Hustle thing all started.
Bec Evans: Well it started with you, Alison.
Alison Jones: I was hoping you’d say that.
Bec Evans: Well it was with your proposal challenge, which I took in January 2017. It was very much that I felt I was in a transition. I started up my side hustle while working and I wanted to kind of pull together all my experience, which was working in innovation within publishing. I took your proposal challenge and from there it kind of just really build momentum with getting an agent and then getting a publisher. Then over the last year I’ve been writing my first book, which has been such a strange experience for someone who spent pretty much 20 years working directly with writers and in publishing to actually go through that process yourself. A huge amount of empathy for everyone who is starting to write in a way that perhaps I should have had early on in my career.
Alison Jones: Oh, I hear you. I mean similar here, obviously a whole career in publishing and then when you … I had written books to commission before, but when you come to write your own book, it’s a whole different ballgame, isn’t it?
Bec Evans: Completely. Completely. It was so important because it started, as so many sort of business and nonfiction books do, with your own experience and your own kind of knowledge and take on what you’re writing about, but I had to really kind of focus in on the audience and figure out what they needed as well. That was the kind of the start of the journey and trying to apply sort of audience focus in innovation principles throughout the whole writing process.
Alison Jones: That is fascinating, isn’t it, because you spent … I mean, when you were in publishing, you were really focusing on innovation and obviously Prolifiko is a startup and you’ve been creating and innovating around that. You’ve been talking about innovation. How did you port the innovation thing into the process of writing the book?
Bec Evans: Well, the first thing was to notice that I needed to use those principles. There was no way I could’ve just gone off and written this book in isolation. I needed to really focus on the audience and what I was trying to get across. The first thing I did was very, very simple: I just put out a survey asking what people struggle with with making ideas happen. The book is called How to Have a Happy Hustle: The Complete Guide to Making Your Ideas Happen. I wanted to find out, well what are the barriers that people are facing and what do they really want from a book like that? That just helped me create the empathy and get the sense of what people were looking for. Finding that kind of, I suppose in innovation we’d call it that problem, and then I would see the book as the solution to that problem.
Alison Jones: It’s so funny because you talk about this in the book. It’s so much part of this. You’re walking the talk.
Bec Evans: Completely.
Alison Jones: Just before you go on though, tell us, what were the barriers? What did people report?
Bec Evans: The top ones are always time and money. They are the limiting factors with everything, but I found that that really created a psychological barrier, stopping people having the confidence. It was sort of trying to explain that you do have the time, you can make the time. Of course there are trade offs. It’s exactly the same with writing a book and I’m sure we’ll come to this, how on earth you fit writing a book like any other new project into your already over busy life, but there’s a lot around the confidence as well, but what was really exciting is the reasons. I wasn’t surprised about the time and the money, but what surprised me was the reason why people wanted to start up new projects. That was because they were looking for creativity and fulfilment. This was where the idea of the happiness and the fulfilment comes from is that there was … There’s loads of different reasons that you think it’s about setting up a new business, getting new skills, getting a new job and making money. Actually all of those things were way down. What people were really looking for was fulfilment and enjoyment and that kind of creative process.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. Did that feed back into the title of the book then with the Happy Hustle?
Bec Evans: Well it did. I mean there’s a whole other story about how we came up with the title, which was again focused on the audience. We did it all through Google AdWords. I started with a list of beta readers who were with me throughout the whole process. We generated, I think it was nearly 60 titles and then with the publisher we used expertise to hone down what fitted with the competition, what was right for the market and came up with a shortlist of five, which we then just put out on Google AdWords and then just waited to see what people responded to. It was really interesting. It’s almost like playing Lego with titles cause you have titles and subtitles and combine them in different ways and see what kind of happens with them. The Happy Hustle was really … It was a kind of a small idea that we had and we had no idea that that was the one that people really wanted.
Alison Jones: It’s wonderful. I think we have to create the dance to go with it, which we can perform at your launch maybe?
Bec Evans: Definitely.
Alison Jones: Do the Happy Hustle. Going back to … I do want to come onto the writing in a minute because I think it must be hilarious actually to be somebody who’s coached people on writing for so long and then to be sitting there going, “I should unload the dishwasher.” Hold that thought, but just take us back a minute for the innovation piece. There’s a couple of really specific things. I love the fact that you were … I was going to say split testing, but AB testing. It was ABCDE testing with your titles, and using the data and the metrics around that. You were starting off by finding the problem. What other techniques and tricks … Well, not tricks, you know what I mean. What other techniques did you use to make this an innovation project as much as a book project?
Bec Evans: Yes, so there’s the kind of the principles underlying it all, which would be very much around the kind of the lean startup build, measure, learn, which meant in short, running experiments, testing stuff with your users and sort of iterating and improving. That meant almost treating it as a whole series of prototypes. In a sense that a book proposal is a prototype, a table of contents is a prototype. That was the first time that that was put in front of end users. I did a very long table of contents and I just shoved it up on to Google Docs, sent out the link and just people tore into it. It’s quite overwhelming getting … I mean, there was hundreds if not thousands of comments on it. It’s about a 10 page doc, but actually you knew exactly why people went, “This is great. I love this. This is confusing. You’ve contradicted yourself here. This doesn’t work in this order.” You just process all of that. It made such a difference when I was actually writing it, that I had my outline of what I needed to do to write each chapter and then I also had the audience’s response of what they wanted from a chapter. It just made a huge difference. That meant throughout the process, when I had an early first draft, I couldn’t be perfectionist about it. I had to write the book beginning to end and in all it’s messy… first draughts are hideous, aren’t they? They just make you shiver with horror.
Alison Jones: They’re a necessary evil though. You have to have them, otherwise you can’t get to the final thing.
Bec Evans: Absolutely, and then sending that out to people.
Alison Jones: Yes, that does take guts, doesn’t it? You must’ve had a bit of a-
Bec Evans: Yes, you really … It was very, very scary. I mean the whole process of writing a book is one of overcoming fear, I would say. It’s one thing going out to beta readers and using … I picked a range of people from the target audience but actually experts because I needed to check stuff and make sure that it was accurate and am I portraying this correctly, but I would say it was even more scary doing the permission side of things, so clearing all the stories. I had about over 30 interviews. Going back to everybody, people that you admire and experts and asking them if you’ve portrayed their story accurately is a very … That was probably the most scary part of it, I would say.
Alison Jones: That’s really interesting. What made that scarier?
Bec Evans: I don’t know. I think it’s that expert feedback because at least with somebody in your target audience, you can go … If they say, “I don’t understand that,” or, “Could you suggest … ” you’re working. That feels very much like feedback. But I was really scared that I would send a story out to an interviewee and they would just go, “No, that’s wrong,” or, “That’s not how it happened.” Nobody did that. Everybody was wonderful. It was again, one of those things that the fear was unfounded, but actually it’s … I think writing a book is working through all of those. I suppose many of them are the psychological barriers.
Alison Jones: Oh, I couldn’t agree more. I think actually you were in the room with me, weren’t you, when I pressed send on putting my whole first draft online…
Bec Evans: Oh, yes.
Alison Jones: I felt sick. I mean it is just the most terrifying feeling, but I couldn’t agree more with you. The feedback you get is gold. It’s absolute gold and people love being involved in these projects. That’s the other thing. When you’re writing a book, you’re doing something that’s really interesting in the world. People, in a sense, they’re not necessarily doing you a favour, it’s just really cool to be involved with somebody who’s doing this stuff.
Bec Evans: Oh absolutely. I’m fascinated by how other people use beta readers. I think it was Guy Kawasaki who spoke on your podcast about his process on that. I’ve just finished reading a book by Jake Knapp who wrote Sprint. His book Make Time, he had 1,700 beta readers and they’re all listed in the back of the book. It’s just like, oh my gosh. I was struggling to manage a list of about 70.
Alison Jones: The network effect really kicks in, doesn’t it, because if 50 different people tell you that this bit isn’t working, then you know it’s damn well not working. You’ve got to change it.
Bec Evans: Yes. I mean I think you have to take every individual piece of feedback seriously. If one person says something’s not working, you have to think, why is that? That was something I really learned is that feedback … People give feedback in different ways. It’s up to you to assess that feedback. You have to sort of evaluate why someone is saying something. For me, that really came home when we were working on the cover. We had about, I think about 12 different covers to start with, with very, very different colour ways. The favourite one was … It was almost like a rainbow from top to bottom, all the colours of the rainbow. I personally didn’t like it because it just felt, I don’t know. I mean that’s the thing with colours is that it’s a very individual take. Then I was thinking, like, but this is the most popular. What is it about this cover that people like? The whole point was that rainbows make people feel happy. There’s something very fundamental about that. It’s not necessarily that, yes, we need to go for a rainbow, but it’s like, ah, it’s the feeling that that set of colours gives people. What else can we do that recreates that?
Alison Jones: How interesting. Tell me a little about the process of the cover. Did you split test those as well when you had that final … I mean how did you go about getting to the design you’ve got, which is gorgeous by the way? I’ll put a picture of it on the show notes…
Bec Evans: I remember you saying, because you were reading a proof copy of it and somebody actually stopped you on the train and said how nice it was, which is one of the most happy-making thing ever.
Alison Jones: That’s right.
Bec Evans: The process, I just worked with the beta readers and also I just printed out copies and asked people I knew just what they thought because there’s something really kind of gut feel about covers. I also took it round a few bookshops and showed them as well. That really mattered because you do need expert feedback. I just literally had a spreadsheet where I just put all the votes in. Whether it was a beta reader, an expert, or somebody I knew … I mean I remember being in a pub and passing around my phone with the covers on and getting people to note which one they like, but it just is really, really helpful.
Alison Jones: It is.
Bec Evans: Then you can just go, “Why is that and what’s going on?” We tallied that all up, but we kind of … Working, having a publisher. I’ve been working with Icon Books and they’ve just been so amazing and open to this whole process. Working with them on the cover and with the cover designer was amazing because that helps you ask those questions and dig into what’s going on and what’s possible. Working with a designer who … There’s a reason why things are done in a certain way. You can’t just go, “I want this in that colour there.” They would go, “Well, that’s not going to work for these reasons.” You need, again, experts to help push you and make sure that you’re not just following the crowd on something.
Alison Jones: Oh absolutely. It’s such a black art, cover design. It really is.
Bec Evans: Yes.
Alison Jones: You get your expertise, you get a designer in there along with the list of who you know, but what really strikes me Bec, throughout this actually, is the complete absence of ego in this. You’re doing the thing, but you’re serving the people from the start. In a sense you put aside what you want to see what works. Were you conscious of that or is that just the way that you approach stuff in general?
Bec Evans: I think that’s the way I try to approach stuff because you’re not always the best person … I mean I am the expert. It’s me pulling together the stories and the approach and what I know. In that sense there’s a huge amount of ego even to say I’ve got enough that I’m going to write a book, but actually a book is designed to be read. You have to put aside this. It’s that classic kill your darlings. There were so many times where I had neat little terms or phrases and little in-jokes that I liked that kept me amused, but actually it’s not going to work. You can do that in the process of drafting and redrafting.
Alison Jones: Yes. It’s such a paradox, isn’t it? As you say, on the one hand it’s the ultimate expression of ego. I’ve written a book, come and read it, but on the other hand you actually say actually, this is not about me, it’s about the reader. Yes, really interesting. I want to come onto the writing as well because obviously Prolifiko is all about writing. You and I have talked before about writing habits and productivity and I’m sure the theory was all wonderful. Did it work like that Bec? Was it absolutely that you just sat down and did everything and it all worked beautifully?
Bec Evans: No, it wasn’t.
Alison Jones: Why did I know you were going to say that? Tell us how it really was.
Bec Evans: It is that thing of taking your own advice. The whole writing process was really one of reflection and figuring out what worked. I would really urge people to do that. I knew all about accountability structures and signing a contract with a publisher, it’s a huge … You having to work to deadline to submit to somebody. It’s incredibly helpful as a structure, but it also gave me the chance to be able to plan out what I could do in that time. I just literally set out what sorts of support structures I thought would help me. One of them was writing in a coworking space, because it’s very hard to write at my desk and run a business. I get interrupted and there’s emails and all sorts of things. Identifying when I could write and then booking a space to go and do that, so I wrote from 8 to 10 every morning in the … It’s Hebden Bridge Town Hall, which is just across the road from where I live, but it was a great kind of coworking space that was very, very quiet.
Alison Jones: With lovely views, I seem to remember, as well. Very inspiring.
Bec Evans: It is a beautiful building. Yes, yes. I thought I had a certain number of days. I set myself a hundred-day challenge to write the whole first draft in a hundred days. I found that I was procrastinating and I didn’t realise I was, because there’s a lot of admin around writing a book. I thought I was keeping myself really busy doing all my book admin and keeping organised. I was like, you can spend the whole time organising your interviews and writing lists, but actually you need to spend this time writing. Reflecting on how I was spending my time made a big difference so I could really make the most of those two hours each day.
Alison Jones: When you look back and unpick that, I mean you must be so used to procrastination and people’s explanations for it. What lay behind that do you think?
Bec Evans: Well, I think … Procrastination is a really … It’s a really fascinating topic and at heart it’s the idea of putting off a difficult task to do something that’s easier. We often think that procrastination is just like watching puppy videos on YouTube and it isn’t. For a lot of people it’s just another task. It can be something that’s quite important. Meetings, emails, running a business, they can still get in the way of you meeting those bigger, complicated goals like writing a book. I think the first thing is to identify that you are using these other activities and then it’s about kind of figuring out how you can allocate the right time and create an environment. I’m a big fan of choice architecture and designing a sort of anti-procrastination environment. That can just be as simple as going somewhere else where you don’t have all those triggers, you don’t have your email, using things like internet blockers. Towards the end I didn’t even take my phone with me to the town hall. If there was an emergency, I mean someone could have run in and got me, but actually just stopping any form of interruption made a big, big difference. Then having accountability structure, so knowing I had the publisher, having the deadlines, having the beta readers, running stuff past them really kept me on track. Those things, I can’t say enough how much difference they make.
Alison Jones: You’re almost treating yourself as a child, aren’t you? In the nicest possible way, this is how you would set things up so a child could learn really, really well. You’re kind of doing that to your future self, aren’t you?
Bec Evans: You are. One thing I talk about is how you use your procrastination activities as a reward. If you know that you kind of get to your desk and you like to have a little play on Twitter, just say, “Actually I’ll save that for after I’ve done … ” Particularly for people who write pomodoros, if they’re writing for 25 minutes and taking a 5 minute break, it’s really good to save your procrastination activities as your reward. Then you start to build that habit. It really does embed it and you start to look forward to rewarding yourself with whatever was distracting you in the first place.
Alison Jones: Yes. It can be, as you say, quite a small thing. You don’t have to … As we said last time, you don’t have to whip out the bottle of champagne every 25 minutes.
Bec Evans: No, no, but because it’s hard you do need to build in those celebrations for milestones. I found that really hard, that I’d often hit a milestone like finishing the first draft or sending out to beta readers or redrafting and then you just kind of feel exhausted and you’re focused on what’s next, what’s next. It’s like, actually no, I really do need to stop and notice that I have achieved this and that’s a good thing.
Alison Jones: I love that. Now I always ask people actually, what are their best tips for first time authors. I mean you must have so many tips that you could give us now. I mean, particularly drawing from your own experience, which is so raw and so recent, what would you say would be the best tip that you could give to somebody listening?
Bec Evans: It is about figuring out what your own process is. Now in all my experience in working with writers in running Prolifiko, we’ve found that people who have systems, however they describe it, are much, much more satisfied with how they write. We recently did some research with academic writers on that and we found that the people who do certain things to help support their writing feel much, much happier with it and it makes such a difference, but again, it goes back to like the innovation principles. You have to experiment with what that looks like and you have to kind of take a moment to reflect on what is and isn’t working and then run another experiment. We’ve done some studies looking at writers over their experience from kind of when they start writing to 25 years of writing and it completely changes. People vary between writing daily to doing scheduled writing to writing on sabbatical. They change when they write in the day, depending on what their pressures are. It’s like you have to accept that it will change and what has worked in the past might not work now.
Alison Jones: Absolutely. It also can change depending on the type of writing you’re doing. There can be more straightforward writing where you’re pulling stuff together that you already know or there can be writing where you’re digging into transcripts and stuff that you don’t, and then there’s the deep, creative, I don’t actually quite know what I think about this so I’m going to write it out. There’s different types of writing and they might respond better to different environments.
Bec Evans: Different environments, and even just simple different times of day. Sometimes people have a time of day where they’ve very, very creative, but then there’s times of days where they … For me, like where I could do my book happening. I don’t do that when I’m in a really good space and feeling very creative. That’s a waste of time for me to suddenly clear a load of emails relating to the book. I need to focus on getting the words on the page and then I save that for later in the day where I’m feeling a bit more tired, I haven’t got the same amount of energy and I don’t need my mind to be working as effectively.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s quite zen-ness, isn’t it? It’s this is sort of knowing yourself through the process of writing your book. I do like that.
Bec Evans: Yes, the mindful writer. Alison Jones: That’s right. There’s your next book title. Obviously Prolifiko supports this because you encourage people to reflect and to notice and to track what works and so on, but I’m guessing if you aren’t using Prolifiko, even just noting it down, even just keeping a kind of reflective journal on your writing is a useful thing to do too.
Bec Evans: Oh absolutely. I mean it just takes not even a minute at the end of a writing session just to figure out what worked well and also what do you want to do next time, because I found that particularly with people who are running their own business or are writing as a hobby or on the side is that getting up to speed on their next writing session can be really, really hard. It’s really helpful just to identify what they’re going to do next. There’s a whole bunch of theories around literally breaking off at the end of the session in the middle of a sentence. Lots of writers do that so they can kind of hit, I can’t think of a metaphor, but hit the ground running, or hit the page writing, to get straight into it because it’s about having open loops in the sense that it’s unfinished business so you’re kind of mulling it over, literally where the end of that sentence is going to go.
Alison Jones: That’s really cool. I’d be very cross though if I had the end of the sentence in my head and then I came back and I’d forgotten it. You just have to trust that the process is going to take you to something better…
Bec Evans: Yes.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. I always ask people as well, Bec, to recommend a book that everybody should read. I mean clearly everybody should read How to Have a Happy Hustle, but apart from that, what book would you recommend? What business book particularly, but, you know, really any book, would you think be interesting to listeners of this podcast?
Bec Evans: I read a lot and very much on that kind of recency bias because I always think the last book I read is the best book I’ve read, but I’m just thinking back to running… being in the kind of startup world that I’ve been in for the last couple of years, there’s one book more than any other that’s been recommended time and time again, which is The Mom Test: How to Talk to Customers and Learn if Your Business is a Good Idea When Everyone is Lying to You, which is by a guy called Rob Fitzpatrick. I’m amazed how often this book gets recommended. I interviewed him for my book, but I’ve also been lucky enough to be a beta reader on his new book, which is called The Workshop Survival Guide. He’s just a great writer, has a really good way of communicating that makes it just feel like you can go out and do stuff and literally The Mom Test has changed so many startups, I know. It’s just brilliant practical advice about going out there and figuring out if your business is a good idea.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. It’s such a great title. I know of the book but I haven’t read it so that’s a great recommendation. Thank you. Bec, if people want to find out more about you, more about Happy Hustle, maybe how to do the dance, they want to find more about Prolifiko, where should they go?
Bec Evans: Prolifiko, go to Prolifiko.com, so that’s P-R-O-L-I-F-I-K-O. We’re also on Twitter @BeProlifiko. For me, I’ve just been working on a book website, which is a new thing for me, and that is HappyHustleBook.com and you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @Eva_Bec.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. I’ll put all those links of course up on the show notes at ExtraordinaryBusinessBooks.com so you can find them all there, along with the transcript for this, because you’re going to want to … save you listening to it 15 times, you can read the transcript and highlight all the brilliant, best bits. Thank you so much Bec. That was absolutely brilliant. There was so much stuff in there. I could have talked to you all day. Thank you.
Bec Evans: Thank you.