In this episode I speak to Brant Cooper, author of The Lean Entrepreneur – which was a crowd-funded book – and founder of Moves the Needle, about treating your book as a startup. Brant has some awesome practical examples and advice for business writers on identifying market segments and needs, building a community and testing out content and so much more. We also talk about how illustrations and format choices impact how we approach a book, and how authors can use other channels such as video to grow their readership.
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Brant Cooper who’s the author of The Lean Entrepreneur and the founder of Moves the Needle which is a company bringing lean startup principles and tools and tactics and strategies to bigger businesses to help them move at the speed of startup. Welcome Brant to the Extraordinary Business Book Club.
Brant Cooper: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Alison Jones: It’s really good to have you here. Tell me a little bit about your own lean entrepreneur journey. How did your thinking start and how did it develop into a business and then into a book?
Brant Cooper: Sure. I lived through the dotcom boom and bust of the ‘90s and early 2000s. I was in a number of startups there and experienced some successes and some massive crushing failures as well as some in between. Out of the crash, there was a number of people who were trying to think, number one, why are we building startups like big businesses who often launch products that fail with large amounts of investment and is there a better way for us to build startup companies since, as Steve Blank says, startups are really not small versions of big businesses and what are the process that we can use that will not waste the time and money and energy and resources and creativity that goes into building products that nobody wants.
There’s a number of people that were playing around with these ideas. Steve Blank and a company in Santa Barbara called SyncDev and boy, if you go far enough there’s a Mckinsey group that was doing what they called discovery-driven planning. In the early 2000s or mid-2000s, I started out a marketing service called Sales and Marketing R&D and so that was trying to bring some of the rigour of engineering to the sales and marketing side of the house and part of the question that we’re trying to answer is not just can we build the product but should we build the product.
I was trying to sell that to startups. It wasn’t going very well. They tended to be very opportunistic and once they had received investment, it was really all about scaling regardless of whether they had anything to scale, to tell you the truth. I was blogging about that and somebody said, “Oh, you should go read Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany because he talks about that.” Steve Blank is one of these thought leaders who was lecturing at Berkeley and Columbia and at Stanford, I believe, talking about, “Hey, the way successful entrepreneurs have built startups is by not simply executing on their business plan but by going out and trying to learn and discover what works before scaling before executing.”
That was right when Eric Ries was starting to blog about the lean startup and he had taken Steve Blank’s custom development and married it to agile programming methods that were becoming popular at the time. The product development side, it was this nice elegant loop, feedback loop that you’re getting. Understanding your customer’s needs, building experiments, testing whether you’re getting it right and this infinite loop of what Eric Ries calls build, measure, learn. There was a small group of us that were really bannering this stuff around and trying to come up with practices and testing it and then I wrote the book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development which was a cheat sheet really to the whole lean startup movement.
Then Eric Ries came out with the Lean Startup which really just blew the stuff up and took it mainstream. Then I wrote the Lean Entrepreneur and Eric wrote the foreword to my book and his was sort of the why and mine was the how to and now I’ve been involved in teaching this to companies all over the world. Ironically, we’ve come 180 degrees and now we’re teaching the large enterprises how to act more like startups.
Alison Jones: When I look there is a real synergy and generosity there as well. You and Eric are both obviously very involved in the same sort of space and there’s no sense that somehow you’re in competition with each other, which is the old school thinking. It’s actually you’ve got a complementary approach. You’re looking at the same thing through different lenses and different applications and it’s great that he has written the foreword to your book there. I thought that was a nice touch.
Brant Cooper: Yeah. I mean, he… to me he was full of these insights on how this might apply and so both Steve Blank’s thinking and Eric Ries’ thinking influenced me quite a bit but when Eric really launched the Lean Startup, there really wasn’t the how to inside his book, he did not build out the framework, here is how you can go do it. It really gave the opportunity for others, and I’m not the only one but for others to start building practices out of that. I think that Eric is a real ‘pay it forward’ guy and a community guy and one of these individuals that really think, “Hey, we can change the world if we figure out how to build startups and how to face down uncertainty with experimentation could benefit everybody so why don’t I open this up to the world and allow people to build the best practices that make this stuff work?” Yeah, I think he’s a very generous person and he saw that this could be world changing and it gave people like me the opportunity to jump in there and start putting the practices together that actually make it happen.
Alison Jones: Yes and it’s a good lesson, isn’t it? If you want to do something that’s bigger than a book, if you want to be changing the world and setting up a movement rather than just writing a one-off book then it’s all about collaboration and building on it and working with other people rather than trying to hoard your intellectual property.
Brant Cooper: Yes. Well said. I think there’s a lot of us that have always tried to live that way but I do get a sense that the world has moved a little that way too, probably just from a tipping point that there’s… the younger generations tend to work that way more and I think so we’ve gotten to the point that there’s a momentum and there’s a lot of people that want to work that way. I think that that… again, I think it benefits society on the whole when people are working that way.
Alison Jones: I think it’s a really interesting fundamental shift on how we view, well, intellectual property, I guess, in general. That sense that actually content is not the scarce commodity anymore, attention is. Whereas you might once have held stuff back and expected to be paid to share it to select few, now it’s all about building your platform and getting your ideas out there and owning it and being seen to own it.
Brant Cooper: I agree and I think when it shifts this then it shifts towards value creation, right? It’s not just attention for attention’s sake. It’s attention that goes to those practices or those philosophies that actually provide value and I think that that’s another shift that we’re seeing is businesses, really startups, the whole social impact movement but even just regular old startups and large enterprises even that are shifting away from how do we create wealth to how do we create value. Oh by the way, if you succeed in creating value you also create wealth.
Alison Jones: Yes, that’s so true, isn’t it? It’s a very welcome shift in the world and it’s really interesting to see it playing out. One of the things that really interested me about your book as well is the way that you walked the talk. You didn’t just write the book in a traditional way when you’re talking about getting the feedback and measuring it. You actually did it. In that way, you got it really adapted, you were trying out, you’re beta testing it. Tell me how that process worked.
Brant Cooper: Yes. It’s very true. I think that for authors it’s important to view the endeavour, their book endeavour as a startup. I mean, based upon what their values are and what their objectives are is to think about the book as being a startup and so the first book, my co-author Patrick Vlaskovits and I wrote in 2010, we published it and it was really just as CreateSpace was getting going and the publishing tools were really few and far between but you can even go to custdev.com and we’ve got a landing page that looks like a SaaS, software as a service, landing page with different bundles that you can buy and providing value over and beyond the book.
Speaking engagements or workbooks or enterprise deals or education deals, PowerPoints or any ways to help the buyers to build their business or to further their endeavours and so, even back then, we were doing interviews based upon contacting early adapters and we knew our market segment really well. They were tech startups. We already had access to them and we called them on the phone, we met them in person and talked pricing. The lean entrepreneur was the same thing.
By that time, I was travelling the world and doing workshops and speaking engagements and so I would test out content. I would test out frameworks and my methodology inside the workshops to try to figure out what resonated and how could I get entrepreneurs thinking along a particular way that I thought would expose their assumptions and allow them to develop experiments to test those assumptions. It really was being down there in my market segment, testing, running experiments, trying to figure out what was the right way to construct the next book.
Alison Jones: I love this. This is music to my ears.
Brant Cooper: Yes.
Alison Jones: Yes, and I love as well that that’s very much that kind of segment-focused development that you talked about in the book, isn’t it? Rather than being fixated on a product, on a book for example, it’s looking at actually what’s the whole piece here, what are the other needs of these people that I’m serving and just going where that takes you.
Brant Cooper: Right. Right and it’s based upon not a bit about demographics, right? I didn’t care whether you’re an entrepreneur that was in high school or an entrepreneur that was trying to leave their big corporate job and start on their own or somebody that was even retired. Things like age and gender and income and all of these things actually don’t matter and so the market segment is around people that are having difficulty or trying to figure out how they can better begin a new entrepreneurial endeavour. You find the market segment based upon a shared pain or passion and not around demographics or around a vertical that you’re tackling. I think that once people get that then it helps them go and find the people that they need to talk to in order to do the customer development and learn about what those needs are.
Alison Jones: Yes, and spend time with them. There’s no substitute.
Brant Cooper: Exactly right.
Alison Jones: Just spending time with people, hanging out with them and listening to what they’re saying.
Brant Cooper: Exactly right. It’s funny because I love the way you put that. It’s just hanging out with them and getting to know them. It’s not about going and pitching your idea. It doesn’t have to be laced with formality. It really is just trying to understand them deeply so you can see if there’s actually problems or passions that you can identify and address.
Alison Jones: There’s lots of people obviously that you were talking to that you were seeing how they responded when you were talking and so on. They were unknowing contributors to the book, if you like. They helped shape your thinking and helped you articulate the ideas. What about the people who are actually listed in the book as early adapters, what was their role?
Brant Cooper: Well, so those people are the ones that essentially pre-purchased the book. We ran a crowd funding campaign and so I think that this is… I really think all authors should do that. We ran it on a platform that didn’t require us to reach a certain level for us to get the funds but it’s a great way if you’re… Listen, I mean even our book that went through a traditional publisher, we were still responsible for the marketing and so we wanted to generate pre orders and we wanted to have a little war fund, if you will, to help market during the launch and so a crowd funding campaign is a great way to do that. It’s a great way to test that you’ve got the right messaging and that you’ve got those early evangelists that will be on board when you launch.
Alison Jones: Because there is something magical still, isn’t it, about just being involved in a book, people love that, people love being involved in something that’s exciting, that they like being… having their name in the book. There’s still something really magical about that.
Brant Cooper: Yeah. No. It’s true. That’s fun. That’s fun to be able to have those people on board and contribute and they feel like they were a part of it, and they really were a part of it.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. One of the things that I love about the book as well and it’s a very unusual-looking book. The format is different, it’s landscape and it’s very colourful, and the illustrations are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I want to know who or what is Fake Grimlock.
Brant Cooper: Well, Fake Grimlock is a persona of a real individual who is a real startup person who understands lean startup and was involved fairly early in the lean startup movement. To me, to both Patrick and myself, had an uncanny ability to illustrate the concepts that we were writing about in a simple but powerful way and they were lots of fun.
We wanted the book to be different. We wanted … Alex Osterwalder did the business model canvas in a visual way in the same layout and we liked that a lot and Alex was very successful with his book. We liked that design. We wanted people to be able to open the book and spread it out and make notes. I think often what you need to do when writing about subjects that to some are complex. I mean it requires a lot of, I don’t know, self-awareness to be able to call yourself out on assumptions and to have the discipline to run experiments and to really pull this different mindset out of you. Often, when you’re writing about those types of concepts you need multiple methods to get it to click for people. That’s why we use multiple analogies and we use … and we think that those illustrations help contribute to that thinking. Maybe some people, it clicks with the visual.
Then even the book being in a different format we hope sort of forces people to think a little bit differently. They’re cracking it open with the mindset that they’re not opening an airport business book, that they’re actually opening something that will require a little … I mean it’s not an easy read to tell you the truth.
Alison Jones: It’s not. Actually, it has the feel of a children’s book and that’s what I loved about it. The format is like a children’s picture book. It’s got the colour illustrations. It’s got really… the page is well broken up. It’s multimodal in a sense. It is very engaging. You do look at it. It’s very playful.
Brant Cooper: Right. While being dense at the same time.
Alison Jones: Right. While being incredibly hard to understand at the same time.
Brant Cooper: Maybe that’s …
Alison Jones: You’re not going to give me a name for Fake Grimlock, are you? There’s no name coming here.
Brant Cooper: No, I can’t, I’m sorry. Nope.
Alison Jones: It’s just us, nobody is listening, it’s fine.
Brant Cooper: Yeah. I’ll leave it to your ingenuity. If you can figure it out then you’re the winner.
Alison Jones: I’m disappointed. I was hoping to solve a mystery there. Was that idea about the format, the typography, the colour and so on, was that a Wiley decision or was that an author decision?
Brant Cooper: I actually think that was Patrick Vlaskovits’ decision. I did the heavy lifting on the writing and Patrick was the marketing guy and had a vision around what the feel of the book should be. It was a great partnership in that way and it worked on the first book and it worked on that book as well that you can divide and conquer on those different elements. I don’t think I’m that great visually. I’m happy to have Patrick there to fill in that portion of it.
Alison Jones: Do you know that’s such a common thing and most people who write are by definition word people. It’s so important especially when your book is going to be on a screen at some point. You’re going to be wanting to share and the screen is a postcard metaphor, it’s not a book metaphor anymore. It’s very visual. It’s very about colour and style and design. You need that kind of design expertise coming in, I think. It’s really important.
Brant Cooper: I agree. We started that with the first book and again, it was difficult with the first book because the tools weren’t really there. We had to hire a different designer for the versions that we’re going to appear on screen versus the version that was going to appear in print versus the version that was going to appear on Kindle. All of those required different layouts and different designs because we wanted to optimize the experience for the consumer.
Alison Jones: This of course is a big, big argument in favour of print because any Kindle, it’s an ePub or a mobi file. It just reflows, which is great. It means you can read it on your phone. But it screws up your beautiful page design completely, doesn’t it?
Brant Cooper: Yup, exactly.
Alison Jones: Yeah, it’s a bummer. There is something about the engagement with print on a book like this that just makes you want to own it in print because… it’s fine online, it’s fine as a PDF, but you really want to just be physically opening, and actually engaging with it.
Brant Cooper: Yes, I totally agree. I think that the books that I really love that are go-to-books, I want both because I love the search capability inside the electronic version. If I’m looking for that quote or I’m looking for that exercise or that case study it really is nice to be able to search for it. On the other hand, the print version when you really have to get down and deep the print version I think is second to none.
Alison Jones: Yes, I agree there. They’re not mutually exclusive. They’re complementary forms, I think. I’ve never really got the whole ‘which is better?’ thing. They’re just… they’re different and I love the fact that I can carry all my books around with me everywhere. I love that.
Brant Cooper: I agree. I agree. I think that even going back to the idea of your book being a startup and treating it like a startup, I think the way it’s proving it out, the media, it should be all of the above. I mean frankly the videos that we’ve done and I continue to do with Moves the Needle are also super popular. If I can explain a concept in two or three minutes and then people can read to reinforce it, I mean, I think all of those things help different people at different levels absorb the material. I think it can be … People should think about all of the different media.
There is a case study in the book Brian Clarks’s, I believe, Copyblogger, and he calls it in his realm an entreproducer. The reason why he calls people entreproducers is because they should be producing in a variety of media in order to increase the market size.
Alison Jones: Absolutely. It’s not either or. It’s about having a story for every screen, isn’t it, in every channel?
Brant Cooper: Yup.
Alison Jones: Yes, I love it. Here’s the big question. What one bit of advice would you give to a first time business book author from your perspective?
Brant Cooper: Well, to tell you the truth I think we’ve covered it. I think that most entrepreneurs and I’m going to… again, if we’re going to talk about publishing as being like a startup then publishers should in my view think of themselves as entreproducers or entrepreneurs. Most convince themselves that their market is everyone. Everyone who reads is my target market.
Alison Jones: I hear you. ‘The general reader.’
Brant Cooper: Yeah. As much as I hope for all authors out there that everyone buys their book. It’s highly unlikely and you’re way more successful if you can narrow your market segment down to what I was saying before, people who share the same pain or passion and speak the same language, and by speak the same language I mean that they would refer to each other books, products that address those pains and passions. That doesn’t mean that you can’t go after multiple market segments but we are trying to really focus in on the value that you’re creating. The narrower the market segment the more powerful your writing is and the more powerful the book will be.
Again, if people are really in it for the long haul then you can gear your marketing around that market segment, especially if you’re going to do a crowd funding campaign first. Gear towards that market segment and then start marketing more generally and even if the book is written for those early adopters, it’s written for that narrower market segment, it will still appeal to the adjacent market segments and even the late majority even.
How far your book goes really does depend on how focused the value proposition is and then how widely you can market it.
Alison Jones: That is awesome advice. I feel like standing and cheering. It’s brilliant and you put it so well. All the people… all my clients that I keep telling this to, please listen to him if you won’t listen to me. Fantastic.
Now, I always ask the guest on the podcast if they’d like to suggest someone else. Anybody who’s got something really interesting to say about the business of books and the business of business books in particular, is there anybody you think I should have on the podcast as a guest in the future?
Brant Cooper: Jeremiah Gardner was the co-author I had in my third book, The Lean Brand, and he was the guy that actually did the heavy lifting on the writing side. That was just a year and a half ago. I think he’s got a nice perspective with how you go to market these days with the different options and how can you get through a distributor that’s not just Amazon, for example, and what some of the pitfalls are there. I would recommend Jeremiah Gardner and then also I would recommend my co-author from the first couple of books Patrick Vlaskovits who also has a new book out. I think he would be a great person to have on.
Alison Jones: Do you think he might tell us the identity of Fake Grimlock?
Brant Cooper: No.
Alison Jones: Curses.
Brant Cooper: Yes.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. That was so interesting. Thank you. Now Brant, if people want to find out more about you, more about the Lean Entrepreneur or more about Moves the Needle … it is Moves the Needle, isn’t it?
Brant Cooper: It is Moves the Needle.
Alison Jones: It is Moves the Needle. Where do they need to go?
Brant Cooper: I’m @brantcooper on all social media and people can feel free to reach out to me, Brant, at www.brantcooper.com. Moves the Needle is really about bringing entrepreneurial spirit to large enterprises. If people are interested in that it’s firstname.lastname@example.org or they can go straight to www.movestheneedle.com and learn more about us there.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. I could, honestly, I could spend the rest of the day talking to you. It’s just, it’s so fascinating. Fantastic, thank you so much for your time and I enjoyed it.
Brant Cooper: Yeah, great speaking with you Alison. Again, thank you for having me.