My Startup Made 200k In Its First Two Months… And I’m Embarrassed (Asshole To CEO, #4)

It all started with a simple question from a frustrated entrepreneur:

“I want a book, but I don’t have the time to write it, and the normal publishing process is so frustrating. Is there another way to solve my problem? How can I get a book done in a professional way, but not have to deal with all of this?”

She asked me these questions because I am uniquely qualified to answer them. I’m both a writer (I’ve written three #1 NY Times Best Sellers) and an entrepreneur (I started and exited a publishing company that established the current model for many very successful authors, like Hugh Howey’s deal with Simon & Schuster). Because of these two facts, I get some version of this question on a nearly daily basis, and I have a canned answer to quickly get out of these conversations.

I tell people that sitting down to write is not an optional part of the book creation process—in fact, it’s the very point of the process—and that they can’t have something (a book) without doing the work necessary to create it (write it). I usually say it in a disdainful tone, sneering at the laziness of people who presume that books are something they can just “get” without having to do the hard work. I often throw in some version of the “everyone wants to be a star, but no one wants to do the work” quote that Mark Cuban made famous.

Melissa Gonzalez, the entrepreneur who asked me the question, was different. And this was not just some dinner. This was an LDV Entrepreneur Dinner (LDV is an invite-only organization run by Evan Nisselson, that brings together successful entrepreneurs with the stated intent of helping each other). Nonetheless, fully bathing in my writer’s arrogance, I gave her my usual canned speech about “hard work” and “the difficult process being part of the work.” When she rolled her eyes at me, I wondered what I had said that was so bad.

She stopped me and reframed her question:

Melissa “You’re an entrepreneur, right?”
Tucker “Yeah, of course.”
Melissa “I’m an entrepreneur too, and the most important thing I do is solve problems. Can you solve my problem, or just lecture me about hard work?”

This was a straight up call out…and she was exactly right.

I was not talking to some schmoe. This woman knew those lessons—she’d built her own successful business, in an extremely competitive field (retail). Here I was at dinner with 30+ entrepreneurs who are all more successful than me, and I was lecturing one of them about hard work, instead of thinking of a way to solve her problem.

I have seen the embarrassed amateur in the room, and he is me.

I was too flustered to brainstorm a solution in the moment, so I told her that I would think about it, and get in touch.

Because I got called out—and I was so clearly, embarrassingly wrong—I ended up obsessing over her problem for weeks. Which of course got me nowhere. Finding ways to make the publishing process easy is doable, but all I kept coming back to was the fact that there was no way to write a bookwithout putting in the time to write it. The writing is part of the process, that’s why it’s called WRITING a book.

I eventually gave up on finding a solution, and a few days later—after I’d stopped thinking about it, of course—the solution hit me, like a lightning strike:

Is writing really a necessary part of creating books? What if you eliminated writing from the book creation process, what would that look like?

I started unpacking all of this in my head with a little one-man Socratic method:

Q. What is a book?
A. A book is just a collection of thoughts that are expressed in words, and assembled in the form of a finite, defined text.

Q. What purpose do books serve?
A. Books—especially non-fiction books—exist to take a singular, contained idea out of the head of the author, and put it into the head of readers.

Q. What part does writing play in this?
A. Writing thoughts down in words and sentences is the process by which the ideas are put into books.

Q. Are there other ways to get ideas into books?
A. If books exist to transfer ideas from one head to another, AND writing is the way by which people commit their ideas to words to put into books—is there another way to get those thoughts into a book, without writing? How would that happen? Of course there is—talking!!

Q. What if I eliminated writing in favor of talking?
A. If I can find a way for her to talk about her ideas, instead of write her ideas down, could I then give her a finished book? Can Melissa just talk about her ideas instead of writing them down? Of course she can!

I refined the idea in my head, and then called Melissa:

Tucker “What if I told you that I can take you from idea, to a professionally published, completely finished book for sale on Amazon and everywhere else, in about 12 hours of your time—and all you have to do is talk.”
Melissa “I’d say that sounds great, and I want to do it.”

The problem was that I didn’t really have a precise process to do this and, quite honestly, I wasn’t sure this was going to work. But like Melissa said, this is what entrepreneurship is about: solving problems that give people what they want.

So I connected Melissa with a former employee of mine, Zach Obront, and the three of us decided to collaborate on this project, to test it and see what would happen. Here’s the basic step-by-step process we came up with:

  1. Form a book outline: Zach did a few phone calls with Melissa, helped her clarify her book idea and figure out exactly what she wanted to say in her book. From these conversations, he wrote an outline for the book.
  2. Interview her for the content: Zach then scheduled four two-hour calls with Melissa, where he “interviewed” her, using the outline as a guide. He asked her questions until he got all of what she wanted to say, in her words, onto an audio recording.
  3. Transcribe the recordings: He used Speechpad to transcribe the recordings into a text.
  4. “Translate” the transcription to a book manuscript: If you have ever seen a raw audio transcription, you know they are basically unreadable. So we took the transcription and had an editor “translate” it from spoken word to readable book prose. They basically took Melissa’s spoken words and ideas, and made them flow as written sentences and paragraphs.
  5. Did some content/copy edits: Melissa took some time to go over the content and make sure it reflected her thoughts and vision for the book. There was some back and forth getting the edits and voice right, since this was the first time doing this and we were still figuring out the process. And of course, we made sure it had no spelling or grammar errors.
  6. Designed a cover: Because Melissa has an amazing aesthetic, the cover had to look great. This was not a job for 99 Designs. We worked with a world class cover designer (Erin Tyler) to get Melissa a cool cover that looked great and she was proud of.
  7. Did the rest of the professional publishing minutiae: There are a million little things that make the difference between a professional book and a clearly self-published amateur book; internal layout, marketing, blurbs, copyright page, etc. We made sure all of this was perfect.
  8. Published the book: Her book, , is now up for sale.
  9. Ownership: Also, we did the deal such that Melissa owns all the royalties and all the rights to her book. She paid for a service, so unlike with regular publishers, she gets all the credit and all the upside. It’s her book, her credit, her money.

Start to finish, the whole process took about 5 months. As we were working through this process, I told a few people I know about this idea, and all of them loved the idea, said I should do this as a company, and they wanted the same service.

Yeah, yeah, everyone loves every start-up idea until it comes time to pay right?

Except two of them bought packages. Like…with real money…during the call.

A few weeks later, I went on a podcast to talk about a whole different subject. During that podcast, I talked about this idea for 20 minutes, sort of by accident. Off of that single episode, we sold four more packages, which meant six packages sold before we even confirmed to ourselves that we would offer this as a service to customers.

When you are selling a product before you even formally offer it to customers, you’re onto something. That is pretty much the definition of product-market fit.

Zach and I decided to call the company “Book In A Box” and officially started offering the services to customers in August 2014. In the next two months , we did more than 200k in revenue. I had a different publishing services company, and some other side projects I was working on, and I have shelved all of that. Now we focus on Book In A Box full time.

What’s really cool, at least to me, is how excited I am about this company. Not just because it’s making money. Yes, money is great, but in this case the money is only the proof of what matters in a new start-up idea: that you are creating real value for real people, by solving their real problems. It appears that Book In A Box does just that—a lot of people really want a book, but they don’t have the time, ability, or patience to do it the conventional way. We solve their problem.

Not only do we solve their problem, we do it in way that is easier and cheaper than anything else they can do. Take ghostwriting for example. To hire a ghostwriter, you’re going to pay at least 40k (and usually much more for a good one). You have no guarantees of quality or process with them, and they don’t do anything but help you write the book manuscript—no publishing, no marketing, nothing. You have to pay for that separately, from a different company. Our packages range from 15k to 25k—and we doeverything necessary to create a professionally published book, with no work from the author aside from talking.

But as great as this is, you know what my overwhelming emotion is right now, even more than being excited?

I feel embarrassed.

I feel embarrassed because people have been asking the question “How do I get a book” for almost a decade, and my answer that whole time has been some version of elitist sneering at their lack of work ethic. I wasn’t thinking like an entrepreneur, I was thinking like the type of person I always claim to hate—the one who says the status quo is the only way, that you have to do it “the way it’s always been done.”

It’s really embarrassing, at least to me, that it took me this long to see what has been right in front of my face for years. The technology existed to do this from thefirst day I was asked that question, almost a decade ago, and I was too arrogant and fixed in my notions of what a “writer” had to be in order to see it.

But I guess that’s the benefit of being around the type of women and men you meet at the LDV dinners (or any good entrepreneurial event with good people)—smart people help you see your own biases and weaknesses, so you can fix them.

And if you fix your own problem, chances are lots of other people have that same problem, and if you can fix their problem the same way you fixed yours, you provide real value to the world…and that is the best place to start a business.