How humility and honesty brought one start-up founder life-changing publicity.
Long before bloggers were household names, John Lusk, along with his co-author and business partner Kyle Harrison, leveraged their humble company's newsletter into The MouseDriver Chronicles, a New York Times bestselling book. Along the way, they created a supportive community of emotionally attached stakeholders that would be the envy of any social media manager. Here's how they pulled it off.
After graduating from Wharton in the late 1990s, John and Kyle launched a start-up based upon a simple product: a computer mouse shaped like the head of a golf driver. They named their novelty product a "MouseDriver".
The company's newsletter was initially created to share their entrepreneurial journey with a few family and friends. Says John, "I said, 'Hey, listen were going to start writing this newsletter and it's going to highlight our trials and tribulations, our failures and our successes. It's gonna highlight our emotions, our ups and our downs. If you want to be kept informed just send me an email and let me know that you're in, and that was it. And of those 35 people... everybody opted in."
Here's what was in that first newsletter:
We have no income and no venture capital funding. Our inventory is being financed by companies with names like Chase, Citibank, First USA and Capital One. Our office consists of a refrigerator, oven, sink, two desks, a bay window and one very large Texas flag... We're motivated, passionate, excited, terrified and at many times, have absolutely no idea what we are doing. Every hour of the day is filled with constant mood swings and the question of "What the hell are we doing?" enters our minds on a daily basis.
Without realizing it, John and Kyle had begun to build a community of virtual stakeholders who were developing an emotional bond with the company.
To John's surprise, the number of subscribers to the company's newsletter began to quickly grow."Within three months, we had over 500 subscribers and again, you had to send me an email that said,' I'm in.' We weren't marketing the newsletter, it was just out there, sort of growing organically."
In addition to providing a source of emotional support and encouragement, John began to use the newsletter to solicit advice. "The newsletter became sort of a de facto Advisory Board for us. We would send out some of our issues, we would highlight some of the problems and the challenges we were having with MouseDriver and all of a sudden, people would respond. I'm not talking about one or two people responding, we get 10, 15, 20 responses for a particular problem.
The popularity of the company's newsletter soon began to grow--faster than MouseDriver's sales. Per John, "We continue to grow the business and as the newsletter grew, the media kind of picked up on the story as well. The media... wasn't... saying, 'Wow, this is the best product ever and you guys are just killing it.' It was...'Wow, we've heard about your newsletter, and it seems to be motivating and inspiring entrepreneurs around the country. We'd love to talk to you about it.'"
Enter Inc. Magazine
The turning point for John and Kyle was a cover story in Inc. magazine. "February of 2001, Inc. magazine ended up doing a cover story on Kyle and me called, An American Start-Up. Again, the story wasn't about how our product was just knocking it out of the park. It was about our newsletter and how we weren't afraid to put things out there, and to talk about how hard it was to be an entrepreneur.
The Inc. article generated tremendous interest in the newsletter. In the pre-blogging days of 2001, John had to literally send each newsletter out via Outlook, which limited the number of recipients that could be included in each email. As the number of subscribers grew, so did the cost and time committment.
In John's words, "(After the Inc. article) our newsletter completely took off. We went from five thousand subscribers to ten thousand subscribers in less than... six months. We got so many responses we kind of were trying to figure out, 'What do we do with all these people?"
From 10,000 Readers to Bestseller
However, before John and Kyle could fully harness the power of their growing newsletter audience, their focus was drawn to codifying their entrepreneurial experiences in book form. "Once the media picked up on it, every major publishing house... (called) from Time Warner and Harper Collins and Harvard Business Press and Perseus. Saying, 'Hey, we want to pay you to write a book.'
We really wanted to encourage people to do what we had done. You know, despite the fact that we had all these highs and lows, we felt like we had learned so much about ourselves. The 4 years that we spent with MouseDriver, we'd learned... everything we learned in business school and then some, especially around common sense and street smarts and how to read people and these are things that you just don't get from any other corporation and these are things that are going to help you in everyday life."
Not every business will be able to transform its story to a bestseller. Nevertheless, there are a number of community-building lessons entrepreneurs can draw from John and Kyle's experiences:
1. Journalize: Maintaining a journal helps you keep your successes and failures in their proper perspective. It will be invaluable you when it's time to write your own bestseller.
2. Consistency: Communicating with your constituents on a set schedule keeps your community engaged and forces you to create content, even when you feel you don't have time to spare.
3. Vulnerability: Most people tend to be more empathetic, and thus more helpful, when you share your shortcomings and mistakes, along with your triumphs.
4. Ask For Help: Don't be afraid to call upon your community for specific assistance.
5. Speak, Don't Preach: These folks are already believers; don't alienate them by talking "at" them. Rather, write in a conversational style that encourages your fans to add to the discussion.
6. Sales Matter: Although they did many things right, John and Kyle failed to generate significant MouseDriver sales from their community. As John noted at the conclusion of his talk, "The book did help us increase sales... but we could have increased a lot more, had we had the distribution, had I been actually focused on sales like I probably should have been, instead of writing the book."
You can watch/listen to how John and Kyle turned their email newsletter into an international bestseller in this nine-minute excerpt from John's recent talk at UC Santa Barbara.
JOHN GREATHOUSE is a partner at Rincon Venture Partners, an early-stage VC firm. A serial entrepreneur, John led Computer Motion’s $110 million public offering, and the $236 million sale of Expertcity (creator of GoToMeeting) to Citrix. Check out his hands-on start-up advice blog at Infochachkie. Or, follow his start-up oriented Twitter feed, where he promises not to tweet about koala bears or killer burritos.