Thursday, 6 October 2016
On Planning the Writing of the Business of Writing a Business Plan
On Saturday I did an event. I was invited to speak at a cultural evening organised by an economist, and as the audience included people from both business and the arts - and quite a few with backgrounds in both - I gave a talk drawn from my experiences of shuttling between these two worlds. The text of the talk follows below; you can also listen to the presentation (which was recorded on the night) in the linked audio file.
On Planning the Writing of the Business of Writing a Business Plan
I confuse people. It’s my special power. I don’t mean to do it, but I do. I confuse all kinds of people, but the people I confuse most of all are the ones who work in HR, recruitment or executive search.
These people, they’re sitting at their desks, happily minding their own business, putting everything they see into neat little boxes, and then they meet me and they have some kind of fit and have to go and lie down for a while. After that they usually direct my emails to spam.
Why is this? Why do I have this effect on these people? You can give me your suggestions at the end, but I think it’s because I just don’t fit. I don’t fit into the little boxes so beloved of HR people, recruiters, and executive search professionals. And I don’t fit because I refuse to do just one thing.
This started young. As a teenager I loved writing programs for my BBC Micro and wandering through graveyards smoking cigarettes and writing poetry. As a student I studied neurophysiology and designed experiments and read Wittgenstein and had my own band and took a play to the Edinburgh Festival. You could argue that I did too many things and so did none of them very well, and you might be right (the play won Turkey of the Year award). But I wanted to be a writer which meant, as far as I could see, understanding how lots of different human activities fit together to make a whole society. So it made sense to me to dig my hands into as many of these activities as I could.
When the World Wide Web arrived in my early twenties, suddenly this breadth made perfect sense. The web was science and art combined. Technical form and expressive content became inseparable - to quote Marshall McCluhan, the patron saint of the Internet, the medium was the message, in a manner that had never been so completely true before.
I became a technology journalist, evangelising this new realm, and at the same time I became a novelist, writing novels inspired by the changes happening in science and technology around me, and to me and my peers this combination seemed the most natural thing in the world. We were the future, and the future was now.
But then the dotcom bubble burst and things got reconfigured. The creative explosion that had been the web got tamed and funnelled into a handful of major gateways: Google, Facebook, Amazon, eBay, Twitter, LinkedIn. That set a trend that continued through the 2008 recession and the economic stagnation that’s beset the global economy ever since, right into the new growth phase, that of the Internet of Things.
As McCluhan predicted, what has value now is not the content, not the message, but the means of organising and transmitting it - the medium itself. When you summon a car from your phone to take you to the airport, you don’t care if it’s a Seat, a Volvo or a Merc. Because what matters to you, what you pay for, is the fact that it’s an Uber. That’s all that really counts.
And thus science has pushed back on art. The geek inherited the earth, and sought revenge for generations of oppression by subjecting the quality of content to the law of large numbers and rendering it all but irrelevant. What matters now is the engineering efficacy of the delivery mechanism and the scale of that flow, not the detail of that which flows.
Sensitive to this change, which was a pretty inevitable consequence of a system scaling up by an order of magnitude - from 100s of millions of users to billions - I changed too. I left a newspaper industry that was proving itself increasingly incapable of adapting to this new environment, extended various engineering stubs in my educational background - a handy legacy of trying all those different things when I was younger - and dived into the world of start-ups.
All that time, however, I was still writing fiction. Working, in fact, on the book from which I’ve read to you tonight. Now it’s written I’m even publishing it in start-up style - through the crowdfunding publisher Unbound (and yes, I do want you to pledge for it - please take a flyer home with you tonight!).
But when I’m out promoting my book or writing its blog, I don’t really talk about my tech experience, largely because I’ve always been told by agents and publishers and those in the industry that it’s not really relevant. And when I’m job hunting or talking to investors I don’t mention my fiction. Again, largely because I’m continually advised by those pesky recruiters and so on that it will be a distraction, and put people off.
But why? Why should it put people off, in either direction? Why should novel writing and running a business be seen as antithetical? My thesis, the thesis I’m going to put to you tonight, is that they are have more in common than people realise, that experience of one in fact informs, helps and supports experience of the other, and that the habitual denial of this comes down to the simple fact that the triumph of engineering has codified the job market to the point where if you don’t fit into a box that’s been pre-labelled by an abstracted, algorithmic process you cannot get either funding or employment. A job market that, despite calls for evidence of “creativity” and “leadership” on every single job description in reality wants nothing of the sort, and wants instead to make Uber drivers of us all.
But enough of that. As I say, this is a positive postulation, not a negative rant. A thesis, not a critique. So: I put to you the proposal that books and businesses are very alike, and as evidence for this I present exhibit A: the business plan.
I’m guessing that most of you are familiar with this form. The company abstracts, the product descriptions, the unique selling points. Team profiles, total addressable market, target market. Six year financial projections. Growth curves. Competitive analysis. All powerful stuff.
But as Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke famously said, no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and this is as true for the business plan as for the military strategy. Key team members leave (or, in the case of the military, get blown up). Legislation and trade agreements change. Competitors prove to be rather more nimble in anticipating and outflanking you than you anticipated. Legal fees mushroom out of control as you’re hit with a patent infringement suit. Your CFO is found lining his pockets with company funds. Customers spurn your flagship product but flock in great numbers to the thing you built as an afterthought - or they just don’t flock at all.
Random shit happens. And if you put all those possibilities in your business plan, it would be unreadable - not to mention longer than War and Peace. No one wants this. Your employees don’t want it. Your advisors don’t want it. Your investors don’t want it. None of them have time to read it, apart from anything else. What they want most of all from your business plan is a great story. A story that excites them. A story they can believe in. A story that, above all, they can retell to others when they have to justify why the hell they invested in you or allowed themselves to be hired by you. So what is your business plan, really, but one gigantic fiction, a story that will be responsible for convincing people to put their money and/or careers on the line?
And what this story tests, what it provides proof of, is not whether your target market is the size that you say it is or if you are going to hit cashflow breakeven at the end of Year 3 - everyone knows this is all highly unlikely. What it tests is whether or not you can sell.
Because the business plan is a sales pitch. Can you sell your business to investors, partners, employees? Can you sell a story good enough to hook them in? If you can, if you get them to commit their cash and resources, then even if they know nothing else about you and don’t believe a single curve or infographic in whatever document you’ve dropped on their heads, they now know this. They now know that you can sell, because you’ve just sold them on your plan, and that means that whatever else happens - and as we’ve already established, random shit will - you’ve got more than a snowball’s chance in Silicon Valley of selling something to the one person that really matters: the customer.
And it’s the same with writing a book.
Obviously a novel is all about telling a story. That goes without saying. But stories have to be sold before they can be written, and the first person you the writer needs to sell your story to, both investor, employer and employee, is yourself - you have to come up with an idea for which you think it’s worth sacrificing years and years’ worth of other opportunities, of parties and TV watching and quality time with your children, perhaps even your entire career. And you need to understand too, as CEO of the project, that what you’ve sold yourself is just a fiction, a shadow of a story, a plan that must change as reality strikes.
Because the book will change as you write it. The story you start with is not the story with which you’ll end up. Stories are dynamic. Your characters evolve as you write them - as they grow, so do you. As a result they will behave in ways that you cannot anticipate when you begin. And it is absolutely crucial to fiction that you allow this process to happen. If you don’t the story will feel mechanical, the characters and dialogue will feel dead on the page, and the reader will not feel involved in the world of your novel. Which means they’ll be unconvinced, bored, and won’t suspend disbelief. In other words, they won’t “buy it”.
So in its actual writing, writing a novel is like running a business. You have a plan, a great story, but it’s just that. In the execution of that plan, things will change - and the plan has to be flexible enough to allow that. My first novel, Habitus, was written over seven years. I didn’t mean for it to take that long, but it did. My third novel, The Book of Ash, took ten years, if you include the three years I had to take out in the middle to write my second novel, 52 Ways to Magic America, and the entire completed version of the book I had to throw away before I worked out how to get it right.
My fourth novel, Midland has taken another ten. During that time I’ve got married, renovated a house, had two children, seen my father pass away... I’m not the same person I was when I started it. I’ve changed, the book has changed, and the book has changed me as I’ve written it - just as an entrepreneur who builds a successful business is changed by that experience and all that it involves. But because I’ve got better at these things, while my first three books had dozens of plans, plans after plans after plans, Midland had just one plan, sketched out on a single side of A4, that stayed pretty much exactly the same throughout that entire decade.
This journey of personal growth, of self-discovery, is a big part of the reason that we do things. It’s basic empiricism. We experiment and put ourselves in crisis in order to learn, to find out about how the world works and what we’re really made of. Those discoveries will change us - and maybe, if we discover something really big or really resonant or really influential, they’ll change the world a little bit as well. Make a dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs famously said.
I wrote The Book of Ash to discover what I thought about the nuclear industry, in the hope that I could develop some kind of firm opinion about nuclear power (I’m not sure I succeeded in that, although I’m very happy with the book that resulted). I wrote Midland to discover what I thought about my father dying as I became a father myself, in the hope that I could make some kind of map of the challenges of midlife that would help me better tackle these challenges - and perhaps help others tackle them too.
Along the way I hoped to make a living, of course. And in that way writing a novel isn’t just like a business, it IS a business. There is a target market, a real one - different for sci fi, and chick lit, and literary fiction, and historical. Your characters are products - products of the times that you’re writing in, and the time that the book’s set, but also part of the book’s packaging, part of its marketing, part of its sell. They have to feel real and true to their milieu, but also have to appeal to the customer - the reader - who lives very much in the now. Your competitors are not only other novelists but also films, and Facebook and families - all the other calls that your potential reader has on their very valuable and very limited time. You’ve got to give them a damn good reason to ignore all those things and settle down to spend twenty hours or so with you.
So once you’ve pitched the book to yourself and gone and written it, you’ve now got to pitch the result of all that effort to the reader - and it better be a damn good pitch as well, else you’re not going to get very far and your ROI will be nil.
And this is perhaps the biggest challenge in writing, or in running a business. You can’t be one person. You have to be two. You have to be both the producer, the executive, the creator, and in almost the same breath be the salesperson, the marketeer, the evangelist. Even if the first bit is going horribly wrong, the second bit always has to be confident, breezy, solid as hell. This is very hard for writers, most of whom are natural introverts, to do. For entrepreneurs, the challenge is reversed. Natural extroverts, selling is the easy bit for them. Settling down and maintaining the focus to deliver what they’ve promised, that’s what they find really difficult. It’s why so many entrepreneurs get sacked by their own boards once the business is going. And why writers were traditionally locked in back rooms by the film studios.
Thanks largely to the communications revolution you can no longer expect to survive for very long on one half of this equation. Entrepreneurs and CEOs are under the spotlight like never before, constantly having to reinvent themselves and their companies as leaner, fleeter outfits snap at their heels, while writers are expected to market themselves like never before. There is just so much content out there now. Publishers won’t even pull you off their slush piles if your manuscript isn’t accompanied with twenty thousand followers on Twitter or your own YouTube channel. Why should they? Their own business plans have been put into crisis by contact with the Internet, and they can no longer afford to take anything that feels like a risk. Your story is the story that sells them on your book. The book’s story, on its own, is no longer enough.
This is why I find it so mystifying when I’m looking for work or pitching my business that recruiters and investors don’t want to hear about the fact I’m a writer. Because the business of writing is in fact a fantastic training in all the skills needed - both sales and execution - for managing a business at any level. Books are about people, businesses are about people, and the two halves, to my mind at least, make a whole that is very complete.
Having said all that, of course, as we all know the chance of finding success with either book or business is incredibly slim. You have to be crazy to even try and do either. Crazier still to do both. And maybe that’s the real reason I don’t get along with HR people, recruiters, and executive search pros. They do have a box for me after all. Unfortunately, it’s the box labelled “mad”.