August 26, 2017
One October night in 2011, I decided to start a software company. It turned out to be a simple bureaucratic process that involved a few forms and some manageable payments, and a few months later, Wolf Butler Art & Software officially existed. I'd written down that name on the form, because who doesn't want to own an animal company? The concept was that as a "comedy server," its digital infrastructure would automate my income.
When I released my first game, a speed-reading text adventure for Android called Diamond Find, Wolf Butler facilitated a way for me to get paid for the few copies I sold. After that, the other work I produced naturally fell under its imprint. The business continued.
But nothing saw big success. I didn't put enough into marketing. Didn't dream big enough. Didn't have a plan to "scale up."
This became more obvious to me when I started drifting around the edge of the Halifax startup scene, so for a while I executed off-the-wall viral marketing campaigns. Once, I procured actual silver and dropped it in peoples' mailboxes, including hilarious "clues" leading them back to my website. I ordered faux-gold rings from China, engraved with hashtags promoting my badger blog, and gave them away, but only one person ever tweeted about them. I bought banner ads, watching intently as the click-throughs increased, and even saw a few sales. But I was getting pretty broke after buying all the metals so I didn't have a very big ad budget.
Scaling, it seemed, was the goal of every startup I talked to. What would my business look like if I "growth-hacked" it to be an order of magnitude larger? I filled out a Lean Canvas worksheet at the behest of a dubious mentor, and it became clear that my business wasn't filling any immediate customer needs. Except the need for comedy books and software, I guess, but it's hard to make an elegant business case for that in 1/9th of a sheet of printer paper.
But that was fine. I was happy to continue producing comedy, selling only to those who found me at local conventions or met me in person. In fact, I became an expert in NOT scaling. NEXT →
But that time is now over. A startup can't exist in the current ecosystem without scaling up, and I plan to finally make this startup do just that.
August 27, 2017
I've been running a comedy publishing company for almost 6 years now, and it's taught me a thing or two about not scaling a business.
First of all, if you never scale, you won't lose money in any significant way. It's pretty great. I don't have warehouses full of goods I'm unable to sell. Creditors aren't blowing up my phone. It's just a slow trickle to keep it alive, monthly hits of banking fees and a phone bill, plus what it takes to run my servers. It's under a hundred dollars a month, although there are some yearly business admin fees and of course the PO box rental and also taxes.
You can save a lot of money, too. I've released 3 books, one game (multiple times), a CRM, a couple of comic collections & multiple blogs, and NOT ONCE have I had a release party. Think of how much I've saved on wine, not to mention the cost of the venues.
Another great reason not to scale is that your business won't take over your life. You see some startup people with the heavy eyelids and the need to "blow off steam" at the drinking establishment. Don't scale, and these won't be a problem for you. Just go home after work and sleep! Sleep is so good.
An often underrated bonus to not scaling is that, if you're selling your products at conventions and other public exhibitions, people aren't mobbing your table. God! You see some of those tables. It's like, come on. Give the entrepreneur some space. If you keep your business not-scaled, you'll get some well-deserved time to be by yourself. And people do still come by to look.
I must say, I've gotten pretty good at not scaling. But having mastered that particular area of the business world, I think I'm ready for a new challenge. I'm ready to scale this business, and, if you have one of your own, you can follow along at home. Transparency is key.
The first step is to make a pre-scale checklist. NEXT →
August 28, 2017
By now I've decided to scale my startup, rather than the alternative of not-scaling, but before you try it on your own business, ask yourself: "Do I have the raw material I need to scale?". Let me clarify what I mean about "raw material," because it isn't initially clear in the question I want you to ask yourself, out loud.
It seems to me, as someone imminently ready to scale a business, that one needs to have a product in place, or a service, that is currently able to be sold. If you've only got vaporware, and you don't plan on actually delivering, scaling up your business may bilk investors out of money, which is illegal. Be careful — make sure your product exists before officially attempting a scale. You could be jailed.
This product is a seed. I use this botanical metaphor as it is handy for visualizing the growth you want to mimic in the near future. Think of this seed, and envision the plant into which you want it to grow.
Do you see it? Right now? What are you imagining? Is it thick? Does it have flowers? Is it a TREE? Could it survive a few chops with an axe?
I should say right now: if your plant doesn't have built-in defense mechanisms against attackers, you're not thinking about this the right way. Maybe you should re-evaluate your personality.
Speaking of seeds, do you have seed funding? This whole "scaling" thing is going to be a lot easier if you do. Anyway. You need at least some money, and a willingness to spend it.
If you have a product, a clear vision of what you want it to turn into, the mindset to destroy anyone who positions themselves against you, and ideally a bit of money to throw around, you're ready to scale. Let's begin. NEXT →
August 29, 2017
Alright — I've completed the Pre-Scale Checklist, and I'm ready to scale my comedy startup. I've got a number of financially dormant products I can potentially "growth-hack" into the "profitsphere":
A dark comedy novella series revolving around the ancient board game Go. The first book is free to download if you have an account, and physical copies can also be bought and shipped. The second book is available for purchase.
A sci-fi horror comedy crime novel about the role of robots in future Nova Scotian society, and what can happen when there are also ghosts involved. eBooks and physical copies are both available. Full disclosure: this is the one that I most want to succeed. Please buy Ghostcrime.
A massive interactive story and possibly the most comprehensive diamond-finding simulator available. Right now you can play for free without signing up for an account, but if you sign up, it saves your diamonds and you can download them as HD wallpapers. Definitely, definitely scalable.
A bare-bones CRM that keeps track of your contacts and reminds you about your obligations and upcoming tasks. It is free to use, though it does attempt to sell you a digital copy of Ghostcrime, the book for which it was designed as a tie-in. ghostCRM will play an integral role in scaling, as its CRM-like functions will help me manage my customer relations.
A blog about my experiences living with a badger, and what I learned along the way. Currently there's no way to interact with this blog or give me money because of it.
Scaling these may be a challenge, but luckily, I think it can be done.
For the sake of transparency, I've implemented some basic Digital Popularity Indicators, which display a real-time measure of popularity for that product:
For the books, it's purchases, or in the case of the currently-free Snapback Vol.1, digital downloads. For Diamond Find, it's total number of players, and I'm measuring ghostCRM popularity with a straight count of active Assistants. I don't have one for the badger blog, because there's no measurable metric I can use comparable to the other products. If growth-hacked, that will change.
But right now I'm looking to increase the first two: Ghostcrime & Snapback. Those numbers are pitiful!
So how can it be done? Can it be known? Where does one begin?
I have chosen to start by writing business algorithms. NEXT →
August 30, 2017
I'm about to scale up my small comedy startup into a highly-profitable, automated laughter machine, but before I begin, I want to set down some algorithms for the upcoming scale.
Yours will be different than mine, and I'm not even saying mine will work for me in all situations, but I think they're good rules of thumb moving forward.
My algorithms are as follows, and please note that I made them highly PowerPoint-able, in case anyone wants to throw them into a PowerPoint for any reason:
I guess I'm already pretty deep into a blog post, so I might as well break these down a bit.
What's the first question you ask your startup friend? "How's business?"
You should already know. Then you wouldn't be wasting everyone's time with small talk — you'd be adding value to their business. It may seem like I'm berating you here, but this isn't your fault. It's the business owner's responsibility to make that information public.
What's their motivation for keeping performance a secret? Shame? Maybe the sales weren't so good this week, but if it's public, everyone's going to see the awesome spike next week when they do a sick "growth-hack" on them. Including potential investors.
In practice, transparency by default means implementing public real-time dashboards, putting out regular newsletters or blog posts, and open-sourcing your code. (by the way, this whole application is open-sourced here)
Sort of common sense, but even so, it needs codifying as an algorithm. Two features you want to implement? Do the easier one first. Start seeing the benefits.
This is a personal one for me, but maybe also applicable to your business. I've got physical books I can sell, but it's cheaper and easier to distribute them digitally. Whenever given the option of which channel to support, go digital first.
I might make one sale per day, but if I want to scale that up to 100, it's not going to happen in one fell swoop. Smaller, more frequent multipliers will give steadier growth, and are far easier to implement. And they add up.
If you have a system for automatically sending emails to your users when something happens on your site, like I do, always ask yourself when implementing a new feature — what can the auto-mailer do here? Can it email my users about activity on the site? Can it email me about something that I need to do? There's always a job for the auto-mailer.
Now that I've got some basic algorithms in place, I can start to scale up my business. I'm going to start digital-first — adding a multiplier to my eBook store. NEXT →
October 8, 2017
I've got a lot of growth to hack in my comedy startup, but luckily, there's some low-hanging fruit in my eBook store that I can pick off. My profit margin is highest on digital products — and I don't have to do any extra work when one is purchased — so it only makes sense to try to "scale up" these sales numbers first.
Currently people are buying them one at a time, for themselves. Talk about a 1x multiplier!
Today we're going to implement a system where customers can send books as gifts to their friends. As a proof-of-concept, I'm going to set it up so every time someone buys a book, they get an extra copy that they can freely gift.
First I'm going to have to change how books are owned by users with an addition of a FreeGift database object to store the sender/receiver/product information. Luckily, I wrote my eBook store myself, and I know exactly what needs doing for the upgrade.
Unfortunately, I wrote it two years ago! The code is, well, not garbage per se, but it wasn't built with scaling in mind. The silver lining, however, is that it's mostly Ruby, my favourite language of all.
It took a few database migrations, an integration with the devise_invitable gem to invite recipients to create accounts to accept their books, and a new interface to actually do it, but it wasn't too much trouble. If you're following along at home, and you have a dev to do all the technical stuff, just tell them to get it done and give them an arbitrary deadline. They prefer that.
In terms of scaling, though, the best I can rate this is a 2x multiplier. Each book purchase gets a second book out into the world, and it could create a new fan, but it doesn't directly increase revenue.
But now that the application has a gifting mechanic, I can package multiple gifts together and sell those! And if you got the book for free, maybe you'll buy a discounted pack of five to send to your own friends. Please do this.
With some more database modifications, a cart redesign, a store interface overhaul, changes to the receipts, and some extra automated tests to make sure everything's still working, this feature is done:
With all this in the bag, I'm going to rate this as a 5x scale. Rest assured I'm going to be pushing this feature when holiday-time comes around.
But we can't go to sleep just yet — we need a place for the auto-mailer.
If someone has a gift sitting around in their account that they haven't given to anyone, they need to be reminded. Luckily, I've already got an auto-mailer in the app, and with the addition of a daily cron job that checks which gifts are getting stale, a gift nudger is easy to implement:
As an author, you don't want to annoy your readers until they're at least most of the way through one of your books, so obviously, make sure that you don't nudge people too often. I'm doing it just once, a week after the initial purchase.
Now that we've scaled digital distribution a bit, let's move onto physical. I've got boxes of books in my office that are taking up space, and I need to liquidate them. NEXT →
February 28, 2018
I'm scaling my comedy business one piece at a time, and today I'm focusing on "amping up" the physical distribution of my novels.
It's pretty bad right now.
I have PayPal buttons for each book, so buyers can order without creating an account like they'd do for eBook purchases. I'll get an email that one's been purchased, make a label, put it on an envelope (if I even have any that day! This business is a mess), and walk it to the post office. It's nearby, but the whole process is still a pain for a single sale.
Plus, if someone wants to buy, say, Ghostcrime and Snapback together, they have to go to PayPal twice. Ridiculous! And because the user never creates an account, they can't consent to be emailed later for any promo blasts.
There are ways that I can make the fulfillment process less time-consuming — dedicated label printer, etc — but it's still going to be some work for every sale. However, it can be effectively 5-10x less work if I'm selling 5-10 books at once! Libraries and bookstores are going to want multiple copies, so I need an easy way for them to order in bulk.
This is a big task, though, so first I want to overhaul my cart system to allow purchase of both physical and digital books at the same time & remove the one-off PayPal buttons. That way, I get the new user signup no matter what's purchased, and customers who want to support me can buy multiple books at once, including eBooks for themselves and the gift multipacks I introduced in the last scale.
I'll implement this now:
Ah, the shipping fees seem a little high, but the functionality is there now, and I also ordered in some packing materials, ie. good envelopes, tape, bubble wrap and an office-quality labeler, so books can go out fast and arrive looking vaguely professional. As a value-add, I've got some freebies — stickers, bookmarks, etc. — that I can slide into each shipment. Please treat yourself to the full experience by ordering some books.
With the bug in the shipping calculation now fixed, I'm going to tentatively rate this scale a 2x — it improves user experience and my userbase, but it's not so big. The bigger scale, and challenge, is the retailer portal.
It's a significant effort. Here's what I need:
a different version of the sign-up page which accepts ordering information right off the bat,
a different version of the eBook store that optimizes the buying experience for bulk purchasers, including a discount calculator and options for re-ordering in future,
probably a whole new design theme to emphasize the "books" aspect of my both-software-and-books publishing company,
actual knowledge of how libraries and bookstores small and large purchase new books, so I can accommodate them.
This last item is pivotal, so, wearing a novelty foam quail head, I entered the local library and asked if I could speak to...
Ah, that didn't happen, and in fact, I'm not even going to carry out the steps I just described. Seems like a lot of work, and it's focusing too much on the physical distribution, where the returns are higher on the digital side.
Instead, I'm going to tackle something that's much easier in the short-term and requires no extra work per sale — a loyalty program. NEXT →
March 11, 2018
I just got done enhancing my eBook store to sell physical books alongside their digital counterparts, but I've got one more product I want to add: the Lifetime Membership.
I tried the membership model before, years ago, with the Wolf Butler Precious Metals Reserve. The concept was, for just over $10, I would snail-mail you a hand-drawn comic, but there was a possibility you'd receive a real silver coin. I'm still kind of suprised it wasn't successful.
Anyway, now that I have more books published, I don't have to go the expensive precious metals route. The concept of this new one is as follows:
You give me $20, taxes in, and I give you access to all the eBooks I offer, in perpetuity.
Detractors might say that it's not Monthly Recurring Revenue, or that it cashes out a customer's lifetime value immediately. While it's true that it's not a semi-reliable payment every month, like some sort of author-landlord/tenant relationship, it doesn't have to be the last thing the customer ever purchases. They can still buy physical books, or eBook gift packs for their friends, if they're so inclined.
Other detractors might do the math and say, even if you bought digital copies of both eBooks I have for sale, Ghostcrime and Snapback Volume 2 (I already give away Snapback Volume 1 for free on account creation), it'd still only cost five dollars, and that $20 is overcharging!
But I've produced one book a year for the last 3 years, and I plan to continue. You're paying for future output now, making an investment in my creative process. Plus, my thinking here is that by paying a premium, you'll value the purchase more. Maybe you'll keep checking back to see if I'm making good use of your generous contribution.
The alternative is the Patreon model — a smaller donation every month in exchange for a trickle of output. But I don't think it's a good fit for me. Anything small I produce, I make available to everybody, and the paid products are all major works I want to monetize to the fullest extent. Plus, the more transactions there are in total, the more I lose in fees.
Luckily, all of my previously-mentioned detractors are hypothetical strawmen, so without anyone to stop me, I'm going to go ahead and implement Lifetime Memberships, and see if it works. It's not like I have anything else to do tonight.
Development-wise, it's another database table and some backend logic to grant products to lifetime members, plus a new page to advertise it and another cart upgrade. What can I say? I originally designed the cart to hold book-like products, not abstract concepts of loyalty.
Half-way through the cart re-write, the change is proving to be more extensive than I'd anticipated. The current code associates cart items with "Products", ie. books, and since a lifetime membership isn't that, the cart has to work differently to sell them. I have to change the mechanism that adds and removes products, update and re-test the backend price calculation, modify the receipt, etc etc. It's painfully un-scalable.
How I should have designed it was to decouple Books from Products, so the default mechanic of putting Products in the cart would never have to change, but the Product object could be smarter and either have a book associated or something else.
I'm a lot better at database design now than when I first built this system two years ago, so I won't be too hard on myself, but I really should re-write it. Since I'm nearing completion on this effort, though, I'm going to keep pushing forward, but it is technical debt that I'll have to deal with sometime in the future.
Fuck it. It's done:
So now I can push this on social media.
Speaking of social media, I'm really terrible at using it to promote myself. In fact, it may be my biggest barrier to scaling this business. Luckily, it's purely psychological, so next I'm going to destroy whatever it is about myself that's holding me back. NEXT →
May 19, 2018
Last time, I attempted to maximize the value of my existing products by introducing a lifetime membership, but so far I haven't seen an uptick in revenue!
Could it be because I haven't told anyone about it on social media? Or, for that matter, about the existence of ScaleQuail?
It may be my biggest failing as an entrepreneur that I just make things and don't tell anyone. But today I'm going to explore why, and either find convenient psychological work-arounds, or consciously eradicate those aspects of my personality.
If you've never had to do that, you may not be ready for the world of business.
One of the reasons I rarely make noise about my work is because I'm not confident it's good. Obviously, confidence is a big part of entrepreneurial success, so I either need to remove the psychological need to be fully confident in something I'm releasing, or improve the product to the degree that it's undeniably good.
But that's impossible, so realistically, I just have to put it out there and deal with it. The worst part, for me, is the span of time after the post. Will people "like" it? Will they be completely indifferent? The silence of my notifications is unbearable. And because I produced the work myself, the reaction to the work is a reaction to me. The feeling can cut to the bone.
Strategic de-personalization is a technique I've applied before, but I can't recommend it. Blocking out memories and emotions temporarily just so I can promote my books as if they're somebody else's is a slippery slope. We've all known business leaders who've chosen this route, and their cold eyes stay with us long after the meeting is over.
A healthier work-around is to have an automated service make posts without my knowledge. With a pile of content in the hopper, and a system that publishes at random times throughout the day, I can get my information out there without worrying about how I feel about it — or, at least, worrying about it constantly at a low enough level that I eventually tune it out.
Of course there's software that does this. HootSuite is bird-driven, like ScaleQuail, so it's the natural choice. Signed up for a 30-day trial and I'm off and running.
Alright... wow. This is what it must feel like to be an Influencer! Aw, it tells me how to put tracking links into my posts? Nice. And that dashboard. I can target people in specific groups by watching hashtags. This is great. I hope it filters out reaction GIFs.
Now that I can see Twitter from the Content Producer point-of-view, I have all the tools I need to do a professional social media blitz. I may not even need to de-personalize as I drive up my follower count with measured, consumable content.
There's really no excuse for me not to blast you all on Twitter now — unless, of course, I forget about it.
Forget might not be the exact word, but for days at a time I might dive into some new project, or have to catch up on six months of backlogged accounting. It's happened before, and not only for Twitter. Hell, I keep forgetting about my PO box, and I almost never think about my Goodreads account.
This is why I need a general business dashboard, something to keep every active tendril top-of-mind. I would rather do anything but advertise, and there's plenty else to keep me occupied, but if I've got a visualization of all possible business activities, I can see what I'm neglecting, and spread myself out more evenly.
My business tasks generally fall into these categories:
To balance these four needs, I'll create a QAWP Wheel using an old LP:
From here, I use a labeler to apply my tasks in the appropriate areas, then pin the wheel in my work area where it can freely spin.
If you're making one of these for your own business, make sure you put a ScaleQuail sticker in the middle so people know you're serious. Order a book and I'll tuck one inside. Please. Please order books.
Now, when I'm in advertising mode, I can fill my Scheduled Tweets queue full of great content and then safely forget about it for a few days. And maybe I'll finally connect with someone on Goodreads (but still, probably not).
But it's important that I actually do communicate with customers directly instead of just passively blasting my followers. This is one of those tasks that I won't voluntarily do, especially if there are other activities available, but luckily, my trusty auto-mailer is up to the task.
Ideally, if someone downloads a book, I'd send them an email to ask what they thought, and if they'd have time to leave a Goodreads review. I have all the data I need, so if the user has consented to receive emails, I can set up a one-button auto-sender for eligible users in my rickety admin area:
I could automate this even more, but I like the control, and I want to be able to address the user by first name in the email only when I know it's appropriate. A machine may be performing my arduous social tasks, but it still has to feel personal.
There's one more thing I have to do to complete the illusion, though:
Turn off the tracking! Unless you want every link in the email to come out as a nasty mess of parameters, and ruin the personal façade we're trying to create here. It's subtle, but people notice.
Ah, but then I won't be able to track my opens and click-throughs. You think I care who opens the emails I auto-send? What, I'm supposed to A/B test the subject lines? Guess I should have A/B tested every line in my books, too. Make sure I wrote the right things.
With personal, psychologically manageable ways to push out my content, I should hopefully see that "bump" in revenue I've heard so many founders talk about. But if I want to maximize it, I've got one more marketing scale I want to put in place that'll make my efforts at least five times more effective — fusing my site into a revenue monolith. NEXT →
September 23, 2018
Now that I've automated some marketing and patched up a few psychological flaws, I'm almost ready to push products to my network. But there's one more scale I have to implement before I put my life savings into billboard space.
Before, when contemplating a scale to my physical book distribution system, I estimated that shipping five books at once was five times less work, per book, than shipping one by one. Today I'm going to use an inverse of that theory to scale my marketing efforts.
Right now, I have at least 6 "products", or destinations within the website, each with separate marketing strategies and separate audiences. The #SickGoTakedowns hashtag I use to advertise the Snapback series to Go players is approaching its third year, though it may not be relevant to a Ghostcrime reader, who may instead be pulled in with neon ghost/robot art. But if I can attract a customer to the site with the right post, and it's easy to navigate around, they'll explore.
If you have a similar portfolio of disconnected comedy products, this next part will definitely be applicable.
The trick is to think of all the unrelated brands as a single product unified by the web platform. That was always the premise of the company, anyway — a virtual butler who offers up an assortment of curiosities and handles all the financial transactions, so that I'm free to spend summers paragliding instead of indoors on the computer. Each book, blog, or game is just a module of a larger machine, and any effort to market one individually has the effect of marketing the whole.
First, I'm going to analyze my blogs to make sure it's easy to jump from post to post. ScaleQuail has a linear format, and prominent links in the text move forward and backward, so it's fine for now. I Found This Badger, however, needs some love. It's some of my most accessible writing, and a venerable story of human/animal relations, but by default it displays latest posts first. At this stage, I need to accommodate new readers who want to start reading from the beginning.
This is as easy as improvements get, just a link to the posts sorted in reverse:
Next, I'll look at the Wolf Butler blog, which hosts a collection of my older comedy essays, game reviews, and clickbait listicles. It has an Archives page, and posts are related by categories and tags, but no one clicks on those.
A custom recommendation engine is required here. It's a simple build, choosing two posts related by Category or Tag, then a random third for variety:
Getting readers deeper into the blogs is one thing, but to go from free short-form comedy to buying all my books, they need to hop around. I was originally thinking something like the recommendation engine above, kind of an internal ad network, but everyone hates ads, right? That's why you all use ad-blockers? (you should use an ad-blocker)
I opted for a less obtrusive design — a bar along the top of every page that lets you know you're in a sub-area, with an easy way to navigate back to the main page and also space to push the lifetime membership. Please buy a lifetime membership.
Anyway, now that my products are woven together into a multi-faceted revenue-generation monolith, it's time to drive some serious traffic. In true ScaleQuail fashion, I'm going to accomplish this by orchestrating a multi-stage marketing cyclone.
The difference between a cyclone of marketing and the regular kind is about variety. In a traditional marketing campaign, you push one thing with one theme. It may be through different mediums, but it's focused. A marketing cyclone, however, hits the populace with so many different ideas, they'll wonder, with each new ad they see, whether it's also secretly one of yours. A marketing cyclone is loud, unpredictable, and it'll foster in the customer a paranoia that it'll strike again at any moment.
A revenue monolith is perfectly suited to this kind of campaign. But if I've learned anything from the past few months using social media automation, the Hootsuite hopper doesn't fill itself. It's hungry for content, and a well-planned marketing cyclone demands high-quality food. It's time to feed the cyclone with precious metals. NEXT →
Come back in a while to see how it went.