I’ve been running a publishing company for about 12 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), productivity software, comic collections & multiple blogs, and NOT ONCE have I had a release party. Think of how much I’ve saved on venue rentals, not to mention the cost of sparkling wine.
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” with substance abuse. 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, trade shows, 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.
Our first step is to make a pre-scale checklist. NEXT →
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 by “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.
Your product is a seed. I use this botanical metaphor as it’s handy for visualizing the growth you want to mimic in the near future. Think of this seed, and envision the plant you could grow it to be.
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 like an entrepreneur who’s poised to succeed. 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. Practice now by buying yourself a new suit.
In summation, the pre-scale checklist is as follows:
If you have a product, a clear vision of its future, a bit of money to throw around, the mindset to destroy anyone who positions themselves against you, a suit, and an artist you can hire to draw your animal mascot in various outfits, you’re ready to scale. We start immediately. NEXT →
Alright — I’ve completed the Pre-Scale Checklist, so I’m ready to scale my publishing startup. I’ve got a number of financially dormant products I can potentially growth-hack into the profitsphere:
An illustrated adventure revolving around the ancient, extremely popular board game of Go. A digital copy of first book is free to download if you create an account on this site, and the second book is a few dollars. I also have paperbacks taking up space in my work area.
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 paperbacks are both available. Full disclosure: this is the one that I most want to succeed. Please buy Ghostcrime.
Ghostcrime also has a software tie-in. Do you need an inexpensive CRM solution? ghostCRM can keep track of your contacts and reminds you about your various obligations. It’s free, though it does attempt to sell you a digital copy of Ghostcrime.
ghostCRM will play an important role in scaling, as it will save me thousands of dollars in SalesForce licenses.
A massive interactive story and possibly the most comprehensive diamond-finding simulator available. There’s over 85,000 words of text and it’s a roller-coaster of fast-paced diamond-finding adventure.
Right now you can play for free without creating an account, but if you do, it’ll save all the diamonds you’ve found. Definitely, definitely scalable.
A blog about my experiences living with a badger, and what I learned along the way. Currently there’s no way to meaningfully interact with this blog or give me money because of it, but so far it’s hooked some readers who like badgers.
Scaling these may be a challenge, but luckily, I think it can be done.
Let's start by writing business algorithms. NEXT →
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.
Please note that I made these 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. Why don't you?
It may seem like I’m berating you here, but rather it’s the entrepreneur’s responsibility to make that information public. In practice, transparency by default means implementing public real-time dashboards, putting out regular newsletters or blog posts, and open-sourcing your code.
If you had to ask your question, your startup friend obviously hasn't been doing this – and by wasting their time, you harmed their business! I am berating you now.
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 sooner.
It also may help, depending on the kind of person you are, to literally think of each task as a piece of fruit. Which is juicier? This makes it very satisfying to complete tasks. If you have some venture capital lying around, use it to purchase a bowl of high-quality wax fruit to keep in the office as a constant reminder.
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.
Those physical products are just appreciating in value, anyway – they'll become “rare classics” that you can sell for 3x their current value in a few years. As long as you don’t accidentally spill soup on them in the meantime.
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 a consultant comes to you claiming they can give you a 100x scale overnight, take them out for drinks and see what else they lie about.
If you have a system for automatically sending email to your users when something happens on your site, ask yourself when implementing a new feature... what can the auto-mailer do here? Can it email my users about new updates? Can it email me about something that I need to focus on? There’s always a job for the auto-mailer.
If you don’t have one, get that lying consultant back and see if they’ll build one for you – if you can handle having that kind of person in your life.
If you're putting out free content like a blog or podcast, it may start to feel draining to put work into it when there's no paycheck at the end.
As an entrepreneur, you probably have lots of products lying around! Is there some convoluted way to tie your blog post into one of those? That way, your relatively low-effort content still feeds the insatiable profit machine. Remember: If you're vyin' for buy-in, do a tie-in.
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 →
I’ve got a lot of growth to hack in my startup, but luckily, there’s some low-hanging fruit in my eBook store that I can harvest. 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 my eBook store works in terms of product ownership. Luckily, I coded it myself, so I know exactly what needs doing for the upgrade.
Unfortunately, that was two years ago! The code is, well, not garbage per se, but it wasn’t built with this kind of scaling in mind. (ScaleQuail didn’t exist yet)
Well, it took a few database migrations, a third-party library 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 developer for 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. And that is one of the mandates of ScaleQuail.
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 and enjoyed it, maybe you’ll buy a discounted pack of five to send to your own friends. Please do this.
To start, I have to upgrade the front-end shopping cart system. I wrote this a while ago as well, but this time, the code actually is garbage! But, again, if you have a dev working for you, just ask them to layer in the new feature. It shouldn’t be too hard for them.
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 got an existing 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 for your programmer to implement. If they complain, just give them a hoodie with your logo on it.
How often should you nudge your customers? Ideally, you don’t want to annoy your customers until they’re at least most of the way through one of your books. 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 →
I’m scaling my publishing 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’ll get an email that one’s been purchased, then make a label, put it on an envelope (if I even have any that day!), and walk it to the post office in sad solitude. It’s nearby, but the whole process is still painful for a single sale.
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.
The store can currently handle paperbacks along with the eBooks, but only one copy at a time:
Ah, the shipping fees seem a little high, so I’ll fix the bug in the calculation and order in some packing materials, ie. good envelopes, tape, bubble wrap and an office-quality labeler. Now 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.
But selling in bulk requires the addition of a retailer portal. It’s a significant effort. Here’s what I need:
a different version of the sign-up page,
a different version of the eBook store that includes a discount calculator and options for re-ordering in future,
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 do any of those things. Seems like a lot of work, and it’s focusing too much on the physical distribution, where the returns are far 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 →
I just got done enhancing my eBook store to better sell physical books alongside their digital counterparts, but I’ve got one more product I want to add to the store: the Lifetime Membership.
I tried the membership model before, years ago, with the Precious Metals Reserve. The concept was, for around $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 my new membership plan 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 that I can funnel directly to my landlord, it doesn’t have to be the last thing the customer ever purchases. They can still buy a physical book, 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, it’d still only cost five dollars, and that $20 is overcharging!
But this is a lifetime membership. Unless you think I (or you) is to die anytime soon – and if you do, please let me know! – you’re getting an excellent deal. Plus, you’ll be part of the inner circle, and the fact that I’ve put a price on that shouldn’t negate the fact that you can’t put a price on that.
The alternative is the Patreon model — a smaller donation every month in exchange for a trickle of output. But I don’t work like that. Do you want a trickle? If so, say it out loud, right now: “Yes, I want only a trickle.”
Your silence is all the encouragement I need, so I’m going to go ahead and implement a Lifetime Membership, and see if it works out. 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.
Fuck it. It’s done:
So now I can push this on social media – however, my inability to effectively self-promote 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 →
* Since publication, more has been added to the membership package, and this price has increased
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, that’s ridiculous! But the worst part 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, pushing it into the background with thoughts about climate change and armies of flying robot assassins.
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. (UPDATE: it does not)
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 coldly 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 →
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 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 might 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 the original premise of the company anyway — a virtual employee 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. Now we must oil the machine, which sounds disgusting, but it’s necessary.
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 Mirth Turtle blog, which hosts a collection of my older comedy essays, game reviews, and clickbait listicles. The range of topics is broad, so a custom recommendation engine is required here. It’s a simple build, choosing two posts related by Category or Tag, then a random third post for variety. With some new thumbnails to denote category, it’s done:
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 marketing cyclone.
The difference between a cyclone of marketing and the regular kind is 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 debris. NEXT →
After completing the essential step of fusing my content into a single monolith to better coalesce profits, I also committed to blasting out a marketing cyclone. However, I’m going to need sharable content of the highest quality.
We’ll start with a bit of melon-driven marketing. I believe there’s a universal love for large, juicy fruit, but we’ve all seen arguments arise over which type of melon is supreme. To capitalize off this conflict, I’ll build a standalone melon selector:
The user is given a choice of melon, generic enough to project their ideal melon onto, and passes through to a melon takeover of the main website:
It’s the most basic form of content I want to inject into the cyclone — seemingly unrelated to the flagship products, but funneling traffic to them in just a few non-threatening clicks.
I’ve tried this strategy before, most notably with ClamBlog, a blog about clams written by “other people” where I occasionally do an interview about a non-clam-related new product.
All in all, it only ever promoted one thing: a misguided interactive fiction engine I’d built. While that captured no one’s imagination, ClamBlog was a solid marketing idea, suffering, I think, from its inherently disgusting subject matter.
Still, I was right about one thing — there’s demand for interactive fiction. Years ago, I wrote a book about a real estate development company run by cats, and although it arguably sucked, it’s ripe for a playable sequel.
Promising I’d treat myself to a fine bottle of cognac once completed, it came together pretty quickly, and a bit of stuffed animal photography later, it’s ready to go:
This should satisfy the IF crowd, but there’s a new generation of gamers who prefer “idle” games, which run in the background while they go about their other business. Using vivid memories of that time I miserably failed at being a day trader, I’ll build a bare-bones stock market simulation for those craving intermittent financial excitement:
This doesn’t make me any money directly, but it might be a good platform to sell thematically-related products. The marketing cyclone still needs more content, so obviously the course of action now is to produce a gold credit card for the tie-in.
Magnetically encoded with unique jokes, the Comedy Gold lustrecard is the financial instrument of laughter — if you can find a card reader that will actually tell you what’s on it.
Is this not a product that people want? It’s a meta joke about the inaccessability of our own money in a civilization in the stranglehold of corporate technology. Of course it’s a good product. Don’t tell me that I don’t understand capitalism.
I’m not going to sell these outright, but rather use them to shine up the Lifetime Membership package, and raise the price accordingly.
Now that the marketing cyclone is churning with content, we’re almost ready to wreak revenue chaos on the first cohort of pre-customers. However, if we want to optimize our cyclone for maximum devastation, we have to make the debris much heavier.
Let’s start with The Calico Brief above. It’s already a hefty offering, but a completionist may be curious about paths they missed, and a hacker-fan may want to remix it for their own amusement. To satisfy these demands, I’ll release its full story code, 35,000 words of cat workplace adventure. Now that’s content marketing!
Next, let’s upgrade the melon selector. Although the data I’m collecting off the melon clicks could drive further business decisions, the MVP only has one feature, and although it’s iconic and mobile-friendly, a discerning customer expects more from their software experiences. As such, we’ll transform it into a full-blown kitchen management suite:
Now users will get a soothing inventory management system for their pantries and an easy way to plan shops. Oh, do you already have software that solves this problem? That’s right. You don’t. Your food just rots.
Finally, as a bonus for power users who have a Linux-based terminal in their kitchen, I’ll also release a command-line-based integration:
Finally: you can use the melon selector without having to haul out your mobile device while you’re cooking.
Now that our content has some weight to it, our marketing cyclone can hit at peak effectiveness. But if we’re serious about operating a business that runs by itself, so that at some point, we can just leave it alone and go enjoy the outdoors, we’ll need more than just great content.
The final step is to plug our business into an Infinity Drive. NEXT →
Come back soon to see how the next plan hatched.