It’s been a while… here’s why

So, it’s been a while since I wrote anything here at

Running a business takes up your time, it turns out! (I know – not news)

But that’s about to change for me – due to some big news:

As of this week, I’ll no longer own the Helpful Book Company – it’s becoming employee owned. I’ll hang around for a couple of weeks for some last handover tasks, then I’ll no longer work there.

After 14 years or so building the company up, it’s quite emotional but I think this is definitely the right thing for the company and for me.

We announced it this morning – and within minutes we had dozens of emails from customers saying good luck – to me and to the company. It’s really nice that our customers care enough to want to reply.

I want to step back and do something new and I don’t want to sell the company to some other organisation that might change the ethos behind it or relocate it away from Cumbria so people have to move or stop working there.

There’s more detail about what’s going on at Helpful Books in this copy of the announcement email.

But what about me? Well, as I say, I’ll have more time to write this blog.

I might even write a series of “What I’ve learnt setting up & growing The Helpful Book Company” articles. And maybe something about the business becoming Employee Owned – why I did it and how it works.

Apart from that, after a bit of a break, I’m planning to go back to University to do a Masters degree in Entrepreneurship.

It seems a bit odd – like it’s the wrong way round. After all, I’ve already set up a successful business. But I’d like to learn more about other businesses and understand a bit more of what makes it all work.

At the very least the experience of that will help me narrow down what’s next. In particular I’m interested in carrying on afterwards to a PhD in some area of entrepreneurship (maybe to do with employee owned companies) and the masters will help me see if that is the right thing for me.

People don’t know why they do things

A big part of marketing is understanding the people you want to be customers, no doubt about it.

Sometimes, that’s easy (maybe you are the target customer). More often it’s hard.

So people use all sorts of techniques… including surveys and questionnaires.

Things like that can be useful – but they’re a lot harder to use than most people realise. And they can lead you up the garden path unless you’re very very careful.

Obviously they can be great for straightforward factual questions (Like “what colour car do you have”). Except where people with a particular answer might be more or less likely to answer – which is often. (For example: “How often do you pig out and eat chocolate all day?” The people who do it a lot are not only likely to bend the truth a little, they’re less likely to answer than people who can honestly say “Never – well, hardly ever”.

But the worst type of these surveys is the type where you ask hypothetical questions. Things like “What features would make you most likely to buy our new gadget?” or “Which of these things would you be most likely to buy?” or even “How much do you feel is a fair price for this who-ja-ma-thing?”

Because people not only don’t know how they’re react until they’re actually in that circumstance, they often don’t know why they acting it a particular way even afterwards.

I was reading the other day about some research done years ago by a chap called Roger Sperry. He did a lot of research on split brains to do with the difference between the left brain and the right brain.

One thing in particular was experiments on people who had had their left and right brains separated by the corpus callosum. One thing they found was that by flashing up instructions that was in the left visual field, so the right side of the brain would process it, then the subject would follow those instructions but not be able to explain why – they simply didn’t know why they’d done it.

Now, obviously most people haven’t had their corpus callosum severed, so it’s not quite the same for most people. But the point is that even not knowing why they followed the instructions, people still followed them. It does show people will do things without knowing why. And it happens a lot more than you might expect.

Time after a time a survey has said people will react in one way to an offer, a new product or whatever and then when it’s excitedly launched, they simply don’t react that way at all.

Incidentally, if you do want to judge how popular various options are, rather than just asking customers, I heard of a clever method. The company had a focus group, showed them all the options and asked which they’d want most and wrote down all the results. Then they ignored those results and instead said “Thanks very much – as a thank you, you can take one of the products we were showing you.” Then they kept track of how many of each product were taken. And the ones that were most popular were not at all the ones people had said they’d most like.

See – people don’t know what they’d choose until they’re actually in the situation.

Why I wish Copeland Council had heard Michael Caine

There’s an old joke – I heard Michael Caine tell it on some TV interview.

He got the interviewer to ask him “What’s the secret of comedy” – and as the interviewer got as far as the word secret, he interupted with “timing”.

I know, I know, you’re not rolling around splitting your sides. It’s better when he does it.

But I wish Copeland council had heard him tell the joke.

I saw an advert on one of their rubbish trucks this morning, saying you could recycle all these types of rubbish from your kitchen.

Then there was a picture of cardboard, paper, various plastic things, tins, wine bottles, jars and so on.

Not a great advert, but I suppose it gets across what you can recycle.

The problem is, though, you can’t. The list of stuff is wrong. You can’t recycle cardboard or any plastics via doorstep recycling here.

Sure, they’re planning to bring it in. But you can’t yet. Maybe next month. Maybe.

If the advert said “Soon, you’ll be able to recycle all this” then fair enough. But instead it just makes them look silly – and makes it confusing for anyone who doesn’t know what’s coming when they eventually get around to letting us recycle this stuff.

Timing is important – don’t say you can do something if you can’t do it for a month or more yet.

And it’s a great example of how no matter how good your advert is, getting the basics right matters.

Four good words that would be better as five

It’s odd how often ideas come when you’re stood in the queue at the shop. That’s what I find, anyway.

And the other day, I noticed a really clever bit of marketing. And a brilliant example of how (despite what some copywriters would have you believe), it really isn’t about the words.

Sure, good words do make a difference. They’re better than badly written stuff.

But it’s what you say that matters more than exactly how you say it.

Anyway, the example was on an advert for Dentastix sticks. They’re a kind of dog chew that apparently cleans the dog’s teeth when they chew it.

So given the job of advertising this, far too many marketers would come up with some nonsense that involved a pun or worse.

The better ones would give some reasons why it’s important for a dog to have clean teeth.

But there’s another way – and their headline was “You brush, they chomp”

It’s clever for a few reasons. First of all, it gets across what the point is really quickly and simply.

But that’s not what’s great about it. What’s great is it also gets you feeling guilty if you don’t buy them for your dog – after all, you wouldn’t not bother too buy toothpaste for you. And it does that without being blatant like saying “You wouldn’t not bother to buy tooothpaste for your children… why not bother about your dog?”

Even better (and I don’t know if this was deliberate) it sets up a time to remember it – if you forget all about the advert, but you have a dog then next time you’re brushing your teeth there’s a good chance you’ll think about it. And even if you didn’t buy it in the first place, there’s a good chance that after a few weeks, you’ll start to think you ought to get some.

Companies like Google, Facebook and so on are masters at this – for example think about how taking a photo on your smartphone is now associated with thinking about whether to share it… All that is very deliberately designed to make using services like Facebook into a habit.

Anyway, I said “4 good words that’d be better as five” – well, the headline is pretty good, but they’ve left out one important word (and I have a horrible feeling I know why).

They really really should have said “You brush, they chomp Dentastix”
That way if you only glance at it and the advert does eventually convince you, you know what the product you want to buy is. Plus it’s well named, so the product name itself helps you know what the point of it is.

Of course, then it wouldn’t scan as nicely. I have a horrible suspicion that’s why they didn’t include it. Far too many people try to make headlines that scan nicely.

Still, it’s some clever marketing. Can you tie use of your product to some event in a similar way?

Would you like a nice cup of scum?

You know when you have a cup of espresso or some other types of black coffee, you get the sort of foamy stuff on top? Crema, they call it if my memory serves me.

Well, it used to be called scum.

Funnily enough, not many people would buy that type of coffee. After all “Would you like plain coffee or the type with scum on top?” – it’s not exactly the greatest sales line, is it.

But then someone realised the name might be holding that type of coffee back, renamed it crema and suddenly it took off.

At least that’s what I read recently. I’m always a bit skeptical of such neat stories – maybe it’s true, maybe someone’s, err, embellished it, to make a better story.

It’s a good illustration, though, of how a simple word can matter. I’m also skeptical of people talking about branding, simply cos so much utter codswallop is talked (and done) in the name of branding (for example: tui – a new name for a holiday company. Crossing the ts, dotting the is and putting u in the middle. And the worst thing is, someone got paid for that…) But how you talk about your product make’s a huge difference.

Selling “crema” rather than “scum”. A “manual” vs a “book”… or vs a “course”. A “razor” or a “shaving system” (personally I’d rather have a razor – I’m not saying changing the name is always an improvement, just that it can matter).

Worth thinking about.

Hear my dulcet tones…

For anyone curious to hear a bit more about my take on marketing books, how I run my business or who just wants to marvel at my odd Cornish-mixed-with-Cumbrian accent, you might like to hear a podcast Paul Teague and I have just done together.

In case you haven’t heard of Paul, he specialises in self-publishing and he runs a podcast interviewing all sorts of people involved in self-publishing. If it’s something you’re doing or thinking of doing you could do worse than setting aside a few hours to listen to some of his “back-catalogue” – there are some really valuable lessons there.

Anyway, the latest episode, with my dulcet tones is here.

Make sure you’re sitting down for this…

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve actually come across a good slogan.

There’s no shortage of awful ones – “For the journey” is a particularly meaningless example but there are also such carbuncles as “Dotting the is and crossing the ts and putting u in the middle” and “Now there’s a thought”.

The most unbelievable thing about that collection is that people got paid for writing them. Sigh.

Anyway, one Christmas present at the Wakeling lair was a gin tasting set – a few different gins and several different tonic waters.

I noticed the slogan for FeverTree tonic: “If 3/4 of your drink is mixer, mix with the best.”

Now, my instant reaction is of course “If 3/4 of your drink is mixer, you need more gin, unless gin IS the mixer.”

But it’s a good slogan – it could actually, you know, change minds and make people think about trying the product. It gets you to stop and think… and might change you from thinking “There’s no point in paying for expensive tonic, it’s the gin that counts” to “That’s true – most of the drink is mixer, so I’ll spoil the gin if I use cheap tonic.”

They get something else right, too – the tonic water is pretty good. Not only that, it’s something people can feel evangelical about… and can even feel a bit superior for choosing. Never a bad thing to let your customers feel superior.

Anyone else got any good slogans? (Or any hilariously bad ones)

Want to publish a book? Do this first…

The other day I was on a podcast with a chap called Paul Teague – it’s a podcast all about self-publishing.  (You’ll have to wait until next year to hear my dulcet tones, though.)

But it set me thinking about my top advice to people who want to publish their own books.

There are all sorts of technical questions, of course.  And there are umpteen different ways you can go about it – from getting 1000 copies of the book printed at the local printer to putting it on Amazon as a Kindle ebook to using something like Amazon’s createspace to print individual copies on demand (or doing what I did when I started – but you’ll have to wait for the podcast to hear about that).

But the most important piece of advice as far as I’m concerned is more basic:

Before you start, make sure you know what you want to publish the book for.

It sounds obvious, but people often don’t think about it.  And there could be all sorts of different reasons.  Maybe you want to try to make a living out of it.  Maybe you just want to earn a little “pocket-money”.  Maybe you want to see the book and pass it to a few friends.  Maybe there’s information you want to share with the world.  Maybe it’s about the pride of being able to say you’ve published a book.  Or if you’re a professional of some kind, maybe it’s about promoting your services (a brilliant idea, by the way: if you’re a lawyer, accountant or you teach Pilates – if your potential client has a choice of two people – you and one other and you’ve had a book published all about whatever it is you do, then they’re far more likely to go with you.  You might even be able to charge higher prices – there’s a thought…)

There are probably a load more possible reasons – but the point is that what you want to achieve affects how you go about it.

If you’re trying to make money from it, you need to be able to sell plenty of copies.  If you’re publishing a book to be a published author, that’s not so important.  If you want to share a story, then publishing everything as ebooks might be fine… but if you want to position yourself as a professional than nothing beats being able to give people a paper copy.

So before you start pressing on with publishing your book, first stop and think what you want to get out of it – and check that the way you’re going about it matches that.

In which I hesitate to say “I told you so”…

I hesitate to say “I told you so”… Oh, dammit, no, I don’t hesitate in the slightest.

“I told you so”. There.

What am I talking about? Facebook.

Now, before any of you social media types get your knickers in a twist, I’m not running down Facebook overall. In fact I’ve only recently published some books on using Facebook – along with an article about why you would want to.

But that’s for individuals. For businesses, it’s rather a different story.

I’m not really talking about Facebook adverts – the way you can target exactly what kind of person you want to display your advert to is pretty impressive. (Though if you’re thinking of spending more than a few quid on it, see if you can track down Ramit Sethi’s article, where he talks about losing $2 million dollars on Facebook adverts – losing, not spending… turns out he could get people to sign up for his newsletter using Facebook but they weren’t people who’d ever buy anything from it.)

No, I’m talking about using Facebook as social media for your business. Where you put posts on your business page, so people can see them and hopefully respond in some way – maybe sharing them so their friends can see them and in turn like your page and eventually some of them might actually, you know, buy something.

It sounds appealing enough – and it’s not totally insane. Just don’t forget to include the cost of your time in doing it all and make sure you really are tracking whether it’s actually generating any sales.

However, if you’ve built your business on this, you might be about to have a nasty shock. (And it’s no good wailing and gnashing your teeth – if you built your whole business around a structure owned by someone else, as Facebook is, then what do you expect.)

It’s all about Slovakia… you do know what’s happening in Slovakia (and a small handful of other countries), don’t you?

Facebook are running a test where business posts don’t get shown to anyone, including people who’ve liked that business, in the news feed. Unless, of course, the business pays to run an advert.

Stop and think how significant that is – if you’ve been depending on “organic reach” or people who’ve liked your page seeing your posts, well, sorry but basically you’re screwed.

And if this is likely to affect you and you’re wondering what to do, well, the simplest answer is get as many of your fans, customers and prospects onto something other than Facebook. You almost certainly should be using email marketing – and you almost certainly should be doing it differently from 99% of businesses that do it.

Getting people’s actual, real world, postal addresses is no bad idea, either, especially if you sell expensive or recurring things. But email is so easy and so cheap to test it’s where I’d start.

Not sure how to do email marketing differently from the 99% of businesses? Well, you won’t go too far wrong looking at what most businesses do and doing the opposite – you should email fairly often, send text emails rather than fancy “designed” ones, speak as a person not a business and so on.

You probably think I’ll now say “But if you want to know more, you should buy my new book, out soon” or something like that. And I would, if had written a book about it. But sadly not.

So if you do want to know more, you’ll do well to get on email lists from people who know what they’re doing (Drayton Bird, Ramit Sethi & Vicky Fraser would be a good starting point) and see how they do it.

And for goodness’ sake don’t start saying “Oh, but they’re doing it wrong, they’d do much better if they only did so and so or stopped doing such and such” unless you’ve actually tried their way and tracked the results.

Heroes: Madam C J Walker

Before I start, compare these two people.
The first one was born to slaves on a plantation in the deep south. She was an orphan at the age of 7 and had to earn her living as a child, having had only 3 months of school – and that was probably pretty limited.

She married at 14 to get away from mistreatment and was widdowed and left without support at 20, with a child to support. This was around the time when black people were being murdered for the terrible crime of using their right to vote.

Here’s the second one:
A multimillionaire – the most successful entrepreneur of her time. Famous – a household name. Feted across the USA, asked to give lectures on political, social and economic issues of the time. Buildings named after her after she died, plays and books written after her.

But (as you might have guessed), the reason I’m writing this is because these are both the same person: Sarah Breedlove, known as Madam C J Walker.

If you want an example of a real hero – someone who dealt with a frankly pretty shitty start in life and coped with everything it threw at her, she’s it.

Not only did she cope with working backbreaking long hours 6 days a week washing clothes just to earn barely enough money to feed herself and her children, but she also started and grew a business at the same time.

There are a few books about her – the one I’ve read is this one, by a descendent of hers. But if you don’t want to take the time to read the book, at least read her wikipedia article.

And next time you hear someone explaining away other people’s success by saying something like “It’s alright for people like you, you had it easy, but it’s different for me,” just ask yourself if they’ve ever heard of Madam Walker… and if they think she had it easy.