How is a literary writer like a startup?

Or, why I started this blog

At my new job, I work with a lot of early-stage SaaS companies. SaaS, for those of you who don’t follow startup world, is an acronym for “software as a service” (like Spotify or Dropbox). I write content for the CEOs of these young SaaS startups.

At first I struggled to put myself in their shoes, because I—like most writers, I suspect—ascribe a demi-god like level of worldliness and knowledge to businessmen. These people built revenue-generating businesses out of nothing and I went many tens of thousands of dollars into debt so I could get a degree that means fuck-all. We could not be further apart.

So I was relieved when it turned out that many of these CEOs don’t know what they’re doing. Early-stage startups struggle to get traction. Many have an investor or two in their corner and a small revenue stream, but they’re years away from stability. If they’ve never started a company before, CEOs have a lot of questions. How do I fundraise? Who can get me an introduction to a venture capital firm? Should I hire a VP of whateverthefuck? Am I tracking the right metrics?

Is my product even any good?

These companies are, I realized, the startup equivalents of me and my writing friends. Our questions are not so dissimilar. How do I make money by writing? Who can introduce me to an editor? Where can I best spend my time and resources? Does my Twitter follower count matter?

Is my writing even any good?

The more I read and thought about it, the more similarities I found.

Hey Submittable, free business idea: build in functionality that tells the submitter how far into the document preview a reviewer got. I would kill to have that kind of insight into when I lost an editor’s attention.

 

Being met with thunderous silence is not unique to literary writers

Have you ever signed up for a service online, dinked around with it for fifteen minutes or a few hours, then never used it again? You’re doing the thing that keeps early-stage startup CEOs up at night. “Why can’t we keep users?” they wonder. “I know the product is good. Do these people not care? Do they not recognize quality when they see it?”

Writers know this feeling well. From the constant rejection to the paltry two hearts on your tweet about being published in a good journal, oh man do we know this feeling.

At least SaaS companies have ways to track where and how their users stopped using. Writers don’t get to know if an editor made it past the first page of their story or not. Hey Submittable, free business idea: build in functionality that tells the submitter how far into the document preview a reviewer got. I would kill to have that kind of insight into when I lost an editor’s attention.

 

Startups and writers are both figuring out how to leverage connections

CEOs who don’t know people who know people in VC firms in the Bay Area stand as much chance of getting funded as I do of getting published in the New Yorker. CEOs are forever combing their LinkedIns and their email contacts to figure out who can introduce them to their next investor or partner. Once they do get connected, they start worrying about whether or not they’ll blow the pitch.

Professors throughout my education insisted that the writing world didn’t work like that. That you had a career or didn’t based on the quality of your work alone. I do not know why this is an opinion so commonly held by creating writing professors, but it is total and unmitigated bullshit. Yes, lucky breaks do happen, and talent is a necessity, but any smart writer who’s been hustling for a while knows that a solicitation from an editor (or an offer to vouch for you to an agent, or whatever) is a key. And we, like CEOs, worry about breaking it off in the lock.

 

They're both fucking broke

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At my first startup, the two co-founders didn’t pay themselves a salary for years. They might still not be taking a salary for all I know. They did this because the company wasn’t yet profitable enough. This is totally common in startups, I was surprised to find out.

Even when they’re producing a decent revenue stream, startups are still broke, because growth means recurring expenses like payroll and health insurance, and subscribing to all the software services you need isn’t cheap, and oh my god we’re outgrowing our current office but we can’t afford rent on a bigger one, etc., etc.

Writers are maybe the one group of people who obsess about money as much as startup CEOs. Especially when you’re just out of an MFA, or trying to make it as an adjunct or part-timer, money is scarce. Then there’s that balance we have to strike: take a job at a coffee shop and be broke but still have the mental energy and time to write, or take a nine-to-five, live more comfortably, but write less.

Writers need to learn to hustle like entrepreneurs, because that’s what they are: people trying to make a career out of nothing more than ideas.

Writers and startups are both figuring out how to market themselves

Ask a startup CEO to show you the first few versions of their logo or website. I guarantee you they will groan with embarrassment.

It takes a long time to figure out how to present yourself to potential customers or investors and not make an ass out of yourself, just like it takes a long time to figure out how to write a query letter or work with an editor.

 

What writers can learn from startups

Startups have turned being appealing and getting in front of the right people into a science. It’s called marketing. The more time I spend in marketing departments at startups, the more I’m convinced that writers could benefit from the tools and strategies and mindsets marketers use—if only they knew about them.

The woeful state of practical education for creative writers is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say that most of us are on our own to figure out how to manage our professional lives. Writers need to learn to hustle like entrepreneurs, because that’s what they are: people trying to make a career out of nothing more than ideas.