Zero to Profitable – LiberWriter Lessons Learned

Here's how I have created the beginnings of a profitable Kindle formatting and conversion service, LiberWriter, from scratch.

Last Winter, I read one of the best business books I have read in a long time, Rob Walling's Start Small, Stay Small:

Rather than being a "big idea" book that includes one big idea and lots of stories to support it, it's a very practical book on how to go about creating a small online business. I've always been someone who loves to build things, from various open source projects, to diverse web sites that people have found valuable.  However, I am not a "business guy".  I'm not that good at making money, so the simple approach in the book is really better for people like me: make something and sell it.  Advertising can certainly work, but it's so much harder to figure out the numbers compared with a product, where you can compare the cost of providing the product to the price people will pay for it.  And that's just one thing; the book has tons of ideas about practical ways of going about putting together a profitable small online business.  It's not a "get rich quick" book – part of the idea is that if you are looking at a niche that is fairly small, it will simply not be of interest to larger companies, so you aren't going to get outspent and outcompeted by them.

In any event, though, at about the same time I read the book, I was poking around looking at Amazon's KDP, which allows you to self publish for the Kindle, and noticing how difficult the process is.  The native format of Amazon's books is HTML with several XML files thrown in for good measure.  Now, for someone technical, that's certainly not an insurmountable obstacle, but for many authors, it's a very unpleasant prospect.  Granted, you can also manipulate a Word file to make it suitable for the KDP, but even that is something that many people dont' find to be a productive use of their time.  They're authors, and they want to write.

Having spotted a niche that looked interesting – I love to read, and I like the idea of helping out authors – I discarded the book idea I was looking at myself and did some writing of my own: source code for a project that would automate the process of converting and formatting Kindle books.

The core of the system was a fun evenings/weekends project, and soon it was able to produce pretty good books.  After "inflicting" the beta version of the system on several people, such as Rich Bowen (thanks again, Rich!), I got it beat into shape and started accepting the first paying customers.  It's very exciting to have those first few people pay for something you made – it's a great feeling!

Initially, my thought was to sell it as a way to write books directly for the Kindle, however, it soon became evident that 99% of people have already written their books with Microsoft Word, so what they were really interested in was a conversion and formatting system that would take a Word document, poke and prod, stitch and stretch it some, and output a nice looking book for the Kindle.

One of the lessons from Rob's book was that stuff doesn't have to be perfect if it works.  Initially, I had people putting their word documents into LiberWriter not with the smooth(ish) upload process we have now, but by cutting and pasting in their documents!  As a computer guy, doing things in a hacky way is sometimes very unpleasant, but you know what?  It worked, and it was easy for people to handle, so I ran with it until a better system was in place.

Writing code was the easy part, and definitely within my "comfort zone".  Some of the other things I've had to do have been much more difficult, and as a consequence, more of a learning experience.

For instance, I realized early on that the process would never be 100% automatic, so I'd have to get some people to work on the books, with the idea being to provide them tools to make the process as simple, quick, and easy as possible.  I'm always on the lookout for new things to script within the system.

However, need people it does, and finding them and engaging them has been a difficult process.  As per the book's suggestion, I've primarily used oDesk to find contractors, and have grardually begun to find some people who work really well. It has taken time, and has not been easy, though.  I'm not an introvert, but in some ways I'm happiest when doing my own thing.  Being the 'boss' is new.  One of the tricky aspects of oDesk is that pretty much any job posting gets tons of responses, some of them from people who appear to have barely read the posting.  One trick I learned is to request that the potential contractor creates an account with LiberWriter.  Very simple and not a waste of time, and yet a majority of applicants ignored the request.

Through most of the spring and summer, LiberWriter remained something strictly for the evenings and weekends, as I was busy with client work during the days, and with my daughter during the afternoons, but as August rolled around, I found some more time on my hands, and really started investing more energy in LiberWriter.  It has been very rewarding to see a corresponding increase in the number of customers.  We (at this point, between myself and the contractors, LiberWriter is a group, and no longer "I") also raised prices – another valuable piece of advice from the book, and… pretty much anyone who writes for people jumping into online businesses.  As tech people, we often tend to aim low in terms of prices.  Indeed, soonish, prices will likely go up again.

Another challenge has been turning it as much as possible into a "productized service".  Since Kindle books are fairly simple in what you can do with them, as long as you don't get too fancy, it's possible to automate *most* things, but not everything, so it's not just a product that people buy and it works and that's that; there's a human element involved, which means more communication, and more potential for things to go off the rails.  I've been investing time in automating the workflow of the system, but have a lot more to do on that front.  Also, one of the things our customers love about the service is being able to deal with "real people", something that is more difficult at Amazon.  That's good for us in one way, but in the future, it will be critical to document things and make them as simple as possible to avoid generating unneccessary support requests, as it can easily take up a lot of time.

Indeed, because LiberWriter does attract customers who are often not all that technical, making the user experience as easy and straightforward for them as possible (and then some) is extremely important.  It can be exasperating once in a while, but I do my best to channel any frustrated energy on my part into making the site ever easier and ever more straightforward.  In other words, instead of "how the heck do they not get that?!" it's "what can I do to make sure the tools and information they need are even easier for them to get?".  There's lots to do on that front, but on the whole it's actually part of the project that I've grown to like a lot.  Rather than dealing with other techies like myself, our customers are people who really benefit from what we offer because we can save them so much time and frustration.

Marketing the system is fun, but another area where I have a lot to learn: I'm not a natural when it comes to marketing or selling.  One thing that has worked well so far is finding forums where your target users hang out, and then…. spam them as often as possible?  No way!  Be yourself, and provide genuine help and value to people in the forums.  By being on the level, and not trying to sell! sell! sell! people are friendlier and more receptive to your message.  It can be time consuming, but I suppose it's the sort of thing where taking the wrong short cut could be very detrimental over the long haul.

Without disclosing too much, I don't think I'll ever get rich from LiberWriter, but it is incredibly satisfying to have created and marketed a product of my own that goes beyond just selling my own time.  LiberWriter doesn't bring in as much as consulting, yet, but it feels like much more of an investment, something that will have some momentum of its own, and of course it has been an incredible learning experience.  I like programming, but being outside of my "comfort zone", doing stuff that's new and challenging is also a very positive part of the project.  If things continue to grow the way they have been, I could envision depending on LiberWriter as my primary source of income in the very near future.  That's a bit of a jump into the unknown in some ways, but I'd love it.  I have worked very hard on it lately, and one of the things I am enjoying is always having new ideas about how to improve every aspect of the system, from customer service to the mechanics of the conversion process, to tracking the finances.  In some ways it's tiring because I'm thinking about it *all* the time, but it's that "good kind of tired".

It's been a tumultous summer, and in the past few weeks we (well, my wife much more than me!) had a new baby boy, and bought a house here in Padova.  To keep things interesting for the future, I applied to the Startup Chile program with LiberWriter.  I suspect they're more interested in startups with high growth potential, but I feel strongly that the approach outlined in Rob's book is one that people outside of Silicon Valley, without easy access to venture capital and the huge talent pool that area has, should consider, rather than trying to copy what makes Silicon Valley work like it does. 

Whether I get accepted or not, LiberWriter will continue to grow, and, I sincerely hope, thrive.  A big thanks to all our customers, and to my wife Ilenia, and children, Helen and Daniel for tollerating all the time I spend with the computer.

I wrestled a bit with writing this post, as I don't want to "jinx things", and I've only just got a small taste of "success", but I've always enjoyed reading about how "ordinary people" have managed to create their own small businesses, people like those behind Balsamiq, "Bingo Card Creator", and the like, and I figure that writing up my own experiences is a way of "paying it forward".

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