Stacking the Bricks Podcast EP43 - Jonathan Stark has Questions About Self Publishing
46 min

In this episode…

I recently joined friend Jonathan Stark on his podcast "Ditching Hourly" where he typically talks about business strategies and best practices for helping freelancers and consultants escape hourly billing. And we talked about that world of business quite a bit, including how people often copy the wrong parts of the successes they've seen.

But as a self-published digital author himself, Jonathan also wanted to grill me on exactly how we launched The Tiny MBA and sold thousands of copies without a publishing deal...and without boxes of books sitting in my basement.

So I indulged him!

In this episode, you're going to hear my answers to Jonathan's questions about:

  • Why we decided to make The Tiny MBA a physical, printed book in the first place
  • How and why we picked our printing and distribution partner (and why it's not Amazon)
  • And Jonathan and I riff on my new "secret weapon" for building pre-launch momentum, and why it created a 90% conversion rate and some of the fastest sales I've ever seen.

I also learned that Jonathan went to music school, and the comparison he draws in the first few moments between learning both business and music through style practices still has me thinking about it weeks later!

I'm excited to see Jonathan ship his first paperback book in the future, and if you're inspired to consider self-publishing a print book, I hope the stories and suggestions in this episode help you too.

WIth that, let's get into my conversation with Jonathan Stark from the Ditching Hourly podcast.


Ready? Here we go.



Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: What is up brick stackers! Welcome back to a brand-new episode of Stacking the Bricks. As always, I’m your host, Alex Hillman and this week you’re going on a journey behind the scenes of the processes, tools, decisions, and more that went into the successful self-publishing launch of The Tiny MBA.

I recently joined my friend Jonathan Stark on his podcast, Ditching Hourly, where he typically talks about the business strategies and best practices for helping freelancers and consultants escape the perils of hourly billing.

We talked about that world of business quite a bit, including how people often copy the wrong parts of the successes that they’ve seen in other people’s businesses. But, as a self-published digital author himself, Jonathan also wanted to grill me on exactly how we launched The Tiny MBA and have sold thousands of copies without a publishing deal, and without boxes of books sitting in my basement.

So, I decided to indulge him.

On this episode, you’re going to hear my answers to Jonathan’s questions about why we decided to make The Tiny MBA a physical printed book in the first place, how and why we picked our printing and distribution partner, and why it’s not Amazon.

Then Jonathan and I riffed on my new secret weapon for building pre-launch momentum and how I translated that momentum into a 90% conversion rate and some of the fastest sales I’ve ever seen.

But one of my favorite moments was when I learned that Jonathan went to music school, and the comparison that he draws in the first few moments of this episode between learning both business and music through style practices truly blew my mind and still has me thinking about it weeks later. So, make sure you pay close attention to that.

I’m excited to see Jonathan ship his first paperback book in the future and if you’re inspired to consider self-publishing a print book, I hope the stories and suggestions in this episode help you too.

With that, let’s get into my conversation with Jonathan Stark, from the Ditching Hourly podcast. Ready? Here we go!

Jonathan Stark: I feel like we’re kind of at the “cow paths” stage of creating a business on the internet, where it’s not like there’s a highway system and there’s well-trodden pathways, so people have a tendency to copy the wrong things from businesses that are fundamentally different.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: That is such a good way to put it. I totally agree.

Jonathan Stark: Yeah. So, when you start to have anecdotes piling up on top of each other and like, okay, here are the common practices that kind of work in this new kind of business. I went to music school and it reminds me of that.

I had one teacher, I think it was an arranging teacher who was saying, “We don’t teach you rules here at Berkeley. We teach you style practices. So, we can’t say that what you’re doing is right or wrong, unless you’re saying you’re trying to sound like John Coltrane. If you’re trying to sound like John Coltrane, you have to do this and that and the other, or you’re not going to sound like him. Or if you want to sound like country, or you want to sound like bebop or jazz or whatever, like there are style practices. There are no rules, but there are style practices.”

So, if you’re going to build a business that’s these new make money online, internet businesses, there are going to be style practices that aren’t going to guarantee success, but if you violate them, if you copy the wrong business and you’re trying to create a country song in sound like John Coltrane, that’s probably not going to work.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: The other piece to that is you may not have any advantages that puts you on a path to sound like John Coltrane. Meanwhile, you do have advantages to sound like either another artist or forget the other artists – just sound like the best version of you.

I feel like that’s a common theme here too, is people are so busy trying to copy what other people do without really knowing what’s going on under the hood, instead of evaluating whatever assets or advantages or strengths they have and going, “Let me use every single advantage I’ve got.”

That’s like one of the earliest lessons in 30x500 – which is our flagship course – which is, we’re not here to teach you the only way to start a business, but we’re teaching you how to examine the advantages that you already have. Pick the ones that are most valuable at the starting line and then for the ones you don’t have, how to build them along the way so that when you get a few steps ahead, you’re not looking around going “Well, shoot, where’s that tool?” and you realize “I can’t get it. I can maybe buy attention through ads, but that’s not the same as earned attention through content or education or a newsletter and things like that.”

So, yeah, I think it’s those two things. It’s evaluate the advantages that you have and then build the ones that you don’t. That’s the theme.

Jonathan Stark: Cool. So, that was 30x500, but let’s switch to the book. So who is the best reader for the book? Who’s the ideal reader?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: The first one is the person who’s broadly interested in business. Maybe they want to start a business of their own, but from the outside, it feels really big and daunting and scary.

Then the second person is the person who has gotten over that fear and is literally somewhere near day one, maybe in the first few days, weeks or months of having started a business.

Then the third, and this is maybe the most surprising, especially after you’ve heard me say this first two, is the person who’s got a business off the ground and things are humming along and they want to return to first principles.

That’s what you were just talking about with your music instructor, where those sort of core practices – or first principles as a way that I’ve heard it described as well – which is it doesn’t matter how experienced you are. You’re going to run into challenges; problems don’t go away in business or life, for that matter. You just trade up; you get new problems.

I think the more complicated problems get, the more people attend to abandon first principles. And so, the third audience is experienced entrepreneurs who want to return to roots and go, “How did I get here again? And what have I maybe forgotten along the way that I would like to return to and maybe evaluate the current situation either for opportunities or problem solve?”

The book is weird because most of the lessons aren’t so much lessons, as prompts or questions or examples, or very short parables to get you thinking. So, my goal with the book is not to give you an answer it’s to give you better questions, to come up with your own better answers.

Jonathan Stark: Right and that was actually my next question, which was the format of the book is very unusual. It’s kind of like a collection of Zen Koans or something, but I think you put it perfectly, it’s kind of like prompts and anecdotes and insights. I mean, I think I read the whole thing in an hour, it’s physically small, it’s cute, illustrated, it’s kind of fun. It’s not intimidating, but still, it really makes you think.

I mean, of course I can only speak for myself, but for me, a lot of the lessons are like, “Oh, that’s a good way to put that. I know that’s true, but that’s a good way to put it.”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: To hear it makes you think is like the highest compliment that I can hear about this book. So thank you for saying it, but ultimately that’s the goal, is I want people who have kind of gotten into a rut with their thinking, where they’re not challenging their own thinking at all.

I could tell you the thing, I know I’ve got a decade of experience telling people things that they don’t listen to in the first place! So instead, I try to get people to come to the conclusion on their own or to observe a conclusion I came to and go, “Oh, okay!”

The other comparison besides the Zen Koans, which some folks have said – and you being from the music world – I didn’t know that about you, by the way. You’re probably familiar with Brian Eno, the electronic music producer?

Jonathan Stark: Card deck. Yeah.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah. So Brian Eno’s card deck of the Oblique Strategies was designed, I mean, a, it’s a deck of cards instead of a book, which frankly The Tiny MBA could be as well – but I don’t know that business people would buy a deck of cards.

That was an intentional choice, but the Oblique Strategies does a similar thing where it’s designed to spark creativity. You can’t tell someone, “Go be creative or be creative in this particular direction.” That’s just not how creativity works. You have to kind of prime the gears in a certain way. And so, Brian Eno did that with prompts that are designed to, I think, spark a combination of lateral thinking or changed perspective and things like that.

I feel like The Tiny MBA sits somewhere between the way Derek Sivers writes his very short essay book.

Jonathan Stark: I was going to say Derek Sivers. It reminds me of Derek too. Yeah.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: And Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. The other thing about this is I don’t think if I sat down to write this book, I could have written this book. This book grew out of a thread on Twitter that started as a challenge to write down essentially 100 lessons, observations and perspectives about a theme.

The theme that I picked was building businesses that are built to last and the response to those 100 tweets, gave me the sort of clue of both writing those tweets in public and seeing the response to it, but then also the endured response to those tweets made me think with the right packaging and with some guidance and framing, the right foreword, the right preface, some additional supplemental recommended reading and ultimately the direction of you don’t have to read the whole Twitter thread in order for one of the tweets to be valuable to you. If I can put that in book form, so you can thumb through it, grab a page or a couple of pages.

I’ve been hearing from folks that say, “I’d open to a random page and the lesson happened to be really relevant to a problem I was dealing with today.” And I was like, it’s kind of like a magic eight ball in that way. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it feels really cool!

So, yeah. I don’t know if this format is replicable without going all the way back to the beginning of the process, which is to have a pretty clear idea of the kinds of challenges and problems that I’ve seen within our audience, and then use the constraints of Twitter to force me to sort of narrow my framing, to even get an idea that maybe it was just longer than 280 characters. It forced me to get it even more concise, even more clear and even more specific. Then that combined with the sort of public feedback loop might generate a similar thing that could be turned into a book down the road, or maybe the next one does need to be a deck of cards or some other format.

But this kind of follows the 30x500 methodology, which is the format comes last. It’s all about knowing who it’s for and knowing enough about them that you can show up for them and help them. That was built into this book before it was even a book.

Jonathan Stark: Right. So how conscious were you – if at all, when you gave yourself that challenge, or did someone give you that challenge? What was going through your mind when you challenged yourself?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I think the interesting thing that I don’t know and I’m curious to explore in the future is, is the environment – if we treat it almost like gardening, right? You can’t make plants grow, but you can create the environment for them to grow, to take a look back and go, “What were the elements of that challenge of the environment that allowed that challenge to happen? And can I present that to somebody else and have it turn into something that can then be packaged either again as a book or something else?”

It doesn’t need to be a book. It’s a fun thought experiment and it fits my own interests as a design thinker too to unpack why something happened in the first place and say, “Well, is that something that we can learn things from? Or if it’s a thing we want to happen, what were the elements that allowed it to happen again?”

There’s a meta lesson in the book about that – not a meta lesson - there’s an explicit lesson in the book about that, where it says if something is working in the business, step back and take the time to evaluate why it’s working and then make sure that the systems that are in place ensure that the thing that’s working keeps working, because so many problems that happen in business aren’t because anything went wrong, but because something that was working was no longer being tended to.

Jonathan Stark: Interesting, just o entropy.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Entropy is a force that actually, we talk about in the Stacking the Bricks universe a lot. Amy has one of my favorite lines of all the things she’s ever written, is that “Starting a business is like picking a fight with entropy.” It will perpetually be trying to pull itself apart and your job is to find the cohesiveness and build the systems that work to counter the entropy.

Anyone who’s been in business knows exactly what I’m talking about, and anyone who has not been in business might think that this sounds a little bit crazy, but this goes back to what I was saying before, the entire world is just problems and once you learn to look at it that way, and don’t treat problems as the worst thing in your day, but as the opportunity to make something better – whether it’s for your customers, your clients, or in your own business, or in your own life.

That sort of inversion is a worldview change and it’s not an easy one, but it’s a critical one. When it’s made, it’s lightening. It lightens a burden that I think a lot of people go through life and work feeling like everything’s going wrong. Instead of looking at the everything’s going wrong and going, “Is there something wrong with the system or is the thing that’s going wrong actually the opportunity being put right in front of me to make something better instead?”

Jonathan Stark: Yeah. The obstacle is the way. Let’s talk about, I’m going to shift gears a little bit and talk about the choices around the physical book and what that experience was like. So, what was the process there?

This is somewhat selfish for me because I’m exploring the idea of doing an actual print book. I’ve got a bunch of self-published eBooks, but I have one coming that would make more sense as a physical book. I’m sure there are listeners who have explored the same ideas.

What was that experience like with you? What can you tell us about surprises or, “Oh, it was brutal. It was easy.”

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah. So I had a pretty strong feeling from the beginning of thinking that this could be a book, that a physical book would be especially meaningful for this product, given that it is this very short thing that I really want folks to come back to often.

So it being visible, and whether it’s on your desk or on your coffee table or on your bookshelf, that it’s something you’re going to see and be reminded of. I love the power of what eBooks have in terms of distribution and not having to transport them when you move. But a physical book takes up space and having a physical book in your space is going to, I think it informs the meaning of the book. Not necessarily the words themselves obviously, but I think you have a different relationship with words on a printed page than you do on a digital one.

Jonathan Stark: It’s a book of prompt and the physical nature of it is itself a prompt.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Exactly. So that was sort of a big part of the driving piece of the decision. The other thing is, is we have a couple of really successful eBooks as well. Amy has got her book around starting and finishing projects, Just Fucking Ship. That’s sold over 10,000, almost 15,000 copies, I think in its lifetime. We’ve talked a bunch of times about what it would be like to have a printed version of that.

So, I also saw this as an opportunity for me to work out the kinks of the process, learn how it goes and if it goes well, now we have the stack of tools and knowledge to publish another printed book.

So once I knew we were heading in this direction, I reached out to a designer, my friend Hannah. One of my favorite conversations that we had about the actual design of the book was when we started looking at covers and she asked me, “What kinds of books are you inspired by? Is there a kind of book that you would like the cover of this one, if they were sitting on a bookshelf next to each other, what do you think would be complimentary?

In my head I had this sort of duality of a very classic business book, because so much of the stuff is learned from timeless business books, things like Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey and so on and so forth. If you look at all of their books on Google Images, they all look kind of like each other. They have a very certain kind of font choice and color style and things like that. So I was interested in kind of leaning that direction, but also because I’m me and because of Stacking the Bricks and because this is sort of meant to buck a trend in business, I almost thought maybe it would be fun to be almost like a parody of that.

And so I was like, “How to Win Friends and Influence People - except the opposite” and she’s like, “Okay…” but somehow found a way to really kind of embody that where the color of the topography and the styling both inside and out, very much a nod, more of a send-up than a parody in a lot of ways and people have responded really, really well.

The other thing was, I knew that I wanted to avoid relying on Amazon for a variety of reasons.

Jonathan Stark: Oh, we’ve got to go there! I’m very anti-Amazon.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So I have presumably all of the same concerns about Amazon and just putting more money into those pockets and so that’s a good reason on its own to not work with Amazon.

The other very, very critical piece – and I think a lot of folks don’t realize when you self-publish with Amazon is when you’re using Amazon’s print on demand fulfilment those customers are not your customers. They are Amazon’s customers. That might sound like splitting hairs, but the important piece here is that means that you don’t own that customer relationship. You can’t do customer support if something goes wrong, to handle things the way you want to handle them.

Some people view that as an advantage. For me I see that as a liability, if something goes wrong, Amazon’s going to handle it the way Amazon wants to handle it, which may not be what I want to do and we actually ran into a very specific situation where even though we didn’t do the print on demand with Amazon, I thought it might be useful to do Kindle, but to go directly into the Amazon Marketplace with a Kindle version.

I was like, all right, so the devil I know, I know what the trade-offs are and for me, the reason to even consider the Kindle version was we care a lot about getting this book in a lot of people’s hands. This is again, first principles, and it might be somebody’s first introduction to thinking about business this way.

So for us to bring our audience to Amazon, and Amazon be a force multiplier through its recommendations, algorithm and the leaderboard, which by the way, worked, but without getting too far into the weeds, we had an issue on launch day where a non-trivial percentage of our customers went to get the book on their Kindle Paperwhite and it got an error that said the book is not available on this device. The reasons or that are more complicated story that doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. The thing that really matters is that the Amazon’s answer to that problem was if the customers want to contact us and request a refund, we’ll issue a refund, but other than that, we’re not doing anything.

That was the moment where I decided to pull the book off Amazon, even though we had sold hundreds of copies on Amazon already and had the potential to sell, who knows, thousands, tens of thousands more. But to know that if something goes wrong, Amazon’s answer is going to be, “We’re not doing anything about it”, that that’s not okay for me.

So that’s the short version of the Kindle story. The good news is that there are now some very good alternatives to Amazon’s print-on-demand. So, I found a company called Lulu that has been around for a while. Lulu has an entire author platform geared towards self-published authors, where you can do everything from upload your files, hire an editor, hire a designer. You could come in with a basic manuscript and hire all of the work out through Lulu. Lulu’s sort of like publisher for hire. That includes having infrastructure to put your book on Amazon, put your book into the Ingram catalog, so it can show up in bookstores and things like that.

But what I found along the way is that under the hood, Lulu has effectively an API, so their software is able to be connected to other software and they actually have a separate service called Lulu Express that is free to sign up for and has a Shopify plugin. Then you install that Shopify plugin into a Shopify store and it basically lets you treat your book like a digital product right up until the moment that somebody clicks order. Then it packages up all the order information and ships it over to Lulu and Lulu handles everything.

They print the book on demand, they package it, they ship it to your customer. And here’s the beautiful part is, is their system is based on distribution centers, printing facilities around the world. So, if you order a book in the US, it’s going to come from one of, I think, two or three shipping locations closest to you to cut down on shipping costs and carbon footprint. But now expand that to a global situation where people are ordering books in Europe and in Asia and in Australia and New Zealand and literally every continent at this point, their system automatically has the book produced in the places that is closest to the customer, which means that I can do international shipping for under eight bucks to anywhere in the world. Which is amazing!

On top of all of this, and this is the most glowing review of any product or service I think I’ve ever used is their customer service has been incredible, which is such a contrast to what I experienced with Amazon.

They’ve helped us work out technical issues. It’s not been without glitches, things are going to go wrong, but everything that has gone wrong in the Lulu production side of the stack, I’ve been so impressed with how they handle things. And for that to be matched with print quality, that if you did not know this was print-on-demand, you certainly wouldn’t guess it, it’s like a million things to think about. Lulu made it all so easy to say, “Look, if all this thing does is sell a few dozen copies, I mean, I’ll be bummed and we’ll have lost money, but at least I don’t have a case of books in my basement.”

Jonathan Stark: Yeah. I mean, to me, Shopify is like Amazon for control freaks.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: That’s great, totally right!

Jonathan Stark: Yeah, which I am!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Same

Jonathan Stark: Yeah. Cool. All right. So I’m just curious, the format of the book is non-standard, that’s not a standard format?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Are you talking about the print size?

Jonathan Stark: Just the size, yeah.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: So the print size is one of the built-in options for Lulu. It was actually one of the reasons that we chose Lulu over – there was like two other options – and I’m honestly blanking on their names. Lulu came out ahead for a bunch of reasons, but I was glad to be able to choose them because of their print format options. They do a bunch of other things, too. They do 12-month calendars – you can upload a bunch of photos and do calendars. They do comic books, which is really cool or coloring books and then is a pocketbook and it is a standard size for them. I couldn’t find it anywhere else, but as soon as I saw those dimensions on the website, and then when we ordered the proof, I was like, this is perfect – I couldn’t have come up with these dimensions on my own and have them be better.

Jonathan Stark: Yeah, I’m surprised it’s not customed. That’s great! I’m aware of Lulu, Blurb is another one, but now with this glowing review, I think Lulu’s the obvious one for me.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: And they do a nice job of providing you with sort of a full tool kit of preparing the book and you download a template file that shows you your edges and your bleed and stuff like that. I will say that it’s print-on-demand, so things might not line up perfectly every single time. It’s not manufacturing precision, but it’s still remarkably good.

The first time we did it, the spine was off by, I don’t know, an eighth of an inch. And so we just adjusted the design so that even if it’s off by an eighth of an inch, it doesn’t look bad.

I think you have to go into it with those kinds of considerations and do the testing. If you do that, you end up with a product that, like I said, we’ve now shipped – one of the things it’s been surprising to me is we’ve actually shipped more print books than any other format. I was expecting print to be in some version of the minority, but we’ve shipped close to 2000 print copies around the world already and it’s been less than three months.

To see them show up with consistent quality, wherever people are receiving them in the world, that was a concern that I had, knowing that they had this sort of like distributed facility thing, what’s quality control going to be like?

Jonathan Stark: Yeah, exactly.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: You know, my US-based ones might be really awesome, but when they get shipped from somewhere, I think like their main warehouse is in Australia that serves a lot of Southeast Asia, something that gets shipped from there, is it going to look as good? Is the quality going to be as good?

Getting pictures from folks around the world holding a copy of the book, by the way, is the coolest experience, but also to see that the quality is consistent with Lulu Express has been really great.

Jonathan Stark: That’s cool. Good to know.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I hope they keep it up!

Jonathan Stark: Yeah, me too. Excellent. So, I mean, this is not your first time at the rodeo in terms of releasing a product or doing marketing or anything like that. So, was there anything about this particular experience? Is this your first physical product?

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah, I mean, I think the fact that we could treat it like a digital product right up until the last moment eased a lot of my concerns. I think what was interesting is we did a pre-order of a physical product, and then did this print-on-demand and fulfillment, which is, I think a kind of unusual combo. Normally people do a pre-order, so they can do a big batch order and then ship them out.

But in order to do that with Lulu, I would lose the ability to sort of ship individual books to folks. So, we did the pre-order essentially inside Shopify and then about a week before release submitted all of those orders up until that day in one big batch. And so, what was interesting about that is because we had that big batch of books get submitted early on, we kind of got to see what all of the kinks look like in the first couple of weeks, because it was sort of like stress testing.

Obviously, the Lulu system was fine. We’re a blip on their radar, but you start seeing the ways that things get lost in the mail, the way that the person doing the packing in the warehouse grabs a giant box instead of a tiny envelope, because that’s what was closest or they ran out of things. Within a few weeks I saw several of the weird things I could come to expect later on and I feel like learning that lesson early on is kind of soothing because we got through it and we have had no refund requests from the print books and really only one refund request from somebody who I think thought they were getting an actual MBA for $7.98 cents. And you know, you can’t make everyone happy!

Jonathan Stark: That’s a lot of money.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah, I know. I mean, in some parts of the world, like, you know, West Virginia, whatever it was! Anyway, you know what I mean? The lesson there is the lesson in all cases, that person’s clearly having a really challenging day and it’s got nothing to do with me and I refunded their money and I said, “I hope your day gets better.”

And that’s it. So, I mean, I think I learned a lot in this. It was really, really fun. The experience, the way people respond to a physical book is different from a digital book as well. You know, I mentioned before people taking pictures of it when it arrives is a thing that I’ve never experienced before and it’s cool and it’s great marketing.

The number of people who recommended the book along with a photo of it, or just recommended the book at all publicly, I think was different with a physical book than with a digital one.

Jonathan Stark: Yeah. There’s more of a relationship there.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah. Given that the barrier to be able to do it is lower than ever before to produce something really great, if you’ve ever done a digital book, I would encourage you to try a print one. This is my two thumbs up, this is worth doing. It’s a really great experience.

The other thing is once you get a taste for the physical book, I think it opens up some interesting doors to start just thinking a little bit differently.

So, we’ve had a lot of success with obviously marketing the books in the past, but I’ve never had somebody reach out and go, “Can I buy copies of this as a gift?” without us prompting the idea. Because physical books make great gifts and people love giving physical books as gifts. If you make your book into a physical book, I think it’s more likely to be gifted, which in terms of a multiplier effect on your book being in the world and helping people, I think that’s a unique advantage of a physical book over a digital book.

It’s also more likely to be shared. You know, “I read this book, it was really good. You can borrow my copy.” It’s technically easier to do that with a digital book, but I think people are more likely to do it with a physical book.

Jonathan Stark: isn’t that funny? I agree.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: The other thing that we did that was, I mentioned our pre-order. I tried something new. Before I let our list know, I let folks know in our more active watering holes. So, you know, chat rooms and forums and places like Indie Hackers, where a lot of our audience hangs out and said, “Hey, we’re working on something new. If you want to be one of the first people to get on the pre-order list, send an email to a separate inbox” that I could tag all the people that were writing into that address and have an extremely warm list of launch day waiting list leads.

What was interesting is I borrowed this idea from when the crew at 37signals launched their email service, Hey. Instead of having an email capture form, they said, “send us an email to, I [email protected] and tell us about whether you love or hate email.”

I was like, that’s so smart because you’re getting their email address because they want the product, but you’re also getting them to talk to you about what they like about email, what they hate about email, but you get their language, you get their emotions and people are emotional about emails.

So I was like, this is brilliant and I thought maybe I can do something similar to that launching The Tiny MBA. Over the course of, I don’t know, about two weeks, I got about 300 people to write in, to be on the pre-order list and many of them wrote more than just, “I want the book”, they wrote a friendly note, something just motivating, like “I’m so excited. I love the podcast, or I love the other products that you’ve done, or I just love your art”.

Whatever it is, just affirmation, which that is really valuable for motivation. Then sometimes it was questions. I’m getting people asking like, “Well, what is this going to be like?” And then I have the ability to answer a specific person and kind of work out that language before I’m writing my sales page.

Super valuable as a practice and then when it became time to actually start taking pre-orders, before I sent an email to our list and before I even tweeted about it, I manually sent an email in reply to each of those 300, it was like 320 people where the bulk of it was a copy paste, like, “Hey, it’s launch day, you can come get the book now”. The opening line or two, if it was someone that I knew personally or knew anything about, it was a personal reply before I shared the sort of copy paste part.

But remember, I thought about importing all those email addresses into ConvertKit and sending it as a blast, and I was like, wait a second. They sent me an email with a subject line that they wrote that I can reply to. So, when I, when I reply, I’m going to skip the marketing filters. I’m going to skip the spam filters. It’s going to show up, reminding them of an email they wrote me, which Gmail or whatever is going to prioritize and that process of replying to an email that they sent me, I saw the fastest rate of conversion, not just the highest rate, not like the percentage of people who I emailed, bought the book, but literally within 45 seconds of getting the email an order came through. It was unreal.

So again, I’d put that in the, I’m not sure exactly what parts of that are replicatable but you sure know, I’m going to study that. We’re going to experiment some more and see what is translatable into other launches, but I think the idea of building a preorder launch list, that is a combination of people who already have bought things from you and are already on your list and things like that.

I think a lot of business folks know that mechanism, but the idea of doing it with an actual inbox where people can write you an email and then you can reply to that when launch day comes, is something that takes a bit of extra effort. So, a lot of people won’t do it or they’ll try to automate it and they’ll ruin the experience along the way.

The truth is, is it took me about an hour a day across three days each. So a total of three hours to respond to all of those emails and the momentum that that generated, I didn’t view that as a sales tool, so much as a momentum generating tool, because those people are the most excited to buy. They’re the ones who, after they buy, they’re going to tweet about it. They’re going to post to Facebook. They’re going to post to LinkedIn. They’re going to tell their friends, without me even asking.

If I even nudge them in that direction, it’s more of a sure deal. So it was sort of like winding as the batter before the ball’s even there, so that I’ve got the most potential energy stored up swing can be as strong and the follow through can be as far reaching as possible.

Jonathan Stark: Yeah, I think there’s a lot to that. If you sign up for something on my site, you know, the thank you page used to, I don’t even remember, I had like a discount for my book or something like that. And now what it does after somebody subscribes for like a free list or something, it asks them a question on the page and has a clickable email of my real email. I don’t know, but I get the sense that there’s two benefits to doing that. One is that, like you said, it’s their subject line in their terms and they really brain dump. The people that, they really brain dump. It’s very personal and I imagine that that is since it’s not something I automated and people are frankly gob smacked half the time when I emailed them back and they’re like this isn’t an automation.

I think there’s a trust building relationship, building thing that happens there. Like I care about, I asked, because I care – I want to know and I think that’s good, but I also wonder if there’s not, like you said, some prioritization in the deliverability, if the person has initiated an email to you before Drip ever sends them anything.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah. I’m fairly certain that if not a prioritization in the technical sense, I think there’s a prioritization in the person’s mind, when you show up as a known sender versus sent as generic something, even if it says Jonathan Stark or Alex Hillman or Amy Hoy or whatever it is, I think the thing with email automation – and I’m a huge fan of email automation, by the way – I think the problem with a lot of email automation is the emails are written for automation and so they feel like automation.

And what you’re doing in one of the lessons in The Tiny MBA is to Flintstone stuff. It’s a slightly different variation of doing things that don’t scale, it’s very intentionally doing things that don’t scale for a very specific reason.

That makes me think of there was something you had tweeted out, you actually replied to something – I was tweeting about how bad I am at SEO and you said, “SEO only matters if you’re just one of many, if you’re the one and only, SEO is irrelevant.” Hearing you describe what you’re describing now makes me think about like, what are the things that you can do that 99.9% of people aren’t going to do that make you stand out? Is that connected to this idea in any way? Or is there more to it?

Jonathan Stark: I’m glad you brought that up because I haven’t really talked about it publicly much and I have friends who are great at SEO and for a lot of businesses, it’s like a huge portion of their income, but that tweet and that thought, or that feeling of mine or belief is predicated on a notion that you’re like someone who creates. You’re a creator. You’re not a big giant company. You’re just putting out valuable stuff into the world. Most of my students are some kind of service provider – probably half of them are solo or small firm software developers, but I’ve got quite a few copywriters and even some photographers and lawyers and architects and things like that. But they’re small firms or soloists who are an expert at some profession.

If somebody is out there searching for an architect – you’ve already lost. You should do the work so that they searched for Alex Hillman. You don’t want them to search for a coworking space. You want him to search for Indy Hall, and it’s very easy to own the search engine rankings for your name. I suppose there are some names that are exceptions to that, but in general, I mean like 90% of the search traffic to my site is for my name. I don’t need to do SEO. I need to be famous. That’s all. So, get famous!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: I mean, famous for the people, for whom we are famous means we’re known as the people who helped them with a thing or can help them with a thing. So what you just said is so interesting because it actually really ties back to what prompted my original tweet was somebody was just testing out a Ahrefs, where you can put in your domain and it tells you what you rank for and stuff like that, and I was like, wow, the first 30 things we rank for are so stupid.

It’s a lot of Stacking the Bricks and our own name and then other things like, “shut up and take my money” and “kick in the ass” and just like other things that are a lot of them are Amy Hoy-isms. But what’s reinforcing to your point, Jonathan, I think is so critical, is I looked at those first 15 or 20 things that we rank for being like, all we rank for is our own name – I’m so bad at SEO.

What you turned it around and said – and this is honestly the best answer that I got from anyone that I talked to you about this – is that’s actually great because people are searching, Stacking the Bricks. If people weren’t searching Stacking the Bricks, that would be a problem. But for us to have a business sustaining amount of traffic coming from people actively searching us out, we own a category that we exist in, which is not the same as creating a new business category, but it’s the difference between being known as a person who does a thing, versus the person who does this thing really well.

Jonathan Stark: Exactly. The go-to person for something. Usually when I say get famous, I’m talking about being a big fish in a small pond. We’re not talking about Kardashian famous – there’s too much surgery involved – all you have to do – all you have to do, like it’s easy – but it’s not complicated, easy and simple are two different things.

It’s simple, conceptually, to pick a group of people – nobody wants to do that, but you should – pick a group of people who you want to help. However you segment that population, demographic, psychographic, whatever, vertical, it doesn’t matter. Just pick a segment of people who you’re very well suited to help, like you were saying earlier. Pick a superpower and say, “Hey, who do I want to help with my superpower?” And then find their expensive problems and say, “Hey, I can solve your expensive problems.” Those birds of a feather are going to be hanging around in places online.

I mean, this is singing your song like Sales Safari, find out what their pains are and become well-known. How do you become well known to that group? You go there and help them, and you do it for free as much as you can; help people for free in the small pond, as much as you can at scale. So, you know, for me, it’s a daily mailing list, it’s a bunch of free stuff. Tons of podcasts. I answer questions in Slack rooms, all over the place, and it’s all revolves around a central theme. It’s all around ditching hourly. That’s the central theme. Stop trading time for money because you’ll never get anywhere doing that.

So I become known as the ditching hourly guy, even if people don’t search for my name, if you search for the ditching hourly guy, the first five pages of results are me. I don’t think SEO is irrelevant to everyone, I’m not trying to say that. If you’re a locksmith, you better damn well have good SEO, but it’s a pure positioning play. Position yourself as something laser-focused that people care about and help them get what they want, and they’re going to remember you.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Everything you just described happens to be one of my favorite lessons in The Tiny MBA, which is that audience building and self-promotion often get conflated with the worst aspects of self-promotion that people are overexposed to. They don’t want to be bad self-promoters, but they think that all self-promoting is bad self-promotion, when in fact, the way I reframe it, is that if people thought of audience building as earning trust at scale, everything you just described, doing it in a sustained and durable way, building systems around it, whether the systems are a combination of automation or just your own sustainable processes.

Jonathan Stark: Checklists, whatever.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Whatever it is, helping people at scale is the most reliable path to audience building for the average person who doesn’t have built in advantages of being a Kardashian or something like that.

It’s a different kind of fame and in fact, I think it’s in a lot of ways, not only is it attainable, I think it’s more broadly useful. One of the ways that we talk about it within 30x500 is if you have the ability to get paid hourly, to do a skill – which is again where most people start, but they want to get out of – then one of the best things you can do is start looking for ways to show other people that you’re good at that skill.

That means helping people in public so that people know that you’re good at that skill, so they could consider working with you in other capacities. Once you have the audience – and even a very small audience – you can start getting more creative in a way from the hourly billing and into packages or productized services or full on into products and platforms.

Jonathan Stark: Yeah, 100%. Yeah. I mean, we are thoroughly on the same page on all that stuff.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: Yeah. It’s cool to hear. It’s always fun and genuinely great to spend time with people who are on the same page with that about because again, going back to sort of why The Tiny MBA exists and why all the Stacking the Bricks stuff exists, and it sounds like why all of your stuff exists is because thinking about your cow path analogy, I think it’s a really good one where it’s like, people want this. It’s 2020, we’re recording now in the middle of October, 2020, there are way more people that wouldn’t have considered some version of entrepreneurship, and now we’re being forced into it because the job market has been obliterated by the pandemic and all kinds of things happening in the economy.

I look back at all the things entrepreneurial that happened after the 2007/2008 crash and I don’t want bad things to happen to anybody, but I get excited about the potential for people to be looking at entrepreneurship now through a new lens. It’s unfortunate that the cause of that being now might be an act of desperation, but if we can be there, people like you and me and the folks who listen to your show and the folks who read our stuff. If we can be there with them, I think there’s the potential for a new generation of entrepreneurs that looks very different from the generation of entrepreneurs that’s gotten the most media and press over the last decade and change. And I think that’s a really good thing.

Jonathan Stark: Hallelujah. Yes, absolutely.

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: That’s the long game for you and I, Jonathan, and I’m glad we’re playing the same game and on the same team.

Jonathan Stark: Same team. Exactly!

Alex Hillman Alex Hillman: If you enjoyed that episode – and I hope you did – I’ve got a couple of quick things before you go. The first of course is making sure that you have your very own copy of The Tiny MBA. If you haven’t ordered it, I’d love it if you did, and you can grab a paperback or ebook at Tiny.MBA.

I also hope you’re subscribed to this show. We’re going to be releasing more episodes like this one with other creators and entrepreneurs, just like you and I’m going to be talking with them about their favorite lessons in The Tiny MBA, learning what’s going on in their world and sharing it all with you. You can search for that by looking for Stacking the Bricks wherever you get podcasts.

And one last thing, check out the Stacking the Bricks website, we’ve got a great newsletter with new articles coming out every week or two following on a lot of the same topics and themes that we talk about right here on the show. You can do that by going to

I hope you have a great rest of your day and don’t forget to keep on stacking those bricks!

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