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The Long Slow Ramp of Death


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The Long Slow Ramp of Death

It’s been about two weeks since I announced that I was taking my first step on my journey to $10k of revenue per month as a self-published author.

It’s been four weeks since I released the first episode of my epic galactic empire space opera serial, Salvage of Empire.

My fiction mailing list has grown by 100%, my Road to $10k list by 200%. Impressive, no?

Are you still impressed when I say each list started with one subscriber (myself), and I now have two and three subscribers, respectively?

No, I didn’t think so. 😅

(This would be an appropriate time for you to subscribe to this list and really spike my growth! When the numbers are this small, one person makes a huge difference!)

You’ll be even less impressed when I reveal my revenue figures: 0% growth, still sitting at $0/month once you subtract my day job.

Am I worried? Should I be worried?

No. This is totally normal. Overnight successes are usually ten years in the making.

With my cover identity as a mild-mannered software engineer with delusions of entrepreneurship, I’m well-versed in the literature of software startups. Not just the Silicon Valley style, with lots of venue capital (VC), but also something that doesn’t get as much press: the bootstrapped startup.

Enter, stage right, Gail Goodman, founder and CEO of “bazillion-dollar megasuccess” Constant Contact, a business which sells email marketing tools to small businesses.

Ms. Goodman gave a talk back in 2012 that has become a byword in the bootstrapped software startup scene: “The Long Slow SaaS Ramp of Death”.

Even though Constant Contact was VC-backed (which was completely necessary in the 1990s when it was founded) Ms. Goodman, bless her, does not focus on funding rounds and ways to impress investors. Instead, she talks about the meat and potatoes of any newly-founded business: finding customers, selling successfully to them, and becoming profitable.

She describes this process as the “Long Slow Ramp of Death”. If you have an hour, and a general interest in business startups, go watch it. It’s really good.

If you’re not generally interested in business startups, but you are generally interested in becoming a successful, published author, buckle up, because I’m about to drop some metaphor.

What if I told you that… writing is a business?

What if I told you, that you, as a new, unpublished author, are a startup?

Yes, that’s right. Writing is a business. I am a startup. You are a startup.

We can push the metaphor further: Traditionally published authors are VC-backed startups. Self-published authors are bootstrapped startups.

Either way, no matter how you fund yourself, it’s a long, slow ramp when you’re first getting started, with potential (business) death on either side.

The namesake “ramp of death” refers to the graph of a business’s revenue over time:

Revenue graphed over time

In the business startup world, everybody likes to look at the startups that come out of nowhere and skyrocket to the top of the revenue charts. We call this hockey stick growth. Everybody’s looking for hockey stick growth.

In the fiction publishing world, everyone likes to look at JK Rowling. Everybody wants to know: how long until I can buy my yacht?

Should I call my yacht agent yet?

Everybody is looking for the flip-the-switch, viral solution, that one thing you can do that will make everybody in the world sit up, take notice, and start chucking bags of money at you.

Some people even find it. We know their names: JK Rowling, Stephen King, Clive Cussler, etc.

The rest of us are going to have to go to work.

And remember, even the household names had to put the work in at the beginning, and they have to work to keep their success going. They just may not have to work quite as hard now as they probably did at the beginning.

There is no switch. There is no single solution that will give you hockey stick growth.

The writing business is different from many other businesses, but in one way, it’s the same: it’s not about finding the switch, it’s not about building a hockey stick. It’s about building a flywheel.

A flywheel.

The flywheel is the part of the engine that keeps the engine running. Starting the engine is a matter of using outside force to add momentum to the flywheel.

Starting your career as an author is a matter of building your flywheel and giving it momentum.

You have to write your first book.

You have to build your author brand.

You have to build a mailing list.

You have to find readers willing to buy your first book.

Then, you write your second book.

And so on, and so forth. Your books, your mailing list, your brand are your flywheel. Each new reader imparts a bit of momentum to it.

As the flywheel begins to turn, the engine rumbles to life.

Slowly, slowly, you begin to crawl up that long, slow ramp of death. Under your own power.

So, that’s why I’m not worried. I’m at the very bottom of the ramp. Heck, I’m still on the flats leading up to the ramp. I haven’t earned a single penny of revenue yet.

At the bottom.

But I’m building a flywheel, and if I build it right, it will carry me to the top.

In my next article, I’ll follow along with Ms. Goodman’s outline, translating from software startup to the self-publishing world.

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And in the comments below, tell me: does this metaphor resonate with you? How are you building your author flywheel?

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