In 2017 I wrote an article that went viral.
When (name drop alert) Ariana Huffington shared it to her six million LinkedIn followers, I was struck at how far my own seemingly humble ideas could spread.
My article detailed the daily questions (see them at the end) I would ask myself each morning to help me focus on the things that matter. To give me direction.
After years of being frustrated with my progress and stunted productivity, I had to make a change. Answering these questions every day was the solution I was looking for. The focus they gave me was dramatic.
They resonated with readers too. As a self-employed content-maker, I’m always on the lookout for ways to increase my income, and making a product out of those daily questions seemed like a good idea.
The plan was to design a simple book and have it printed within a few weeks. The project, from conception in September 2017, to completion, ended up taking about seven months, and even that was months before I sold the first one.
I invested a lot of time, money and energy into the project, using additional help for designing the book, which became a planner that I called ‘Book of Lift.’
At the time, bolstered by recent positive gains in some crypto-currencies that I’d bought, I decided to splash out on having the logo professionally-designed, and — later — the sales web page crafted by a professional coder, though I came up with the original design. I even had one of my favourite illustrators and friends, Dan Matutina create bespoke artwork to accompany the marketing for the planner and landing page.
Creating the prototype
I decided to work with a China-based printer to print out a batch of books for a first run, via Alibaba.
This turned out to be a drawn-out process because of language inconsistencies, my need to make the product continually ‘better,’ and the constant need to go back and forth on tiny details so that the planner would be ‘just right’ when it came to printing.
I finally got a sample printed for $100, which was shipped to my place in Bangkok. When it arrived, there were a few issues with the design and accuracy, like paper thickness, stretched print, and quality of the bound book that needed improving. I also noticed a very ‘plasticky’ smell on it.
So I sent off for another sample. This one was better and — once I had the funds in place — I ordered the minimum batch order of 500 copies, consisting of planner, two paper bonus booklets, box, and postcard. This cost just under $3000 in total, including shipping from China to Thailand.
I decided against the Kickstarter route mainly out of impatience and not knowing the crowdsourcing model intimately.
Because I couldn’t find a fulfilment house to hold those copies due to a lack of proof that I could sell them, I had to deliver them — all 13 boxes — to my cramped apartment in Bangkok. To say this was a fire hazard was an understatement.
Thankfully the quality was decent and, miraculously, they were without the ‘cheap’ smell that I had feared.
Between the time that I received the boxes and the first online sale, I had a lot of doubt.
There were many times that I considered quitting the project altogether, despite spending all that money on it. I lost faith in the use of the book, even though I was using it. I didn’t think it was perfect, and for me, it needed to be.
I sent some out for giveaways, and realised, a little late, that I needed more reviews and some feedback on the books from a range of people that could inform me on improving it. I was always in a rush to get them printed, and I never had more than one sample copy to share with anyone.
Gradually I picked up some positive feedback from a handful of people that I could use as social proof on the landing page.
With all the feedback I’d received, it became clear how the next version of the book would be. This made me reluctant to sell the book in its current version. But I’d been using it over the year, and benefitted a lot from it, so I decided to put it up for sale anyway and deny a win for my perfectionist side.
I chose to do a limited sales promotion to start — a week-long run with a cut-off time to create more of a sense of urgency. The book would not be available to buy for a while after this point. At a manufacturing cost of $5.60 per planner, I put a price tag for one book at $26, and for a bundle of three: $70.
As well as the two free paper booklet bonuses, I recorded an extra networking course worth over $60, and gave all buyers access to an online Slack community as part of the deal.
I plan to experiment with different sales formats over time, including working with influential people* with large audiences but wanted to see what results were like for this one.
*If you have a decent-sized, relevant audience and want to help me promote the planner — send me a note.
I put the products on my Red Lemon Club Shopify shop and linked that to the sales page so that I could keep my sales statistics in one place on Shopify.
I ran the sale, told buyers it would only be available for a limited time (or until copies ran out), and used my newsletter and social channels to promote the sales page. I have over 22,000 newsletter subscribers, but many are inactive after years, so in reality, it’s a smaller active list.
By the end of the week, on Black Friday, I’d sold 90 books, to 66 individuals, with a sales page conversion rate of 7%.
Having been worried that I could sell even a handful, I was thrilled with this.
This has given me the confidence to continue selling these and tweaking the product to be better and better. I’m excited to sell the remaining planners, and can’t wait to develop the next version of the Book of Lift and use it myself.
These are the key things I’ve learned from this experience:
- Selling your own physical products is not easy. It can, however, be worth it, especially with theoretically lower competition with everyone focusing on digital products.
- Find and/or run testing ground material — like a blog post that does well, to see what areas are worth pursuing.
- The demand is there for good products that solve real problems.
- Establishing yourself as an authority surrounding the product in question will help a lot. I had written reasonably extensively on productivity and motivation before releasing the planner, and plan to do more.
- Use marketing strategies like week-long promotional pushes to boost sales. Create a sense of urgency to encourage people to buy who might be on the fence. Jeff Walker’s Launch strategy inspired my Book of Lift promotion in this case.
- Be prepared for a lot of doubt and a frequent urge to give up. Expect yourself to doubt yourself, but know that, even if it feels impossible at times, it absolutely can work.
- Make sure you create something that can hold your interest for a long time that you can continue to create content around and you believe in — and ideally use and need — the product.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. Everyone is at different stages in the process of making things that people need.
- Focus on creating something that is genuinely useful for you and others. This means talking to as many people as you can who use your product to get a sense of demand. Listen in especially for negatives, because most people will be overly nice about your product.
- Expect things to cost more. There are ways to save on costs, which I neglected. I didn’t need to hire an illustrator (especially as I am an illustrator myself), or even hire a coder for the landing page. I did benefit from the more bespoke feel, but it was not necessary.
- Don’t create an expensive product until after you have tested it with more people and used it yourself for longer than a few months.
- Anticipate having to hold the product in your own house to demonstrate that products have demand and can be sold in numbers, which you can then show fulfilment houses. Or just do better research than I did into warehouses that take orders. But make sure you know how to sell. A big newsletter list was beneficial, so start building your list today. There are other ways which I can’t go into. But many third parties can sell for you, namely Amazon and potentially other retail outlets, online and offline.
- You need to make money as quickly as you can, so prioritise income. Understand that you need to break even, so you must know that you can sell enough to make your money back, and there will likely be other costs, including a sales page, Shopify fees, packing fees, holding the product, etc.
- Margins are tight on physical products like books, so I am preparing to add additional digital products (digital courses) as ‘upsells’ for the planner, to make better sense of the costs and provide users with extra value and training.
- Get creative with how you distribute physical products. It could be that you give the product away for free, and charge for the shipping, and then open up sales of other products in your shop.
- You could look into crowdsourced funding to bring in funds before you even commit to manufacturing the bulk of your products, taking out a lot of the stress and risk.
- You can make it work, with a decent audience, good content, an interest in the product itself, and if you can solve real problems — especially your own ones.
What are you struggling with that a product would solve?
Here are those *questions from the article I wrote and eventually used for the planner:
What will I make happen within 5 years?
What will I make happen within 1 year?
What will I make happen within 30 days?
What will I make happen within 7 days?
What will I do to start this day positively?
What must get done today that develops my main craft?
What 3 extra tasks must get done today if any?
Who will I contact today to generate opportunities and good will?
What will I do today that scares me?
What will I do today to benefit my health?
What will I do today to expand my extra-curricular world?
What was yesterday’s key inch?
Buy yourself or a friend a copy of Book of Lift here.