Fifty Shades of Grey is a true phenomenon.
It’s Amazon’s biggest-selling book of all time, selling 4 million copies in 4 months, and it’s full of stuff like this:
“My inner goddess jumps up and down with cheer-leading pom-poms shouting yes at me.”
“I want you to become well acquainted, on first name terms if you will, with my favorite and most cherished part of my body. I’m very attached to this.”
“He then starts on my right foot, repeating the whole, seductive, mind-blowing process. He’s going to kiss me there! I know it. And part of me is glowing in the anticipation.”
Some dismiss its meteoric success as a one-in-a-million fluke and its content as crude pandering, and while there’s truth in both of those statements, a cursory review of what drove the book to the top of the charts reveals that there’s much more to the story than luck and depravity.
Believe it or not, we can learn some pretty important business and marketing strategies from the rise of this “mommy porn.” (And it doesn’t involve whips, chains, handcuffs, toys, or other implements that will go unnamed…)
Let’s get to it.
How did Fifty Shades get its start?
Was E.L. James a big-name author? Nope. She was an executive at BBC that started writing erotica to deal with her “midlife crisis.”
Did she have a secret back door into the New York publishing scene? Nope. She didn’t get approached by the “big boys” until Fifty Shades was blowing up as a self-published book.
Is she just an outstanding writer whose time finally came? Hardly. Fifty Shades was her first go at writing, and in her own words, “I don’t think I’m a great writer by any means. But I can tell a story.”
Her book’s beginnings couldn’t have been more humble: after reading hundreds of romance novels, James decided to write some fan fiction based on the Twilight series under the pen name “Snowqueens Icedragon.”
She posted her work online for free, not expecting anyone to really care. But they did. People read her story, liked it, and shared it with others. A lot. A word-of-mouth frenzy ensued and readers demanded more. James was flattered, obliged her new fans, and Fifty Shades began to take form.
James said she went into this gig with “no plan,” but she handled one of the biggest business hurdles absolutely brilliantly: the initial stages of any endeavor where you have to find out, as quickly as possible, if anyone actually gives a shit. That is, will your product or service actually sell, or does it need to be radically rejiggered?
In short, James created a minimum viable product, and got into the hands of “early adopters” that were likely to be forgiving of its shortcomings, provide invaluable feedback, and share insights on how it can be marketed.
With that base as a springboard, she was able to carefully craft the exactly product her readers wanted. And they repaid her in a way she never expected.
You see, one of the worst mistakes you can make in starting a business is creating something that very few people actually want, or something that is valuable in concept, but that fails to hit the mark in terms of all the little details: design, features, user experience, and so forth.
Instead of spending a year in an ivory tower creating what you think is a masterpiece, it’s much smarter–and safer–to create it one piece at a time, with user feedback guiding you every step of the way. If James would have tried to write Fifty Shades without the comments, criticisms, and advices of her “Snowdragon” readers, it would’ve been a very different–and less successful–book.
We see savvy marketers embracing this concept more and more. Before certain products are developed, full websites are created to “sell” them and advertising is purchased, and when customers try to sign up or buy, they’re thanked for their interest and put on a list. That list is then tapped for the entire cycle of product design and marketing.
James’ first tale that eventually grew into Fifty Shades was little more than a fantasy of hers involving Twilight’s Edward and Bella.
Once James discovered she had struck a nerve with other romance addicts, however, she started looking at how she could build and strengthen her story. She looked to juggernauts of her genre–stories like Pretty Woman and Jane Eyre–to find tried-and-true characters and plot elements that she could borrow. It worked. Incredibly well.
The lesson here is simple. Great success doesn’t require that you re-invent the wheel. You don’t have to be the first to be the best–you just have to take what’s working and put a unique, valuable spin on it.
For example, Domino’s Pizza was barely edible in its formative years. But they knew their customers–mostly college kids–very well. Often finding themselves starving at odd hours, the pizza-seekers valued speed of delivery most, and Domino’s 30-minute delivery guarantee launched its profits into the stratosphere. Eventually they got around to making better pizza.
So if you’re struggling with creating a product or service, don’t try to do it in a vacuum. Look at what others are doing successfully and see if you can combine features or services in ways they don’t, or add in one unique angle that tips the scales in your favor.
Although I haven’t read Fifty Shades, I read the first few pages for this article, and, well, James really is a bad writer. Really.
But while the literary community is fuming about the upstart and her “undeserved” millions, they’re missing a valuable lesson.
James didn’t wait for her writing to be “perfect.” She didn’t sit on her product for months and months, fiddling with minutia. She wrote something that she felt was good enough, threw it up online, and saw what happened.
In short, she didn’t fall victim to the “fear of shipping,” as Godin puts it:
Shipping is fraught with risk and danger.
Every time you raise your hand, send an email, launch a product or make a suggestion, you’re exposing yourself to criticism. Not just criticism, but the negative consequences that come with wasting money, annoying someone in power or making a fool of yourself.
It’s no wonder we’re afraid to ship.
It’s not clear you have much choice, though. A life spent curled in a ball, hiding in the corner might seem less risky, but in fact it’s certain to lead to ennui and eventually failure.
Since you’re going to ship anyway, then, the question is: why bother indulging your fear?
In a long distance race, everyone gets tired. The winner is the runner who figures out where to put the tired, figures out how to store it away until after the race is over. Sure, he’s tired. Everyone is. That’s not the point. The point is to run.
Same thing is true for shipping, I think. Everyone is afraid. Where do you put the fear?
This is also what I did with my first book, Bigger Leaner Stronger. I wrote what I felt was the best book I could produce at the time, and put it up to see what would happen. You can read the rest of the story here.
The point is this: no matter what type of work you do, there’s a point where it needs to leap off the cliff and see if it can fly.
Sure, plan your attack. Work smart. But don’t get so lost into doubts, “what ifs,” and “almost theres” that you fail to ship. If shipping fast and early means your software will have a few bugs, so be it. If it means that the product won’t be everything you envisioned, you can still work toward that.
James shipped some poorly written Twilight fan fiction that was criticized just as much as it was praised, and she molded it into a veritable giant of pop culture.