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The 3 Most Important Lessons I Learned While Lean Starting a Publishing Company

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tom teaching lean startup in singaporeLast week, while making a pit stop in Singapore, I was given the opportunity to sit down with a group of passionate entrepreneurs to teach the Lean Startup techniques I used to create Insurgent Publishing from scratch.

*Quick shout out to Resistance Members Coralie Dell’Ambrogio and Bryan Long for putting the event together*!

During my presentation, I covered the most important lessons I learned while lean starting my boutique publishing company and how these same lessons apply beyond publishing to any startup.

In the next few paragraphs, I’m going to cover the 3 most important lessons I shared with this group

This is stuff that helped me bootstrap a company from nothing to thousands in reoccurring revenue in a matter of months (with no prior experience in the industry).

So if you’re interested in starting your own business, but you’re on a budget, have a fulltime job, or simply want to eliminate waste (of time and money) and uncertainty from the process – listen up:

These lessons are powerful and apply to all startups.

For an extensive list of books and resources I used to learn, develop and apply these concepts, check out my new affiliated resources page (a work in progress right now, but stay tuned for a lot more content).

When you’re finished reading, make sure to leave a comment and either:

(1) share your own lessons learned from lean starting a company, or

(2) let us know where you’re stuck.

I promise to read and respond to every comment.


Lesson #1 – Choose a Customer Segment that is Already Buying What You Intend to Sell

(or how I didn’t invent a niche – I chose one that existed and I created content specifically for them)

I know you want to create something remarkable.

Trust me, I know.  I want to too.

But remarkable doesn’t mean only.

Many aspiring entrepreneurs try to do something so remarkable, so unique, they end up creating something for no one.

Successful entrepreneurs and businesses aren’t successful because they’re unique.  They’re successful because they improve something that people are already buying.

Just think about Apple for a second.  While they’re regarded as a visionary company, nothing they create is anything more than the evolution of a product or service that already exists and has already found success in the market in some way, shape or form:

  • People liked their Blackberrys, so Apple created the iPhone.
  • People liked their laptops, so Apple created the MacBook.
  • People liked their iPhones, so Apple made a bigger iPhone, removed its ability to make calls, and called it an iPad.

Each of these were iterative changes to products that had been tested before with an audience – and the audience liked them and asked for more (with their wallets).

For Insurgent Publishing, I didn’t reinvent the wheelI simply identified the customer segment that was already buying books in the area I wanted to be involved in (nonfiction for entrepreneurs, CEOs and creatives).

Specifically, I looked for people who bought books by authors like Seth Godin, Steven Pressfield, and Austin Kleon.  These were the types of reader I wanted to cater to, because I knew (1) they still appreciated buying and reading books, (2) they generally buy lots of books in this area, and (3) they were online.

Of course, once you identify the specific customer segment that will buy from you, you need to figure out how to get in front of them without getting lost in the noise…

Lesson #2 – Build a Sales Funnel Directly to Your Early Adopters

(or how I leveraged pre-existing networks to get my first subscribers)

There’s a saying in the Lean Startup world: get out of the building.

It means: don’t guess what will work – get in front of your customer and talk to him or her to see if what you’re building is something they will buy.

It’s a solid concept.

Many entrepreneurs in the digital age try to do everything from their computers.  The problem with this is if you never leave your computer, how do you know you’re creating something your customer segment wants?

But I think there’s a caveat to this – if your customer segment is online, maybe the best way to approach them is online too.

This doesn’t work for every niche, but for mine, it did.

I wanted to cater to readers who were already online and who were buying nonfiction books (and specifically those who were used to digital formats like PDF or kindle).  This meant connecting with them online.


I leveraged the networks these people were a part of.

Instead of knocking on doors, I sent emails, messages, and tweets from inside the platforms other people had created.

So, for example, if I knew a specific blogger had a large audience of educated entrepreneurs, I joined their Facebook group or forum and began connecting with people.

Or if I was already part of a membership site or some other group that I had paid to be a part of, I connected with others within these groups.

*note: it helped that the ‘avatar’ for my ideal customer / customer segment was me – so I figured anything I was a part of, I’d find others like me.  As it turns out, I was right.

Building relationships like this one at a time isn’t rocket science, but it does take time and effort.

I promise, though: no one will more ready to buy what you sell than the people you’ve already meaningfully connected with.

No amount of Facebook and Google ads can replace relationships.

Even the best big tech startups with lots of money behind them realize this – just check out this interview I did with Ryan Delk of Gumroad.

Ryan reached out to me before I ever reached out to him (he was actually one of the first people to contribute money to my first Pay What You Want book: 2 Days With Seth Godin).

Ryan didn’t have to do that, nor did he have to do the interview, but he did – and he continues to reach out and develop personal relationships with individual sellers on the Gumroad platform.

While the impact this is creating for Gumroad might not be measurable from a metrics standpoint, I assure you it keeps many people selling through their platform.

So once you’ve built a sales funnel directly to your early adopters (i.e. developed relationships with individuals who buy what you’re planning to sell), the next step is getting them to buy what you’re creating – before you’ve created it…

Lesson #3 – Validate Your Idea before You Finish and Ship It

(or how I got people to pay for something before I built it)

Validation – real validation – means an exchange of money (at least when it comes to business or art).

In the past, the only way to validate something was to actually build it and then sell it.

But with modern technology, not only is this unnecessary, it’s inefficient and risky.

The best way to mitigate risk and inefficiency is to create a minimal viable product (and I mean minimal) and pre-sell it.

For my journal, that meant getting up a splash page with headlines and topics from the journal, images of the A-listers who were contributing to the journal, and any additional information that spoke directly to my customer segment.

Then I put a preorder button on the page and started promoting it through the direct sales channels I had established.

Before I finished the journal, I already had 22 subscribers at close to $1000 in reoccurring revenue (the journal is subscription based).

For a bootstrapped project, this is more than enough validation to finish and ship the project.

So whatever project you’re working on – don’t wait till the project is finished to sell it.  Start selling early – way before it’s ever finished.

Bonus points if you can sell it before you even start.

tom teaching in singapore
Teaching lean startup / bootstrapping techniques in Singapore (complete with diagrams of price anchoring and long tail charts).

Next Steps

These are the three most important lessons I learned while building Insurgent Publishing and creating our first minimal viable product.

But these aren’t the only lessons I learned.

During my presentation in Singapore, I had the opportunity to go in depth on how I was able to get people to actively promote the journal to their audiences, how I managed and directed 20+ entrepreneurs and artists to bring this vision to life, and how I did it on a shoestring budget.

The bad news is we weren’t able to record the presentation.

The good news is Resistance Member Rachel Winstead is coordinating a physical + virtual meetup at The Grove Coworking Space in Dallas, Texas this Thursday, January 24th.  So if you’re in Dallas, swing by!

And if you’re anywhere else in the world, join us online from 6-8pm CST this THURSDAY!

Hope to see you there.

p.s. make sure to leave a comment below and let me know what you’ve learned lean starting / bootstrapping a project or business, or let me know where you’re stuck so I can get you unstuck.

p.p.s. seriously – you should definitely sign up to the event on Thursday.  It’s going to be epic.

Started in Brewerkz off of Clarke Quay in Singapore.  Expanded and rewritten in The Mall of Indonesia.  Finished and shipped in Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.

Total Writing Time: 5:10 minutes

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  • So many lessons to learn inside any undertaking – the issue for so many of us, we don’t take the time to grab some altitude – slow down and locate and isolate the lessons.

    The concept of “The First 300 customers” or even “The First 100 Customers” is an important one to add on here – where upon making contact with a paying customer, a full-press, full-on effort is under-taken formally(w/ a system) to personally interact with them to find out how the whole process worked, how the product/service performed and what they’d like to see added on/taken away.

    It’s a huge effort for the business owner but it pays off most of the time and will allow for intelligent, informed iteration(wow! three “i”s in a row there!).

    One thing I’d add onto #3, Tom, which is totally RIGHT ON!

    With all the Lean Thinking going on – sometimes the interview process can lead to inaccurate results and, in some cases, snuff our the opportunity prematurely. Though talking w/ potential customers is fine and, in many cases, a worthy goal…their answers will tend to skew towards placating behavoirs to the interviewer – telling them what they THINK they want to hear.

    The entrepreneur, at some point, may have to just bite down hard, muster/cowboy up pushing through into the unknown without validation….or, more than likely, they could receive inaccurate validation feedback from non-paying interviewees, thus, giving them false hope to pushing forward – when, in fact, ‘The Solution” is introduced, those “Sure, I’d love to see that “Solution” come into my life!” is met with non-response.

    Result: Suckage

    I’ve read quite a few articles based upon real-world experience the last six months(especially in the SaaS world) where the all indicators from the customer interview process were positive only to be met by crickets chirping when the product arrived – and no or very few sales.

    As Tom says, get some kind of commitment up front that has a bunch of numbers attached to it(from a credit card and a sale amount) – that is the ultimate validation, always.

  • Fantastic blog you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any message boards that cover the same topics talked about in this article?
    I’d really love to be a part of group where I can get feedback
    from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest.
    If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

    • Check out Fizzle.co and Growthhacker.tv for the best communities online to talk lean business startups (yes, you pay…yes, it’s worth it).

  • “it helped that the ‘avatar’ for my ideal customer / customer segment was me”

    This is a common thread among great Artists – they all created their Art to please themselves first and then share it with the World. Eventually, their work will spread and connect with those who are like the original author.

    Perhaps the reason why this approach works so well, is because it comes from a place of truth and authenticity. Instead of creating something that doesn’t reflect who we are about and targeting people who we don’t know (or care), we should have the guts to look within and share with the World something about ourselves.

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