My business has lasted as long as the average American marriage — seven years. The level of commitment surely feels on par.
When I launched Four Minute Books, I had no idea what it would grow into. All I thought about was how to get better at writing and maybe make a few bucks along the way.
Seven years later, in what has been, undoubtedly, my hardest year in business yet, it turns out that this little book summary site is, so far, the only consistently growing revenue generator. Here’s a chart contrasting its revenue vs. Medium and Write Like a Pro, my writing course.
My website also happens to be the thing where I feel the most complete sense of ownership and control. Those topics definitely warrant their own article at some other time, but what I’d like to do today is share seven lessons I picked up in this pivotal seventh year.
1. Don’t Fight the Trend…
2022 was a rough year for many people. Between 10% inflation, supply chain crises, and jobs getting cut as a recession seems to loom on the horizon, people are understandably spending less, and most companies can feel it too.
Two years ago, with many lockdowns in place across the world, our Black Friday promotion made 3x the revenue it did in either 2021 or 2022 — despite relying on a much smaller email list and traffic.
What I learned is that no matter how many extra emails I send or advertisements I add, I can’t just force my way back to that revenue. It’s gone. I’ll have to think of something else.
The market is a million times stronger than you, and if you fight it, you will lose. Instead, you must…
2. …Adjust to It
No one knows where the economy is going to go. Will 2023 be another slow and strenuous year? Will business boom? I have no clue, but I can only plan with what I see — and, right now, it doesn’t look like sunshine and rainbows.
So what am I doing? I’m cutting our spending. I’m going to publish fewer summaries, and I’m going to write them myself instead of outsourcing them to contractors. I’m also taking back some administrative tasks from virtual assistants. Whatever allows me to build more of a cash buffer without hampering our operations at a fundamental level.
Prepare for the worst that might come while hoping something better actually will.
3. Sometimes, It’s Better Not to Know
When I looked at our 2022 numbers, I saw that our revenue from promoting Blinkist — the core of our business, really — went down by some 30%. I also saw that ads, a new income stream we didn’t even have last year, ended up overtaking that revenue and is now our #1 source of income.
If I had been constantly aware of these numbers in real-time, I’d have freaked out non-stop. Thankfully, I was ignorant of them. I just kept my head down and kept working, and that’s why things worked out.
Sometimes, it’s better to not analyze — or even know — everything that’s going on in your business at all times.
4. Bootstrapped Businesses Win — If They Have Margins
Four Minute Books is not perfect. Right now, we rely on ads to make money. I’d love for that to change down the line. But at least we’re making money.
Many startups, including some of the most famous ones you know, like Uber, AirBnB, and Slack, can’t say the same. They spend every dollar in revenue they generate and then some.
Thankfully, as a digital and mainly content-based business, we also have large margins. Our fixed costs are servers and email services, and while those are expensive, they still amount to less than 20% of our revenue. That helps when someone’s (aka my) full-time income depends on it.
When you’re an investor-funded startup and the music on Wall Street stops, you might go bankrupt faster than you know it.
When you’re a bootstrapped company with some room between revenues and profits, there’s a good chance you can wiggle your way through a recession.
5. Do More of What Works
We published 150+ new summaries this year. Sadly, they only increased our traffic by 6%. Meanwhile, a group of just 10 book lists we published has increased our traffic by 75%. After four years of overall traffic stagnation, that was a welcome change.
At a catalog of over 1,200 book summaries, we already have more titles than most people will ever read. So what else can we do that will also help people learn more in less time?
Sometimes, it’s time to try something new — but once you’ve found something new that’s working, especially in times when growth is critical, you should double down on it and jump on the opportunity while you can.
6. Swallow the Bitter Pill Before You Have To
In theory, I could have kept going everything as is — for now. I could have kept pouring money into new content, offloading tasks, and a host of other little optimizations and initiatives, but I wouldn’t have felt good about it.
I’d rather have peace of mind. I’d rather tell some of our partners and freelancers that, “Hey, this is a precaution I’m taking, and I’d love to collaborate again when things improve,” instead of not paying their bills when I’m already out of money.
If you can take some medicine before it hurts, do it. I’ve always liked Benjamin Franklin’s quote on that stance: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The biggest and perhaps most important lesson was about focus, and it came from Farnam Street. Reporting on an interview with Jony Ive, Apple’s chief designer of over 20 years, they quote:
“Focus is not the sort of thing you aspire to or you decide on Monday. It’s something you do every minute. What focus means is saying no to something that you, with every bone in your body, you think is a phenomenal idea and you wake up thinking about it, but you say no to it because you’re focusing on something else.”
Every year, I get dozens of ideas from well-meaning people about what to do with Four Minute Books. “You should do a podcast!” “You should post stories on Instagram!” “You should make an app!” Funny enough, no one ever suggests we should do less. It’s always more, more, more.
Focus means choosing to prioritize what matters most at the expense of everything that matters less — even if those other things are also good and valid.
In that sense, I’m almost grateful that we’re going through some economically challenging times. It’s a great excuse to zone in on what’s most important for both our readers and us to thrive: useful, informative, entertaining writing that brings people to our website and makes them want to come back — and a convenient email experience that delivers it. As best as I can, that’s what I’ll focus on in 2023.
In a Nutshell
Just like a down stock market is the best time to invest, a recession could be the best time to start a business. If you’re already running one or want to do so, consider these seven lessons:
- Don’t fight the market. It’s a quick way to lose. Work with it, around it, or for it if you must, but don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
- When the tide changes, readjust your sails. Invest money when making money is easy, and cut costs when there are still costs you can cut.
- Keep your head down. Don’t overthink. Don’t overanalyze. Usually, if you keep working, things will work out.
- The biggest business is useless if there’s nothing left over after all is said and done. The world wants to entice you to play the fast-paced venture capital game, but bootstrapping and making a profit from day one is as honorable an approach as it has ever been.
- Double down on what works. It’s easy to hesitate to milk a sales tactic that works or get distracted by shiny object syndrome, but doubling down on the getting while the getting is good will keep you around in direr times.
- Take the medicine before it hurts. Don’t wait for the bankruptcy trustee to tell your collaborators that they won’t get paid.
- Focus. People will give you a million suggestions, and you’ll have to ignore 999,999 of them if you want to get anywhere. Focus hurts, and that’s normal. If it doesn’t, it’s not working. Choose focus.
Running a business is often compared to raising a child or getting married. Both analogies ring true. It takes commitment, patience, and hard work. Lots and lots of hard work.
The rewards, however, can be equally as powerful. Where a child might take care of you in old age, a business may do so much earlier than that. Where a spouse might bicker on one day then surprise you with a gift the next, a business may throw technical problems at you, then offer a boost in revenue once you’ve solved them.
Like so many people in marriage, I ended up in this particular business by accident, but now that I’m here, I choose to be happy — and hell-bent on making it work. Bring that same attitude to your own thing, and I hope your business marriage, too, will last well beyond the seven-year mark.