What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Stephen King
Lessons from the master of horror can apply to startups, too.
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Stephen King, that master of horror, is as terrifying as he is prolific and successful. His books have sold more than 350 million copies -- not to mention numerous film and television adaptations.
He's also the author of short stories, nonfiction, novellas, screenplays, essays, poems, comics and countless scribbles on napkins in diners across Maine. His website even requires a library so fans can properly search through his massive database of creation. That's a lot of nightmares.
Like his gruesome style or not, the man sure knows what he's doing. His 2000 guide, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is part memoir, part writerly guidance, funny, sad and a little disgusting. I've read this book multiple times and revisit it for reminders on the craft and for great one-liners like "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs."
Lately I see startups benefiting from King's advice. It seems that writing a book and creating a successful startup aren't so different. Here are four pieces of writing advice that startups can take to the bank:
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1. Get ready for self-doubt. Then shut it out. King personally encountered plenty of doubt, especially when he was trying to begin his writing career, working long shifts laundering table linens and hospital sheets during sweltering Maine summers, earning a bit of money here and there from a few short stories, but mostly rejection slips.
King likened writing a long work of fiction to "a difficult, lonely job; it's like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There's plenty of opportunity for self-doubt." Sound familiar?
In response to that self-doubt, King advised, "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open." Entrepreneurs can heed this advice too: Keep the naysayers at bay during that pivotal creation time, while giving the startup an identity and a purpose, making it a reality. There's no need to pay attention to critics in the mind's eye. Craft the business that is truest to the vision first.
Then, after it's created, the entrepreneur can let in those he or she trusts to gain an outside perspective (rather than exposing a business idea too early and having it gutted before it even has legs -- or arms).
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2. Don't fear change. Sometimes the original vision for the startup -- how it works, whom it serves, the company's branding and messaging -- is not immediately spot-on. In researching the marketplace, talk with investors, study the target audience and investigate the competition. It's possible to discover something that knocks the original idea askance. What would King do? Follow that plot twist.
King has encountered this problem with his novels and noted, for example, "the writer's original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader's." Indeed, entrepreneurs may find pursuing a slightly different direction can occasionally pay off big-time.
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3. Keep going. No matter what, keep going. Momentum is vital to a startup's success. The same is true for writing. King is a big proponent of disciplined writing, engaging in the craft every day rather than when feeling inspired. "Don't wait for the muse," he said. "Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three."
Hungry entrepreneurs know about hard work already, but reminders from those who have been there conquered that never hurt. "Stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea," he said.
This approach applies to work in any industry but it seems particularly true for startup leaders trying to go from blank page to big impact.
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4. Communicate clearly. King shared a lot about where a story goes, how it gets there and the unfortunate popularity of superfluous words. Even though some of his books are long (north of 1,500 pages for The Stand), he is all about keeping a novel focused and lean, particularly the description. "For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else," King wrote.
This seems like advice for leaders of startups trying to quickly capture and communicate what they are and do, how they accomplish it and why. When responding to those all-too-familiar questions of what makes the new company relevant and different, answering clearly, crisply and sincerely is key. Find the words that best represent the startup and let them infuse everything the company does.
As King explained, "The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary."
That can apply to the entrepreneur's vision. Whether crafting the story of a new startup or propelling an established business forward, maybe it wouldn't hurt to think a little like Stephen King, who advised, "It's about the story, and it's always about the story."
Don't stray. Don't muddy the waters. When it comes to communicating the story of the enterprise, be clear and be direct. After all, as King wrote, "This business of meaning is a very big deal."