5 Lessons From My Failed Biography Writing Business

I got hired to write 3 books — it never happened

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

I got paid to write the story of three ordinary families.

People like you and me, but with a crucial difference: they could afford to hire someone to interview their whole extended family and put into a book the stories that shaped them for over a century.

The first time I ever heard about this business idea, I found it bizarre. Why would someone want a service like this? My dad suggested it to me. But his idea didn’t come out of thin air.

My dad saw a combination of factors:

  • I was interviewing wealthy people on a daily basis at my job as a reporter.
  • I interviewed many of these people regularly and had established a personal connection with them.
  • These people had compelling stories and were proud of what they had achieved.
  • They also had the financial means to sustain a project like this.

All these target people belonged to a specific group, the Portuguese community living in Paris. In case you don’t know, it is huge, with over one million people, and around 40,000 of them have their own business, some with millions of euros in annual revenue.

They all have similar stories: their families lived in poor conditions in the Portuguese villages, in the second half of the 20th century. They escaped to France and settled in the country, achieving professional success and good quality of life. Invariably, they were proud of their journey.

The idea of this service was to write books not about one specific person, but about a whole family. Something that would never be published and sold, but rather kept in the family as a legacy to the children and grandchildren. An epic tale of transformation, courage, hard work, and success. A constant reminder to the younger generations of where their roots were first planted.


It took me a while to sell the idea but, eventually, I managed to secure three clients. This kept me busy for around a year while providing me enough to lead a fairly comfortable life.

But it wouldn’t last long.

The truth is, I never finished those books.

It has been a pending project for around two years now, and I don’t know when I will complete it, if ever. I learned some lessons with this experience. Let me share them with you.


1. There Is a Niche Even for “Crazy” Ideas

Let’s imagine you think of establishing a bakery. We all need to eat, and many of us eat bread, so the target audience would be wide. This would make you feel comfortable with the success potential of this business idea.

But a biography writing service?

It is much odder, and its target audience is much narrower. Most people in the world would not be interested in having a stranger interviewing their whole family and writing their stories in a book that would not even be sold.

But some people would.

Just because a niche is small, it doesn’t mean you should disregard it. Many businesses don’t need a lot of clients to be profitable, they only need a few, loyal, high paying customers to achieve success.


2. There Is Always Someone Who Can Afford It

In my middle-class brain, even if someone was interested in a service like this, they probably would not want to spend a significant amount of money on it. But a “significant amount of money” means different things for different people.

One day, while attending an event with some of the people from this community, I heard someone say: “I spent 5,000€ on a suit.”

That blew my mind. Never, in my perfect average little life, would it cross my mind to spend that amount of money on a piece of clothing. But if someone paid 5,000€ for a suit, he would certainly be willing to pay the same amount for a bespoken book about himself and his family, right?

That guy became my third client.

I learned that the concept of money is relative and there is no such thing as “too expensive.” There is always someone who can afford it.


3. Connections Can Make or Break Your Business

I would not have been able to establish this business if I didn’t know my customers in advance.

The first person who hired me was someone I had worked with on a different project. He knew me and, most importantly, trusted me. It was also him who got me my second client, one of his close friends.

In a world where communication is so easy, but also so impersonal, knowing the right people and establishing a connection with them is still a major factor in achieving success.

For about two years, I had an online presence for my project, with a website and a Facebook page. Yet, I never got any customers from those sources. Don’t underestimate the power of personal connections.


4. Successful People Are Busy — Don’t Steal Their Time

This was the most important reason contributing to the failure of the project.

I never finished the books because my customers were just too busy to collaborate with me. I can’t write about their personal story if they don’t take the time to tell me about it. And, after I wrote it, there is nobody else in the world that could review the contents except them.

For a book of around 150 pages, this requires a lot of time. Time that my customers simply didn’t have. They are busy businessmen, running multiple companies while attending to their family lives as well. This service, even though they paid for it, came at the bottom of their priority list. So, we kept delaying, delaying, delaying… until eventually, we postponed the whole project indefinitely.

Make sure the service or product you provide to your customers doesn’t create additional responsibilities for them. Remember that what you’re trying to do is to solve their problems, not create new ones.


5. Define Your Service Upfront

This sounds like a basic rule of any business, right? Well, I didn’t follow it.

With all three customers, we started the project with a loose attitude, trying to figure out where the journey would take us. The problem is, it took us in different directions…

Halfway through the first book, after having spoken with 30+ people already, my client was asking me to drive hundreds of kilometers to interview his childhood friend in person. This was someone he hadn’t spoken with in years but, suddenly felt the need to reach out to, to recover stories from those years, and include them in the book.

When the project started, we had not defined how many people would be included in the project or how we would cover my displacements to talk to them. He had the right to ask for it. I had the right to refuse. Or had I?

I learned this lesson the hard way: always, always define upfront the exact service or product you are providing. This will prevent disagreements down the line and help to define boundaries.


Takeaway

If you ever try anything entrepreneurial, you will fail. Maybe not completely, but you will do, at least, some things wrongly. You will fail to see the whole picture, you will make decisions that don’t make much sense, and you will take your project in ways that, in hindsight, will feel completely off.

But that is how you learn. As Samuel Beckett puts it:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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