I accidentally started a publishing business, now doing £500K/ARR. AMA!

In 2018, I was contracting as a UX designer. At this point in my career, a large part of my work entailed facilitating workshops to help teams come together and solve problems. Those problems were usually designing software (websites, apps, etc).

This particular contract was at a bank. Workshops were not an everyday activity there. On my second day, I was in a room full of men in suits, with crossed arms - looking at me like, “what’s this guy up to?” as I stood over them with a wad of post-its.

Half an hour later, they had transformed entirely from skeptical to enthused. Between the whole group, there were a good 60 or so ideas on the walls. A far cry from the usual “Okay, so has anyone got any ideas?”. What then follows is usually the loudest person in the room talking for an hour.

A couple of members of the design team I was leading were in that same workshop. They had never experienced anything like this before either. This was a novelty to me, as workshops are such a regular part of my practice.

I was then asked, quite frequently after that session: “how do you know what workshop to run? and when?” “where do you get your workshop ideas from?”

Now, full disclosure - none of my workshop sessions were original. They are borrowed, stolen and remixed from all over the place. But when you experience them for the first time, they feel like some productivity fairy has entranced the whole room.

These questions seem to awaken some deep entrepreneurial spirit in me, and I saw an opportunity to put something together to help my team.

So naturally, I did the opposite of being helpful. Instead, I spent ages thinking about the brand name and logo. I spent hours in “coding land”, where I was creating this elaborate filtering system from a WordPress theme so you could find a particular workshop quickly.

But, there was no content to filter. I was procrastinating in creating the actual content that was supposed to be helpful.

So after several weeks, I thought fuck it. If you’re going to do it, Charles, then actually do it! I deleted the website and decided to make something physical: a deck of cards.

Workshops are physical activities, surely then the cards should be too? Especially if you’re planning a workshop, moving them in different sequences could be pretty helpful.

To write down everything in my head regarding workshops, I used a pretty clever (I thought, anyway) productivity ‘hack’. My commute into work was a 15-minute train each way. So every morning and evening, I’d spend 10 minutes writing a new card. Within a matter of weeks - I had a draft manuscript of the whole thing.

I shared it as a PDF with my teammates, and it was a hit. This gave me the confidence to go a step further. Validate the idea with “strangers”.

(Note: The word “validate” is bad when it comes to testing ideas, as it already has a built-in bias towards “proving yourself right”. But it’s useful for the sake of telling this story)

The process of validating the idea wasn’t anything new. A landing page, email capture, and ad spend (on LinkedIn of all places!). I had also mocked up the card deck box as if it were a real thing.

(As an aside: creating this landing page and writing the marketing copy was a massive help in figuring out what the hell the product was. I highly recommend doing it, even just for working out your value proposition.)

To my surprise, the mailing list filled up to a whopping 50 within the first couple of days.

Again, another signal that this was an idea worth pursuing.

So then I surveyed my first users. What was their job role? What problem did they have that they hoped this product would solve for them?

I got a lot of great stuff back, and in exchange - offered my early users a physical copy of the deck. The “Alpha” version. A very rough around the edges, cheaply printed version of the deck.

Feedback took a while to come in, but after a few months - I had enough input to make a radically improved version 2. The “Beta”.

Until this point, I hadn’t tested if anyone would part with their money for the deck. That was the real test. So I set it up in a way that meant if a customer bought the “Beta”, it would entitle them to get the final production quality deck for free.

(Note: I haven’t gone into the product’s manufacturing, just because there’s so much to talk about there!)

A kind of mini-Kickstarter in a way. A presale of sorts.

I pushed the button on an email letting my (now slightly more extensive) mailing list about the beta program. I set the price at something I was mildly uncomfortable with (but not too high). I braced myself for crickets.

And crickets is what I got. After several minutes and seemingly a large amount of email opens. No one bought it.

I was impatient; it seemed - because only a few minutes later, I got my first sale. I cannot describe to you that feeling of making your first sale on the internet. Especially of a product you have created yourself! It’s the most rewarding, energy-inducing thing.

And then another sale. The cha-ching of the Shopify notification was like a hard drug. And then another. And it didn’t stop for the next hour. In the end, I had made 40 presales in one night!

I ended up sending out 60 beta decks. And again, a long wait was a part of the deal to getting helpful feedback to improve the product. But over this time, I made the final product available for pre-order.

By the time it came to launch. I had 250 pre-orders which meant I broke even on the first print run of 2000 decks.

I had already set up fulfillment from a third party warehouse because I just knew that there was no way I was going to spend my days visiting the post office. This turned out to be an excellent decision, because...

It just kept selling! (Fueled chiefly by Facebook and Instagram ads)

Now to date, I’ve sold just shy of 2000. I quit my full-time work as a UX designer - especially after I noticed that working for other people sucked the energy out of me. Working on my own thing gave me so much energy that I would jump out of bed to work on it.

But with a product bringing in close to £40k in revenue a month. How do I scale? I can’t rely on one product forever. Nor do I have the expertise (or time and energy) to create another deck myself.

But I had established a pretty good “standard” for a card deck and nailed my distribution. And I had found a product-market fit.

So now I’m working full time on my business and collaborating with other experts in their field to help them produce a card deck.

We’ve recently launched our next card deck on Kickstarter - working with an ex-BBC journalist. So far, it has raised a modest £50k!

I wanted to share this story to convey one thing: you may read many stories or threads with the “I started a business and now it’s doing a £bazillion MRR!”. And it sounds great. It makes you go, “wow! how did they go from one day not having a business to having a business that makes millions!?”

And the answer, I think - is a series of tiny leaps of faith. Get just enough of a signal that tells you to keep going even if it feels like it might fail. Take that little leap of faith and trust the process. The market will let you know if your idea sucks or not.

But also, don’t get hung up on the idea. What matters most is execution. Ideas are worthless unless executed well. Focus on the details. Focus on being genuinely helpful. Open yourself up to feedback that, yes - will hurt your ego but will ultimately improve the product.

Anyway, that’s enough of my unsolicited advice - from my minimal experience of entrepreneurship.

If you found any of this interesting or useful, I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about the journey. I’m an open book!

Oh, and if you want to check out Pip Decks.

  1. 2

    "I quit my full-time work as a UX designer - especially after I noticed that working for other people sucked the energy out of me. Working on my own thing gave me so much energy that I would jump out of bed to work on it."

    I can't relate more to that comment, just replace UX designer by Software developer. Thanks for sharing Charles!

    1. 1

      No probs. It’s probably a story as old as time itself! Or maybe just as old as the post-industrial revolution.

  2. 1

    Interesting. How many workshops do you hold a month?

    1. 1

      Now? Zero. My focus is on growing the product range and collaborating with other authors.

      I had to make a choice - am I selling workshop expertise? Or am I selling all kinds of expertise?

      I think the business is more valuable to customers with a wider offering of information. I didn’t want to become “the workshop guy”. I much prefer the “card deck guy” 😂

  3. 1

    "Now, full disclosure - none of my workshop sessions were original. They are borrowed, stolen and remixed from all over the place"

    Where were some of the places you found the content from? How did you tweak the content to make it your own?

    Cheers & congrats on the success.

    1. 1

      From experiencing other’s workshops, Google’s Design Sprint, frameworks used by the military for strategy and decision making. Manufacturers like Toyota. Books like Gamestorming and Lean UX. There’s so much out there, and like a DJ, the act of curation for a particular audience is not to be underestimated.

  4. 1

    What a journey! Thanks for sharing.

  5. 1

    thank you for sharing.
    As someone hosting workshops and process, i can relate.
    We have worked on a branding deck of cards. might revisit the idea again after your post. appreciate it

    1. 2

      Thanks for reading! Happy to chat and help in any way I can!

  6. 1

    Great story, thanks for sharing. 2000 is a serious number, congrats.

    Btw. your product link is wrong and doesn't lead to your site.

    1. 1

      Thanks! I’ve just updated it.

  7. 1

    Love the idea of physical cards that can help people generate stories about themselves/their product/anything.

    Who are your competitors in this space? I wasn't aware of it before :)

    1. 1

      Cheers Seth. Competitors are probably… books? Websites which already curate similar content? Doesn’t seem to be anyone else so far focusing purely on business orientated physical info-decks.

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