The Blog

Saying Thanks During a Pandemic

One of the first big challenges of marketing a book is getting endorsements or “blurbs” from influential people. It’s stressful because you are not only asking favors of people you admire, but you’re sharing the book for the first time. It’s easy to feel nervous about their perceptions.

I made a list of about 15 people and contacted them via email. To my surprise, nearly everyone responded. Some didn’t have time, but the majority agreed to read an early version of the book and provide an endorsement that’s used in at the beginning of the book and in marketing on bookseller websites, my website, and more.

I took on this project in February of 2020, expecting the book to come out in May. With the blurbs approved, I asked for each endorser’s mailing address and planned to send them a thank you card. Then, the pandemic hit, and the book’s release got pushed to September. I wanted to send them something as a thank you, but a card didn’t seem as safe as it once was.

So I made an animated gif for each person, using Common Craft artwork, and included it an email. Along with the gif, I included a photo of their blurb in the book. Here’s how it went:

I hope you are well. Normally, I’d send a card to say thanks for endorsing Big Enough, but I think we’re all better off using bits instead of atoms these days. So, I made this as a thank you:

Closing the loop on the endorsements is one more thing off a very long list. So, hooray for that and the people who took time to work with me on the blurbs.

Final Covers of BIG ENOUGH

While it’s probably true that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, most people do. Covers can have a big impact on sales and getting the cover right is a big priority. Here’s the final front cover for my book Big Enough:

I had the help of Page Two Books and designer Peter Cocking. We worked together over a few weeks to give it the feel we thought was appropriate. While it’s a business book, I really see Big Enough as a book about a business. It reads more like a memoir or autobiography and we wanted the cover to feel personal and engaging. I wanted it to send the message “this is a business book that doesn’t seem like homework”.

The dog helps. It’s hard to look too serious with a cute dog on the cover. I thought the French bulldog was an iconic symbol for Big Enough: small in size, big in attitude. We call the dog “Big-E” and he has become part of the book’s marketing. Here’s a sticker I had designed for pre-orders that uses Big-E as inspiration:

dog sticker in gray

I’m so thankful to those who provided endorsements, which are quotes about the book by influential people. There is one on the front from Auston Kleon, three on the back cover, and eleven endorsements in the first few pages of the book. It meant so much to me that they would take the time to read an early version of the book and provide a quote.

The Back Cover

The back cover is meant to help people get a quick feel for the content of the book. Along with endorsements from Seth Godin, Tara Hunt, and Jason Kottke, the back has a finely-crafted description of the book. Jessica Werb was a big help in getting it right.

Here’s the full spread:

Big Enough hits the shelves on September 15th, 2020. Find purchase options.

Indy Publishing and the Discourse Blog

In October of 2019, a news website called Splinter, which was under the same management at Gizmodo and Jezebel, was shuttered and the staff was fired. So, a group of Splinter writers created a new news site that became a labor of love. It’s called the Discourse Blog.

This story probably sounds familiar, but I think its outcome is becoming a model for the future. The people at Discourse developed the new site and earned an audience, but the content remained free. The model wasn’t supporting their livelihoods. At the same time, they saw an opportunity to have unconventional aspirations that went against industry trends. As co-owner Aleksander Chan wrote:

But we’re also immensely motivated by what we hope will be a new frontier in digital media: Truly independent, worker-owned and operated publications. We have zero aspirations to grow into an enormous media conglomerate making hundreds of millions of dollars; arguably, one reason why so many publications are struggling and thousands of journalists have lost their jobs is because all the wrong people are getting into the business to become the next Murdochs, Redstones, Sulzbergers, etc. 

The team recently announced that the blog would soon be available with a paid subscription ($8 per month or $85 per year). Aleks goes on to say that the team has a different perspective when it comes to aspirations for the business.

Our ambitions, we think, are appropriately modest: a small, sustainable business that helps support our livelihoods doing work that is uncompromised by larger corporate interests. No chasing pageviews, no insane, hockey-stick growth goals. Just posts we believe in and actually want to publish.

How refreshing! This is a trend that I hope gains traction. It’s built on the basic idea of Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans essay from 2008, which has a big influence on me and Common Craft’s design.

To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.

His essay was one of the first to open my eyes to the potential to aspire to serve a small but dedicated audience. A big part of that idea is working directly with customers, which Discourse is doing with subscriptions. I wish them great success.

At Common Craft, we spent a decade experimenting with independent publishing. See how we did it in Big Enough.

Who is Common Craft?

It makes my day when I receive an email from someone who says something like, “I’ve been a fan since the first video!” It’s hard to believe that was in 2007, over 13 years ago. 

At the time, we were new and different. Our style of videos attracted attention just as YouTube was becoming a major player and people were becoming curious about social media. The viral success of those first videos, RSS in Plain English and Wikis in Plain English, took us by surprise and changed our trajectory. Starting then, we became known as video producers and explainers, despite having no prior experience. 

While Common Craft has covered a lot of ground over the years, our story is really about what hasn’t changed. In many ways, Common Craft is the same company it was in 2007. We are still a husband and wife team who works from home and produces explainer videos. We’ve never had employees and don’t plan to. We’ve never had formal office space or investors or a board of directors. Those are things we chose not to have. 

You might assume that being in the creative business means we are focused on our craft and our business is an afterthought. This perception looks even more convincing knowing that we don’t have employees and work from home. To a business-minded person, we probably don’t appear serious about our business because we haven’t grown. I get it. That’s how success is supposed to be measured in the business world. 

The reality, our reality, is that we are entrepreneurial, but playing a new and different game with different goals. Over the last decade, we’ve experimented with a number of business models, including creative services, licensing, a marketplace, distribution partnerships, online courses, and a subscription service. That’s the game. We are small, agile, and entrepreneurial enough to test what’s possible and discover ways to do business that reflect who we are. We serve a relatively small audience that supports us.

The question becomes: Who are we?

Sachi and I are very different people who share a similar view of the world and our place in it. That view is based, in part, on the idea that we can decide who we are and want to become. We can choose to live unconventionally and run our business in whatever form we want, as long as we can support ourselves and keep our customers smiling. We have choices and that’s the revelation. We all have more choices than we realize. 

At the heart of this perspective is a belief that too many people live their lives according to the expectations of others, whether it’s family, peers, or society at large. These expectations, which can be helpful and productive, also serve as blinders that prevent new ideas from seeming reasonable and possible. They keep us focused on what’s normal and proven. 

Early on, we decided to ditch the blinders and devote ourselves to living the lives and running the business that reflected our values and what we alone thought was possible.

That’s why we’ve remained small. We wanted a business that could be a laboratory. We believed, because of the internet, that two people could design a business that solves a problem for a global audience without sacrificing our happiness, health, and autonomy. That has been our goal for a decade and we’re closer than ever to reaching it.

Today, Common Craft operates according to our own design. The company is a membership service for educators who teach technology and digital responsibility. Educators and organizations become members of Common Craft to use our library of videos and downloadable visuals, which are digital products that scale easily. This model means that we own and manage every part of the business; our website, our videos, our members, our income, our time, from our home. I personally feel this is the future of business. Small, agile, and scalable. 

I hope that our story can serve as inspiration. We don’t have to do what business culture says we’re supposed to do. All the expectations and obligations you feel may be blinding you and putting you in the same box with everyone else. If that’s where you’re comfortable, that’s great. But if you’re ready to take off the blinders and test what’s possible, then we’re here to be a model.

In September, I’ll publish a book called Big Enough – Building a Business that Scales with Your Lifestyle. It’s a guide to building an unconventional business that values more than the bottom line. It tells the story of Common Craft over a decade and all the experiments we ran in search of the life and work we wanted. 

big enough cover

If you’d like to read a sample chapter and be notified when the book arrives, you can sign up here.

Hummingbird

Female Rufous Hummingbird (I Think)

Since moving to Orcas, hummingbirds have become part of everyday life. Our neighbors all have flowers and feeders, so they buzz around like they own the place. I’ve never seen them so curious. They will come right up to your face and seem to look you in the eye. The close-proximity sound of their wings almost seems mechanical, like something from Black Mirror.

I’ve always wanted to get a photo but they move too quickly. That’s why I was a bit delighted to find one at our construction site. When I walked in, I heard a buzzing sound from our guest room, which currently has windows but no walls. The hummingbird, perhaps for the first time in its life, was battling a pane of glass that wouldn’t budge. After taking a couple of photos, I cupped it in my hand a released it back into the wild.

Maybe the next time one looks me in the eye, I’ll know why.

Rumbling with YouTube Re-Uploaders

Common Craft videos could not have become popular without YouTube. Starting in 2007, the site was our platform for sharing videos and it helped us reach millions of people. I’ll never forget uploading a new video and watching it get embedded on websites around the world.

When we uploaded our first video, RSS in Plain English, to YouTube, it took less than two days to see our first copy-cat. A guy in France created a version in French that was similar to ours and to his credit, he notified us and we said it was OK. He was inspired.

Over time, Common Craft copy-cats became common. Most of the time, they were people inspired by our work and experimenting with their own stories. We came to see it as an honor. We worked to protect our trademark and copyright, but didn’t try to prevent them from copying our style. Even today, we encourage people to use our style for their own videos. A search for “Common Craft Style” on YouTube yields thousands of results, mostly by students and teachers.

One of the side effects of using YouTube is the ease at which it’s possible to download and then re-upload a video to another account. This violates copyright law and YouTube’s terms of service. But it was difficult to stop. YouTube is full of people who steal other people’s videos and reupload them with ads so they can make money. Seeing it happen over and over was frustrating and often I would try to contact the account owner to ask them to remove our video. If they didn’t, I would have it taken down by YouTube on the basis of a copyright claim. In some cases, their accounts were suspended.

Sometimes trying to stop re-uploaders felt like I was removing a grain of sand from a beach. I could have spent weeks trying to remove the offending videos and still not have made a dent. I eventually assumed it was just part of using YouTube. This was a big reason we made commoncraft.com the home of our original videos. 

Last week, thirteen years after we started using it, YouTube released a Copyright Match Tool that sniffs out copyright violating videos and provides them in a nice list. If you choose, you can select and report them, fifty videos at a time. Finally, there was a way to know how our videos were being used on other accounts and it was surprising. 

The copyright tool found 1,164 Common Craft videos that were reuploaded to other accounts. When sorted by views, they added up to millions. The highest viewed video had 1.1 million views and others had hundreds of thousands. Many of the highest viewed videos had been edited to include a post-roll promotion for another company at the end. It was amazing and disheartening. 

As someone who makes his living on intellectual property, I’m thankful that YouTube is taking this issue seriously and providing options. When reporting a video, you can send the account a warning to remove the video in seven days, or have it taken down immediately. For now, we’re giving the accounts a chance to do the right thing before a formal takedown happens. My hope is that the tool will discourage people in the future.

More than anything else, I’m confident that we made the right decision to move away from YouTube years ago. Platform risk is real.

Powering a Home with Batteries

We live on Orcas Island in Washington State, which is serviced by ferries and has about 3,000 year round residents. For most of the time it’s been developed, the power infrastructure has been fragile. It’s a densely wooded place and trees often fall on overhead power lines during winter storms. Our neighbors tell stories about power going out over a dozen times in the winter and sometimes staying off for a week or two. For this reason, many houses have built-in generators that run on propane. As soon as the power goes out, the generator kicks on and powers essential things like the refrigerators, water pumps, and lights.

When we started planning our house on Orcas Island, people often asked about our plans for a generator assuming we’d need one. For a while, we had the same assumption. Before starting the construction project, we lived on the island for about 18 months and saw that power outages were becoming more rare. Power lines were moving underground and the power company (a co-op) was fixing problems quickly. The power still went out a few times a year, but for hours and not days.

We also started looking into alternatives to propane generators. Along with using fossil fuel, they are expensive and painful to maintain. We wanted to build a house with smarter, more sustainable options that had the potential to save us money over the long term.

From the beginning of the project, we planned to use solar panels on our roof. Right now, we’re working with an electrician to be sure the house has the proper “rough-in” for making solar installation easy when we can afford it. One of the traditional problems of solar energy is storage. For many years, the energy from solar panels was either used at the moment or sold back to the grid. There wasn’t a good way to store the energy produced during the day and use it once the sun goes down, or during power outages.

In these discussions with the electricians, we took a closer look at batteries designed to store energy that can be used by the home. Like the solar panels, we wanted to be sure the house is being built with the right connections in place for the future. Once the drywall goes up, these things become more difficult.

Tesla, the same company that creates vehicles, created a product called the Powerwall that earned a lot of attention because it made home-based energy storage an option. Today, multiple companies offer similar products. They’re essentially a battery pack that is connected to your house, the grid, the internet, and often, solar panels. The batteries remain at least 80% full and when your house loses power from the grid, batteries keep appliances running instead of a generator. The batteries are expandable, but don’t necessarily power a full house or offer more than a day of energy in a blackout.

Learning about these products changed how we thought about backups for our house. Instead of a generator, we plan to have a battery in our garage that is programmed to bridge us through short-term power outages. Once we install solar panels, the goal is to keep it charged with sunlight. This way, sun during the day can charge batteries that work overnight or during outages.

The battery storage companies we’ve looked at so far are:

If you have any experience with these products, I’d love to talk to you.

The House Project

In the spring of 2017, Sachi and I became consumed with an idea. On a camping trip to Orcas Island, which is off the NW coast of Washington State, we started to ask serious questions about the future. While drinking wine from a box by a campfire, we first started to consider getting property and someday moving to the island. 

By June, we were back on Orcas Island looking at vacant land with a realtor and Sachi asked if we could see a house. We figured we couldn’t afford a house, but what the heck? What we saw that day was a nice piece of west facing property with a water view. On the property was an odd, fifteen-sided house that was built by a family in the 80s. It was shabby, but livable and we soon made an offer.  

This yurt-shaped house became ours in September and was the only house we toured on the entire island. It all happened so quickly. We never dreamed we’d have a house on the island in such short order. It was available, in part, because no one looking for a vacation home would choose that one. 

At first we spent weekends, then weeks on the island. Thanks to a good internet connection, work was the same as in Seattle. Before long, we found ourselves dreading the trip back to the city and decided to make the big move. In early 2019, we committed to leaving Seattle and starting over on Orcas Island. The house we’d owned since 2003 hit the market that spring.

We moved to the island as permanent residents and started planning the biggest project of our lives: designing and building a new home for us and headquarters for Common Craft. Working with an on-island contractor and architect friend, the new house started to come to life on paper and then in three dimensions. 

Soon, the yurt-shaped house was gone and we moved to a guest house over a neighbor’s garage for a planned eighteen-month stay.  

Today, we are deep into the project and it’s taking everything we have to make it happen. The structure is built and we’re in the “rough-in” phase where plumbing and electrical is installed. Soon we’ll have insulation and drywall. 

Every day is a mix of our normal work and house projects. Sometimes it’s researching lights, others it’s painting or doing odd jobs that limit costs. Along with construction, I’m learning a lot about new products and ideas that focus on efficiency and sustainability. This will be our forever house and our goal is to get it right. 

I often say that happiness lives in anticipation and that anticipation is what gets us through. This project adds significant stress to our lives and can sometimes be exhausting. But it’s also satisfying to learn about the process and see the house come to life. The day we can move in can’t come soon enough. 

Spring 2020

You can find all house-related posts in the house category.

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I’ve also written extensively about the move to Orcas and the house project in my newsletter. Here are a few key posts:

You’ll Never Walk Alone

I have watched English football for many years and often spend Saturday mornings with matches on in the background. I know many of the most popular players, but have never mustered enough interest to pick a team and become a true supporter. As an American with no regional affiliation, it seems rather arbitrary, as if they are brands on a shelf.

Even from this distance, I am aware of Liverpool and the anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” that is sung by fans at the beginning and end of each match. This song (and Liverpool football history) became much more fascinating to me to after listening to an episode of John Green’s podcast Anthropocene Reviewed in which he tells two stories about Liverpool.

Even if you’re not a football fan, John’s podcast is scripted and his writing is amazing. You should listen.

It should be noted that Liverpool had a record-breaking season that started in 2019. They were ready to cruise to their first EPL championship since 1990. With just a handful of matches remaining, coronavirus stopped all play and the season was canceled or postponed. The heartbreak!

Since then, the league has agreed to finish the season. Because of the size of their lead, they can lose all the games and still be champions.

Publishing a Book During a Pandemic (Or Not)

In publishing a book, timing matters. You’ve spent a year or more writing it and developing the final product. You have a system set up for pre-orders and help with promotions. All the arrows point to a single date on the calendar: your publishing date. If all goes well, the book creates a splash on that day and the ripples reach further than you ever could.

That’s the dream.

For the past six months, I’ve worked to arrange all the arrows to point to the day that Big Enough would be published. For me, that date was May 5th, 2020. 

Living in Washington State, home of the first COVID-19 diagnosis and death in the U.S., I was well aware of the virus’ potential impact on public health and the economy. I didn’t worry about the book at first. As the virus swept across the country and states issued stay-at-home orders, I saw a renewed interest in reading. People asked for book recommendations on Twitter. Maybe being home could actually be good for book sales?

I also saw that the themes of Big Enough were well-suited for the current situation. It’s about designing a business that can weather a storm and be resilient. I discuss a kind of entrepreneurship that aspires to be small, home-based and diversified. A full chapter is devoted to a mode of living we call “The Monetorium” that’s focused on reducing expenses to help accomplish a goal or get through a crisis.

In some ways, the planned timing of Big Enough’s May release seemed quite good. It is perhaps more relevant than ever before and part of me felt that publishing it was a risk worth taking. It could help business-oriented people adjust to the new, post-COVID environment.

In a normal situation, April would have been a busy month. I’d be lining up podcast appearances, writing articles, and publishing videos. My goal would have been to introduce as many people as possible to the book and help them see why it matters. Momentum in April would go toward making a splash in May. 

I soon realized, along with the rest of the world, that April and May were not shaping up to be normal months. In fact, they were looking increasingly like months of when COVID-19 would be at its peak. I had to ask myself: do I feel comfortable marketing a book during a pandemic? This led to a practical consideration: Could the publishing date change? 

The clock was ticking. I asked my publishing partners at Page Two about the potential to move the date and they said it was possible and making the decision a month in advance would give the supply chain time to adjust. That created a deadline. I needed to decide by April 5th.

The potential to move the date felt like an escape hatch. As the news grew grimmer by the day, I became more pessimistic. Marketing and publishing a book during a tragedy didn’t seem right to me on a personal level. This feeling was bolstered by a number of practical considerations.  

One concern was logistics. With so many businesses closed, the supply chains that reliably deliver books to stores and warehouses could be disrupted and become unpredictable. There’s a real possibility my publishing date could arrive without books on shelves.

Further, coronavirus news is dominating and will continue to dominate everyone’s attention. The potential to build awareness for a new book seemed like an overwhelming challenge, even with a pertinent message. 

Lastly, there is the economy. The Federal Reserve recently said that unemployment could reach 32%. On the same day, the IMF announced that we were officially in a global recession. These are not good signs for selling anything in the short term. 

My overall feeling was that the publish date had to change. There are too many unknowns and risks. The only certainty was that the coronavirus will still be with us in May. On a personal level, I worried about appearing tone-deaf.

In a recent meeting with Page Two, we decided to refocus our efforts on publishing Big Enough in the fall, probably in early September. I’m happy with this decision and hopeful that, by then, we’ll be recovering from the pandemic and starting to feel more positively about the future. If we’re right, the book will hit shelves at a time when it can help people who are reassessing their careers and lifestyles. If we’re right, it could make an even bigger splash.

Today this decision feels like a relief. In the rush to publish a book, it’s sometimes difficult to take a step back and reassess messaging and marketing. Deadlines must be met. With this change of date, I now have the luxury to look at Big Enough with fresh eyes and think long and hard about how it will land in what is hopefully a post-COVID environment.

If you would like to be notified about the release of Big Enough and download a sample chapter, you can do so at bigenough.life

lee lefever headshot

About Me

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island and write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

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