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Storytime: Discovering a Better Business Model

Storytime: Discovering a Better Business Model

Storytime is a series of brief videos focused on a single idea relating to my work and/or personal life.

This is a brief story about discovering a business model that allowed us to remain a two-person company with a product we could make once and sell multiple times. The full version of this story is told in my book Big Enough.

➡️ Go to all Storytime videos

Big Enough Book Video Strategy ??

Big Enough Book Video Strategy ??

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


Today is a beautiful Saturday in August and it’s 70 degrees and sunny outside. Our friends are sending us photos of themselves on the beach and having an afternoon cocktail. But for me (and Sachi) it’s a workday. On Monday, the pre-order campaign will begin and I’m doing everything I can to motivate people to buy Big Enough before it comes out. The video below: “How to Help an Author” explains why this campaign is important.

One of the aspects of this project that I love the most is that it’s mostly DIY. We have help with publishing the book, but I built the website and created the videos from scratch. And let me tell you, hiking and setting up cameras and drone footage with two big dogs tied to your waist, who would rather be exploring, is a real challenge (video below).

Videos

Creating videos to go along with Big Enough has been a joy. Making media is a passion of mine and the book gave me an opportunity to make three videos to go along with the launch:

This video explains why pre-orders and review matter to authors.

How to Help an Author

A live-action video on Orcas Island that asks: what does “living the good life” mean to you?

Big Enough Book Trailer

A brief animation that explains one of the big ideas of the book: designing a business to grow what matters to you.

Big Enough for What Matters

Website

The book’s web page on leelefever.com is be the home of the pre-order campaign and we’re shining up the last bits. For example, we’re offering incentives for pre-ordering. If you pre-order the book and send me a screenshot of the receipt, I’ll send you three stickers. If you buy five, I’ll send you Big Enough socks. Making all this clear is a challenge and I’m happy with how it’s turning out.

Big Enough socks
pre-order campaign

Outreach

Authors in my position can make their book more successful by directly contacting people in their network. I have a list of a few hundred people that I will email individually next week with a request: please pre-order the book or share it online. It will take time, but I really enjoy connecting with everyone.

Social Media + Blogging

I have been increasingly active on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. I don’t want to overwhelm anyone with book messages, so I post a mix of things in addition to book updates. When I write posts like this one, I usually share the link on Twitter and LinkedIn. I started blogging on leelefever.com in 2003, but I admit, I let it languish for a few years. Now, I’m motivated to make it one of my most useful resources and that means consistent blogging.

Common Craft

I expect the book to raise the visibility of Common Craft and in the past week, we completed some much-needed development work. This weekend I’m reviewing the changes and making final tweaks so that it will be ready for prime time.

Podcasts

I’m recording a few podcasts this week and preparing by reviewing previous episodes of those shows. I’m also working on outreach to podcasts hosts who might be open to having me as a guest.The first podcast episode about Big Enough was just published yesterday.

Headspace

In the past, I’ve struggled with self-promotion. With the release of Big Enough, I’m working to overcome my anxiety about it and doing everything I can to help the book be successful. If I’m going to be an author for the long term, I have to be ready to promote myself. Every day, I remind myself that I’m doing the right things and learning. Sachi’s ongoing support is essential.

Needless to say, we have a lot in motion and I’m honestly surprised by how good I feel about it. I’m excited to contact friends and can’t wait to be on podcasts. Once the launch arrives, the bulk of my work will be done and the book will be out in the world.

30 Days to Launch – What I’m Doing

30 Days to Launch – What I’m Doing

Big Enough will be officially published in 30 days, on September 15th. As you can imagine, the book is constantly on my mind and taking up hours of each day. Here’s what I’m doing right now:

Today is a beautiful Saturday in August and it’s 70 degrees and sunny outside. Our friends are sending us photos of themselves on the beach and having an afternoon cocktail. But for me (and Sachi) it’s a workday. On Monday, the pre-order campaign will begin and I’m doing everything I can to prepare. My goal is to sell as many pre-order copies as I can because all pre-order sales count on launch day. If the number is big enough, it can create a splash that earns attention for the book.

Videos

Creating videos to go along with Big Enough has been a joy. Making media is a passion of mine and the book gave me an opportunity to create a live-action video as the trailer that includes videos shot with a drone. Two other videos are more Common Craft Style. I’ll be sharing them all soon. At the moment, two videos have been finalized and the third will be done later today. We’re adding captions and uploading them to the sharing services in the next two days. Yay!

big enough video images

Website

The book’s web page on leelefever.com will be the home of the pre-order campaign and we’re shining up the last bits. For example, we’re offering incentives for pre-ordering. If you pre-order the book and send me a screenshot of the receipt, I’ll send you three stickers. If you buy five, I’ll send you Big Enough socks. Making all this clear is a challenge and we’re so very close.

Outreach

Authors in my position can make their book more successful by directly contacting people in their network. I have a list of a few hundred people that I will email individually next week with a request: please pre-order the book or share it online. It will take time, but I really enjoy connecting with everyone.

Social Media + Blogging

I have been increasingly active on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. I don’t want to overwhelm anyone with book messages, so I post a mix of things in addition to book updates. When I write blog posts like this one, I usually share the link on Twitter and LinkedIn. I started blogging on leelefever.com in 2003, but I admit, I let it languish for a few years. Now, I’m motivated to make it one of my most useful resources and that means consistent blogging.

Common Craft

I expect the book to raise the visibility of Common Craft and in the past week, we completed some much-needed development work. This weekend I’m reviewing the changes and making final tweaks so that it will be ready for prime time.

Podcasts

I’m recording a few podcasts next week and preparing by reviewing previous episodes of those shows. I’m also working on outreach to podcasts hosts who might be open to having me as a guest.

Headspace

In the past, I’ve struggled with self-promotion. With the release of Big Enough, I’m working to overcome my anxiety about it and doing everything I can to help the book be successful. If I’m going to be an author for the long term, I have to be ready to promote myself. Every day, I remind myself that I’m doing the right things and learning. Sachi’s ongoing support is essential.

Needless to say, we have a lot in motion and I’m honestly surprised by how good I feel about it. I’m excited to contact friends and can’t wait to be on podcasts. Once the launch arrives, the bulk of my work will be done and the book will be out in the world.

Learn more about Big Enough.

Who is Common Craft?

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.

Rumbling with YouTube Re-Uploaders

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.

Watch early Common Craft videos on YouTube.

The Moment Everything Changed at Common Craft ⚡️

The Moment Everything Changed at Common Craft ⚡️

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


In 2006, Sachi and I picked up a little handheld video camera while traveling and I learned to edit short travel videos on the road. The videos were not sophisticated or particularly well made, but they left an impression. Using this video camera and computer, I could make amateur videos.

As I was learning to work the controls and edit the footage, the technology world was changing quickly. YouTube was new and growing fast. Social media was starting to become popular and I was fascinated. I started blogging in 2003 and became an early adopter of Twitter and social networking. I had a very strong sense that these tools were going to be big.

Aside from us, these are the main characters in this story: do-it-yourself videos and social media. 

In 2007, Sachi joined Common Craft, which was my one-person consulting practice at the time. My consulting was going well, but we both sensed that we could do more and talked endlessly about how Common Craft could be a part of the social media revolution. Above all, we wanted to identify a problem and solve it. We wanted our work to be useful.

Years earlier, I had developed a series of blog posts that were designed to explain online tools like wikis and social networking. Those posts were popular and I felt at home explaining technology. Looking back over these old posts, an idea emerged. What if we turned the blog posts into videos and shared them on YouTube? It seemed worth a try.

I started creating a DIY studio in our basement. I filmed myself explaining social media with markers while standing in front of a whiteboard. As I quickly learned, this type of video is much more difficult than it seems. I had zero experience on camera, we didn’t know how to light the space properly, and I couldn’t organize my thoughts on the fly. The memory of it still makes me cringe.

The failure of this first experiment was discouraging and caused me to lose faith that we could work with video. Maybe we needed training? Seeing my frustration, Sachi went into problem-solving mode and made a suggestion: what if we put the whiteboard on the floor, pointed the camera down onto it and used only hands, markers and paper cut-outs to explain an idea? By showing nothing but the whiteboard and our hands, the focus would be on the explanation, instead of me. It made sense.

Within a day or two, I had reconfigured our basement studio with the whiteboard on the floor. It was lit by a constellation of bedroom lamps that represented our best estimate of what an actual video producer would do in our shoes. We were making it up as we went along.

Our Second Generation Studio Setup

The first subject we chose to explain was something called RSS (Really Simple Syndication), which makes it easy to subscribe to a website and be notified when new posts appear. RSS, at the time, was useful, free, and poorly understood. It was a problem we could solve.

We made the video in an afternoon, edited it the next day and in April of 2007, published RSS in Plain English on YouTube and the Common Craft blog. We thought the video was interesting and might get a few views. We hoped it could lead to more consulting or visibility for Common Craft. It was, after all, an experiment.

I had no idea at the time, but the moment I clicked “Publish” was the moment our lives changed in fundamental ways. From that point on, we started operating in uncharted territory.

Within minutes of RSS in Plain English hitting the web, it started to receive views and comments that flowed faster than we could read them. Bloggers around the world embedded the video on their blogs. Emails poured in. The video went viral and it felt like striking gold. We both lived in a state of shock for a few days. Despite it being poorly produced, the video was popular because it explained RSS in a way that everyone could understand. Watch below:

RSS in Plain English

Before we knew it, we were known as video producers and continued making videos that explained social media tools like wikis and social networking in the same style. Today, those videos are known as the first “explainer” videos of the YouTube era and we became known as the pioneers of that little genre. It seemed everyone had seen a Common Craft video. 

The attention was overwhelming. Common Craft quickly transformed into a homemade video production studio and over a number of years, we were hired to create similar videos for Google, Intel, Ford, Microsoft, LEGO, Dropbox and many more.

We also continued to make our own videos that were purely educational. These videos, what we call our “original” videos, are Common Craft’s focus today.

And it all started with an experiment in making media by two people with no qualifications, very little experience, and a homemade studio. Since 2007, we’ve been on a mission to turn that initial spark into a career and a business that works for us. Today, thirteen years later, we’re still on that mission and as you’ve seen, it recently led us to Orcas Island, where we’ll continue to produce videos.

If you’re curious, we just published a new original video that explains the difference between online and local documents. Watch it here.