Some lessons from business and writing

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The writer Lee Child and businessman Sir Hugh Sykes were interviewed during the Off the Shelf Festival of Words in Sheffield.

They do two seemingly different things – one writes the Reacher novels, sitting down on the 1st of September and writing a book by March. He reads 300 books a year.

The other has bought 20-30 companies over the course of his career, which started by becoming the CFO of a FTSE 500 company in his 20s, and attributes his success to hard work and a good dose of luck.

Two things in particular stood out for me.

Hugh described how he learned to use money to build things. It was a simple process that he picked up from Jim Slater.

Buy a company. Improve it and add value. Float it on the stock market. Use the shares with increased value to buy another company. Rinse and repeat.

It’s simple, he said, but not easy.

This echoes a favourite saying of Warren Buffett. The principles of investing are simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Your worst enemy is yourself sometimes, and the emotions – the fear and greed that drives decision making.

Hugh also said that when you put your mind to it, it’s amazing what you can do and he found that very few problems were truly insuperable.

One final point – business planning once again is simple. Where do you want to go – what’s your objective? How are you going to get there? What do you need – what are the resources?

Answer those three questions and you are on your way.

Lee Child, on the other hand, got into writing after he lost his job in the TV industry doing something very specialised. The skills weren’t transferable, and he had to learn to write again.

He once had Reacher say “I tried it their way. Now I’m going to do it my way”. And that served as a guide for him as well.

When he started writing, he didn’t plan out the next 22 years and books. Instead, he started to explore through his writing and the character and story emerged.

An interesting observation he made was that sometimes people look down on mass-market fiction, thinking that somehow it is less literary and so less important or easier.

He pointed out, however, that only a few people buy Rolls Royces, so you can create a custom product for them, and someone will buy it.

A mass-market car has to appeal to many more people, and so is actually harder to put together in a way that is successful.

This has parallels in business – it’s easy to create a niche product that a specific group want, and often that’s the way to get started.

To build a big business with a wide market, however, is a much bigger challenge.

Easy reading requires hard writing.

Two lessons that I took:

  1. Niche is easy. Mass is hard.
  2. Simple does not mean easy.

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