5 Tips Today's Entrepreneurs Can Learn From J. K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling's rags-to-riches story is inspiring in many ways, especially for struggling entrepreneurs.
August 23, 2011

J. K. Rowling is the English writer who has authored all seven beloved Harry Potter novels. Her rise to fame and fortune is inspiring. As of June, 2011, she has sold over 450 million books that have been translated into 67 languages. The final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was the fastest-selling book of all time.

At age 46, her fortune is estimated at $1 billion. Forbes has named her the first person to become a "U.S.-dollar billionaire by writing books." In 2008, the Sunday Times Rich List ranked her as the "twelfth richest woman in the United Kingdom." And in 2010 Rowling was named the “Most Influential Woman in Britain” by leading magazine editors.

When this all began in 1990, however, things were very different. She was not a published author. She did not have a lot of money. She was living in London, working as a researcher and bi-lingual secretary for Amnesty International, and her mother had just died. She later had to go on state assistance to provide food and a home for herself and her baby daughter. How she got from there to where she is today is a story filled with invaluable tips for today's entrepreneurs.

Tip 1: Don’t rush to roll out your product

“Destiny is a name often given in retrospect to choices that had dramatic consequences.” 

Although Rowling had been a writer all her life, she was slow to publish. She said, “I had written two novels before I had the idea for Harry, though I'd never tried to get them published (and a good job too, I don't think they were very good).”

All too often, as small business owners, we rush to get a product out before its time, before it’s been fully considered or tested. Rowling sets a great example of getting a product just right before presenting it to the world.

Tip 2: When a great idea grabs you, grab back

“You sort of start thinking anything's possible if you've got enough nerve.” 

Great ideas are unmistakably powerful in their announcement and come when least expected. Rowling says:

"Where the idea for Harry Potter actually came from, I really couldn't tell you. I was traveling on a train between Manchester and London and it just popped into my head. I spent four hours thinking about what Hogwarts would be like. By the time I got off at King's Cross, many of the characters in the books had already been invented."

As small business owners, we know when a great idea is upon us. The problem is, we often question it, second-guess it and rationalize it away. Not Rowling. She recognized the mark of a powerful idea, seized upon it and went with it.

Tip 3: Persevere, persevere and persevere

“It is our choices...that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Rowling moved to Portugal to teach English as a Second Language in 1991 and married her first husband the following year. They divorced in 1993. The next year, she moved to Scotland. At this point, she was an unemployed single mother living on welfare. In 1995, she completed her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, typing it out on an old manual typewriter. She handed in the book to twelve publishing houses. They all rejected it.

Rowling never gave up. She did not stop just because life was hard. Despite all the changes and setbacks she was experiencing, she carried on. She persevered. As small business owners, we would do well to keep her example in mind.

Tip 4: Don’t let anyone sidetrack you from your goal

“If you're holding out for universal popularity, I'm afraid you will be in this cabin for a very long time.”  

Finally, Bloomsbury, a small publisher, agreed to publish the first book. Her editor, though, says that he “advised Rowling to get a day job, since she had little chance of making money in children’s books.”

It’s a good thing she didn’t let this advice discourage her—all seven volumes of the Harry Potter series have broken sales records. What a shining role model Rowling is for small business owners. She didn’t let anyone stand in the way of her goal—not even herself.

Tip 5: Each of us has a unique contribution to make to the world

“I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It's totally for myself.” 

J. K. Rowling never went searching for the kind of success she’s received. “I just wrote the sort of thing I liked reading when I was younger (and still enjoy now!). I didn't expect lots of people to like them, in fact, I never really thought much past getting them published.”

It wasn’t fame or wealth that J. K. Rowling sought. No. She simply wanted to contribute to the world in general, and to children specifically. As today's entrepreneurs, this is so important to learn. Focus on the unique something you have to offer to the world. The rest will surely come, in ways you may not even be able to imagine.