Have you heard about 50 Shades of Grey? If not, you are most likely living in a cave. Women everywhere are buzzing about this bestselling erotic novel, which tells the story of a wealthy entrepreneur’s affair with an innocent college student. First-time author E.L. James has been mobbed at book signings, interviewed on TV and given a seven-figure contract with Vintage Books. Ellen DeGeneres read snippets from the novel aloud on her talk show, Barbara Walters discussed it on The View and Time magazine named James one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2012.
As I read about James’ phenomenal success, I couldn’t help but draw some business lessons from her story.
1. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. James, a 40-something TV exec, openly admits her books started off as “fan fiction” based around the characters in the wildly popular Twilight vampire novels. What plot there is also borrows elements from everything from Pretty Woman to Jane Eyre. When James published 50 Shades as a free e-book, she apparently struck a nerve, and the book took off. I can think of many business ideas that weren’t brand-new but became wildly successful by building on an existing product or service with a little tweaking. (Domino’s Pizza is one case. That company made billions by offering a 30-minute money-back guarantee.)
2. It doesn’t have to be perfect. No offense to James, who I’m sure is a very nice person, but her writing makes Twilight look like Shakespeare by comparison. While the literary community is up in arms about what this means for the decline of our civilization, James is filling a need (and making the aforementioned community seven figures). Tech companies live by the mantra “ship or die,” meaning it’s better to ship a product by its deadline even if there are a few bugs than to not ship at all. Are you fiddling endlessly with a new product or service? If it’s “good enough,” maybe it’s time to let go and launch.
3. Choose the most effective sales channel. I’ve read that e-readers have helped expand sales of romance and erotic fiction, since people can read the books surreptitiously without an embarrassing, bodice-ripping cover giving them away. Of course, using the e-book format made it easier for James to self-publish, but it was also a smart delivery move. Know how your customers want to buy and use your product or service and give it to them in the format they prefer.
4. Spread the word. As you might expect, social media is a big part of James’ success—she has an online community and a Facebook page. But good old word-of-mouth has been an even bigger factor in 50 Shades’ popularity, starting with those fan fiction and e-book readers who talked about it in their book groups, at the coffee house or on the soccer field until it went viral. Then, social media helped it truly explode. Don’t ignore either the new or the old way to spread the word about your product or service.
5. Be ready to build on your initial offering. Like any self-respecting author these days, James has turned 50 Shades into a trilogy: Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. I don’t know if she always planned it that way (Twilight was a trilogy, too), but with her fans rabidly demanding more of the story, she could hardly stop. Now she’s sold the movie rights to the trilogy. If your product or service takes off, looking for ways to build on that demand by launching a related product or service, upselling to new levels or otherwise piggybacking on its success is a time-tested business move.
6. Keep your eye on popular culture. Just as Twilight’s wild popularity created a market for plaid flannel shirts, or Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi character spawned several soup cafes, 50 Shades has sparked demand at shops that sell erotic paraphernalia. (I’m guessing there’s been a run on gray neckties, too.) Smart business owners keep abreast of what America is reading, doing, watching and thinking so they can be prepared to sell them what they want.
What is your Grey takeaway?
Photo credit: Courtesy E.L. James