Here's How I Wrote a Book to Grow My Brand

Jeff Hyman is the Founder and Chief Talent Officer at Strong Suit, a Chicago-based executive recruiting firm for VC and PE companies. Read on for a transcript of his presentation from our January 16, 2018 Here’s How Startup Marketing Conference, where he describes how he wrote a book to grow his brand.

Good morning, thanks for having me. I appreciate the chance to share with you what I've learned over the past year writing my first and last book, I can assure you of that. For those of you who haven't really thought about recruiting or if you’re a first-time hiring manager, the key thing to know is that 50 percent of new hires flame out in the first 12 to 18 months. So if you're like most companies, you can literally flip a coin and you’ll have the same accuracy than if you put candidates through this whole laborious interview and assessment process. Most companies are pretty bad when it comes to recruiting, including my clients. As an executive recruiter I started to think about writing a guide or some kind of owner's manual to help them improve. That then warped into the book, which I'll tell you about in a bit.

First, I’ll tell you a little about myself. I've been in and around recruiting for about 25 years. I've started four businesses, most recently Retrofit, which is one of the leading online weight loss companies. It's actually based in Chicago as well. But today I’ll talk about Strong Suit, which is an executive search firm. I work with VC and private equity firms to recruit heads of marketing, heads of sales, heads of finance, CEOs, etc., for their portfolio companies. What I’ve noticed is that we are in a war for talent. We're at 4.1 percent unemployment, which basically means we're at full employment. It used to be pretty easy to hire; now, not so much. In fact, by the end of this year we're going to be at 3.5 percent, which means you're going to see some serious competition for talent.

So, I thought the timing for the book was pretty good. Unfortunately, this light bulb went on a little bit late and I didn’t have as much preparation time as I had hoped. So I set a deadline for myself that then became the schedule, and it was around four months from beginning to end.

1.  I stayed away from bad reasons to write – to make money, to just get something out or to feed my ego.

Frankly, the reason I decided to do the book was to make it a business card on steroids. I never had any expectation of selling books. This is not about ego where I said, "Oh my god, I’ve got to be an author." I have found that I agree with the notion that there's a book in all of us, but it’s getting it done that’s the hard part. The real reason I wrote the book was because most of my clients, when I would introduce candidates to them, had no idea what they were doing. They didn't know how to interview, how to do reference checks, how to vet and assess, etc. They were basically flipping a coin with their hires.

So I said, "You know what? I'm never going to present another candidate that I wouldn't put my name on." Now I actually guarantee my candidates for 12 months because I'm convinced that I just have to introduce great people. If the client picks one, two, three, five, of my candidates, I don't mind because I tee them up that way. But if I left it to their own devices they would make a bad choice. So that's how the origin of the book came about.

2.  I identified the challenges and created a monetization plan.

I thought, "You know what? A lot of companies really struggle with this. Why don't I turn it into a marketing opportunity and differentiate myself from the other 90,000 executive recruiters that are in the US?" The executive search industry is basically a bunch of one- to three-person firms, and most of them are not that great. Some of you have probably had experiences with recruiters and, as you know, many of them don't know what they're doing. The industry is not highly perceived.

I also saw this as an opportunity to generate leads. Like I said, I never expected to make money from the book, but I do a lot of executive searches and I'm always looking to take on more leads. I do a lot of speaking engagements such as this, so I'm always looking for more of those. Plus, I'm launching an online course shortly, which really takes the book and blows it out into a full online video course. So there were plenty of ways to monetize other than just purely the book.

That was my original path. I made the decision to write the book around April last year. There were a lot of steps made. I had no gray hair a year ago if you can believe that. I made every mistake in the book.

3.  I created a content framework before starting.

I started the process by really thinking about what the book would be all about. You may not know this, but 85 percent of business books are not written by the author you see on the front. They usually either use a ghost writer, a writing firm, or someone other than themselves, and I'm one of those people. I had the content. I was very clear about what the book was about, but I'm not a writer, nor did I have the time because it's pretty time consuming. Most people that start writing a book themselves never publish it.

So I engaged a ghost writer to help me write this and they were phenomenal. There are an army of these individuals out there, and they receive much lower pay than you might expect because they're struggling writers. Many of them are movie screenplay writers and they do this on the side. And I’m sure there are some really bad ones out there, too, but if you do your due diligence, get referrals and recommendations, you could find some great ones. I was fortunate to get a really talented writer. First, I worked with an outliner who helped me structure the book. She was based in Paris. Then, I worked with a writer based in Los Angeles who was an out-of-work TV writer who was amazing at writing the book.

I began with a framework and then diagnosed the biggest 10 mistakes that companies make when they hire because I've seen the same movie over and over so many times throughout the course of my career. They don't know what they're looking for and hiring managers have no idea what interview questions to ask. Sometimes they even skip reference checks all together. So I came up with a diagnosis for each of these 10 things.

How would you do it the right way if you wanted to increase that 50 percent accuracy to 90 percent accuracy? The hard part was putting pen to paper. Fortunately, I got a bit of a kick in the rump because I was named to Kellogg's faculty last year. This gave me a hard deadline of getting my content together to teach the MBA class there on recruiting. It forced me to get my act together and to get the content squared away. Turning it into words was actually much faster.

Do not ever write a book thinking you're going to sell books. It's virtually impossible. The average book in the US sells 250 copies a year. That's the average. Fortunately, I beat that a little bit. It was named a best-selling book. But still, I'll never make a penny from the book relative to what I've invested behind it in marketing.

4.  I designed a plan to promote it and secured cover blurbs from subject matter “celebrities.”

I've spent more time designing the marketing for the book than actually writing the book. If you think you'll just write a book and put it out there without a marketing plan you'll sell 250 copies versus 2,500 or 25,000 copies, which is my goal for the first year.

Cover blurbs are incredibly important. One of the key decisions that a reader makes when they're going to buy a book is the cover blurbs, and who they're from means way more than what they write. So I thought about who my target audience was going to be: CEOs, venture capitalists, private equity firms and academia. I was able to get the former Twitter CEO, a very prominent venture capitalist, Brad Feld, Chief Innovation Officer at Kellogg, to write blurbs. You ghost write them, then they edit and approve them. It makes a huge difference, as does the book cover design.

There's a whole body of science on book covers if you can believe it. It has to be legible in the size of the preview on Amazon, right? That's how people are making their decisions. You'll have a great cover designer and you'll come up with a great sexy cover but when you shrink it down you're like, "Well, what does that say?" So the cover, both front and back, is very important. The decision to go hardcover versus soft cover versus Kindle is also important. I wound up doing all three.

5.  I built a “launch team” to spread the word and get reviews.

I built a virtual launch team of specialists: a CO, a CM, a book PR agency, an agent, a course designer, a proofreader and a couple other folks. We built a micro-site, It's been a team effort. I've been the air traffic controller across that team, but they've really done an amazing job making it seem bigger than life. Getting the podcast, getting me placed in the media and speaking engagements as well. But it really has been more time marketing it than actually writing the book.

As I mentioned, the book was actually named an Amazon bestseller. There's a whole body of science on that, too, which I could tell you more than you ever wanted to know. Basically, you're not going to be a New York Times or a Wall Street Journal bestseller, but becoming an Amazon bestseller is actually very doable. It's a very achievable goal that entitles you to do a lot. We set our sites on the human resources category, which is a sleek little subcategory of a subcategory of a subcategory in Amazon.

The Results

It did very well out of the gate. I was able to activate a community of about 5,000 people to preorder it so that we had a spike on the first day of Amazon and were able to achieve bestseller status. That then activates the Amazon rankings and reviews. I've had to learn the hard way that when you get a certain number of positive reviews from people that don't have the same last name as you and who aren't connected to you on LinkedIn, because Amazon's pretty smart, their algorithm kicks in and you start to see the book advertised in many other places on Amazon. So if you're looking for leadership books you'll see Recruit Rockstars under that category as well. You would think getting reviews isn’t that hard but it actually is. You run out of your mom, dad and sisters pretty quickly. Thankfully, though, it’s been very well reviewed with five stars so far.

I think timing is everything. January is the biggest hiring month of the year so I knew I wanted to get it out by the holidays. It's also a good book for the executive in your life as a holiday gift. So we launched on Cyber Monday and it was a pretty good December for the book and has continued that momentum into January. I will not be doing a sequel.

I think so far it has achieved its goals. I've gotten three random calls from strangers in the past week to come do a paid speech, which was one of my goals. I'm hoping it'll really differentiate Strong Suit as a firm in the executive search industry.