I recently reached 2.6M followers on LinkedIn. And this is crazy. Because not that long ago, I was nowhere as a writer. For years, I had published books, written articles, and so on – but nothing had really worked. I was a failed writer, despite over five years of effort.
Looking back, it is clear to me that it was LinkedIn (and self-publishing books) that made all the difference. So this is a thank you / quasi-love letter to LinkedIn. Well, as much as a grown man should ever write such a letter to a corporation.
When I started in 2010, trying to be a business writer pretty much sucked.
I started doing business writing around 2010 and it was really difficult. Back then, to get any traction, you really needed to be on a big publishing platform, such as the Financial Times, WSJ, Fortune, Forbes, etc. And those spots were hard to get. I would submit contributor pieces to the WSJ and others. but unless you were a famous business person it was pretty impossible to get something published. Plus most media platforms / magazines were in trouble and pulling back anyways.
One avenue that was open to me back then was publishing books. So I got an agent, got a publishing deal, spent like 6 months writing, spent another 6 months waiting for the publisher to finish and then finally had my own published book – which not that many people then read. Absent being famous or having your own readership base, publishing books this way is a pretty hard slog with a high failure rate. However, self-publishing your own books is a different story and is something I recommend.
Across the board, a business person (investor, executive, lawyer, etc.) trying to write on the side back then was likely to get nowhere. We were limited to:
- Submitting pieces to media platforms
- Publishing books through publishing houses
- Publishing on our own webpages and then trying to promote on Twitter and such.
Basically it sucked and I, like many writers, failed for years. I detail my experiences and lessons as a failed writer here.
LinkedIn Publishing comes on the scene in 2014-2015
I distinctly remember in 2014-2015 when a few friends started posting articles on LinkedIn. I didn’t understand it right away. Like many people, I had been on LinkedIn for years but didn’t use the site too often. Generally, only for updating my resume and making connections.
But media and communications guru Glenn Leibowitz of McKinsey & Co kept recommending I start writing on LinkedIn. He had been working with Gordon Orr, then Asia Chairman of McKinsey & Co, on this. Gordon (who is awesome to follow) was one of the first people to start posting high quality China content on LinkedIn. So I eventually figured I should just listen to Glenn. Note: Glenn is a LinkedIn Top Voice for 2015, 2016 and 2017 for Marketing and Social Media. You should absolutely sign-up for his email list here and just do whatever he recommends.
I published my first article on LinkedIn on May 22, 2015. It got like 50 reads. But it was interesting. Because, unlike on sites and magazines like Forbes or Harvard Business Review, I could actually see who had read my little article. Plus, I could communicate with them. In fact, several of my initial readers contacted me. It struck me that publishing within social media was very different than traditional media platforms.
I am a big believer it translating big goals into daily habits. So I set myself a plan to write one article per week – and then I just kept at it. My readers increased 2-3 a day. And after 3 months of slogging, I finally reached about 1,500 followers. That was pretty satisfying. Yes, it was slow going but for the first time I could actually see progress as a writer. My small steps every day were slowly adding up. After 6 months, I reached 10,000 followers, at which point Isabelle Roughol of LinkedIn sent me a nice congratulatory note.
2016-17: The rise of the “business professionals who also write”
About a year into writing on LinkedIn, I began noticing something interesting. I no longer spent nearly as much time reading the major business publications as I did before. I was now getting about 50% of my information from other professionals who were also writing on LinkedIn. I was reading lots of articles by venture capitalists, lawyers, consultants, executives, and such. Suddenly, if Haier was doing a major acquisition it was the article by an M&A lawyer that would interest me. If I was thinking about Alibaba or Tencent, it was articles written by venture capitalists that I would read first. I realized “business professionals who also write” (like me) were arriving on the scene in big numbers. And LinkedIn is their place.
Today, about 50% of what I read is by business professionals who also write. The other 50% is the major publishing platforms like the FT, WSJ, and Nikkei Asian Review. I also read reports from companies like Deloitte, JPMorgan, BCG and McKinsey but I generally find these reports by individuals I am following.
I think the rise of “business professionals who also write” is a big deal. Folks like me are now creating an enormous amount of content on a daily basis. And we all have different skill sets (legal, accounting, management, analysis, etc.). I have found what works best is to collaborate with a professional journalist or an editor on my articles.
My little equation for success as a business writer
So here I am +2 years later. Now at 2.4m followers. It still shocks me to see my articles being read. In my head, I still see myself as the guy who writes stuff that nobody reads.
I have written a longer article on all the writing / publishing lessons I have learned along the way (see below). But if you want the simple version, my equation for succeeding as a business writer is:
Success = LinkedIn + Short Self-Published Books
That’s it. I write one LinkedIn article per week (about 800 words) and I self-publish one book per year (between 30,000 and 50,000 words). There is other stuff I do (see my advice on writing on LinkedIn here). But these are my daily habits. Within this, my basic rules are to:
- Focus all your writing on one important question. Be specific about what it is. Write it down. You want to build expertise and depth in one topic over a long period of time. Knowledge is cumulative and you want to use time as your ally.
- Make sure your one question is valuable to you personally. You should be the primary beneficiary of your writing. That way it will make sense to work on it long-term. For me, that means studying competitive advantage in developing economies, which is valuable in investing and advisory work.
- Build teams for your research and writing. Don’t operate as a solo writer. I always now do this for books and sometimes for articles.
- Find partners for promotion and marketing. Marketing is a different skill than research and writing. Resist the temptation to do this yourself.
- Put in a strict schedule and keep at it. Take a few steps every day. If you keep at it, success will come – and probably in places you didn’t expect.
So to LinkedIn, my thanks. You are awesome. Writing has become one of the most satisfying parts of my professional life. And looking back, it is clear it would not have worked out without this platform. A special thanks to Isabelle Roughol, Chip Cutter, Mei Chen and Junfei Xu.
Thanks for reading, jeff
- How I Got 500,000 LinkedIn Followers in 20 Months
- How I Failed as a Writer for 5 Years Before Becoming a LinkedIn Top Voice
I write (and speak) about the fight for Chinese consumers and digital China.