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How I Went From Failed Writer to 1M LinkedIn Followers

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I recently reached 1M 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 a love letter to a corporation.

When I started in 2010, trying to be a business writer kinda sucked.

When I started doing business writing around 2010, it was really difficult. 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 that was low yield and generally not worth the time.

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 read. Absent being famous or having your own readership base, publishing books this way is a pretty hard slog with a high failure rate (note: self-publishing your own books is a different story and something I recommend).

But across the board, it used to be that a business person (investor, executive, lawyer, etc.) trying to write on the side was likely to get nowhere. We were limited to submitting pieces to media platforms, publishing books through publishing houses, and publishing on our own webpages and then trying to promote on Twitter and such. Basically it sucked and I (like many) failed for years. I detail my experiences and lessons as a failed writer here.

Enter LinkedIn Publishing in 2014-2015

I distinctly remember in 2014-2015 when friends started posting articles on LinkedIn. I didn’t understand it right away. Like most, I had been on LinkedIn for years but I 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. Note: Glenn is a LinkedIn Top Voice for 2015 and 2016 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 like Forbes or Harvard Business Review, I could actually see who had read it. Plus, I could communicate with them. In fact, several of my initial readers contacted me. It struck me that social media plus publishing was really different than traditional media platforms.

I set myself to writing an article per week. And I just kept at it. My readers increased 2-3 a day. And after 3 months of slogging, I reached about 1,500 followers. That was pretty satisfying. It was slow going but for the first time I could actually see progress as a writer. My small steps were adding up. After 6 months, I reached 10,000 followers, at which point Isabelle Roughol of LinkedIn sent me a nice congratulatory note.

I have since become convinced that publishing within a social media platform is really powerful. I am also thrilled that I can understand who is reading and that readers will often start discussions on things (frequently telling me I am completely wrong).

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. I was now getting 50% of my information from other professionals who were also writing on LinkedIn. I was reading pieces 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.

Today, about 50% of what I read is by business professionals who also write. The other 50% is still the major publishing platforms like the FT, WSJ, and Nikkei Asian Review. But the business professionals who also write are almost all found on LinkedIn. I also read reports from companies like Deloitte, JPMorgan, BCG and McKinsey but I generally find these reports by individuals I am following.

The rise of “business professionals who also write” is a big deal. We are now creating an enormous amount of content on a daily basis. And we all have different skill sets (legal, accounting, management, analysis, etc.). This also poses an interesting challenge for the professional journalists. I have found it works best if I collaborate with a professional journalist or editor on my articles. That is a pretty good structure.

My equation for success as a business writer

So here I am two years later. 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 + 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 60,000 words). There is other stuff I do (see my advice on writing on LinkedIn here). My basic rules are to:

  • Focus on one important question long-term. Be specific about what it is. Write it down. You want to build expertise and depth in one topic over time. Knowledge is cumulative and you want to use time as your ally.
  • Make sure your one question is valuable to you personally. You are the primary beneficiary of your writing. For me, that means studying competitive advantage in developing economies, which is valuable in investing and advisory work.
  • Build teams for research and writing. Don’t operate solo. I always do this for books and sometimes for articles.
  • Find partners for promotion and marketing. Don’t do this yourself. Marketing is a different skill than writing.
  • Put in a strict schedule and keep at it. This is a marathon. If you keep at it, success will come – and probably in places you didn’t expect.

Hey Jeff Weiner. Make me an Influencer.

So to LinkedIn, thanks. You are awesome. Writing is 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 and Junfei Xu.

And as long as I’m writing to a company, a shout-out to CEO Jeff Weiner. Dude, make me an Influencer. Really, what more could I do?

Thanks for reading, jeff

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I write (and speak) about how rising Chinese consumers are disrupting global markets. (#ConsumerChina). This also includes work on:

  • China 2025″ – what a region transformed by Chinese consumers, companies and capital is going to look like. (#China2025)
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