Colin Wright has written over 27 best-selling books (and counting!) while traveling to a new country every four months.
In case that wasn’t enough, he also runs a publishing business, writes on his blog, publishes a few newsletters, and is insanely active on social media.
Colin has cultivated an insanely devoted fanbase which has stuck by him as he went from being a freelance designer to author to entrepreneur.
He’s achieved phenomenal success, all while having his marketing/business philosophy simply be: because I want to.
I reached out to Colin to talk to him about his growth and development. Below are 10 questions I asked him about how he started his mini-empire.
An Interview with Colin Wright
1. Let’s start with origin stories. What was your high school experience like? How different are you now from what high school Colin wanted you to be? Would he be proud of you?
Oh, I’m way different than high school Colin. Some things are still the same — I still believe in treating people well, for example — but my expectations for myself and the world, approach to work and relationships, views on work and money and everything else, have all changed pretty dramatically.
I do think high school Colin would appreciate what I’m doing now, though. I may have to explain some of the details, but I think he’d get it, and be pretty psyched.
My experience in high school was, at first, the transition of a kid who got bullied in middle school into a more comfortable version of himself. Later, it was the same kid finding a few passions (art and journalism) and focusing on those. Overall a pretty positive thing, all told.
2. You successfully transitioned from trading your time per-hour as a design consultant to being able to drop off the map for a month and have your business still run without you. How did you make your first sale?
I was pretty fortunate, actually, to have started building my audience long before I started selling products. I had been writing my blog for about a year before I put up anything for sale, and as such had been honing my writing, figuring out how to publish (I gave a few books away, after using them as training fodder for myself), and essentially producing as much free value as possible, for as many people as possible, for quite a while.
At that point, it’s much easier to make the pitch. “Hey folks, you know that stuff I’ve been writing about that you’ve been enjoying enough to keep coming back? I wrote about it more, and I think better. Want to give it a shot?” is a fairly compelling offer, especially compared to “You don’t know me, or that I know anything about anything, but I have this book so please buy it.”
But that wasn’t the plan, initially. I wanted the blog to be a hub where I could keep writing about things, for free, and build an audience, but mostly for networking purposes. I still don’t make a dime directly from the blog, but now that network helps me market my work, without having to market too hard.
3. What made you choose your pricing model? You advocate the “coffee-rule,” which is that most of your work is available for the price of a coffee. Beyond that, if someone does pirate your work, you have no qualms.
Here’s what you wrote on the copyright page of one of your first books, Real Powers:
All rights reserved of course, though if you really can’t afford the few dollars to pay for the book, go ahead and read it anyway; life’s too short for DRM. It would be rad if you’d tell other people about this work if you enjoy it, whether you paid or not. All profits from this book allow me to continue pursuing my passions, and if you did pay for it (despite the overwhelming desire to find a torrent somewhere), you’re my fave.
You know, it was kind of an iterative thing. I’ve sold my books at a lot of different prices over the years, but I realized that I was getting emails from different sorts of people when I lowered the prices. Students and working moms and retirees; not just net-savvy young professionals like before. And I wanted to reach that wider audience, so I decided to test it out, to see if I could keep making a living selling my books for less.
I do make less doing it this way, to be honest, but it’s not a lot less, and it’s far more satisfying for me. I sleep much better when I’m able to align my business practices with my philosophies; as is the case with the non-DRM, piracy-accepting statement on the copyright pages of my books. I know we live in a post-Napster world, and though it’s not ideal for the way business has been done traditionally, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to demonize folks who want to read your work, either. Instead I reach out and say, “Hey, if you don’t mind, maybe leave me a review somewhere or tell a friend.” That way they can get the book for free, and I can get some word of mouth. Win-win.
4. You create a lot of value for a lot of people through your books, blog, newsletters, and the plethora of other projects you’ve taken on. When you’re developing an idea, how do you know it’s going to be valuable? After publishing the project, how do you grade the success of the project?
Oh, I really have no idea ahead of time. I hope my work will be valuable, and I find it’s almost always valuable to someone, even if not the someone I originally intended.
In most cases, I gauge the value of my work by how many people respond to it in some way. In a lot of cases this’ll be emails I receive, or reviews on blogs or Amazon. Sometimes it’s a random ping on Twitter or Facebook. I haven’t published something yet that hasn’t resonated with some demographic, but even if I did, I would still personally get value out of the process — refining my ideas, writing about things that interest me — so truthfully the hindsight-metrics aren’t as vital as the initial concept seeming like something worth producing.
5. You’re an amazing storyteller, both with your fiction and non-fiction works. How did you develop such a compelling voice and style?
Two things stand out as the main catalysts for growth I’ve seen in my own writing: writing a hell of a lot, and reading a hell of a lot.
I already had a pretty solid grasp of the language from reading through my childhood, and growing up a major book geek (still am, proudly). My own voice emerged from that, distinctive from just being a correct use of English, the more I wrote. And I mean books, blogs, emails, text messages, everything. Every single communication is an opportunity to hone your craft, and I try and approach them all as such.
Do those two things enough, and you can’t help but get better over time.
6. You have a devoted fanbase that followed you from your blog to non-fiction books to experimental fiction to a publishing company. How have you been able to cultivate that community as you took completely different directions with your life and projects?
I’ve been very fortunate, first and foremost.
But partially I’ve made sure to focus on a larger brand — on telling a larger story — rather than a smaller, easier-to-convey one. Back in the day, when I first started, I was the entrepreneurial guy, and my readership reflected that. It was easy to pitch the young guy running businesses. Then I became the travel guy, when I hit the road, and that was equally easy to communicate; the hook is built right into the pigeonhole.
After that, though, it became more difficult. I very consciously decoupled myself from some very strong, quick-growing trends and topics because I didn’t want to be the ‘something’ guy. I didn’t want to, say, be stuck traveling my entire life and forced to give up my entire body of work and audience should I decide to stop one day. Same with entrepreneurship, lifestyle design, and a dozen or so other popular keywords that would have helped me pull in a more massive audience, faster.
For someone like me, it’s vital that I can keep changing and growing and experimenting, and that’s part of the spine that holds the larger brand I’ve committed myself to, together. I made sure to build something that was completely, absolutely me on every level, so that I could just do what I want to do without worrying about breaking my brand or losing everything I’d worked hard to achieve. Resultingly, I’ve lost some aspects of, say, my entrepreneurship-focused audience, because I don’t write about that all the time anymore. I lost some of the travel-focused folks for the same reason. If you don’t focus enough, you’ll lose people who want you to be one thing, and that’s cool: that’s their prerogative, just as it’s mine to not cater to everyone.
But at this point, the folks who’ve stuck around and who’re drawn to my work these days tend to embrace the bigger picture; the general concept of nonstandard lifestyles and growth and philosophical development and embracing who you are and making that work day-to-day. This is why I say I’m very fortunate: getting to be exactly who you are, and to have others celebrate that? Use that example as an excuse or catalyst to be more themselves? It’s so gratifying, in addition to being just incredibly fulfilling.
7. Now that you’ve been to so many different countries and established yourself in so many different fields, how do you define yourself without feeling like you’re closing off a part of yourself?
Haha, well, that’s the tricky part of being yourself: there’s nothing you can say within a reasonable amount of time that encompasses everything you are.
So in general I take the audience I’m speaking to into consideration and decide which aspect of what I’m up to they might find the most interesting; what will probably be most relevant and interesting for them. In every case, my first introduction is just a tip of a much larger iceberg, but I try and make it easy for folks to follow that thread, if they want to, and learn everything else in their own time. If I tried to offer more than that, I think I’d 1) bore everyone to death, and 2) miss out on communicating some small, important thing while trying to communicate too many other things that are not important to that particular person.
8. You’re not one to give universal advice. But, I have to ask, if you were about to leave LA to travel the world in 2015’s market rather than 2009’s, is there anything you would do differently?
I probably would have started writing and blogging and reaching out sooner than I did. Facebook arrived while I was in college, so the whole social media thing was still only a handful of years in when I decided to hit the road. I did what I could with it back then, but it’s a much bigger (and more useful) deal now, and so are the relationships you can build through those networks.
Beyond that, though, I would have made all the same mistakes I made back then, because they were important ones. Anything you can do to leave yourself malleable to change and bouncy, so that you easily recover when you stumble and fall, will be very, very helpful at some point in your journey.
9. There’s been a huge increase in gear targeted towards perpetual travelers like yourself (eg. the Minaal backpack). Have you bought into any of that or are you sticking to average consumer gear?
A lot of it isn’t really for me — doesn’t cater to my particular travel style (or aesthetic style), but there are a lot of good ideas out there, and for someone, I’m sure such things are perfect. I tend to buy off-the-shelf whenever possible, so that I can easily replace things if they get damaged or lost, and without paying too much of a premium.
10. You’re a big tech lover, what recent developments are you currently excited about?
Oh, so much.
Simulated physics, artificial intelligence (of many flavors), 3D printing (also of many varieties), wearable tech, genetic engineering and modification, gene therapies, cybernetics, biomes…the list goes on and on.
If you love Colin’s philosophy and the way he approaches the world, check out his recent book titled Considerations.
To know more about Colin, get updates on his life, and buy some of his books, check out his webiste at colin.io.