Learn from Penny Power OBE how to write a memoir that matters.
Penny Power OBE, author of Business is Personal and co-founder of The Business Café, built and lead the world’s first social media site for entrepreneurs, Ecademy. Her reinvention with the publication of Business is Personal shows just how much her message matters to entrepreneurs at every level. What advice does she have now for new authors?
Is your motivation strong enough?
The business journey rarely moves directly from start to finish for anyone. Corporate executives and entrepreneurs alike run into many diversions and blockages along the way. And sharing those difficulties, and the lesson they’ve learned from them, can make a helpful and motivational book. If you’ve got the strength for it.
Penny Power OBE is a leading-edge internet entrepreneur. She and her husband Thomas Power launched an online platform, Ecademy, to connect business owners back in the 1990s, in the days before LinkedIn and Facebook. It was a totally different world and she was there first.
Being a pioneer in a precarious industry, however, came at a personal cost. And she tells the story in Business Is Personal: Be the Leader of Your Life and Business, in what we describe as a memoir that matters.
Interestingly, it was never the plan to write a book.
‘I didn’t wake up in 2018 and think, “I’m going to write a book.” And it wasn’t on my objectives list,’ she says. ‘But I was going through a really personal, painful journey – a journey that I wasn’t sure I was going to come through it as a businessperson anymore.
‘I’d had 19 years as an entrepreneur. I’d for years called myself “an accidental entrepreneur”, and that’s a subject in its own right.’
The concept for Ecademy had come to her and her husband while eating at a family restaurant.
‘It came out of an idea sitting in Pizza Express with Thomas and the kids. It was very emotionally driven. You know, I wanted to reduce loneliness and connect people who were clearly going to be working more and more at home and starting their own businesses.’
At first the business did well, with Penny as a figurehead.
‘I was the avatar of our business, and we grew and it was lovely. But I think what we underestimated is how hard it is.’
She feels that people with a family background in the entrepreneurial world are more prepared for what launching your own company entails.
‘If it was the norm, if they’ve done an MBA, if they woke up their lives in university and decided “I need to be a business owner” – very different to somebody who sees there’s a gap in the market and thinks, “I want to create a solution.” That’s why I was an accidental entrepreneur.’
The business ran into difficulties – Penny believes they suffered from bad luck along the way in terms of timing. She started a second business, and says she got involved with the wrong type of investors, for which she takes full responsibility. And so she set up something new.
And that’s when it all became too much.
‘I was then on my third idea and I then hit a brick wall,’ she says. ‘And I stumbled. And I decided, I don’t know whether business is for me.
‘When I was 19, I never wanted to go into business. So maybe, at age 53, the world was finally telling me something. And I had to listen.’
She suffered what was later diagnosed as a form of Post Traumatic Stress disorder after a shock in her personal life.
‘It made me have to take a step back in my life,’ she says. ‘It was really painful, and I went to see psychologists and I ended up doing group therapy.’
The healing process also turned out to be a learning process.
‘About two and a half months into this journey, I discovered things about myself that I thought, “Oh, I wish I had known this 20 years ago.” And it was about my character and my personality.’
‘I want to share this’
And the more she learned, the more she wanted to learn – and she realised how valuable what she was learning would be for other people in the same situation.
‘I started being in the room with the psychologist for me, but [also] for 5 million other businesspeople. I kept asking questions that were fascinating me, that I wanted to ask that weren’t just for me.’
That’s when the idea of writing a book took hold.
‘As I started documenting this for myself I started feeling, I want to share this. And what is the greatest way of sharing something? To write a book.’
The first place she shared her insights and discoveries was in her Facebook group, called the Business Café Global. She created group with businesswoman Gail Thomas to support sole traders, micro businesses and entrepreneurs with their skills, connections and emotional journey. The aim of the group is to enable open and supportive conversations to help everyone ‘feel normal in our journey of growth’.
‘In there I wrote 60 posts while I was going through this journey where I was sharing my experiences with them,’ she says. ‘And they were beautiful, because in my own vulnerability it was giving them permission to be vulnerable.
‘But also, some of the skills inside that group of people were phenomenal. People I realised I hadn’t really known that I should listen to. And one of the overdone strengths of an entrepreneur is often independence. You don’t go out and ask for help.’
She realised that, with Ecademy, she’d isolated herself. ‘I think with Ecademy I was the loneliest person of that community of 650,000 people. Because I was the leader, I didn’t ask for help. That’s the classic leadership problem.’
Now, she was willing to share.
‘I’ve always been very open,’ she says, ‘I’ve never tried to BS anyone. But this time I was sharing my vulnerability in a different way.’
This openness connected her with other people, who could support and encourage her.
Your book builds new connections
‘In my book I call them my “Earth angels” – people emerged that I had known for years, I didn’t realise the skills they had. The first point of that was a lady called Lis Cashin, we went on a dog walk and she talked to me all about boundaries. And I realised I didn’t have any boundaries.
‘And another lady, Ruth,
(Parys or Parris), said, “You pride yourself on never getting angry. But actually anger is a really important human emotion, because it allows us to protect ourselves.”’
The combination of supportive new connections and therapy gave her the great strength.
‘So there was all this stuff I was learning about myself,’ she says. ‘And then, take me into the professional room of a psychologist and then the joy of being in group therapy. And I just realised that mental fitness is something we really all need to have. With me, I didn’t realise I had a mental health problem until it was too late – or nearly too late.’
As Penny says, the best way to share insights and advice is a book. Which is why she wrote her memoir that matters.
‘So the book came out. And the book is very open and very vulnerable.’
The book is written very much in two halves. The first half is Penny’s experience, written in story form. There’s a powerful anecdote about setting fire to little pieces of paper with the things that you wanted to let go, and another about the letting go of a balloon representing her aspirations.
Your book can be a powerful experience for readers
However, this is also a useful and practical book, particularly for small entrepreneurs who are starting out or perhaps who’ve forgotten where they were headed or what they were trying to do. So the book contains a blend of emotional support and practical support.
In order to create a book plan and keep on top of the writing process, Penny hired a book coach.
‘Writing a book is a powerful experience,’ she says. ‘You need help along the way. I think sometimes we need accountability to get us moving it along.’
The first thing she and her book coach had to work out was, who would the reader be?
That was a simple decision, Penny says. ‘It was very easy to think about, who is it written for? It was written for people like me.’
She already knew what she wanted to include in the book – she’d already written most of it in some form or other.
‘So I already had all the content – what I had done while I was going through [the therapy] process was that I had opened a “to do” list type thing as an app. And every time I had a phrase or a thought or a learning, I wrote it down. And there ended up being about 500 things.’
She created a structure for the book by making a mindmap.
‘So obviously to get 500 things that you want to share with somebody into something, you mindmap it. So there was some commonality of my thinking that went into a mindmap that had 12 strands to it. That created 12 chapters. And out of those 12 chapters came the content.’
As she says, ‘Learning how to structure something is really important.’
The style of the book was also easy to establish.
‘I think the greatest way to attract people is to be honest,’ she says. ‘We’re in an age of realness now, aren’t we? Because we’ve all discovered some of this online stuff is so fake.
‘So the realness was very important. That sets the tone, doesn’t it? And I wanted it to be in the first person, because that’s the only way I could be.’
Nevertheless, it was important to her not to come across as self-indulgent.
Writing your book is a lesson for you, too
‘Writing it as a memoir, I didn’t want it to be self-indulgent. I don’t want to come across as a victim in any way. I’m not a victim. I take personal responsibility for everything that’s happened in my life. And I don’t think you can progress in life until you do that, because there’s no learning until you do that.
‘You know, I’m a survivor of a lot of things – I’m proud of that. But I’ve made mistakes and I take full responsibility for that.’
So by this stage, she had found a book coach, identified the reader, created a structure and decided on the tone. All that was left was to write it.
And that’s where someone holding you accountable is essential, if you want to get the writing done quickly.
‘So the 12 chapters being formed, the accountability coach, every week for 12 weeks, we had a phone call to see if I had written that draft,’ she says. ‘So at the end of 12 weeks I had written 12 chapters in draft format.
‘In draft format it meant I had got it all out.’
Her coach advised her to start writing and keep writing in her own voice. Doing too much research online at this stage can be distracting – and it can also influence the way you write.
Keep it authentic
‘Another thing that was really powerful was, she said, “Do not go online and research anything at this stage, Penny.” If you’re talking about anger, unconditional love, boundaries – all these things that I learned about myself – don’t go and Google those subjects. Because then you’re starting to bring in the tone and the thoughts of experts or other people who have written it.
‘This has to be really authentically me.’
Coming across as genuine in your book can be tough to do. Some people find that when they write, they use vocabulary and grammatical constructions they never use normally. That’s fine for certain types of books – books with an elite, targeted readership – but for authors seeking a wider market, you may need to work at sounding natural.
To Penny, it’s essential to be authentic.
‘What I feel is that, in this age of fakeness, social media is damaging us all – and I’ve been an evangelist of it. I love it! But what I was an evangelist of was friendship in business – it meant who you are, as well as what you are. That’s what Ecademy was – not about presenting some unreal version of the person you’d like to be seen as. I’ve never believed in that, I couldn’t be that.
‘Who I am is all I can be. And I want to die who I am. I don’t want to die with some different brand to the person I am. And I think maybe I’m Marmite [‘you love it or hate it’].’
Telling such a personal story in an open way entails some risk, as Penny is well aware.
Don’t be afraid to take a risk
‘I had to then take a risk,’ she says. ‘I’ve experienced 17 trolls in my life, and they damaged Thomas and me so much. They damaged our business, they damaged our self worth, they damaged our trust in others – there were so many layers of damage the trolls did to me.
‘I knew that I was going out there again and I could be trolled massively. Because I knew that some people might say, “No wonder Penny’s not been the success that she could have been, because she’s so emotional, so vulnerable.” I just had to take that risk, because again, it wouldn’t be real if I held back anything.’
Luckily, her fears were unfounded.
‘But it’s not happened – which is beautiful. So far I’ve not noticed it anyway!’
This fear, which Penny describes so well, of taking a risk is a common fear among people who want to write a book. You’re standing up to be counted – and there your name is, on the front cover.
So that’s why it’s important to write a worthwhile book, one that you can be proud of. And as Penny has done, you do that by testing out your ideas with someone you trust, creating a practical, useful structure, finding someone to hold you accountable, and finding the right tone.
You also need to have a clear idea of why you’re writing the book. Penny knows why she wrote hers – to help others in her situation. But she says she is less concerned about the commercial outcome.
‘If I had got caught up in the commercial aspect of this book,’ she says, ‘I would have been thinking of the transaction and the marketing. I wouldn’t have been thinking about the one person I want to impact.’
Penny’s book was published by Panoma Press, an independent publisher that focuses on books about entrepreneurship, personal development and diversity. It would like her to pay more attention to marketing and promotion, but she’s not convinced it’s what she wants to do.
‘The next phase once you’ve written a book is get it out there. My publisher keeps saying, “Your book’s not doing as well as it should be, Penny. You need to get to number one on Amazon, you need to ask 100 people to write a review.” All this deliberate action, I’m sure it works. I feel, I would like this book to get out virally.
‘If I asked 100 people could you buy my book and write a testimonial, I would get that. But I don’t know if those 100 people would have even read my book. “I’ve done a testimonial because Penny’s asked, and I like Penny.” There’d be no genuine feedback on it.
‘The 18 testimonials I’ve got at the moment are really genuine. And I’ve got loads of feedback – I’ve got a little story on Instagram, it’s called “my book reviews” and I screenshot book reviews and I think I’ve got about 60 in there now, [submitted] genuinely on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or on an email and they’ve allowed me to capture and share it.’
Don’t worry about the bestseller lists
Her goal when writing the book wasn’t to top the bestseller lists.
‘I did not write this book to become a million-book seller,’ she says. ‘If as the by-product of it, I do, if I get hired as a speaker for genuine reasons, it all sounds a little bit sickly. That’s genuinely how I feel about it. I’ve pushed. You push, you push, you push – it didn’t get me to where I needed to get to. This time, I’m allowing the universe to pull, maybe, a little bit.’
She’s willing to trust to fate and word of mouth recommendations to reach her readers.
‘I’ve got to just trust in my lifetime my book’s going to hit the rights spot, and some people’s lives might be enhanced by it,’ she says.
There are, of course, shedloads of places you can go to market a book more effectively, and some of them are really good. There are some sincere, well-meaning men and women who market books that can be of real benefit to authors. When we suggest to Penny that we can point her in their direction, so she can make sure her book gets into the hands of more people who’d benefit from it, she says she’d welcome that.
As far as marketing goes, one of the most powerful elements that can attract readers is the title and subtitle. If you can get that right, your readers can find you.
Penny is sure that that’s the case with her book. And she explains how she came up with her subtitle.
‘The other thing that helped me, this strapline “Be the leader of your life and business”, came from a mantra that I gave myself,’ she says.
‘I must write a post on how you come back from being burnt out – and I’m thrilled to say I’m back in business, feel stronger. And Lau Tzu, the philosopher who I quote, says “To be whole first allow yourself to break”, and I love that.
‘So this was all part of my recovery. I was learning yoga, trying desperately to learn mindfulness, but I definitely was learning pace – to learn to smell the coffee again, and smell the flowers and things like that.
‘And a moment came to me in a flash very early on – I always wake up 5 o’clock in the morning – and it said, what is the life that I want to lead? And the business that I want to lead? And that’s where that strapline came from.
‘And it was very much from, who am I? I don’t want to be what the investors think I should be, or be what the business community thinks I should be, or the avatar of what I think makes a successful businessperson.
‘I gave myself permission to be myself. And once you do that – and this is what I teach when I do my Masterminds [workshops] and my mentoring, and it’s really powerful – once you do that, you shape your life around you like that.’
Your book will help very many people
So even if Penny is not overly concerned with the commercial outcome of her book, she thinks thinking about the outcome can help an author craft his or her book.
‘I think that a lot of people writing a book need to think, “What’s the life that I want to emerge out of this?” Because if you’re just repeating just repeating the same life that you’ve done… If it’s a formula that you love, great. But if your previous life if a formula that has had you crashing and not achieving what you want to achieve, you need to do something different. Otherwise you’re just repeating.
‘What’s that definition of madness? “Keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome.”’
Different authors will answer that question – what’s the life I want to emerge out of this – in different ways. Whatever your answer, Penny Power believes most entrepreneurs, at any rate, share a goal.
‘Every single entrepreneur that I have helped over the past 21 years, their ultimate goal is freedom,’ she says. ‘They want to work to get freedom: financial freedom, freedom of time, autonomy to run their business.
‘I would just say to them, the ultimate freedom when you’re an entrepreneur is to be yourself.’
If you, too, want to write a self-help or self-development book, you, like Penny, need to identify what your readers are looking for. If you can, you’ll know how to write your book.