If you want more reach for your business, write a book, says MIT’s Tommy Weir.
To hear Dr Tommy Weir on stage in Dubai is to attend a masterclass in public speaking. He tells amazing stories. He asks challenging questions. And he highlights the things you’re doing you didn’t realise were plain dumb.
And you’re not alone. When you look around, at the open mouths in the hall, you realise there are dozens if not hundreds of you in the same boat.
So why did Tommy start getting on stage to tell his stories?
The main reason, he says, is the scale of the potential impact he can have.
‘I can reach a small number of people if I’m coaching, which is very limited.’ He looks off into the distance, musing. ‘It’s one person in an hour,’ he says.
‘If I do workshops, training, I can reach up to 15 people in the room. But that’s still only two people per hour.’ He reminds you there are eight hours in a day.
‘But you can get on a stage and you get anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands in the room in rare moments. So not the everyday, having tens of thousands in a room.’
But no matter how many people attend a speaking event, he says, when it’s over, it’s over.
And that’s why Tommy writes books.
Why you should write a book
‘When you start looking at a book, you say, “Hey, that can live. It can last. It’s got reach in it.”’
And he smiles. The answer is obvious, logical.
‘I write because it lives. I write because it has a reach to it.’
But there’s something else, too. Beyond logical.
‘I actually write because I can’t help it.’
Let’s take a step back for a moment.
Tommy has several books under his belt, from academic writing to business books for managers and collections of short articles.
So it’s clear he’s not wedded to any particular way of writing.
And that explains why he doesn’t value all his books equally.
The Cheeseburger Theory: And Other Leadership Observations, for example, is a collection of articles and writings.
‘The Cheeseburger Theory is a fantastic title,’ he says, ‘but it’s a compilation of other writings I had done, so to me it has a very different value set in it.’
Over the years Tommy has written columns for many different magazines and newspapers, notably his long-standing column in The National, Dubai’s main English language paper.
‘Although I have been encouraged to take my weekly column and do this annually, it doesn’t seem like writing to me. Repackaging old writing for some reason doesn’t quite go there.’
By contrast, his book 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East was a turning point – and he learned a great deal from writing and self-publishing it.
‘With 10 Tips, there were two really interesting learnings for me,’ he says. ‘One of them was that you can actually sell books by bulk.’
One day he got an email. ‘Hey, I want to buy 100 copies. What would that cost?’. The fact that it was from a company was a surprise. ‘That threw me off.’
So selling in bulk became standard practice for Tommy.
Set your book up to sell in bulk
‘For business books it really works. Leadership Dubai Style sales have dwarfed 10 Tips – and lot of it was because we set up to sell in bulk.’
The second lesson he learned was that, if you have particular intentions for your book, you must structure it in the right way. With 10 Tips, for example, he hoped it would lead to the sale of more training programs.
‘This is more of an embarrassing learning, I thought that because you wrote a book, everybody would want the content. So I thought that I would write 10 Tips and everybody would go, “Oh my gosh, I want you to come coach me on it. I want to run a program on it”.’
That didn’t happen. And the doubts crept in.
‘I had a lot of days and nights – I’m kind of like, why is this not happening? “I love the book.” “The book’s great.” You get the positive comments. But it didn’t translate [into workshop sales].’
Now he believes he’s identified the problem.
There needs to be something in the book that demonstrates your own expertise, your own worth – and leaves readers wanting more.
‘What I figured out is that was there was no model in it. While there are tips, and there’s 10 of them, I made a transition with Leadership Dubai Style. While there’s 12 habits in it, it’s actually a model. And it graphically looks like a model when you get inside the book. And I found that people at a company go, “I want that program.” And it really made a big difference from that perspective.’
Although 10 Tips didn’t achieve quite what Tommy hoped it would, it nevertheless created opportunities for him.
‘10 Tips is the book that opened the door for London Speaker Bureau. It really changed my speaking career. I became really known as a published author, there was a credibility factor shifted, changed. It was really good for my career.’
While 10 Tips helped his speaking career and Leadership Dubai Style helped his training business in the United Arab Emirates, his career has taken a surprising twist in the past three years.
Today he’s the Scientist in Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, on behalf of Dubai’s DP World. And he’s at the forefront of designing software to enable artificial intelligence – AI – to be used by corporate leaders.
The first clue that Tommy’s life was changing were emails he sent about visits to Silicon Valley and Japan. Although he found himself moving into the field of AI, he was still highly sceptical about how useful it could be.
‘Yeah, Japan was an accident,’ he says. ‘I got on the plane thinking, “I don’t even believe in AI.” This was October 2016. I sat on the seat in the plane, and thought “I don’t really care. I don’t believe in it. I think it’s a human at the end.”’
In spite of feeling sceptical, he was looking forward to visiting Japan. ‘I’m interested in going to Tokyo to eat. So that was it – I was going to Tokyo to eat.’
The person he was actually travelling to see was Joi Ito of MIT Media Lab. ‘He was our core kind of tutor. And then there were a handful of other professors from the Media Lab as well. There was one other guy from here, one of the top guys from Dubai, and myself.’
In Japan, Joi tried his best to enlighten Tommy about the potential of AI. But it was a struggle.
‘So halfway through the first morning,’ Tommy says, ‘Joi took me to one side, saying, “Hey, Tommy. Could you shut up? And stop asking questions?”’
Tommy was nonplussed.
‘I looked at him and I said, “yeah”… I’m thinking “no”, but I said “yeah”.’ Then Tommy’s natural inquisitiveness took over. ‘Can you tell me why?’
Ito said, ‘You are so dumb on this topic and you don’t even know it. It would be in your best interests to listen for a little while, and ask better questions.’
So Tommy shut up and listened. And he learned a great deal – so much so, that his career, and indeed his life, changed. Now he spends half his time in Dubai and half at MIT in Boston, US, promoting Enaible, AI software that helps companies manage their people data.
‘Dubai’s fascinating,’ he says. ‘But the scale for this software is in the US. Clearly, hands down.’
And what about Joi Ito? ‘Now we’ve become friends,’ says Tommy ruefully.
It’s clear Tommy has embraced this new world wholeheartedly.
‘I am drunk on it,’ he says. ‘Like, I’m intoxicated.’
So the question is, in this initial phase of a start-up, with all the craziness that entails, is there any time to think about a book?
Most definitely, says Tommy.
Build your business through your book
‘I have a title. I have a structure of a book. I have a researcher I work with, who’s going after this topic for me,’ he says.
But he’s still deciding if this is the right moment to write it. He’s on the edge of convinced.
‘I’m going, “Do we want to invest in the book?” And I will decide by tomorrow. Like I’m at that point. I am 90% sure I will, probably even more than 90%.’
Why the hesitation?
‘There’s an investment cost to get the book done – from a time aspect. We’re a good start-up now, so we’re inefficient – on time, cash and all of those issues that I’ve never much dealt with – these are daily practical realities.’
But Tommy is nothing if not contrary.
‘If you think of anything that the conventional wisdom says entrepreneurs shouldn’t do, and frankly we’re not really built to do, we’re doing it. If that makes sense.’
So the book IS on the cards?
‘Unless I have something in the next 24 hours that says “don’t”, I’m going to do the book.’
AI offers such an innovative approach to leading that the reasons for exploring it in a book are compelling.
‘I think we need to get over our fear of AI. And we need to embrace it. It’s a practical reality today. It’s moving towards a general use technology, and it’s reality.’
So the book he has in mind won’t be part of the wave of books saying ‘Get ready, AI is coming’. It will explore the next practical step business leaders need to take.
‘Enaible is the next logical progression in artificial intelligence and leadership science.’ He sounds like one of his new marketing brochures.
‘But it is progression,’ he says. ‘They are going to come together.’
Write your book for yourself
Tommy hasn’t always written books with the aim of spreading a valuable message. Looking back at his first few books, he thinks he probably produced them to make his name better known.
‘But then I wrote Leadership Dubai Style, and I ended up writing for me.’
What did that feel like?
‘I remember sitting at the launch of that book and somebody said, “Are you excited to see everybody’s reactions?”’
Tommy recalls the moment.
‘I looked at the guy and said, “I don’t care.”’
His neighbour responds: ‘What do you mean you don’t care? You invested in all this.’
Tommy’s response? ‘I like the book.’ And that’s all he said. A complete answer.
Thinking back he recalls his thought process. ‘With that book I wasn’t overly concerned what anybody else had to say. I actually quite liked the book.’
What exactly about the book mattered?
Seeing your name on the cover, he says. Knowing you wrote something worthwhile, and becoming better known as a result.
But they’re not the only ways authors benefit personally from writing a book, he says. The very process of exploring a topic or a business model in book form, at book length, can give you a much greater understanding of the subject.
‘Writing that book, Leadership Dubai Style,’ he says, ‘actually helped me understand my own thinking on leadership.’
And so this is one of the key reasons he’s thinking of writing a book about his new venture.
‘So writing this book… and the title Machines Learning, Humans Leading is what I’m leaning towards now… writing this is going to answer a question.’
‘What do we believe?’ says Tommy.
‘This is partly for me, it’s partly for my team, for our organisation, to really understand what we fully believe about this. Because, as you know, putting 75,000 plus words on paper helps clarify your own thinking.’
Your book can change the way people work
Another reason for writing the book, however, is that he believes it can affect readers’ lives. In his view, the subject is so important that it can change the way leaders and managers work.
‘This is timely. We’re in a transition phase now for leadership. I think we need to stop and think about how AI can shift the way we lead. So I think it would help leaders to understand AI.’
Tommy’s third reason for writing the book right now is to put down a marker. He and his colleagues are involved in truly innovative work, he believes, and a book will help them establish thought leadership in this area.
‘Frankly this is a space we own today,’ he says. ‘We clearly own it. And we will own it at a much larger level when we get the book out.’
‘Leading on the product side is one thing. Leading in impact and for organisations is another. And leading in the thought leadership space goes with it.’
So turning to the practicalities of publishing, how will he get the book out? In the past, he’s self-published his books, using Amazon’s CreateSpace now Kindle Direct Publishing.
Now, though, he’s thinking of following the route taken by many academic authors, and finding a traditional publisher. And that perhaps makes sense now he’s working part-time at MIT.
Because one advantage of traditional publishers is that they can arrange distribution in bricks-and-mortar bookstores.
‘We’re thinking traditional for this, because I want the bookstore reach in the US,’ Tommy says. ‘It’s the distribution – that’s why I’m looking more at a traditional publisher.’
Does he expect to sell more with a traditional publisher? No, he says.
‘I’ve self-published to date. A couple of my books have sold incredibly well. One insanely well. But I want somebody in the bookstore to be able to find it. Print books do still sell – I realise they sell through Amazon and other places, too. But it’s the presence that a traditional publisher will give in regard to the real estate in a bookstore.’
Think hard before you go with a traditional publisher
In this Tommy might be misguided. In our experience, having one or two copies squeezed on a shelf in a bookshop doesn’t have much influence on buyers. The window displays and copies on tables at the front of the store are what have an impact on sales – and those are usually paid for. Is that what Tommy is after?
‘No, I’m fine with just putting it in the bookstore,’ he says. ‘I’m fine that actually it’s just there. I’m OK with that.’
It’s difficult to shift his mind on this. Because when it comes to marketing, traditional publishers don’t give authors much help. They tend to leave it to the author. And Tommy knows this well.
While you can do this as a self-published author, it takes effort. And you might not receive payment in return for that effort. Most big bookstores accept books on a sale-or-return basis. If you don’t sell you have to pay to take your books back.
‘So early on, they’re going to look at me and say, “Ah yeah, you’re a 5,000-book kind of guy, give or take.”’ Tommy knows he can sell more than that himself. He’s proven it before.
‘Where I was when we were doing books before, we in my office could put a lot more effort behind the distribution. It was much easier to do.’
But the marketing around the new book? How will that work?
‘I know the traditional publishers are never going to put their weight behind it until it passes like 100,000 copies – then they’ll think about putting weight behind it.’
Then again, this doesn’t appear important to Tommy.
‘It’s the real estate space, from a distribution point of view, I won’t get that if I self-publish.’
In the case of this new book, then, Tommy’s not so much concerned about shifting copies as in spreading the message.
‘If we look at other books I’ve published, I got to the stage where I was fortunate enough to make money on a book. So I did care about sales. And self-publishing is the best way to maximise the margin.’
Because working with a traditional publisher, it’s much tougher to generate revenue. Everyone takes their cut. The publisher. The agent. And more.
Tommy still can’t be shifted.
‘In my view, there is a different benefit for each form of distribution.’
There’s one more challenge Tommy faces. Having the patience to wait for the mainstream publishers to get his new book out.
And knowing how fast Tommy likes to work that could be bad news… for the publisher.