3 Sep

How teaching and storytelling can build a profitable business

For years I couldn’t figure out how to get attention for my business products. Since no one knew the products existed, I couldn’t make sales.

With a more expensive product I could use direct sales: calling and emailing customers to educate them about the product, then ask for the sale. That worked, but was always slow and painful—and not the least bit scalable.

Worst of all, that high touch sales process doesn’t work for products under $200. There just isn’t a high enough profit in each sale to make it possible to spend time on the phone with every customer.

I watched other businesses spend money on ads, but that seemed to work best for big national brands that could spend money on awareness and didn’t have to make sales from every ad. And ads require money to spend. Something most small business owners don’t have.

Besides, even if ads were a possibility, the moment you stop spending you stop seeing results.


Another way for attention

I needed another way to reliably get attention and turn that attention into customers. Oddly enough the answer was sitting in front of me, it just took me all that time to realize it was the solution to my sales problem.


Start teaching

I read articles and blog posts by the experts in my industry. I clicked through from those article to their books and software products. Often purchasing both.

For project management I use Basecamp by 37signals. Without their popular blog I never would have heard of the product.

For invoicing I use Freshbooks, also from reading their blog giving advice on how to invoice my freelance clients.

For video hosting I use Wistia. They have a great product, but I’m not sure that alone would be enough to convince me to use them over YouTube, a free alternative. Instead, it’s that Wistia put out an amazing series of videos that taught me how to produce great videos on a budget.

As a final example, I purchased Rework by Jason and David at 37signals. Why? Because they had taught me so much about business already, I was desperate to learn more from them. My purchase was one of many thousands that helped launch their book onto national bestsellers lists.

All these companies used free teaching to gain attention, then turned that attention towards their related products.


My turn

After finally noticing this trend and the impact it could have on my business, I finally decided to give it a try. My next project was a book, called The App Design Handbook, that teaches developers how to design beautiful iOS applications.

Step one was to write app design tutorials and publish them on my blog. Each one got attention, and I funneled that attention to a pre-launch email list about the book. Within two months I went from no audience to nearly 800 people who asked to hear more about my book when it launched.


The results

On launch day the members of my email list purchased The App Design Handbook in droves. I watched sales climb throughout the day until they finally peaked at $12,500 for the first 24 hours!

Far more revenue than I had ever seen before in a single day. At that moment I knew that teaching wasn’t just a tool for famous experts, but that it could be used by anyone to build a following and sell products.

Since that moment I’ve sold two more far more profitable training books and launched an email marketing startup, all of the customers acquired through teaching great content.


But not for everyone

Teaching worked—and I told everyone it worked, but I had a problem. I knew how this worked for some types of businesses, but some business models didn’t seem to fit.

For example, If you want to sell an email marketing tool, teach people how to do email marketing effectively. If you want to sell training to photographers, give away some training for free to build an audience.

But that only covers some types of businesses. What about the expert photographer who wants to sell fine art prints.

The up and coming photographer that would buy training from the expert wants to shoot photos, not buy prints from the expert.

The art collector doesn’t care about the details of f-stop and aperture, they want to buy beautiful art that has a story.

Someone in the market for custom furniture isn’t trying to learn how to make furniture, they just want a beautiful, functional dining room table.

That puzzled me. How does teaching help sell fine art and custom furniture?


It’s in the story

What does the art collector want to buy? They don’t just want a beautiful photo, you could get that from any home decor store for under $50. The art collector wants a photograph that has a story.

Imagine you come over to my house for dinner. Just before we sit down you notice a photo of a western ghost town hanging in my dining room. It’s such a strikingly great photo that you can’t help but ask, “where was that taken?”

How would your interest level change if I responded, “no idea, I bought it Walmart.”?

The only response to that is “Huh, it’s a neat photo.” The conversation moves on.

But what if that photograph had a story? That would completely change the conversation.

If instead I say the photograph was taken in a small ghost town in Idaho. Then I go on to tell you that it is one in a series of seven photos taken by this great photographer out of Washington state. Last fall he went on a road trip through seven different old mining towns, capturing one perfect image in each town.

The photographer wrote on his blog about the story of each town, his process finding the perfect shot, and the tales of his journey along the way. Available for free on his blog, or in a coffee table book you can purchase that includes all the photos.

The photo hanging in my dining room is a limited edition print that I purchased after following his journey. I also have that coffee table book that you can look through after dinner. His story, the story of each town, and the details of the entire trip are all included.

Now are you interested?


A form of teaching

That story is just another form of teaching—really it’s more of sharing. Just about everything has an interesting story. When told well, that story does two things: first, it increases the perceived value of the product, and second, it makes you want to follow the creator and learn more about their work.

Interesting stories get shared. That’s marketing.


Teaching + Story

The two techniques could also be combined. When I self-published my first two books on design I shared the details and the backstory on my blog (that’s the story). Soon I had almost as many people following me for marketing and self-publishing as I did for design. Then I started writing more specific tutorials about publishing and marketing (teaching), before releasing a book on the topic.

The fictitious photographer we talked about earlier can sell training, art prints, or custom work. Teaching—giving information away for free—will help is training business, but it will also get more exposure for his prints and custom work since he will now be seen as more of an expert.

Art prints, with a good story behind them, will demonstrate his expertise and if he shares the process will bring even more followers to his site. Soon he will have an audience following him not just for his work or teaching, but also just for who he is.

Teaching and story can be two sides of the same coin. Not every product can benefit from both story and teaching, but combined they make a very powerful business model that brings customers directly to your products.


I need your help.

I’m writing about teaching and story for a new (secret) project. Do you have an example or case study of using teaching or story in your business? If you know of a good example from another company feel free to share it as well (just make it clear that it’s not your own example).

Tell me your story.

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8 Responses to “How teaching and storytelling can build a profitable business”

  1. Lew Hollerbach says:

    Actually, long before we had eLearning, MOOCs, universities, SAT scores, even regular schools, the only way people learned was through stories. The story form has long been the primary learning modality through history – only until relatively recently.

    So your comments about using stories to teach is spot on. And know that this form has a long, rich history, with much precedent to back up its usefulness and power. Granted, in the old days it didn’t scale as well, which is why education became industrialized. But now, with the Internet, it’s possible to not only scale a story across the planet, but it can be scaled in such a way as to preserve as much of the 1:1 intimacy and involvement with the storyteller.

    Good post – important for everyone to know the power of storytelling!

    • Nathan Barry says:

      Thanks for that! I can’t wait to dive deeper into the power of stories.

  2. Hi Nathan.

    I am starting to get my head around the importance of story telling. Being a ‘tell me the facts’ kind of chap it took me a while to grasp the concept but I suppose I need to realise that ‘I am not my customer’.

    So I have started to use my story in my blog.

    In summary (for those at all interested):

    After competing in 10 amateur boxing tournaments my coach suggested I took up dancing lessons to improve my footwork.

    I soon found out that dancing Salsa with girls was more fun that being hit by men.

    5 years later SALSA SQUAD was born and I was teaching Salsa full time.

    Despite the classes being busy I soon realised that, with no pension or investments, I would need to carry on teaching Salsa until my dying days, not an attractive proposition, especially for the girls!

    After reading Tim Ferris’s ‘4 hour work week’ I decided I needed to create a product around my service.

    So I made 2 ‘How To Salsa’ DVD’s.

    I then turned this into an online membership site called Cyber Salsa.

    Today that site generates more sales than my classes.

    As I share this story with people it became apparent that others had skills and knowledge that they could turn into online courses.

    And so I decided to document everything I learned from creating Cyber Salsa and put it into a free eBook.

    ‘7 Steps To Creating Your Own Profitable Online Course’ (no link, not a plug)


    Right now I am putting together a course which is a video based version of the above book, but it wont be ready for a few months yet.

    In the mean time I am teaching via my blog, building trust and developing my subscriber base, in much the same way that you did. I hope I can get similarly impressive results as you have.

    Thanks again for the post, here’s to story telling :-)

  3. […] strongly recommend Nathan Barry’s story-telling and teaching site. It is a great source of […]

  4. […] Your should sincerely address those objections and answer those questions with the goal of giving the readers solutions.  Believe me, they’ll love you for solving their problems.  Remember the motorcycle retailer story I have shared earlier.  This method will help your business and get you loyal customers and fans.  When you do this, you’ll be in a perfect position to be considered as an authority and expert in your field.  Let the competition do their own self-promotions.  But as for you, you’ll be marketing through education. […]

  5. Isaac says:

    Fascinating article. I was wondering if you could offer a suggestion for our situation.

    I’m currently volunteering for a small non-profit theatre group that’s having a hard time attracting an audience. We have an extensive mailing list and we work hard to get exposure in our community, but we have a hard time translating this into actual ticket sales.

    Is there a way we can apply your method to our situation?

    • Nathan Barry says:

      Short answer: focus better on telling stories. Why you chose the plays you did, who is behind the productions, why should the subscribers care about this particular production, etc.

  6. […] Your should sincerely address those objections and answer those questions with the goal of giving the readers solutions.  Believe me, they’ll love you for solving their problems.  Remember the motorcycle retailer story I have shared earlier.  This method will help your business and get you loyal customers and fans.  When you do this, you’ll be in a perfect position to be considered as an authority and expert in your field.  Let the competition do their own self-promotions.  But as for you, you’ll be marketing through education. […]

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