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Writing a book the way a team builds software... or U2 writes songs

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We think we’ve invented a new way to write a business book.

I once read a story about how U2 writes songs: four guys squeeze into a small studio to jam and provoke each other until something magical comes out, and all four get the songwriting credit.

That’s close to how my three co-authors and I wrote our book, Play Bigger: How Pirates, Dreamers, and Innovators Create and Dominate Markets. In fact, our introduction to the book begins: “Most books are by a soloist. The one you’re holding is by a band.” Our band approach to business book writing has been the craziest, most productive, most fun ride I’ve had in twenty years as an author. Now I want to write every book this way.

Oddly, though, the book universe doesn’t seem to know what to do with a band. The business is built for solo authors, or the occasional duo. Some publishers passed on our proposal just because there were four of us. On the back end, TV shows and speaking bureaus are asking for one or two of us but not four. We’ve even found that we’ve caused glitches in Amazon’s book listing algorithm.

This bias ought to be rethought. Writing as a band is closer to the collaborative, free-flowing, social-driven process that’s becoming the way a lot of people work in the twenty-first century. It’s not unlike the way good code gets written. Colleges should teach it. Editors should encourage it. The media should celebrate it.

Let me tell you how it worked for us.

I had been friends for a long time with one of our co-authors, Al Ramadan. After a couple decades as a founder and executive in Silicon Valley, he teamed with two other tech industry veterans, Christopher Lochhead and Dave Peterson, to form a startup advisory firm they called Play Bigger. (Right — same as the book title.) The three of them became more like brothers than business partners, and they shared the same irreverent, high-energy and often profane sensibility about nearly everything — business, surfing, beer, whatever. As I wrote in the book’s intro, “They are refreshingly enthusiastic about everything and believe that there isn’t a sentence that can’t be made better by adding some version of ‘fuck’ to it.”

They wanted to write a book about what they were learning as startup coaches. Al invited me to dinner to meet the crew. I flew out from my home in New York, we all hit it off, and we decided to go for it. They would bring the lessons and ideas and I’d bring the writing — roughly speaking, because the division didn’t end up so clean.

Once a month, I flew out for a couple of days and we met at Christopher’s house in Santa Cruz. At first, our routine drove me nuts. Mindful of deadlines, I thought we were wasting time. We hung out in shorts and bare feet, sprawled on couches, raiding Christopher’s pantry. We’d throw around some ideas, then break to ride bikes to a burrito place, come back, work some more, get sidetracked by something, work a little more, then open the first beer while Christopher’s wife, Kari Cosentino (one of Silicon Valley’s great event planners), concocted a legendary feast.

Looking back, that stuff all fed into the book — the chatter, the sunshine, the burritos, the booze, the a-ha moments. And so we think we ended up with a business book that doesn’t feel like a business book.

While we were messing around, we were brainstorming ideas and talking through examples. Sooner or later a fully-formed concept would explode out of it. I’d try to catch whatever was said in my notes. Then I’d go home, organize the material, and throw it back at the guys electronically. The next meeting in Santa Cruz, I’d bring a stack of papers, each sheet representing one chapter, with the basic points in large print in a bulleted outline. Christopher had a huge dining table, and I’d lay out the chapters so we could all physically see the book. That process would stir up more ideas, which we’d write on Post-It Notes and stick on the appropriate chapter.

Little by little, we built a book blueprint.

After a few rounds of this, it was time to start writing for real — which was supposed to be my job. The writing process got off to a rocky start because everyone thought they were the writer. I’d draft something, and the other three would each revise it. It was as if U2 went into the studio and each member played in a different key. Seeing this mess, the guys made an important decision: Let the writer write. And they did.

When Hollis Heimbouch, our editor at HarperBusiness, bought the book, she said she was concerned about how four of us would create a single voice. But it actually seemed easy. We spent so much time bantering and getting into the same groove, a voice emerged that was naturally us. It wasn’t — I want to emphasize — me. The banter put me in a different place as a writer. It made me looser, a little more aggressive maybe than I’d usually be. Just sprinkling some fucks into a business book did wonders for my attitude. By the time we were two chapters in, we had the voice that you can read in the book.

In between meetings, we relied a lot on Slack — a place to post the latest writings, chat about an idea, share some research or news stories pertinent to the book. We really did build a book the way some teams build software. There were also plenty of phone calls and emails, of course, at all times of the day and night. Hollis and our agent, Jim Levine, became part of the book-building team, and everyone contributed in their own unique way.

As we worked our way through the book, we continued to meet at Christopher’s every month, and I’d lay out the latest version of the book on the table. We’d talk through the coming chapter or two, slinging ideas, putting down Post-Its, digging deep to find an insight. As we’d lose steam, we’d get on the bikes and ride to the beach to watch surfers. By then, it didn’t seem like a waste of time. It seemed like part of the process.

If you’re wondering, we met the book’s deadline. As Hollis can attest, the final version we sent her was as clean as anything she’d ever received — because it had four people hacking it.

And I can’t say this strongly enough: this book by our band is way better than if I’d written it myself. I often wondered: If I’d encountered these guys and decided to write a book about their ideas and did it the usual way — by interviewing them and writing alone — how would it have turned out? Not a fraction as good, I’m convinced. The collaboration, the pushing and pulling each other — the four guys in a studio — added up to something greater than the four of us separately.

For the first time in my work as an author, I was sorry when the writing ended.

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