This story appears in the March 2017 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
UJ Ramdas had an idea he knew people would love but that no publishing house would ever take seriously. Here it is: a mostly blank book. See the problem? And blank journals such as Moleskine are a dime a dozen. “We didn’t even approach book publishers,” Ramdas says. But those blank pages weren’t a gimmick. They were a carefully considered, earnest offering — a space for journaling, which Ramdas claims is a key to a more productive life. “I believe it was the author Robert Cialdini who said, ‘If you think about what you want to do and write it down, you’ll be more likely to do it,’” Ramdas says.
He began journaling regularly at age 19 and, now 29, is still enthusiastic about it. But he knows it can be a hard sell. Most people won’t spend 15 to 30 minutes a day “introspecting,” as he does. That’s why he set his sights on a measly five. What if we take everything we know from the principles of psychology, and we Trojan-horse some personal growth in a beautiful bound book? he thought. He and his friend Alex Ikonn cofounded a company called Intelligent Change and created that book — The Five Minute Journal, a well-designed, mostly blank space for jotting down goals in the morning and considering achievements at night, sprinkled with words of encouragement.
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Ramdas and Ikonn paid for a small production run, set the price at $23, and planned to sell their journals directly to consumers. But without a publisher or much of a marketing budget, how could they get it into people’s hands? Who was going to notice such a quiet little book?
The guys figured they needed to make a big splash, so they started mailing their journals to celebrities. In one case, they sent a package to The Ellen DeGeneres Show complete with posters, stickers and books for an entire studio audience. They never heard back. “We don’t know what happened. We know they were delivered, and that’s it,” Ramdas says, laughing. “We lost thousands of dollars.”
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Next, they targeted conferences for entrepreneurs and fitness buffs, seeking “people who see the value of practicing happiness and gratitude and will drop $23 on the product.” After a while, that hustle started paying off. They met a handful of powerful players — Dave Asprey, Abel James and Tim Ferriss among them — who were enthusiastic about the journal, and occasionally even willing to tell their fans about it. “That’s when we knew this could be a real thing,” Ramdas says. But the duo were still stuck: How could they turn these few influential fans into an ever-growing audience?
Then Ramdas and Ikonn had an aha moment: Influential people have influential friends! And those less famous friends aren’t nearly as inundated with free stuff, which means they might be more willing to take it seriously. “When people start a new habit, they want to talk to their friends about it, especially if it’s cool,” Ramdas says. So the duo took a traditional book-marketing move — sending unsolicited copies to folks they admired with built-in audiences — one step further. “We would send two to five journals to any one influencer,” Ramdas says. One copy is easy to ignore or even throw away, they figured. But the extras force the recipient to, well, get rid of them — hopefully by giving them to friends.
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“We knew we had something that makes a great gift,” Ramdas says. And it worked. The extras were passed along, creating a web that has helped sell well north of 100,000 copies. (To put that in perspective, a New York Times best-seller may sometimes have sold less than 10,000 copies.) “Hal Elrod, author of The Miracle Morning, mentioned the Five Minute Journal on Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income podcast,” Ramdas says. “Stuff like that has happened quite a bit, and it’s important. You need to have a product that people need to talk about.”
And you need to give them a reason to talk about it.