I have, for some time now, been obsessed with the work of Patrick Rothfuss.
No, he’s not an entrepreneur, engineer, or venture capitalist versed in the language of the startup world.
He’s the New York Times bestselling author of the fantasy series, The Kingkiller Chronicle.
This might seem strange to some — fantasy authors and startup founders operate in different worlds — but I believe there is plenty founders can learn from the work of fiction writers. The skills, habits, and values that make fantasy authors successful translate directly to success in our field.
For most writers, conjuring, crafting, editing, and publishing a novel takes years. To complete The Name of the Wind, it took Rothfuss 15.
In an interview penned by Wired, Rothfuss explained why his writing journey was so arduous.
“Most of the time that a regular human being would spend watching television, I spent reading or writing. It would not be weird for me to spend 10 hours a day writing over the summer.”
He also described writing multiple drafts of his epic story, iterating and improving each one with painstaking deliberation and analysis.
All in all, his is a process that demands an almost superhuman amount of diligence and patience.
That might strike some as hyperbolic, but it’s what creating any kind of great book requires. While the seed of an idea might hit at once, slowly animating a new, cohesive world that stands up under scrutiny and entertains with a well-told story doesn’t happen overnight.
The same is true of building a successful, potentially timeless company.
Maybe the idea for your MVP bloomed in a matter of minutes, but as any founder knows, the journey from that moment to the ultimate actualization of a successful company — one that creates products which solve problems for a cadre of loyal customers — takes exponentially longer. The process, simply put, cannot be expedited.
Whether you’re writing a novel or building a company, the quality of that final product will depend on, yes, patience, but also on the creator’s commitment to producing something great.
In the case of the novelist, what matters is not how many books you’re able to write — nor how quickly you write them — but how impactful the ones you dowrite prove in the lives of your readers. How deeply your characters resonate, how stubbornly the scenes you paint linger in the mind. It’s that impact which builds communities of loyal fans who clamor for your next work. It’s also what helps your book stand up against the test of time.
This is true of the products, updates, tools, and services you release as the leader of a startup, too.
What separates successful founders from those who fold is an undying commitment to creating genuinely valuable things. The money that follows — like the movie rights that Rothfuss recently signed over to Lionsgate — is a result of that commitment.
Greatness is a product of genuine ambition. Prestige cannot be the primary inspiration.
Here’s the kicker, though: whether you’re a novelist or a founder, you need an appreciation for the patience and authentic ambition. But that doesn’t mean jack if you’re not willing to put in the grueling work writing books and building companies entail.
In fact, both endeavors require immense amounts of time spent sitting alone in silence, gnawing on your knuckles. Both processes amount to a kind of mental alchemy: you’re turning something incorporeal into something tangible. That requires, too, neglecting other important aspects of your life, and embracing more generally the loneliness of solitude.
If you’re not prepared to face all that, you won’t ever finish your novel or build your company — at least not well.
On the flip side, though, if you embrace solitude and commit to the isolated struggle, your work will flourish. In fact, you’ll succeed more generally: there’s a direct and proven correlation between the number of hours you spend working alone and the amount of success you ultimately achieve.
Because writing novels and building companies is difficult, lonely work — and because patience is at times challenging to maintain — both writers and founders must have a set of core values they can lean on in times of struggle.
You also need a kind of foundational mission statement which you can refer to regularly. For Rothfuss, this means remembering what he’s trying to accomplish, which is creating a new world with his next novel — he has little value to gain from distracting himself by writing a cookbook.
For startup founders, this means establishing and remembering your core value proposition.
In the case of my company — BAMF Media, a growth marketing consulting agency — we work to ensure that every new service we provide is a natural extension of the value we provide at our core. It does us no good to get distracted building things that don’t further our essential mission.
In reality, this imperative doubles as our North Star — similar to how Rothfuss’s chief goals guided him through his long and challenging 15-year journey to his first publication.
Founders, for example, can update their products, messaging, or services after they release them. Authors, on the other hand, can’t rewrite their books after they’re published.
But it remains true that the traits, values, habits, and appreciations which prove essential ingredients for writing a great book are equally essential for building a successful company.
In this sense, founders and fantasy authors really are playing the same game. The worlds we work in are, in fact, not that different.
We’re just creating different kinds of magic.