My entrepreneurial journey and the 5 lessons I’ve learnt

By Scott Keyser 2 years ago . 12 minute read

Here’s my elevator pitch. When I have 60 precious seconds to introduce myself at a networking or round-table event, here’s what I say:
“Hi, I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy. When I was six I wrote a story called ‘I am a shoe’ and since then I’ve been having a love affair with the English language.

54 years later, I’m still in love. Now I show businesses how to use language that resonates with their client or prospect, whether it’s a presentation, pitch or proposal. I help them find their written and spoken voice, so they make a real connection with their reader or listener. I helped Ernst & Young to double its tender win-rate…and wrote a book about it; winner takes all.

I recently helped another international firm take its win-rate from 14% to 70%, after working with their board for just two days! My second book — “rhetorica® ” — is a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques that I trained staff of The Economist in for ten years.
I do this work because I love people and language and love seeing them and their businesses flourish. I don’t care who you are, where you’re from or what you’ve done — you were born to sing your song centre-stage, not stay mute in the wings. ‘Cos when you find your voice, you find your greatness.”

How did I get here? What unexpected paths brought me here, to where I talk to business people about ‘finding their voice’? It’s been a long old road.

After an amazing stint at Ernst & Young as a National Proposals Consultant, and a couple of years at PwC, in 2002 I stepped out of the corporate world into self-employment as a…mmm, not sure. I offered a variety of services: facilitator, trainer, copywriter, bid consultant. The truth is, I assumed that my background with two of the Big Four accountancies would guarantee me immediate clients and lucrative work. Think again.

When you don’t nail your ‘value proposition’, i.e. your offer to the market, you get known as a generalist, not a specialist. Potential clients that are not sure how to label you get confused, and a confused buyer never buys.

LESSON #1 FROM THE JOURNEY: nail your value proposition (and related elevator pitch).

Find what you love about the work you do, master it, dominate your niche and craft a form of words that captures the essence of the value you offer that particular market and why. This is the cornerstone that anyone building their own business should lay after breaking the ground, but most don’t. To do it properly takes much more work than you expect, but you reap the dividends in the form of clarity — both for yourself and the market you serve. And clarity brings some good friends to the party, like confidence, conviction and certainty. I now help start-ups, SMEs and teams in multinationals nail their value proposition and elevator pitch.

Clarity for me came in the form of a bright, talented copywriter called Andy Maslen. In late 2003, Andy was due to deliver a session to an FMCG company on writing with impact, but fell ill and couldn’t deliver. Not wanting to let the client down, however, he asked a mutual friend called Charles whether he knew someone who could run the session; Charles suggested me. So, Andy briefed me from his sick-bed and I ran the session, successfully.

A few days later, Andy and I met and decided to set up a writing skills training company together called Write for Results.

Via an existing contact, Andy introduced the newly formed Write for Results to The Economist Group and within a few months we ran our first writing workshop in a snow-bound New York City in January 2004 to their US staff. It was a howling success and the start of a beautiful relationship that was to last a decade.

On the back of that, we won other blue-chip clients, like Ernst & Young, Informa plc and Brunswick PR.

I learnt a lot from Andy about writing and the English language (as I acknowledge in my book rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques). In return, I hope he learnt some things from me about delivering great workshops. After working together for about ten years and delivering our signature 1-day writing skills workshop to organisations around the world, we split (amicably). He left me to continue running Write for Results, so he could spend more time copywriting and developing his career as a novelist.

Around that time, I joined a 6-month entrepreneurial development programme called ‘KPI’. Not Key Performance Indicator, but Key Person of Influence, i.e. how to become one in your sector. Founded by an innovative Aussie called Daniel Priestley, the programme goes into detail on the five Ps you need to master: Pitch, Profile, Product, Partnerships, Publish, with experts in each P delivering that particular module and exercises.

It was ‘Publish’ that spurred me to write my first book, winner takes all, 7 ½ principles for winning more bids, tenders, pitches and proposals (published in 2014 by LID, an international publisher of business and self-help books celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.) I wrote winner takes all in under five months (51,000 words), for two reasons: 1) the content was clear in my head from my bid consulting practice; 2) I MindMapped every chapter. The result of 2) was total clarity on what each chapter would include and omit, rendering drafting quick and (relatively) smooth.
Another book beckons…

A couple of years later, and after training over 5000 corporate staff in writing skills, I realised I had the makings of a writing system on my hands that spanned the three writing steps: planning, drafting and editing. So, I decided to write a book about it, partly to nail the IP (a bit like Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517?), and partly to share my rhetorica® writing techniques with the world. That was a labour of love. Of course, I had all 21 techniques in my head, so the content was uber-clear for me, yet I still MindMapped each chapter, as for my first book.
What made this book so special, though, was the coming together of three terrific people: Lucy McCarraher and Joe Gregory of Rethink Press, and a designer, Professor Phil Cleaver, who runs et al design in Oxford. While Lucy and Joe published the book, and advised me on structure and running order, Phil designed the cover and specified the page grid and typesetting guidelines. I remember him showing me his cover design ideas and looking intently at my face as I viewed them. When I came to the one I chose for the cover (replicating the look & feel of a dictionary definition), I had an emotional reaction, my eyes welling up. Phil gently prised it from me and said, ‘That’s the one.’

He is, quite simply, the best designer I’ve ever worked with.
Only the other day I took delivery of foil-embossed, wrap-around dust jackets for both books with rave testimonials on the inside lining of each jacket; also, Phil’s idea. Not only is it now obvious that the books come from the same stable — they also look dead classy.

LESSON #2 FROM THE JOURNEY: write a book.

Once you’ve mastered your particular skillset, confirm and consolidate it with a book. Not only will it position you as the go-to person in your field and open doors for you that would otherwise remain closed, it will also deepen your mastery. You’ll see links between disparate parts of your field you’d never connected before; it will help you join the dots. (Oh, and get Prof Phil to design it for you. Say Scott sent you.)

If my journey so far sounds like it’s been hunky-dory, it hasn’t been. Lowlights include losing my biggest client overnight, because I failed to ask their permission to use their name in my marketing material. That was fairly and squarely down to my cockiness and egotism, believing my own publicity and thinking they worshipped the ground I walked on. It was a timely slap that put me firmly (and rightly) back in my box; when I told him, my friendly local stationer called it a ‘schoolboy error’. (Thanks, Lee, that made me feel even worse.)

Another low point was discovering at the very bottom of an email chain that a client was seriously under-paying me. They’d commissioned me for several years to run 2-day writing workshops in France to an oil & gas multinational. While I was charging the training company £1500 for sharing my own content over the two days (I know, not a great daily rate but, hey, bills had to be paid), they were charging the end-client £6,000. That stuck in my craw so much that I stopped working for them.

There have been other points in my self-employed career when cash flow has been a challenge, when I’ve wondered where the next cheque is coming from. There have been points when I’ve seriously considered getting ‘a real job’, or changing paths altogether (I think the latest term is ‘pivoting’). But the only thing that’s stopped me doing that is my love for what I do. Despite nearing three-score years, I still have fire in my belly to help people win that bid, transform their writing, nail their pitch. I still get a kick out of winning new clients. I still love seeing clients skip out of a workshop having found their writing voice.

LESSON #3 FROM THE JOURNEY: love what you do, and do what you love.

The 13th century Persian mystic Rumi said ‘What we love saves us’. And Khalil Gibran described work as ‘love made visible’. If you don’t love your work, do something else. If one of my children told me they wanted to be a street cleaner ‘cos they loved it, I’d say ‘Wonderful! And be the best street cleaner in the world.’ Doing work that we love brings out the best in us…and in others. It’s life-giving.

Love — which, according to The Beatles, is all you need — has figured in my recent ruminations about the mindset and the spirit you need to be a successful entrepreneur. When I first started out, in my naivety I dismissed ‘mindset’ as New Age claptrap. But it’s fundamental. It drives everything you do, every decision you make, every step you take. And nowhere more so than in sales.

The Old English word sellan means to give, furnish, supply, lend, deliver or surrender. In Chaucer’s writing (14th century), selle can still mean ‘to give’; the meaning of ‘exchange for money’ came later.

So selling is about giving, which I’ve translated in my own mind as ‘service’. In other words, rather than going into a conversation with a prospective client intending to sell them something — which, as we all know, is off-putting for everyone — my mindset is on serving them to the best of my ability. Because I know that doing that is the best way of building trust with them. And when trust is established, then ‘selling’ to them becomes just another conversation about adding value to mutual benefit.

The book that set me on this path was Smarter Selling, by Keith Dugdale and David Lambert (FT Prentice Hall, 2007). As they say, ‘The ultimate aim of each meeting is for the buyer to think ‘That was the most useful 30 minutes of my day’. If a sales person achieves that in every meeting, why would the buyer not want to see them again?’

LESSON #4 FROM THE JOURNEY: get good at ‘sales’.

In other words, adopt a mindset or an approach that works for you and the potential buyer. Aim to give before you get. The faster you add value to the buyer, the faster you’ll build trust and a strong relationship with them.
However many or few years I have left to work, I’m on a mission to do two things:
To improve the life chances of English speakers around the world — especially the young and the disadvantaged — by showing them that good writing is neither an innate gift nor a Ninja-style black art, but a learnable skill that is not the preserve of the few, but the birth right of all;
To add something original to the body of knowledge about writing.
In the short-term, I’m building an online writing skills programme and an intensive 8-week bid mastery programme (due to launch early 2019), plus my ideas for a third book are starting to coalesce. But to do all this, I need a small team around me, which leads me to Lesson #5:

LESSON #5 FROM THE JOURNEY: build a team.

Every entrepreneur that has pulled up trees in their field (think Branson, Gates, Jobs, Bezos, Musk) has built a strong team around them, whose members excel in a particular skill. You simply can’t do everything yourself. We entrepreneurs need to get out of our own way and focus on what we do best. In my case, that’s direct the business strategically, develop new products and services, deliver paid work, and build long-term relationships with senior clients. Everything else? Delegate.

About Scott Keyser

Founder, Write for Results

Scott is a published author, writing skills trainer and bid consultant, ex-J Walter Thompson, Saatchi & Saatchi, Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers. He runs a company called Write for Results, which shows professional services firms how to use language to position themselves in the market, connect with clients and get the results they seek. Scott has written two books: Winner Takes All on how to win more bids, tenders, pitches and proposals, and rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques, on persuasive writing. In love with language from a young age, Scott’s on a mission to get people to fall in love with the written word, personalise and humanise business writing. He’s currently building an online writing skills programme. Scott went to Westminster School and holds an M.A. in Modern Languages from Oxford. Writing is a life skill and Scott has solved the riddle of how to do it well.