What Can the Success and Failure of “Fifty Shades of Grey” Teach a Startup Founder

What Can the Success and Failure of “Fifty Shades of Grey” Teach a Startup Founder

The story of E.L. James book – now also a movie – fascinates me much more than the abusive love affair of Anastasia Steele and her naughty billionaire boyfriend. A $237.7m global opening weekend box office and over 100 million of copies sold worldwide is an incredible journey for something that started as a self-published fanfic of Twilight at an obscure Australian writers’ website less than four years ago. But is there anything of use for a startup founder in the life of this literary Cinderella? YouTeam thinks there is – and much.

In fact, the business of books and movies is not too different from that of the IT startups. It’s also a winner-takes-it-all market full of brilliant geeks and nerds, innovative ideas, greedy VC’s publishers, pitches, viral marketing, and silent cemeteries of failed projects. The only, but key difference, is that everybody focuses on the same problem: boredom. This forces the army of authors to keep re-inventing the wheel – so they can entertain their audience with something new while not leaving the safe territory of its established tastes. This is exactly what “Fifty Shades of Grey” did – just slightly better than thousands of other similar fiction. But enough to put it on the top.

Every success story is unique. The market adopts to the presence of successful product and the exact follower can only count for a fraction of what #1 receives. Yet some general observations might be quite instructive.

1. Find a common problem for a large group of people – but overlooked by the others.

The overwhelming majority of the Fifty Shades’ readership is married women in their 30s. This is a large segment indeed and as you may expect – the primary one for romantic novels. Overlooked by other authors was the curiosity of those respectable housewifes about the extremities in sex, such as BDSM. E.L. James’ depiction of sado-masochistic acts couldn’t be softer. Yet coupled with psychological controversies of the emancipated modern woman who suddenly enjoys being dominated by a man, it managed to find a previously hidden dusty store-room in readers’ minds.

2. Design your product in the way it can go viral – and screw those greedy publishers VCs.  

Fifty Shades was released as an ebook and print-on-demand in May 2011 by The Writer’s Coffee Shop – a small online Aussie community of authors. Having zero marketing budget, E.L. James promoted her book via social media and blogs, notably – the Facebook groups popular with the target demographic. It went really viral after being dubbed “The Mommy’s Porn” and “Twilight for grown-ups” by New York Times. The powerful word-of-mouth wave made Fifty Shades “The book everyone is talking about” – before it got a multi-million offer from Vintage Books.

3. Do not try to invent something entirely new. There always will be enough room left for innovation.

The story of Anastasia and Christian Grey originated from a fanfic to Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer titled “Master of the Universe” which James has written in 2009 under the strange pseudo of Snowqueens Icedragon. The fans of  Twilight were her first loyal readers – we would call them “the early adopters” in a startup world. After having discovered, this way, the strong demand for her story, James had rewritten the plot and extended it into a trilogy – hence adopting it for a larger audience. If there is a case for “lean writing” – Fifty Shades is a perfect example.

4. You can only sell a bad product once.

Courtesy of
Courtesy of

Success of the book and extensive marketing campaign granted a head-start for Fifty Shades of Grey – the movie – during first days of the opening weekend. But as soon as the first critical reviews and disappointed tweets started to arrive, the box office faced a dramatic decline. Let’s be honest: the film sucks. And it does that with no erotic connotations. Adopted for the big screen, the provocative erotic novel became a stale and boring C-grade that will be soon forgotten.

5. Embrace pain.

Every startup founder needs a healthy amount of masochism. How else could he (or she) endure all the pain of the early stages of the project  without losing the last bits of optimism? Also, being eventually dominated by some 27-year-old billionaire is too often our ultimate desire, sometimes dubbed as “an Exit Strategy.”

Just joking ;).

Yura Riphyak

Yura Riphyak

Yura Riphyak is a Co-Founder and CPO at YouTeam.

A serial entrepreneur, Yura has founded 4 companies since 2010, with 1 successful exit. Before starting YouTeam, Yura co-founded - a “Twitter for Voice”.
Yura is also an LSE-graduate in Economics, mentors a number of startups and teaches a crash-course on business modelling in several universities.

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