3 Things Entrepreneurs Can Learn from J. K. Rowling

Sep 13, 2013

A little more than 15 years ago, Joanne Rowling was a jobless single mother. Like many fledgling entrepreneurs, she was financially strapped but had a brilliant idea. And success didn’t come easy; she was rejected by twelve publishers and the first Harry Potter book sold for a mere $4,000 dollars.

Today, she’s one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in history. And it seems she’s far from finished.

J. K. Rowling expanded her portfolio of talents yet again this week: she signed a deal with Warner Bros. to write the screenplays for a new movie series and TV mini-series in the “Harry Potter” universe. The series will feature the adventurer Newt Scamander, author of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (a Hogwarts textbook).

As independent workers, pursuing our passions and living outside the support of a safe career and regular paycheck, it would be wise to take a thoughtful look at Rowling’s attitude towards creativity and new enterprise, and what makes her a great entrepreneur.

Why did Rowling succeed at a place in her life where so many of us would have crumpled and given up?

She Doesn’t Believe in Failure

If you haven’t heard Rowling’s 2008 Harvard Commencement Speech, stop reading this article and do it now.

Only when Rowling reached “rock bottom” did she begin to write the first Harry Potter book. Why? “I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized,” she says.

Sometimes you can’t know what’s bad about your business unless everything stops working. Getting less and less repeat clients? You can ignore it, blame it on the economy, or blame it on your field. And that might be true, but it’s not useful. Instead, stop and say “I’m failing.”

That’s a very scary place. But it’s humbling. “Failure meant a stripping away of the unessential,” Rowling says. You can start from scratch and rethink everything, return to the original passion that built your business in the first place.

If you come back from failure once, you’ll never be as afraid of failure again.

She Controls What She Creates

Traditionally, when a studio wants to turn your book into a movie, you sign a deal and run. Or you sign, run, and then complain about how much they messed up your book. Rowling not only signed a deal that let her be intimately involved in the making of the films, but she even negotiated a special percentage of the profits. No movie merchandise is sold without her OK.

When you sign a book deal, you almost always sign away the rights for the publisher to distribute the e-book. Rowling did not sign away those rights, and distributes the e-books of Harry Potter only on her own website.

She’s become incredibly savvy about making sure nothing that she created ever gets outside of her control.

Sure, Rowling does have a much higher negotiating position than most of us when, say, we head into a meeting with a client to create a contract that stipulates who owns what. But as Sara Horowitz and others have argued, it’s extremely important that freelancers and entrepreneurs are clear about who owns the rights to what they create for clients.

Again, your reputation and the quality of your work may dictate your negotiating power. But don’t underestimate your worth. If you give up rights, expect more money for your work. Be ready to explain to clients why that’s appropriate.

She Doesn’t Get Stuck in Success

Rowling is one of the best-selling novelists of all time. After Harry Potter became successful, she could have just said, “Well, now I know what I’ll be writing about for the rest of my life.”

In just a decade, she’s also become an adult mystery writer, amusement park designer, a toy designer and following her announcement this week, she’s also a screenwriter and a TV writer. She’s not as successful in some of these endeavors as she was with Harry Potter. That hasn’t stopped her from trying new things.

Sometimes, as entrepreneurs or freelancers, after we find a business that works, we just float along. Of course, you’ll still be looking for clients and hustling, but you’re just executing and sustaining your original idea.

If Rowling shows us anything, it’s that success is not the end. It’s difficult to leave the safety of what’s successful. Many would ask - why would I even bother? Because for Rowling, creation clearly isn’t only about success, but about stretching her boundaries. And while less secure, it must give her a sense of renewed accomplishment only the pursuit of new ideas - and the risk of failure - can provide.

Even if you don’t care about Harry Potter or wizards or fantastic beasts, even if you don’t care what J. K. Rowling does next, how she does it and why she does it is something we should all care about.