Morgan Gist MacDonald, Founder & CEO, Paper Raven Books
Morgan Gist MacDonald is the founder and CEO of Paper Raven Books and took some time out to talk with The Industry Leaders and provide some golden rules for business owners in 2023.
What's your industry?
For those who don't know anything about you or your work, can you provide a bit of background?
I had just left a doctoral program for Sociology, and I was freelance editing and writing coaching while I tried to figure out my life. I found that working with book manuscripts was both more enjoyable for me and more valuable to my clients, so they were willing to pay more. I decided that I would specialize in books and reached out through my networks to ask for referrals for folks writing books. With each client, I would ask them for referrals, too. Over a few years, I built up my new business, called “Paper Raven Editing,” at the time, to the point that I could actually just bring in the client and then hand over and oversee the editing done by other editors.
Once I had a team of editors working with me, I was moving more into the sales and marketing side of growing a business, which I found I had a real intellectual curiosity around. I took courses and found coaches, and within a couple of years, I was blogging, working on SEO, and experimenting with social media. At that same time, I had several clients come back to me and say, “Morgan, thank you for helping me with my book! I’m so proud of my book, but it’s still a Word Document, and no one will help me publish it. Do you know how to publish a book?” I absolutely did not know how to publish a book. I knew how to write a book and how to edit a book, but I’d always just handed the manuscript off to the author or on to the publisher.
So, I wrote a book over a two-to-three-month timeline and went to work publishing it and documenting the whole process as I went. In the end, I felt like it was, yes, an involved process, but a process, nonetheless. I found a designer to work with, a formatter, an editor who specialized in the final proof of print files, and a project manager. We created our publishing processes, from the ground up, took on a few “guinea pig” clients, and started publishing books. We became “Paper Raven Books” in 2015, and we published five books that year, including my own. Now, in 2023, we’re slated to publish more than 60 books, and our results for our authors are actually improving as we dial in and smooth out our processes. We have a team of 20 that fill out our editorial department, production department, and sales & marketing department. And we feel like we’re just getting started!
What does an average day look like for you?
My husband and I have four children, ranging in age from 13 to 6. So, our morning starts out at 6am with breakfast and getting the kids ready for school together. We all walk to school together (it’s a K-12 school), and then my husband and I take the long way home, with our coffee cups in hand, updating each other on the day ahead and life.
I work from home, and my day typically includes four to five hours of calls that might include meeting with: directors of departments, the sales team, the marketing team, our ads agency, my leadership coach, a potential joint venture partner, a podcast or interview (like this one), interviewing our authors for their book launches, or meeting with our authors who are working with us in high-level marketing plans.
I still have promotions that I am spearheading in the company, which could include a webinar, paid workshop, Facebook challenge, or email sequence. I like to have a combination of evergreen and live promotions to toggle between. For these promotions, I’m often writing copy, recording videos, and dialing in our offers. While I would love to say that I take long walks at lunch time, I’m absolutely the type that gets absorbed in my work and ends up eating at my desk. I do sometimes take a 12-minute power nap, though, which is an incredible reset in the middle of the day.
At 3pm, I walk for school pick-up, do another hour or so of wrap up, then 5pm onward is the evening routine with the family.
How do you balance the needs of your business with the needs of your personal life?
Yes, some mornings, I wake up at 4am or 5am to work. And, some weekends, I’ll do a few hours of work. And, yes, I bring my laptop with me on vacation. So, I’m not sure I’m one to model for whatever “work-life balance” means. 😊
I will say that I’ve learned a few tricks that have worked for me, in keeping it all going. Speaking to moms with kids at home, I do the bare minimum in kids’ activities and basically zero “mom” volunteer-type work. I also do not have crazy high standards for myself as a household manager. My husband and I go on date nights every few weeks, and as well as trips, just the two of us, approximately three times per year.
Overall, personal and professional activities all blend and ebb and flow in my life. I’m working 50+ hours per week, and I’m the parent who is responsible for kids and meals, and I’m a wife who loves traveling with her husband, and I travel on my own five to seven times a year for business. No week is ever the same, and I’m learning to find my own peaceful balance amidst it all. Meditation and those 12-minute power naps help. I’d also like to add more exercise into my weeks, possibly getting back into lifting weights and playing tennis. The variety seems to help me stay centered.
What's the best advice anyone ever gave you on your journey in business?
My mentor, Ryan Levesque, said, “When you find someone who is getting the results you want, don’t look at what they’re doing now; look at what they were doing when they were at the same stage you’re at now.” When I look at what my role models did when they were first starting out, they were developing valuable skills: copywriting, delivering webinars, sales, expertise, and connections in their industry. Then, over a span of years, they were able to leverage those skills to increase revenue and use that revenue to pay to get their time back.
What's been the hardest part about the path you've taken and how would you advise someone facing a similar situation to overcome it?
In October of 2019, I had over-extended our business expenses. I thought we would grow faster than we were growing, and I had been hiring or promoting team members, in anticipation of that growth. When the clients didn’t come in as fast as I’d planned, I put as many expenses as I could on credit cards and took out any loan I could. Spoiler alert: the credit cards and loans didn’t help; they just enabled the bleeding to continue.
One Saturday morning, I was sitting at our patio table with my coffee and laptop, paying bills. After paying the most essential bills, I was at zero, and I knew there were more bills coming in. I put my head in my hands, and just sat there as my coffee went cold. I finally admitted that I had to slash expenses and bring in a miracle of a promotion.
I fired four team members and canceled every single subscription I could. I put out an off-the-cuff promotion for a three-day virtual event that I would host a few weeks in the future. In that event, I sold our highest-level of service and enrolled three new clients. Between ticket sales, immediate client sales, and a few clients who came in a few months later, that one event brought in just over $100,000 cash and made it possible for us to keep the lights on and the client projects taken care of.
When you feel you’re on that edge of not quite being able to balance the books, go ahead and trim off some expenses. Fire the team member that you know aren’t pulling their weight; you’ll be able to replace them with someone who can give 150% of what that fired team member could for a similar rate. Cancel that subscription that you keep meaning to cut. Don’t renew that coaching program that’s only marginally useful to you now. Force your ads agency to cut back on budget before scaling up again. Adopt a rhythm of cutting in order to allow for more growth.
Are there any well-known Books, Podcasts, or Courses that you credit your current success to?
Ryan Levesque, author of Ask and Choose and Founder of the Ask Method Company, has been a coach and mentor to me for over six years. I credit an enormous amount of who I am, as an entrepreneur, to his guidance.
I’m a long-time fan of Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and A World Without Email. His podcast, Deep Questions, is a fantastic exploration of how to do your most significant work in a fulfilling and effective way.
For online business building, I’m always paying attention to Kasim Aslam and Ralph Burns, hosts of the Perpetual Traffic podcast, as well as Ryan Deiss and Roland Frasier, who have the Business Lunch podcast.
For sales and creating offers, I recommend Influence by Robert Cialdini, No B.S. Price Strategy by Dan Kennedy, $100M Offers by Alex Hormozi, One to Many by Jason Fladlien.
What do you think are the most important qualities for a successful business owner or executive to have?
To paraphrase Fred Wilson, a CEO sets the vision, attracts top talent, and makes sure there’s cash in the bank. And with those goals in mind, what type of person do I need to become in order to fulfill those duties as a CEO?
I believe a CEO is paradoxically optimistic and paranoid, always pursuing a vision for the maximum upside while knowing what the worst downside could be. This ability to hold two possibilities at once might not be natural for anyone, but is essential for pursuing a vision with full throttle and being resilient enough to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart. Yet, being able to hold and communicate the vision, with all of its possibility and potential, is what will attract top talent and the clients and customers who fund the vision.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out as a business owner?
Remember that you are “antifragile.” The economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses this term to describe a situation in which stress actually makes a person stronger. This is different than being fragile, where stress would break the person. It’s different than being strong, where stress does not affect the person. Instead, it is precisely the presence of stress that makes the person stronger.
Don’t fear the stress (although, there’s no need to chase the stress, either). Simply accept that the stress is a part of the growth. You can’t mess this up, if you just keep going.
What are the top three things you think are essential for business success?
Do you think someone can be a great business owner without having many years of experience first?
I think it’s possible for someone to naturally have one aspect of being a great business owner without years of experience. One person might have a charismatic way of communicating a vision, even if they’re not yet seasoned in reviewing financial statements. Another person might have a knack for optimizing a process that’s essential for a product or service, even if they don’t know how to run an all-hands meeting. I do think that the years of experience round out the multiple facets needed to be a great business owner. And the years will help any business owner know where their strengths are and where they need partners or teams to shore up their weaknesses so that the business can run well.
In general, do you think the world is producing better business owners in 2023 than it was fifty years ago?
As a millennial (technically, a “geriatric millennial”, which just makes me laugh), I’m not sure I have a first-hand perspective on business owners fifty years ago. I might suggest that since the advent of the Internet, it’s become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between a business owner and someone who makes money online. Many people can make money online by producing content, freelancing, or selling one product, service, or program that they fulfill. Only a small percentage of people who make money online want to grow that system into an actual business with lead generation, a team to fulfill products/services/goods, and the systems that enable the business to scale those sales.
The good news is that many, many more people are thinking about business than ever before. And I believe the more people who are considering owning businesses, the more likely it is that the best will rise to the top and create truly world-changing businesses.
So, I hope that in the next fifty years, we see more successful, fulfilled, inspirational business owners, from all over the world. And, at that point, I really will be a geriatric millennial, hopefully with a stack of outrageous stories and lessons learned to share with the next generation of business owners.
Where should people follow you to find out more about your work?