When Diana Kander started reading “The Hunger Games,” she told her husband it was the best book ever written.
“When I wasn’t reading the book, I was thinking about what the characters were doing and what they were up to,” Kander said. “I was so invested.”
Kander, a successful entrepreneur and senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, hadn’t read a novel since high school. She also kept noticing a problem: While mentoring hundreds of startups over the years she found each company getting stuck when it came to finding customers. Instead of having the same conversations over and over again, Kander decided to write a novel with business lessons to show entrepreneurs, in an entertaining way, the importance of making customers the focal point of their endeavor.
“I thought, this is the best way to get somebody engaged and really get them excited about an idea,” Kander said. “Why not have them try to learn business lessons when they’re trying to survive in a forest, you know?”
Now, two years later, Kander’s book “All In Startup” will go on sale June 30.
“All In Startup” tells the story of fictional entrepreneur Owen Chase, a contestant at the World Series of Poker trying to get his mind off his failing cycling company and marriage. Owen seems doomed until he meets Samantha, an intriguing, seductive and successful entrepreneur who seems interested in helping Owen turn his company around.
The book finds tension points in Sam and Owen’s relationship, the poker tournament and Owen’s failing business. Each chapter sets up lessons for startups woven into a fictional storyline. It’s not your typical textbook, University of Missouri entrepreneurship professor Greg Bier points out. Textbooks don’t use words like ‘boob,’ for example.
“It’s the perfect storyline to actually engage readers, her readers,” Bier, who plans to use the book in his entrepreneurship class in the fall, said. “She followed her own advice of figuring out her readers and writing the book toward them.”
Kander, whose husband is Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, pursued entrepreneurship early on, selling door-to-door in high school. She graduated from Georgetown Law School and worked at a large Kansas City law firm, with dreams of making big decisions in a board room. She made a switch to entrepreneurship with hopes of leading a company more directly and has since founded several successful companies and mentored numerous startups. She recently moved to Columbia.
In writing “All In Startup,” Kander channeled her varied experiences. She also knew she needed to target a specific audience for her book. Nine years ago she wrote a draft for a teen novel and five years ago she worked on a non-fiction sociology book, which drew the interest of several publishers. She flew to New York for what she thought would be a book deal, only to be dropped by the publisher without warning. Kander said she learned a lot from the disappointing experience, and applied the lessons to “All In Startup.”
“I came up with a very specific customer segment for my book and had an objective of getting it into their hands, which, for me, was entrepreneurship educators and classrooms,” Kander said.
When Kander reached a book deal with Wiley last September, she started a fundraising campaign to get her book to the target customers. She set a goal to raise $300,000 so she could pay to get “All In Startup” into the hands of every one of the nation’s 10,000 or so entrepreneurship professors. She didn’t reach her goal, but with the help of family, friends and supporters, she raised $150,000, including $30,000 from an Indiegogo campaign that had an original goal of $10,000.
A huge part of the writing process was testing her work with customers. “All In Startup” emphasizes the importance of validating customers before investing time and money into building a product, a process Kander calls customer-focused innovation. Kander asked entrepreneurs to read drafts of the novel without telling them what it was. She wanted their honest feedback, which, at first, was brutal. She rewrote the book seven times using this process.
“It’s better than spending two years writing a book and then having nobody read it,” Kander said, touching also on one of the main themes of the book. “I feel like I used a pretty good iterative process to get to a final result that I feel very confident in.”
Kander also reached out to entrepreneurship professors at University of Missouri Kansas City and Columbia College to test her book with students.
Columbia College professor Sean Siebert used the book in the spring semester of his Small Business Development class. Siebert said he had avoided using textbooks for his hands-on entrepreneurship class because they weren’t engaging and often were irrelevant shortly after being published. Siebert said “All In Startup” was engaging from the start.
“All I did was I read the first two chapters, and I thought, ‘This is a fantastic book,'” Siebert said.
Siebert, who primarily consults startups, plans to use the book as a teaching tool in at least half a dozen accelerators and incubators this fall.
Columbia College student Meg Goddard said she took notes on every chapter of the book. Another student, Erin Pavlin, said a number of the book’s lessons resonated with her. Both students became involved with startups during the class. Goddard started her own dorm supply company for international students, and Pavlin works for a fast-growing nutritional product company.
Pavlin said the class format and book helped the students learn through hands-on applications.
“I just think this style of learning is so beneficial in the classroom,” Pavlin said. “Education is not one size fits all. If professors embrace this style of teaching it could benefit us all.”
Kander said her experiences taught her that entrepreneurs either learn through their own failure or from the close observation of someone else’s failure. She hopes her book can teach readers through the lens of the main character’s struggles.
Kander’s most successful venture, a legal staffing and consulting company, made millions of dollars in a couple of years, but she said she she also struggled and wasn’t always successful.
“I’ve wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars building software companies that nobody wanted, and it was very painful at the time,” Kander said. “I have tried to channel those experiences into an opportunity for other people to avoid it. I have also been able to create products that generated revenue before a single line of code was written, and I have tried to channel those experiences into a way for people to avoid my mistakes and reproduce my successes.”
Kander said out of all her professional roles, writing the book was her favorite because she was on a “do-gooder” mission the entire time.
Up next for Kander is continued book promotion. She’s also started to use concepts in the book to advise companies on how to validate customer interest before building a product, and she plans to teach entrepreneurship courses at MU this fall.