How to Think Like a Businessperson–Even If You Don’t Want to

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Recently I attended an onstage interview conducted by a San Francisco cookbook writer of Ina Garten, whom some of you know by watching her cook on The Food Network or via her nine, wildly popular cookbooks. I’m a foodie and enjoy Ina’s recipes, but what I didn’t expect from the evening was a lesson in how to be a smart businessperson.

Writers’ eyes generally glaze over when the word business is uttered, but publishing is a business whether your books are produced via traditional publishing or you’re out there on your own. Thinking like a businessperson will stand you in good stead throughout your career as you decide what you’re going to write, how you’re going to market your bIna Gartenook or your persona, and where you’ll invest financially in growing your writing business.

Here are the points Ina mentioned as she recapped the decisions she made to build her food empire.

Don’t overextend yourself. Ina has three staff members and has worked with the same television production team for all 13 years of her show, Barefoot Contessa. She, of course, fills out her support team with an agent and an attorney. Not only is her support team lean, but she also oversees everything that is done in her name. She’s determined that excellence will be maintained, develops all her own recipes, and does her own cooking for the show.

Application for you: Don’t commit to so many contracts you can’t maintain–and grow–the writing craft. Every book you produce needs to be the very best work you can do.

Protect your brand. Because of Ina’s popularity, she is asked to attach her name to all kinds of products, including kitchen furniture, manure, and a line of clothing. Ina turned down all three of the items listed here. She understands her brand is about food. Nothing else, just food. Her response to the offer to have a clothing line named after her was, “I always wear the same thing.” Which was funny because she’s not an interesting dresser. Generally she wears a big black shirt and black slacks. For photos on her cookbooks, she wears her black outfit with a scarf tossed on top. So, no, a clothing line isn’t a fit for Ina’s brand.

Application for you: Avoid the temptation to veer away from the brand you are working so hard to communicate. Just because “they” ask, you don’t have to say yes. That means, if a publisher asks you to write something that’s outside your brand, you say no.

Pursue what interests you. Ina worked for Jimmy Carter preparing budgets for several years. At first the job was fun, but eventually, she grew weary of it. One day, she was reading the New York Times while on the job, which she admits wasn’t the way her boss expected her to use her time. She noticed a tiny ad for a specialty food store for sale in the Hamptons. “That would be interesting,” Ina thought to herself. By the end of the upcoming weekend, she had bought herself a store. She had no idea how to run such an establishment, but, hey, it would be interesting. Ina told those of us in the audience, “You don’t have to see where an idea will end up; you just need to know that you find it interesting.”

Application for you: Don’t be afraid to take a risk that interests you. Yes, you could fail, or you could discover just the right next step because you followed your intuition.

Give yourself space to discover a new direction. After years of successfully operating her boutique store and expanding it to an immense one, Ina needed a fresh direction. So she sold the store (but kept the right to use its name, Barefoot Contessa) and built an office. Every day she went to the office and sat there. She had  no idea how to move forward with her life. Then, after weeks of boredom, she finally decided to do something she said she never would: write a cookbook. Sure, she loved to cook, but she didn’t see herself as a writer. What did she find out? It was interesting and fun. She’s still happily writing cookbooks.

Application for you: Give yourself the time and space to just sit. Sometimes creativity is born of boredom. If we’re never quiet, how will our minds have the opportunity to think up new stuff? When will we ask ourselves, “What if”?

See, this business lesson wasn’t too painful now, was it?

Which of the above ideas do you need to focus on?


How to think like a businessperson–even  if you don’t want to. Click to tweet.

What writers can learn about being successful from Ina Garten. Click to tweet.

P. S. I’ll be at the Mount Hermon Writers Conference as you read this blog; so if I’m not a major participant in the conversation, you’ll know why.

22 Responses

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  1. Excellent advice! I also love her show and cookbooks. She’s one smart lady, and I love that she knows exactly who she is.

  2. Ina knows when a project has run its course. I can’t imagine myself walking away from one successful project, then WAITING for the next one. That is way out of my risk zone. I’ve heard God say “You’re done with this” over lesser things than my source of income–and I usually argue with him for a few days before I give in and do it his way. Just reluctant to change, I guess.

  3. I think I’ll always have to focus on sitting still and investigating WHAT interests me.

    But sometimes it takes getting busy to see what interests us. You may not know until you take that first step. After writing my nonfiction, I could never see myself as writing anything else … nonfiction. With my daughter needing a new book to read, and extra time on my hands, like Ina, I sat and thought … then I got busy – I started my first fiction project. And my daughter and I have loved it!!

    And the passion is contagious … while I was sick and editing the work, my daughter wrote at least three of her own short stories voluntarily. That made me smile! Like me, she discovered she needed to write.

  4. A corollary to not overextending is knowing when to prune.

    I think most of us came to writing through relatively busy lives, when an idea for a story grabbed us by the neck and would not let go until it was given form.

    So we carved out moments or hours to write, going without sleep and excusing ourselves from social functions and skipping “Downton Abbey”.

    Okay, two out of three ain’t bad.

    But the lives that we had were still there, and while they could be compatible with writing a book – and the extra effort was a challenge, and kind of fun – these pre-existing lives won’t sit easily by a writing career.

    Things have to be pruned. Maybe sleeping in on weekends, or bridge night with friends with whom we really share few values.

    Or maybe it’s the day job that has to go.

    The point is not to dispose of something that turns out to be an unrecognized wellspring of creativity and energy.

    Or the activity that gives our writing its authenticity and its ultimate integrity.

  5. Ina really knows herself, and obviously has the confidence to do what she must to move forward into the future. It’s fun to read about successful people and the thought processes that got them there.

    For me, the hardest thing is sitting still and waiting for direction. I tend to prefer to find my direction on the fly. The downside of that is I’m not as able to really listen because so much is filling my thoughts.

    I hope you’re having a great time at Mt. Hermon!

    • I find direction on the fly often, too, Jeanne, whether I prefer it or not. It keeps me from being able to plan, strategize well … but then, I am often blessed and surprised at the places I am taken “on the fly” (if I had strategized, I would have missed the opportunity to soar!).

  6. Michelle Ule says:

    Sitting quietly and just thinking is on my to-do list this week!

  7. Great, great points, Janet, thank you! Each concept is so important. I’m a big Ina Garten fan so that made it a bonus 🙂 Thank you for this.

  8. It is noteworthy that everything began for her with the purchase of the speciality food store, a vastly different job than budgeting. But she said it looked interesting, a good lesson especially for us unpublished writers. By following something interesting, or our intuition, as you said, Janet, even when it varies greatly from where we thought we were going, we could discover our brand. Thank you for these lessons; I had never heard of Ina Garten.

  9. Lori says:

    Excellent advice!

    I always seem to be overextending myself. The good thing is I am pretty good about not overextending myself at work. My technical writing projects are always on or usually earlier than sceduled provided the engineering team that I work with give me my deliverables. Outside of work is a different story. This is one of the reasons why my book is no where near completion.

  10. What fabulous lessons here. I loved this post!

    The primary thing I need to work on is not being afraid to take risks. I’m very conservative when it comes to the unknown. It comes along with fear of failing miserably.

  11. Sarah Thomas says:

    Pursue something because it’s interesting. I’m intrigued by that. Perhaps God programs us to be drawn to certain ideas and opportunities . . .

  12. Becky Jones says:

    AH, how I love a good Cinderella story…how I love hearing the amazingly ordinary starts of such successful people. (It’s tempting to assume otherwise: that they came into the delivery room with a bestselling brand and faithful following!)

    But I love how Ina just jumped in, not quite knowing what she’d stuck her foot. I want to be more like that. Thanks for breaking this down into practical application…

  13. Tricia Goyer says:

    Over the last few weeks as I’ve answering emails, chatted with my agent and had various marketing meetings I’ve told myself more than once, “Think like a businessperson.” Yes, writers are artists, too, but we need to think smart so that we can keep producing our art!

  14. Thinking like a businessperson is my goal as well. These points are very helpful. In particular, “give yourself space to discover a new direction” resonates with me.

  15. Janet Ursel says:

    So what do you do when what interests you takes you in a different direction from your brand?

  16. Julie Garmon says:

    Good info, and I love that it’s so SIMPLE. And I adore Ina Garten too. Thank you!

  17. This is such a good, helpful article as are the comments! Now perhaps I should stop accumulating inspiration and get to the perspiration part — by which I mean — get writing.