Joshua Dick, author of Grow Like a Lobster, shares insights on how to write a business book.
The Inspiration for Grow Like a Lobster
Olivia Edwards: What initially inspired you to write Grow Like a Lobster?
Joshua Dick: While I was CEO of Urnex Brands, I kept a business diary. Over 15 years I wrote nearly 500 pages. The diary was a place where I recorded my ideas, expressed my frustrations, and just thought to myself – being a CEO was very lonely. After I sold the business, I spent a few days reading the entire diary from start to finish. Reading the diary reminded me of a lot of insights, ideas and puzzles solved over my career that I thought might be of value to others. I took the time to sketch an outline for a book I thought I might write one day. About two years later I sat down to write, and Grow Like a Lobster is the result.
Olivia: You use the lobster as a metaphor for a growing business throughout the book. An especially salient image is the lobster molting and exposing its vulnerable insides in order to grow. How did you first get the idea of using the lobster as a symbol?
Joshua: I read Trevor Corson’s book The Secret Life of Lobsters soon after it came out. While reading it, I felt a deep connection between my business vulnerabilities and what I imagined lobsters confronted when molting. From the time I read Corson’s book forward, I used the metaphor with my team. I constantly reminded our organization that no matter how good things might be going at a certain point in time, we needed to remember that the next molt was sure to be coming sometime in the future. I found that by talking about the fact that bad things might happen in the future, we were better able to deal with them when they arrived. It all comes down to planning and preparing.
Olivia: Were there any times when you felt the metaphor didn’t fit? If so, how did you respond?
Joshua: There is one place in the book where I struggled with the metaphor. In fact, that is in the first chapter on finding your One Thing and focusing all your energies on achievement of success without giving yourself an out. I advise against behaving like a lobster when it comes to leaving yourself an escape hatch. You see, lobsters like to select caves that have a front door and a back exit. They like to give themselves an escape route. In the book, I talk about finding your focus and your metaphorical cave but NOT giving yourself an out. I use the contrary idea of how a lobster behaves to stress the importance of focusing your energies and being determined not to have a way to give up. It is all about making a firm commitment and sticking to it.
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Olivia: In addition to drawing on your experience and knowledge of business, your book draws on scientific information about lobsters. What was your research process like? Did you have previous experience in the field of biology, or was it totally new to you? If it was new, what was the experience of diving into a new field like? What research advice can you give to other writers?
Joshua: I knew very little about lobsters other than what I had read in Corson’s book and enjoying them at meals on special occasions. However, when I started working on Grow Like a Lobster I picked up as many books and articles as I could find about the life cycle of the lobster. I also reached out to my network of friends and colleagues seeking introductions to lobster experts. I met a few, and in the book I quote Professor Michael Tlusty a few times. He is an amazing guy and a lobster expert whom I found by asking contacts for more contacts. (This happens to be advice I offer in Grow Like a Lobster).
As I learned more and more about the lobster, I found many other similarities between the lifecycle of the lobster and my business experience. For example, every time a lobster molts, it grows 15%. My business grew at 15% a year for 15 consecutive years. What is also interesting is that lobsters molt very frequently when they are young and less often when they are older. I think the same is true of a business, which makes a lot more changes when it is just getting started and slows down its pace of evolution as it matures.
The writing process for Grow Like a Lobster
Connecting business knowledge with personal experience
Olivia: Grow Like a Lobster provides readers with first-hand knowledge and principles for how to run an exceptional business. At the same time, it tells a deeply personal story about your experience joining your family business and leading it to incredible success, and how you felt at crucial moments in the process. How did you balance the informational content with telling this story? Did you learn anything about yourself in the process of writing the book?
Joshua: There is so much I could say in response to this question. In writing the book, I learned how fortunate I was to have a family business available to me to use as a base for my business ambitions. I also learned that all along my entrepreneurial path I was just creating what I call my personal dream job. I loved running a business and working with talented and dedicated people.
When I sat down and started writing the book, I had a chance to reflect on just how wonderful an experience I enjoyed and how much fun it was all along. I also learned that writing a book is much more solitary than I expected. I was used to fast decision-making and quick business wins. Writing a book proved a real challenge as you are not able to enjoy quick victories along the way. You need diligence and perseverance to get to completion.
Envisioning the audience for Grow Like a Lobster
Olivia: One takeaway from Grow Like a Lobster is that businesses should focus on doing one thing really well, like a lobster finding its niche in order to survive. Who do you think can benefit most from hearing your story and implementing your principles? Who did you have in mind as the audience as you were writing the book?
Joshua: I happen to believe the dedication and focus to a clearly defined mission is a principle of value to us all – both in business and in life. Of course, we can have varied interests and pursuits, but by taking the time to define our priorities and really knowing where we are hoping to go, we can be much more efficient in the path we follow to get there. My target audience when I began writing the book was the person I was when I started on my business path. I imagined writing it for a younger Josh and trying to incorporate all the lessons learned along the way that I wished someone had shared with me.
Now that the book has been out there a few weeks I am hearing from people around the world that feel it is written just for them too. Many of these people are inspired entrepreneurs, but others are running non-profits, involved with school boards, and some are artists and musicians trying to make a business out of something they love. It has been really interesting to hear from people who appreciate what I think of as a stripped down, no-nonsense approach to building an organization with efficiency and focus.
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Olivia: As a person with a lot of experience running a business, did you approach writing a book with the same skills and strategies from the business world?
Joshua: I think that business skills and life skills are interchangeable. I never thought of myself as just a business guy. I ran my business as I lived my life. I’ve always tried to be efficient, focused, and clear in what I wanted to achieve. For me, business was part of my life but also gave me a chance to be with my wife and children.
Enjoying my job (having my dream job) allowed me to have fun and be challenged at work and also have the time to be with my family. As a result, I wrote the book (and researched the lobster) very much in line with the way I ran the business. It was a focus I enjoyed along the way–both intellectually stimulating and fun. I believe in talking to a lot of people, asking questions, getting references, and learning as much as you can to plan and prepare for the future. That’s how I ran the business and how I wrote the book.
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Olivia: Did writing Grow Like a Lobster present any unexpected challenges? If so, how did you respond to them?
Joshua: For me, the biggest challenge came at the end. The words on the page and the writing process came pretty naturally to me. I completed the rough draft quickly. However, when it got down to the nitty-gritty with editing and design and layout, I started to just want the project to be complete. I was a bit frustrated with what I saw in the process and how slowly things moved. That was a big adjustment for me but one that helped me learn a lot about myself.
Olivia: What advice would you give other authors on completing the editing, design, and layout stages of the project?
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Lisa Tener: Can you say more about your vision for getting this book into the hands of readers? In addition to the talks at universities/business schools, how else do you plan to share your message?
Joshua: This is a complicated question for me. By nature, I’m not a really public guy. However, I recognize that the author platform is necessary if you want anyone to read your book. I have set up a personal website, and I have begun blogging in an attempt to gain subscribers and offer useful lessons in a quick-to-read format. In the blog I try to offer readers short, insightful tips and tricks from my experience. I have to admit that it is all a little difficult for me as I try not to be self-promoting.
I’m learning along the way and hoping that an audience for the book and my message will build over time within the community of business minds. I’m in it for the long haul, so I will hope to promote the book over time through talks, visits to trade organizations (hoping to talk to the coffee industry where I worked for so long), and open to other invitations.
Lisa: How are you applying the business concepts in Grow Like A Lobster to the activities involved in promoting the book?
Joshua: I think I am doing a pretty good job with the efficiency and focus of my website. I am working hard on SEO (search engine optimization) to make myself the “lobster business story” guy, but that’s going to take time. I want my image and that of the book to be about efficient advice for an audience that aspires to build something extraordinary. As a result, I’m not being super-aggressive but may pick up the pace as 2020 approaches. Remember, my business route was about consistent, controlled growth and never going too fast.
Lisa: It’s great that you are walking the talk. And, interestingly, the way Amazon’s algorithm works now, a book can really gain momentum over time, especially as you get reviews on Amazon (and more orders, of course). So I encourage you to encourage fans to review the book there.
Inspiring students to achieve their goals
Joshua: I wrote Grow Like a Lobster in hopes of giving back to the world. I feel blessed to have achieved many of the business goals I set out to pursue when I started. I think that there are lessons I learned along the way that can help others. My ambition is that someone, somewhere will read the book and come up with a good idea or have a decision they made confirmed as right or wrong because of something they picked up in reading Grow Like a Lobster.
The talks scheduled at Yale, Columbia, and Kellogg are my first attempt to see how I feel up in front of students. I was inspired by guest speakers when I studied at Kellogg. (Chapter 12 references a story by the CEO of Odwalla that I heard as an MBA student). I would like to tell my story and give advice that I hope can help someone else. These talks are the first of what I hope will be many in the future. One day, I might want to teach a class or a seminar. For now, I’m taking it all as it comes.
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Olivia: Are there any questions I didn’t ask that you wish I had asked?
Joshua: Wow! This question is exactly the second to last question I asked all employees I interviewed. (The last was “what do you do for fun?”). I think the one point I would want to share is that this book is not intended as a vanity book. I’m not out there trying to promote myself or my story. I sincerely believe that the way I built my business and the principles shared in the book can be valuable to anyone building or running any type of organization. I’m at a point where I’m enjoying the chance to share some ideas in hope of making a different kind of contribution.
Olivia: Well, now I want to ask: what do you do for fun?
Joshua: I spend loads of time with my three amazing daughters and love living here in Florence, Italy. Since arriving in Italy I have learned to speak Italian and continue to work on improving my language skills. I also enjoy living within steps of some of the most amazing works of art and architecture in history. When I’m working on my personal health I enjoy jogging and biking around Tuscany.
I just want to thank you and Lisa for taking the time to ask me these questions. Thanks for giving me a chance to share my answers with your audience and community. I sincerely hope that something in Grow Like a Lobster will help readers create their own personal dream jobs.
About the Author
Over fifteen years, Josh Dick transformed a small family business into a global market leader in the coffee industry with customers in over 70 countries and distribution facilities on three continents. In the process, sales grew more than 25 times while earnings multiplied over 275 times. After the sale of the business, Josh moved to Florence, Italy where he now lives with his wife and three daughters. Josh has a B.A. in Political Science from Yale College and an M.B.A in Marketing and Finance from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.