Maria Ross is chief brand strategist and creator of Red Slice, which offers small to mid-sized businesses advice, stories and strategies to boost your business, your brand and your brain. She’s the author of Branding Basics for Small Business (2010) and shared a more personal side in her new humorous and heartwarming memoir, Rebooting My Brain: How a Freak Aneurysm Reframed My Life (2012).
1) First thing’s first: tell us a little about the book and what readers can expect.
Rebooting my Brain is the true story of how I almost died from a brain aneurysm in 2008 at the age of 35. I had just launched my business six months prior and life was a whirlwind of activity – and obviously this health crisis stopped both me and my husband in our tracks. With humor and heart, the book chronicles the warning signs, the day I almost died and then follows my recovery back to health, work and life for the next two years. My goal is to educate about brain injury’s surprising effects that most people can’t see because someone might “look fine” but also to inspire anyone who gets yanked out of their life by crisis. How can you find the gift in the struggle and reframe your life, work and relationships for the better? Readers can expect to be enthralled, moved and inspired and even laugh out loud at times. It’s definitely not overly sappy or schmaltzy. I’m way too cheeky for that!
2) It’s a very personal story, of course, but you mentioned that the experience also taught you lessons you can apply to business – care to elaborate on that point?
While my recovery is amazing and I’m extremely high-functioning, I did suffer brain damage. Due to the cognitive and psychological deficits I face as a result, I had to learn how to work in a different way. I can no longer multitask the way I used to (which was crazy ridiculous anyway for any human being), I have challenges with focus and memory at times, often getting very overwhelmed with too much coming at me at once.
Being as stubborn as I am (aren’t all business women?!) I fought this adaptation for a long time, trying to get back to the Old Me. But I learned a valuable lesson that acceptance does not mean “settling:” it means learning to acknowledge your weaknesses so you can find ways to work around them. Once I accepted there was a New Me, I soon was able to adapt my work and compensate for those issues. Another powerful way I changed was learning to focus more and leave space for creativity and rest. I have learned to say no more often so I can focus on quality rather than quantity and not completely exhaust myself. Finally, I learned that patience does not mean the same thing as stagnation. I can reach all of my goals and follow all of my passions but I don’t have to do them all at the SAME TIME! It’s about forward progress and prioritization if you really want to succeed and not drive yourself into the ground with stress.
3) This is actually your second book, with your first being a guide to small-business branding. How different was writing a straightforward how-to book from writing something more autobiographical?
I wrote my first book, Branding Basics for Small Business, in first person which is not the norm for business books. I’ve always written personal essays and articles and I wanted to treat it like I was teaching a course and telling stories. I shared some personal “career” highs and lows in that book and I learned how much more powerful a message can be when you bring more of yourself into it.
Writing Rebooting My Brain was, of course, very personal. I had to share health details, emotional conversations, inner fears and even my husband’s experiences. But surprisingly, it was easier to write all of that once I started. Maybe it was also therapeutic but I think knowing your goal and your reason for doing something keeps you on track. I knew the larger purpose of this book was to educate and inspire others who are now where we had been. I saw so many lives destroyed while I was in rehab because patients’ families or friends did not understand what happened to them. With my amazing recovery came a responsibility to be that voice for those people. It was larger than me. And therefore, that made it easy to just tell the raw, honest truth: for them. I have since heard from brain injury patients all over the world who thank me for sharing my story and articulating what they have not been able to describe. So again, it’s about them, not just about me and my story. That helped me stay unafraid and undaunted, even when I doubted myself during the writing process.
4) Speaking of personal and professional, in this age of social media there’s a lot of concern over how to balance the two. As a businesswoman, were you at all hesitant to share the details of your life?
I’ve been evolving the Red Slice brand to talk about more than just branding and marketing anyway – to focus more on irresistible storytelling in our businesses and lives – so this is actually a perfect bridge for my brand evolution. But my core bread and butter, at least right now, focuses on businesses and business people.
When dealing with pure business clients, I don’t lead with this story and I certainly don’t dump my drama on branding clients. I have never used my brain injury as an excuse to let someone down who is paying for my services. I’m selective about what I take on to begin with and if I have any challenges, I get help from trusted partners. This may be unpopular to say, but I have seen many women business owners who bring too much personal baggage to their work and I don’t like that. However, I’m also transparent and would never hide this information from clients. At first, I kept the two very separate. But since my business is really just me, how can I not bring this experience into my work? The whole ordeal forced me to reframe how I approach both my life AND my work, and people who want to work with me should know that about me. I try to make sure it’s a balanced part of my business work by always finding ways to add value to others with the story: how can my experiences shape YOUR business, YOUR life, YOUR brand and mission? As long as the stories I share continue to add value and make people think, I can continue to blend the two worlds into one perspective and umbrella brand: Maria Ross, Storyteller.
5) Tell us a little about being an author in the age of new media. Many writers are scrambling to catch up with the enormous changes that have happened, and are faced with choices about print distribution versus electronic, or traditional, agent-driven publishing versus self-publishing, and the like. How have you negotiated these challenges, both as a businessperson and an author?
It comes down to being really clear on your audience and your goals. My first book was published by a small press. I did not have the money to design, edit and print the books upfront so they took the financial risk and that was fine by me. My goal with that book was to get published, get the information out there and add to my speaking credibility. So it made sense to give up a percentage of profits as it was not about the money. And I was very anti-self-publishing at the time, thinking that only poor quality books went that route.
Not true. I realized that whether you self-publish or go with Random House, you have to invest in your own marketing. Publishers do not help market your book the way they used to, especially if you’re an unknown author. They expect you to already have a built-in marketing platform and community of followers at the ready or you’re not worth the financial risk.
My goals with this book were to educate and inspire, I wanted to tell the story my way and I wanted to get it to market fast before I lost my nerve. Traditional publishing can take years: first finding an agent, then a publisher, then the development process. I didn’t want to wait. Not when I was going to have to do most of my own marketing anyway. I learned a lot from writing conferences, other authors and various other sources about the pros and cons of self-publishing and how to go about it. Armed with that information, and based on those goals, I decided to self-publish this one.
Going back to goals, my mission was to educate. That means getting the book out in whatever form necessary to share the information. I’m an eBook reader, so I wanted that option. Some people also prefer print books, so that had to be another option. Now I’m working on trying to get an audio book version, as many stroke patients can’t read very well and have asked me for this.
I bring a marketing sensibility, because that is my day job so I have an advantage. I see a book as art, yes, but I also see it as a product. It’s not personal. If you want to sell books, you have to have a product worth buying. There are so many good writers out there who just don’t understand the principles that entrepreneurs have been dealing with in recent years: building a platform and a loyal community, using social media to extend your brand, etc. We have a distinct advantage in understanding how to produce, edit and distribute a good quality product especially on our own.
Not to say that if Random House comes knocking on my door with a six-figure deal that I would turn them down! But again, back to my goals, they would be able to amp up distribution access to more people and more countries and so I’d love to talk.