Our remote working culture means that I can draw my team from a much bigger pool of candidates. This means that I have been able to build a better team, faster.
Chris Banks is the founder of ProWritingAid, the online personal writing coach—a grammar guru, style editor, and writing mentor in one package. He’s an avid reader and writer and wants to help bring more great books into the world. Chris created ProWritingAid to improve his own writing. Today over 700,000 people use ProWritingAid to strengthen their writing.
ProWritingAid improves your writing by highlighting key issues, such as grammar mistakes, overused words, sentence structure, repeated phrases, consistency, dialogue, pacing and readability. Whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned professional, ProWritingAid will tighten your writing and help you impress your readers. Even if you count yourself as a great writer, ProWritingAid’s impartial eye will help uncover things that are easily overlooked.
Where did the idea for ProWritingAid come from?
I created it for my own use. Back in the day, I was a financial analyst. I wrote a lot for my job, and we had to make sure the language was easily understandable by non-native speakers. When I decided to start writing fiction, I needed to change my writing style to one that I wasn’t so familiar with. I knew that there were some common pitfalls for newcomers to creative writing, so I wrote a basic program that highlighted any instances of those so that I could improve those passages. And it just grew from there! It turns out that there are a lot of ways to make writers’ lives easier.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I work from home, as does every other member of the ProWritingAid team. We have embraced the ethos of remote working. I love the flexibility to fit work around my life rather than life around work.
I get up around 6am and do a couple hours on emails before breakfast.
Most mornings are spent holed up in my home office working with my team, though I often try to squeeze in a bit of tennis.
When it’s not raining (I live in the UK so it rains a lot!) I have lunch in my garden or cycle down to my local beach to eat. I find fresh air and a bit of exercise makes me more productive in the afternoons.
I work through the afternoon until my wife comes home and then we have dinner and spend the evening together, either at home or out and about.
I try not to work too much in the evenings but occasionally it happens. It’s a small sacrifice to make for the flexibility of working from home.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I read, a lot. I Google. I talk to people who know more than me. I tinker. And then usually I manage to figure it out. And then I try to make it better.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’m excited about the potential for Artificial Intelligence. It is going to revolutionise the way we live and work. Because of the nature of our software, people always ask me if I think computers will one day be able to write a great novel. I have to admit that I’m skeptical, but I am unwilling to completely deny the possibility. People, writers in particular, always want to believe that human emotion is far too complex to digitally recreate, but, on the other hand, our brains are just made up of neurons. Who’s to say that a complex algorithm couldn’t eventually learn to replicate emotional paths.
I guess we will find out!
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
A colleague of mine pointed out the other day that I never worry too much about getting things perfect before I begin. For example, with the ProWritingAid software, we have an ideas list that is about a mile long. We could have waited until everything was exactly how we wanted it before we launched it, but we chose to put out what we had and then continually improve it as we go along. It’s worked really well for us. We have over 700,000 loyal users now that feel part of our growth and love feeding their ideas into our plans.
What advice would you give your younger self?
It took me a long time to learn that hard work and quality of life are not mutually exclusive. I used to swing between working myself into the ground and quitting my job and travelling full time. I would tell my younger self that it’s possible to find something amazing in the middle of that work/fun pendulum.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Milk has no place in coffee – yuck!
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I am constantly trying to learn how to do new things. I took Psychology at university, not computer science. So, when I decided to try create my first basic writing software, I had to teach myself how to write that code. It’s amazing what you can find on the internet. I built that very first version, and then I taught myself how to make it better. And then I learned more, and then the tool got better. There are a lot of things that people pay for that they could easily teach themselves to do.
Plus, when you are building a business you have to do everything at the beginning. Until you have enough money/need for a full time HR person, you are the HR person. Until you have enough money/need for a full time marketing person, you are the marketing person. You need so many different skills so you are always learning. Being an entrepreneur is the perfect excuse to upskill yourself. For me, starting a business is like a self-taught MBA, but without the crippling financial debt at the end.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Our remote working culture means that I can draw my team from a much bigger pool of candidates. We have amazing team members working in Kiev, Memphis, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Bristol, St. Petersburg, and many other places around the world. If someone has a skill I need, I’m not limited to those people who are within a certain geographic distance from my office. This means that I have been able to build a better team, faster.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Being an entrepreneur is a constant series of failures. By definition you are walking an untrodden path, and so the key is to measure outcomes and experiment. There are several features that we tried to develop for ProWritingAId that we had to abandon because they were too technically difficult or poorly adopted. The best approach is to do the minimum to prove the viability of a new feature before investing heavily in its development. I believe the key to success is iterative improvement. An iterative path is the best way to succeed whether that’s in business, sports, or even relationships.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I’d really like to see someone revolutionise the reward mechanism in academic publishing, i.e. how researchers get paid for their research. Research should be cheap to access and easy to find. The current system is broken. I’d love to set up something like Medium but for academic research, but I just haven’t got the time. Go for it! Drop me a line when it’s ready.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I bought an annual subscription to The Blinkist. It’s brilliant! It gives you book summaries in audio format. Even though I’m an avid reader, there are still more books out there than I can possibly read in my lifetime. It allows me to do chores and listen to summaries of books that I might not otherwise read.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
As a remote company, we are hugely dependent on Slack and Trello for our communication and organisation. Sorry, that’s two. But I couldn’t choose one over the other!
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I recommend that everyone read the “Horatio Hornblower” series by C.S. Forester. I think people always recommend non-fiction books and business books, but I think you can learn just as much from fiction. Hornblower kills three birds with one stone because it includes a history lesson, a romping naval adventure, and lessons in people management. Plus, there are tons of them so you never run out of reading material!
What is your favorite quote?
“Writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” – Shannon Hale
I love this quote because it epitomises the whole raison d’être of ProWritingAid, but I think it’s applicable not just to writers, but to anyone starting work on a major project.
- Hard work and quality of life are not mutually exclusive.
- If there is something you want to learn, you can probably figure it out on the internet.
- Don’t wait until something is perfect to launch it—start with what you have and then make it better.
- Being an entrepreneur is a constant series of failures. Roll with the punches!
- Starting a business is like a self-taught MBA, but without the crippling financial debt at the end.
- The key to success is iterative improvement.
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Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.