As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Amara Luciano.
Amara is a powerhouse author, mindset coach, motivational speaker, and CEO of a short fiction publishing company called Wonder Heart Books. With her “writing gets to be easy” and “marketing is always effortless” approach, her dark feminist fantasy compilation of novellas, Heirs of Fate, was an instant Amazon bestseller. Reach out to work with her privately or enter her Instagram world @amaraluciano_.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started off as a college dropout who spent some time exploring Europe as an au pair living in France. When I returned to the US, the options before me were either a) work at the makeup counter at my local drugstore or b) scratch my tummy while staring up at the ceiling, hoping my bills would be paid on time. I chose option one, but not without dreams and plans in my back pocket.
I was a bit of an anomaly as a teenager. Painfully insecure yet entrepreneurial in spirit, I built a successful book blog and became an industry professional at 17, receiving coveted manuscripts for review and attending exclusive events. If I’d stayed interested, I would’ve been on track to make a lot of money from what began as a hobby. But I realized I loved reading so much because I was enamored by the idea of writing and publishing something of my own.
That desire to have my own work out in the world never faded while I traveled. Although I had mountains of debt and little money to spare after France, I decided to grow an online presence and open my own short fiction company.
I learned very quickly that it didn’t take that much investment to own an online company — $150 bucks for an LLC, a few hundred for some branding and a website and we were in business — but the true learning curve would come after. Planning launches, weighing expectations, outsourcing, revenue vs profit — I wasn’t just the metaphorical fish out of water. For a long time, I was gasping for air in the rushes, hoping no hungry geese would swoop down and take this burgeoning dream away from me.
Google became my first teacher before I started accessing the wisdom and experience of my eventual business mentors and coaches to help guide me. Being guided so well myself led me to discover my passion for guiding other creatives away from the “starving artist” paradigm to create without fear. Now I am extremely profitable doing what I love, all with minimal overhead from both Wonder Heart Books and Amara Luciano, Inc.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
A business credit card can take you far, but not that far and not for long.
Wonder Heart Books, my short fiction company, wasn’t profitable for the first year and a half. At the time, the money I was making as a digital creator was doing no more than tickle my own personal debts. Still, my co-founder and I invested our part-time job income and thousands in credit card debt to make our first big splash possible: a paperback compilation of our previously digital works sent out in branded boxes to various influencers around the world, which led up to a signing we were hosting at Barnes & Noble Upper West Side in NYC.
We were outsourcing publicity and social media content, creating beautiful merchandise and branding, and working with the crème de le crème of cover designers and developmental editors and it showed. Not just in the gorgeous outcome of it all, but on our billing statements.
While I don’t regret the amount of money we poured in, I definitely don’t wish the panic we faced for those six months leading up to our incredible event on anyone. Again, going back to my previous statement: it doesn’t take that much to invest in an online business initially — in fact, I know quite a few entrepreneurs who got started with even less — but be prepared to take big risks when you want big things to happen but have big question marks around how business actually works.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m extremely grateful to my sister, Gabrielle Luciano, who is also the co-founder of Wonder Heart Books. She is the digital artist behind all my book covers and has been my business partner for the better part of two years. The way Gabi tells the story, I bombarded her and shouted, “Do you want to start a publishing company with me?”
And in her very laidback, borderline sarcastic way, she said, “Sure,” not really thinking much of it.
Cue to me driving us at lightning speed to the closest Starbucks, Gabi ordering us fraps — one matcha, one caramel — and seating us at a table looking bewildered, stunned, and maybe a little terrified of my fervor.
But then suddenly we had this sprawling vision of a company that wouldn’t just house stories that matter and make us money, but also allow us to give back in INCREDIBLE ways. We struggled for 2 hours locking down a name. We struggled for much longer, alone, as we broke into the industry with fairy tale-esque novellas, not knowing if we would succeed.
While Gabi has definitely taken a more backseat role in the running of things, I still rely heavily on her fine-tuning once I present her with a vision. Her honesty this year about what the company has become and what it now meant to her allowed me to pull back the reins on what I assumed would be an empire so that I could create my own.
Without her acknowledgement of our individual paths, I wouldn’t have the thriving coaching practice I have now.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Wonder Heart Books, at its core, was always about building a platform for up-and-coming or underprivileged artists to stand on. This year we were able to make good on that promise to ourselves by creating a short story anthology featuring four never-before-published authors, who we were able to mentor through the writing, editing, and publishing process. Gabi and I had never come more alive than we did in the months leading up to this release. It was more than a responsibility for us. It was the realization of a longtime vision that had its hooks in our hearts. We are two underprivileged, Latinx creators who wish to pave the way for more creatives who possess an interest in the publishing industry.
Amara Luciano, Inc. has a lot of facets: coaching, motivational speaking, influencer marketing and brand awareness collaboration, but its conception and practice is centered around celebrating stories and the tellers of great stories — no matter the storytelling medium. It’s about celebrating a storyteller’s potential, their courage, and ultimately their ability to change the world. It’s a brand and experience built on a foundation of empowerment.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Leadership boils down to unabashed decision making. It’s about personal power. If you know how to choose for yourself without fear, shame, and doubt, if you can make decisions with that level of self-ownership and integrity, then you can lead effectively in crisis.
That said, I had this bizarre fear that once this pandemic hit no one would be able to buy. Consumers were going to get weird about how they spent their money. No one was going to be interested in buying a paperback off Amazon with shipping out of whack or enroll in a coaching program when they were too depressed. But, in order to lead myself and my creative team at Wonder Heart Books, I realized that we needed to adapt. I came up with a range of low-ticket and high-ticket offers in my coaching practice. Our next release at WHB was an ebook short story anthology that sold extremely well, neatly avoiding any shipping snafus.
The big vision for my businesses remained just as grand, but we adapted the “how” we brought it into fruition. As long as the integrity of that vision remained clear and bright, both me and my small creative team operated from a place of confidence.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
This isn’t just about hitting milestones, be it sales, limelight, or mass distribution. This is about the long game. This is about legacy.
I ask myself constantly, how do I want people to remember me and the magic I create in hindsight? How am I creating real, lasting impact through my outreach and actual coaching and speaking? What mark are we trying to leave at Wonder Heart Books? The answer is I want to make you feel. I want to celebrate storytelling in every facet of what I do. So do the people I work with. When everything you do is in service of a legacy, it’s impossible to call yourself a failure. It’s impossible not to feel motivated. I love what I do. I love the life I’m leading, the art I’m creating in my businesses.
This isn’t a question of “how do I continue?” The real question is, “why would I not?”
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The role of the visionary is the most important at all times, especially challenging ones. Being the visionary requires a monumental helping and daily consumption of self-trust. It requires you to choose.
I’ve never trusted myself as deeply as I do now. There’s a deep knowing inside me that no matter what comes I will be okay. I can always to choose to thrive. My businesses have an equal chance of success as failure and I get to choose success. When you choose to be successful, even when the milestones fall through or need to be adjusted, that’s where personal power lies. That’s when the magic happens. In your choices lay your ability to impact the world.
Failure is impossible except if we stop building that legacy, if we forget who we most want to be and what we most want to stand for. This is about the long game, and there will always be confusing times or scary spots in business. This pandemic has no real power over your profitability — so long as your vision doesn’t depend on a specific plan working out perfectly. Strict plans can disempower a leader before they’ve ever had a chance to create change and envision amazing alternatives.
Be relentless in exploring potential instead. Treat your business more like a Rubik’s cube than a cinder block.
So long as I follow my interests and show up for people as an emotionally intelligent leader with a powerful message, a clear vision, and flexible plans, then I know our numbers and our impact will only grow.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Lead yourself. Find evidence to support just how inspirational you are in your own life. Access your core desires for your life and business so that motivation is more of an organic flow than an elusive practical strategy. If you can’t buy what you’re selling than no one else will. I’m not simply talking about product or service here. If you cannot sell that you are a powerful, motivating force in your own life to yourself, then your team certainly isn’t buying.
This means deciding that you are not your competitor(s). Your fate is completely divorced of the competition’s fate. Your race is your own. Where are you looking when you run?
There is no finish line in business, only evolution. This means paying attention. Focusing on the big vision instead of the shiny milestone and finding the right people to help you bring that vision to life. What do you want your team to see/feel/hear/experience right now when think of your company? Its culture? Do you want them to be able to say they were taken care of, seen, supported, appreciated? Do you want them to say it’s always an inspiring, exciting place that is respectful of their unique voices and talents? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then who do you have to be, what do you have to try/present/create to bring this vision to life?
This is also the perfect time to ensure optimization. Is everyone on your team in the best-fitting role? Have you set them up for success? Is the dynamic strong and clear between you, your team, your customers?
I highly recommend intentionally practicing and researching emotional intelligence and human design. Everyone works in unique ways and receives communication differently. The more unspoken languages you can master, your vision will be more seamlessly translated in reality.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I always say kindness is honesty wrapped in respect. Effectively sharing difficult news means foregoing the need to be “nice,” especially as women in leadership roles. This isn’t about platitudes or rescuing anyone. We don’t want to sympathize; we want to empathize, because empathy empowers. Be incredibly kind.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Plans for the future work best when they’re built not to weather the storm, but adapt to its currents. When we build rigid things, we can expect them to break or to break us. This may mean that instead of planning the year, you focus on planning each quarter as it comes. Maybe each month depending on the size of your business. This may mean taking a hard look at your creative assets and keeping humble expectations until you’re more certain of accessibility.
One thing’s for certain: plan only what you can control. Isolation regulations are not within your control. Travel bans are still in effect. But you can control your approach, the way you utilize intangible resources like social media for outreach and marketing. You can control your own accountability to your standards.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Nothing is promised, including our bottom line. But we can depend upon hindsight. I want to be able to look back on 2020 in particular with the knowledge that I served well, took chances, held high standards for communication, quality, support, and customer satisfaction, treated my team well, created beautiful things, and ultimately continued to make money doing what I love. How I do these things doesn’t actually matter. If the plans change, that doesn’t matter either. What matters is my context. My vision. My personal compass. The steps I took, not any particular destination, particularly if the horizon is so unclear.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- A failure to acknowledge the current climate is the first mistake that comes to mind. This isn’t just in regards to COVID-19. So many business were called out during the Black Lives Matter movement and failed to give a meaningful, proactive response. Customers and audiences have never been more vigilant nor more vocal. If a business or business owner isn’t certain what their next move is, it’s a disservice to feign certainty or, worse, ignorance. Have clarity instead. Have the clarity to say you don’t know or don’t have all the answers, and then show your resilience and diligence in saying you will dedicate yourself to finding those answers and making them work for your business.
- Operating as usual would be another mistake. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” — and yet I see the same methods of outreach and marketing being used. The same branding. The same perspective. This goes back to trying to pretend that nothing has changed even the whole world has flipped upside down in a matter of months. I look at it like this: when the world is having important conversations, it’s short-sighted (and rude) to start your own as loudly as possible. All businesses, no matter their size, must practice real authenticity when it’s never been more difficult to discern who deserves our trust.
- Failing to hire specialists when trying something is new is also short-sighted and a serious drain on your ROI. It’s like watching a really bad game of chess play out when other companies fail to outsource effectively. Yes, a pawn can check a king, but it’s more fun and a lot less stressful when you can rely on an independent queen to handle a project that’s outside your usual scope or bandwidth. Particularly if the pawn you’re paying has never checked a king like this before.
- All of this boils down to a lack of transparency. Be straightforward with your team, your audience, your customers. Practice kindness and authenticity no matter what.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
I run influential businesses. Our ultimate currency, and therefore priority, are the relationships we’ve established and joyfully, yet strategically nurture. While I could be profitable without a deep connection to my audience, the repertoire we have has pandemic-proofed our sales process, which was already fun and effortless to begin with.
I connect with my audiences most on social media. If you can master the art of social media, you’ve mastered the art of relationships. Particularly with live video and its superpower of face-to-face connection. Social media lends a lightheartedness to sales which is magnetizing in crisis.
My top 3 tips around socials are as follows:
1) Honor the SOCIAL in social media.
Business owners get social media confused. It’s not an endless supply of mindlessly consumable content that creates a connection between you and your potential customers and clients. You hit gold when you can create thoughtful content that inspires real engagement.
Emphasize community and build relationships. Use your branding as a way to speak to your people rather than turning it into the only conversation taking place. Feature the customers who buy from you and rave about you more than the informational content ten other competitors in your industry are reposting. Be the breath of fresh air who puts personality and a voice to their social presence. That’s exciting to an audience who’s regularly exposed to content that would put a robot to sleep.
2) Don’t force the perception of authority.
There’s this mania around proving your credibility and expertise by offloading information. No one likes a know-it-all. Especially a boring or depressing know-it-all. Constantly ramming down statistics and pie charts, and basically emphasizing all the lack in your dream customer’s life, just to stand in authority, gets you in front of an audience who feels desperate.
Being a powerhouse in your industry should translate without isolating anyone. Being the one who no one can turn away from gets to be easy if you let it be. Give us fresh, exciting, celebratory content. You don’t need to be walking on sunshine all the time, but say the things that have meaning to you, or have your social media manager say meaningful things you believe in, no matter how simple or quirky or funny, versus trying to be taken seriously all the time.
3) Empower your audience to talk back.
Be a mirror in your online world for what you want. (This is true offline as well.) If connection is the goal, how are you connecting to the platform you’re working with? Are you taking full advantage of all the bells and whistles? Are you leveraging all the potential for innovative content based on where you are on social media? How are you connecting with the people you want blowing up your posts?
In the case of Instagram, we have Stories, Live, TV, and post features for a reason. We have stickers and gifs and DMs for the same reason. Conversation. There are plenty of fun ways to strike up a conversation you don’t even need to necessarily continue. Something as simple as posting an interesting Q in the question box feature on IG stories can lead to fascinating connections without ever uttering a peep back (bonus points if you share the responses you’re getting to let your audience know you’re listening).
Be on the platform that genuinely excites you and your team the most so that excitement is mirrored back to you for all that your brand is doing online and even off.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Let’s get business-related in the obvious way first:
- Take risks because things are uncertain, not only despite uncertainty. When I first started my short fiction publishing company, debt was my personal pandemic. I had debt coming out of my ears and no way to pay it off. I went for the wild, impossible dream anyway. I went and started my first business whole-heartedly, with fierce and unabashed commitment and zero prior knowledge and experience. Doing so allowed me to approach this global pandemic with adaptability, gumption, and determination on how to move forward.
- Decide what you’re available for. Are you available for success? Prosperity? A healthy, satisfied team obsessed with their work for you and therefore the world? What do you want your business to be remembered for? Decide the kind of leader this vision for your business demands and then refuse to settle for less. I’ve decided that I will always stand for the empowerment of women, especially in storytelling, and therefore I empower all the women (and occasionally men) in my audience, my female-identifying readers, clients, and creative team who help me build the back end of all my wild successes. It’s really that simple.
These next three tips are meant to ground you in your human experience. You cannot be a successful business leader without being a successful human, especially in turbulent times.
- Be willing to adapt, change your perspective. Four walls and a household full of other people — if you’re lucky — can get old really quickly in self-isolation… except what if you started to see things differently? What if you began with gratitude for your health and for the health of those around you? What if this was an opportunity to explore new sides of something or someone, including yourself, you thought you knew so well? What if you capitalized on this time by reaching out instead of hunkering down? This is the perfect moment to introduce new (and socially conscious) activities, try new takeout restaurants, or just escape for a long drive into the unknown. One of my clients created an at home carnival with whatever she had in the house so that she and her near-adult kids could spend some together that wasn’t in front of a TV. Can you imagine what the business equivalent of this would be? If you’re willing to be this creative, this versatile and playful, what business milestones could you unlock? What expectations might you be able to subvert or overcome? How might your team improve?
- Make your life a work of art no matter what. Business is an art and art is life. A business well-led means there’s at least one life well-lived at the helm. How do you want to look back on the story of your life? 2020 doesn’t have to be a chapter that gets torn out. These last few months can be pages you flip back to with joy. Turn what could be a passive or ordinary moment into an experience. So, for example washing the dishes can be a memory if you’re playing really loud music and dancing around your house, drawing your family to join in, or you’re listening to an audiobook that leaves you in a puddle of tears, your heart all aglow. The mundane task was just a container, but the essence inside held the magic you’ll remember, because you learned something or felt something unforgettable.
- Remember time on this earth is finite. We can’t shake our own mortality and we shouldn’t try. This is what drives me and those I work with in business. That client who made up the at home carnival? Regardless of the pandemic, her oldest daughter is still going off to study abroad now that she’s graduated high school. This is still the last summer where things will remain the same. My client remembered something vital: We can no longer afford to take life for granted. This is why it’s important to make most moments worthy of remembering. Otherwise the book of your life ends up being pages full of stuff. No context. No clear memory of how got from chapter to chapter. When our last day on this earth is done, we all want to look back and say we led a life worth living first and last. This is the kind of perspective that leads to longevity in business.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have so many! But I just finished Born a Crime by Trevor Noah and he wrote, “Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is a question you will never have the answer to.”
I have no interest in doing things perfectly. I have no compunction about failing publicly or being held accountable by an audience. I’d rather reach out and risk rejection then sit back with my hands folded, waiting for my businesses to thrive. I am unavailable for a life and business filled with regrets so I’ve made a commitment to live without them.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The two best places are to subscribe to my email list at amaraluciano.com or follow me @amaraluciano_ on Instagram. I’m on almost all other social platforms, but Instagram is my favorite place to be (and where I’m most profitable ;).