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Self-Made Men: Chris Baty

This week, Self Made Men looks at another non-traditional entrepreneur, specifically one who made something of himself in the non-profit sector. That’s not an easy world to work in, by the way; non-profit life requires all the long hours, networking, and hustling of the modern start-up, but for significantly less money and grandeur.

It’s not like taking a legit vow of poverty, but holy geez is it close.

Anyway, Chris Baty is the guy who basically started NaNoWriMo (aka National Novel Writing Month), as well as the parent non-profit company that runs it. NaNoWriMo started as a poorly-timed, life-consuming dare and grew into a company that runs child literacy programs all over the country, and encourages millions of people to write. Not too shabby for a guy who admits that NaNo sounds like a horrendously bad idea when you say it out loud to people.

Baty, by his own admission, was one of those guys who loved books but knew jack all squat about writing them, and had never tried. So he decided to write a 50k-word first draft (he picked the number from the shortest novel on his bookshelf) in a month, and sweet-talked twenty of his friends into joining him.

Baty met his goal and made a website for this idea the following year, and was consistently surprised by the amount of people who wanted in on it. The demand overwhelmed his servers more than once, and media attention from the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and countless bloggers kept participation rates up as he brought in friends to bulk up the program’s website. By 2010, over 200,000 people had signed up to try and write a novel in a month.

The Office of Letters and Light, aka the non-profit that runs NaNoWriMo and its associated programs, was established by Baty in 2006, mostly to channel NaNo’s ridiculous momentum towards other goals. OLL partnered with other literacy initiatives to build libraries in Southeast Asia, and the Young Writers Program was created to promote and directly help child literacy and creativity in the United States.

Chris Baty stepped away from OLL in 2012 to pursue a career as a freelance writer, but the machine that he created from practically nothing is running smoothly. Just goes to show you that some ideas, no matter how unworkable they may seem at the beginning, can grow into something awesome with enough persistence and elbow grease.

I’ll leave you with Baty’s keynote speech from the 2012 Crossroads Writers Conference, in which he talks about NaNoWriMo and his journey therein.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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