Last year, Charly Ligety MBA ’18 and Les Starck BS ’09 got a book deal with HarperCollins, one of the Big Five English-language publishers. In an industry with a 99 percent rejection rate, that accomplishment alone is remarkable. But considering they don’t think of themselves as writers, it’s even more so.
Then there’s the fact that they’re two guys—straight, married guys—who have published a book about relationships and the importance of paying attention to each other. That is very much out of the ordinary.
Let’s Do Us: Interactive Guidebooks for Taking Your Relationship to the Next Level (HarperCollins 2019) is a pair of playful journals to help couples navigate some of life's most significant conversations (you know, the ones couples tend to avoid, like family, money and sex) through engaging graphics and activities (fill in the blanks, drawing, “report cards” and questionnaires).
“We’re not authors,” said Starck, who works in private banking in Washington, D.C. Ligety’s day job is affordable housing development in Los Angeles. “We never set out to sell a book and move on. What we wanted to do was create something that was unique, something that would address a real problem, and this book is one promising new solution to the age-old challenge of couples’ communication.”
That entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t all that made it happen. The Marshall School of Business and other schools across the University of Southern California get a lot of shout outs in the acknowledgments.
Ligety’s favorite activity is the first one in the book, “close encounters of the first kind,” which asks couples about the details of their first encounter. “I love reflecting back on early moments of a relationship, bringing up that feeling of nostalgia—you can feel the butterflies all over again,” he said.
For Starck, the activities about sex are “probably the most effective, most funny and fun.” “I had the pleasure of interviewing a sex therapist for a couple hours about the things people are uncomfortable talking about. She said people hate saying the words, sex words, so we designed a great activity that forces you to say the words to each other. I thought this exercise was extremely effective and opened up a very tough conversation.”
“It basically did exactly what we wanted this book to do,” he added, “which is force you to have these uncomfortable conversations, but do it in a way that you can both be laughing through it together.”
The authors met when they both joined Wells Fargo in Los Angeles on the same day.
During lunches, they’d brainstorm ideas for outside projects. “Eventually our wives are like, ‘Why don’t you stop talking about ideas and actually go do something!’” Ligety said.
It turns out Ligety and Starck shared a similar major life experience. Both went through pre-marital counseling with a rabbi when they were engaged.
"Twelve different schools helped us get this project off the ground. We leveraged everything USC has to offer.”—Charly Ligety MBA '18
“I was working in a bank, as an analyst, and I wished those counseling sessions had had more structure,” Ligety said. “These were big questions and I thought, ‘Why isn’t there a self-guided way to go through all of the questions you are supposed to discuss with your partner prior to committing to each other, or at least help get on the same page with them?’
“At the end of the day, how often do you really set aside time during your day to reflect on how you met or talk about your future together?” Ligety asked. “Not very often. So we came up with a conversation guidebook.”
Their wives played an integral part, patiently giving feedback on the 700 activities they created. Only 200 made it into the book—and they’re still married! The authors also talked to hundreds of couples, including same sex couples, from all kinds of backgrounds to make the book as inclusive as possible.
At this point, Ligety was in Marshall’s MBA program. The professionals they needed access to for their book were right there on campus, like faculty in Rossier’s Marriage and Family Therapy program and social workers at the Dworak-Peck School.
They used graphic designers at Roski. Gould students helped form their company and write their legal documents. They had advisors at Annenberg and USC’s Blackstone Launchpad, in addition to several faculty and classmates from the Marshall MBA program for product design, development and marketing strategy.
“Twelve different schools helped us get this project off the ground,” Ligety said. “We leveraged everything USC has to offer.”
Of course, they also started putting Ligety’s MBA coursework to use in testing their idea. “Classes in strategy, developing new markets and innovating products were tremendously helpful.”
Ligety said he and Starck are first movers in the market. “There’s a $19 billion wedding gift industry, but it is surprising how few fun, meaningful engagement gifts exist on the market.”
In the wedding industry, products tend to be made by women for women, Starck added. “The thing that always shocks people, I know it did with the HarperCollins team, is that this book was written and designed by men.”
A Game, But Not an App
The authors described their book as a “gamified pre-marital counseling session.”
“It feels like a game. It almost tricks you into having these discussions that you were avoiding,” Starck said.
But the authors knew right away that an app was definitely not the way to go.
“Look, the purpose of this is so you sit down and really engage with one another,” Starck said. “You cannot have a truly meaningful conversation if you’re distracted, if you’re getting a text message or tweet. At the beginning of the book, there’s an instruction to put your phone down.”
“The book leverages the simple power of listening,” Ligety said. “We don’t, as a society, listen to each other enough. So many problems, so many tensions, either in a relationship or in the greater public realm, could be resolved if we just put our phones down and started listening a little more to each other.”
The book is available at Barnes and Noble, Target and Amazon.