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Seth Godin has written 18 bestsellers that have been translated into 35 languages

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Malcolm is wrong

I've never written those three words before, but he's never disagreed with Chris Anderson before, so there you go.

Free is the name of Chris's new book, and it's going to be wildly misunderstood and widely argued about.

The first argument that makes no sense is, "should we want free to be the future?"

Who cares if we want it? It is.

The second argument that makes no sense is, "how will this new business model support the world as we know it today?"

Who cares if it does? It is. It's happening. The world will change around it, because the world has no choice. I'm sorry if that's inconvenient, but it's true.

As I see 'free', there are two forces at work:

In an attention economy (like this one), marketers struggle for attention and if you don't have it, you lose. Free is a relatively cheap way to get attention (both at the start and then through viral techniques).

Second, in a digital economy with lots of players and lower barriers to entry, it's quite natural that the price will be lowered until it meets the incremental cost of making one more unit. If a brand can gain share by charging less, a rational player will.

Conde Nast (publisher of the Wired (Chris's magazine) and yes, the New Yorker (Malcolm's magazine)),  is going to go out of business long before you get sick, never mind die. So will newspapers printed on paper. They're going to disappear before you do. I'm not wishing for this to happen, but by refusing to build new digital assets that matter, traditional publishers are forfeiting their future.

Magazines and newspapers were perfect businesses for a moment of time, but they wouldn't have worked in 1784, and they're not going to work very soon in the future either.

We're always going to need writers, but the business model of their platform is going to change.

People will pay for content if it is so unique they can't get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people. We'll always be willing to pay for souvenirs of news, as well, things to go on a shelf or badges of honor to share.

People will not pay for by-the-book rewrites of news that belongs to all of us. People will not pay for yesterday's news, driven to our house, delivered a day late, static, without connection or comments or relevance. Why should we? A good book review on Amazon is more reliable and easier to find than a paid-for professional review that used to run in your local newspaper, isn't it?

Like all dying industries, the old perfect businesses will whine, criticize, demonize and most of all, lobby for relief. It won't work. The big reason is simple:

In a world of free, everyone can play.

This is huge. When there are thousands of people writing about something, many will be willing to do it for free (like poets) and some of them might even be really good (like some poets). There is no poetry shortage.

The reason that we needed paid contributors before was that there was only economic room for a few magazines, a few TV channels, a few pottery stores, a few of everything. In world where there is room for anyone to present their work, anyone will present their work. Editors become ever more powerful and valued, while the need for attention grows so acute that free may even be considered expensive.

Of course, it's ironic that sometimes people pay money for my books (I view them as souvenirs of content you could get less conveniently and less organized for free online if you chose to). And it's ironic that I read Malcolm's review for free. And ironic that you can read Chris's arguments the most cogently by paying for them. [Update: you can chime in here and see what's being said around the web as well.]

Neatness is for historians. For a long time, all the markets for attention-based goods are going to be messy, which means that there are going to be huge opportunities for people (like you?) able to get that most precisous asset (our attention) for free. At least for a while.

There's always room for Jello

This is one of the great cultural touchstone slogans of our era. A culture where there's so much to eat we need to try to find a food that we can eat even if we're stuffed.

Often, we'll decide that something is full, stuffed, untouchable but then some Jello shows up, and suddenly there's room.

Think about your schedule... is there room for an emergency, an SEC investigation, a server crash? If you took a day off because of the flu, is your business going to go bankrupt? Probably not.

So, if there's time for an emergency (Jello), why isn't there time for brilliance, generosity or learning?

How to be a packager

For fifteen years, I was a book packager. It has nothing to do with packaging and a bit more to do with books, but it's a great gig and there are useful lessons, because there are dozens of industries just waiting for you to do something like this. Let me explain:

A book packager is like a movie producer, but for books. You invent an idea, find the content and the authors, find the publisher and manage the process. Book packagers make almanacs, illustrated books, series books for kids and the goofy one-off books you find at the cash register. I did everything from a line of almanacs to a book on spot and stain removal. It was terrific fun, and in a good year, a fine business. Along the way, I worked with just about every major publisher and created more than a hundred books. I packaged (with various levels of success) video games, college professors, Julia Robert's astrologer, an award-winning children's novelist, the Weekly World News, Kinko's and (almost) Craftsmen Tools.

I think there are real advantages to this model (and not just for books). Star Wars toys, for example, were created by a packager, and so are most big budget movies. Duncan Hines licensed his name to Roy Park, perhaps the most successful food packager of all time. Roy died of old age with more than half a billion dollars to his name thanks to all that cake mix.

First, the world needs packagers. Packagers that can find isolated assets and connect them in a way that creates value, at the same time that they put in the effort to actually ship the product out of the door.  Kaplan might never have gotten into the test prep book business if we hadn't done all the hard work of persuading them to enter the market (it took several years) and creating the books that launched their line. One series of books generated tens of thousands of new customers for them.

Second, in many industries there are 'publishers' who need more products to sell. Any website with a lot of traffic and a shopping cart can benefit from someone who can assemble products that they can profitably sell. Apple uses the iPhone store to publish apps. It's not a perfect analogy, because they're not taking any financial risk, but the web is now creating a new sort of middleman who can cheaply sell a product to the end user. We also see this with Bed, Bath and Beyond commissioning products for their stores, or Trader Joe's doing it with food items.

Any time you can successfully bring together people who have a reputation or skill with people who sell things, you're creating value. If you find an appropriate scale, it can become a sustainable, profitable business.

The skills you bring to the table are vision, taste and a knack for seeing what's missing. You also have to be a project manager, a salesperson and the voice of reason, the person who brings the entire thing together and to market without it falling apart. Like so many of the businesses that are working now, it doesn't take much cash, it merely takes persistence and drive.

Here are some basic rules of thumb that I learned the hard way:

  1. It's much easier to sell to an industry that's used to buying. Books were a great place for me to start because book publishers are organized to buy projects from outsiders. It's hard enough to make the sale, way too hard to persuade the person that they should even consider entering the market. (PS stay away from the toy business).
  2. Earning the trust of the industry is critical. The tenth sale is a thousand times easier than the second one (the first one doesn't count... beginner's luck).
  3. Developing expertise or assets that are not easily copied is essential, otherwise you're just a middleman.
  4. Patience in earning the confidence of your suppliers (writers, brands, factories, freelancers) pays off.
  5. Don't overlook obvious connections. It may be obvious to you that Eddie Bauer should license its name and look to a car company, but it might not be to them.
  6. Get it in writing. Before you package up an idea for sale to a company that can bring it to market, make sure that all the parties you're representing acknowledge your role on paper.
  7. As the agent of change, you deserve the lion's share of the revenue, because you're doing most of the work and taking all of the risk. Agenting is a good gig, but that's not what I'm talking about.
  8. Stick with it. There's a Dip and it's huge. Lots of people start doing things like this, and most of them give up fairly quickly. It might take three or five years before the industry starts to rely on you.
  9. Work your way up. Don't start by trying to license the Transformers or Fergie. They won't trust a newbie and you wouldn't either.

The paradox of the middle of the market

The middle of the market is the juicy part, where profit meets scale.

The paradox is that it's almost impossible to make a product or service for this segment, because they want the tried, the true and the boring.

A friend writes a blog and books for this market. They need his writing. He delivers a lot of value. And yet, it's going to take years (if ever) before he reaches them. That's because this market doesn't seek out new ideas, doesn't leave comments on blogs, doesn't spend a lot of time urging others to check out this new thing. He's spending all his focus on this market, and they're not repaying his focus with their attention.

The middle of the market is the home of Sinatra, Diamond, and Streisand. There's an endless list of others that would like to break in, but it rarely happens. The leading edge of the market is a lot smaller, but far easier to cater to, because those folks are looking and listening and talking. The middle will catch up, eventually, but that doesn't mean you have to bet on them.

In my post yesterday, I talked about the temptation to merely pander to the geeks. It's not that difficult to write a blog, for example, that repeatedly shows up on Digg or Reddit. The thing is, this audience is fickle and they don't often convert into paying customers or long-term fans. It's not that difficult to be haute couture, to be fashionable, cutting edge or fickle. What's difficult is figuring out how to make it pay.

I'm not talking about compromising or dumbing down your product. A very hot hot sauce is remarkable. A sort of hot one is boring, and no one, not even the geeks will talk about it. I'm talking about designing products that are simultaneously remarkable and palatable to people in the middle of the market.

The middle of the market is a paradox because of the inherent contradiction between the ease of reaching the nerds and the geeks and the need to reach the middle. The solution, if there is one, is to enter a market to the enthusiastic cheers of those in search of the new, but to build a product/service that appeals to those in the middle. After the initial wave of enthusiasm, you hunker down and ignore those that first embraced you, obsessing instead on the needs and networks of the middle. It's a difficult balancing act, but it's the only one that works.

Ultimately, you end up disappointing the hard core that first found you, but because of their initial enthusiasm (and more important, because you designed your work for the masses in the first place), your product crosses the chasm and reaches a larger group. The formula starts with a service or product that's purple enough to spread, but not so hyper-fashionable that it merely entertains the insiders.

Fast in, fast out

Mark points us to this study of fads and trends.

It turns out that a fast-growing trend is also likely to become a fast-fading trend. My analysis: the people who jump on a fast-moving trend are fickle early adopters. This group is most likely to race on to the next thing, and is also least likely to want to sign up for something that feels tired.

Another way to look at it: if you want to stick around for a while, you need to make the difficult sales to the middle of the market or have a ready supply of new stuff ready to entertain the never-satisfied early adopters.

That sounds pretty obvious as I write it, but I wonder why marketers everywhere ignore it? We say we're eager to build a brand for the ages, but we spend all our time and money launching it to the early adopters instead of patiently earning the trust of the middle.

Can summer camp change your life?

I think it can. It did for me.Jillcamp

I went to the best summer camp in the world (the pictures to the right are by the now-famous but then teenaged Jill Greenberg). Most of what I know, I learned there.

This summer, you could send your kids to a video editing camp where they would learn a skill for life. Or you could find a barcamp or even be invited to a foocamp. It would make a change if you wanted it to.


It's voluntary. It's intentional (you go for a change). You become part of a tribe of fellow travelers, other people in a hurry to go where you're going to. Conferences aren't like this, and neither are meetings. School, at its best can achieve this, but it's rare.

If you can't go to a camp, maybe you should start one?

The difference between strangers and friends

Strangers are justifiably suspicious.

Friends give you the benefit of the doubt.

“Friend” is more broadly defined as someone you have a beer with or meet up with to go on a hike. A friend is someone who has interacted with you, or who knows your parents or reads your blog—someone with history. If you’ve made a promise to someone and then kept it, you’re a friend. If you’ve changed someone for the better, you’re a friend as well.

We market to friends very differently than we market to strangers. We do business differently as well.

Thanks to social networks and the amplification of stories online, we have far more friends per person than at any other time in human history. Nurturing your friends—protecting them and watching out for them—is an obligation, and it builds an asset at the same time.

(I want to distinguish friends from 'friendlies', the people you have a digital link to, but no real connection. Friendlies are basically strangers with a thumbnail of their face on your screen. They're not friends. And, while we're at it, the moment you treat a friend like a stranger (form mail, for example) they're not a friend any more, are they?)

Priming the pump of efficiency

There's always a gap between the short-term results of a well-polished system and the first results of a switch to a more efficient one.

If you stick with that thing you've worked so hard to perfect, the next few hours or weeks or months will surely outperform the results you'll get from the new thing. That's because there are switching costs, glitches and a learning curve.

When you rearrange the shop floor, switch to email, convert your interactions to a new platform or make a building more energy efficient, this always happens. That means if you have a short-term perspective, you're never going to switch.

Switching your ad campaign to digital? You'll take a hit. Better stick to what you know.

Switching from a central city cube farm to a distributed at-home workforce? That will cost you big time next quarter. Probably not worth it.

Switching from a phone reservations system to Open Table? No way it will pay off this month.

The end result is that organizations that choose to switch are usually the ones with the least to lose. The upstarts and the outliers. One reason they're always leapfrogging the market leaders.

One way to stay innovative is to understand that this gap exists and to budget for it. Denying it won't make it go away.

Magicians, sausage makers and transparency

Does everything have to become completely transparent?

One of the ideas du jour online is the rush to make things transparent. To tear down the barriers and raise the blinds on the way organizations do business and to expose as much as possible.

Does Apple become a more exciting or profitable company if they share their sketches, their plans, open source their new designs and engage the company fully? Does Steve Jobs have an obligation to tell his fanboys in advance that he’s fighting to stay healthy? One journalist says he does because it will help raise money for research, another says he does because it’s a public company, while many of his fans say he does because they demand to know.

What about the Star Trek sequel? Should we be able to read the script now, a year before they start filming?

Does a magician put on a better show if you know how his tricks are done? Do you want to see how your dinner was made, farm to plate? Really?

I look at the transparency issue not as a moral right, but as a business tactic, tool and threat.

1. If you run around acting like the things you do will never been seen in public, you’re going to get busted. Sooner or later, the marketplace is going to see the effects of your actions, and living as if this is certain makes it far more likely that you’ll find a happy ending.

2. Your job as a marketer is to tell a story, which is a lot like putting on a show. If you can use the tools of transparency to tell that story better, do it! But if your audience will enjoy the story more (and your business will be more likely to succeed) if you apply some misdirection and magic, then why not?

Radical transparency often excites people because of the radical part (it’s new! it’s scary!) than the transparent part. Playing poker with your cards face up on the table might get you some attention at first, but in the long run it’s unlikely to help you win a lot of hands.

Find your voice

Marketing (in all its forms) is unlike everything else an organization does, because it's always different. There's no manual because everyone does it differently, and what successful marketers have in common is that they are successful.

The only way your organization is going to make an impact is to market in the way only you can. Not by following some expert's rules or following the herd, but by doing it in the way that works. For you. Don't worry about someone else's invented standards for new media, invent your own. Avoid obvious mistakes, don't follow obvious successes.

Find your voice, don't copy someone else's.

Learning from Singer

At one point, the Singer Corporation had more than 12,000 people working in a single plant. They were selling more than a million sewing machines a year and had hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. By any measure, it was one of the most important manufacturers in America. It was fun while it lasted.

Back then, it was easy to believe that Singer represented everything that was right with our economy, and that our future was intrinsically attached to the company's.

When as the last time you even thought about Singer (or a sewing machine for that matter)?

The cycles are far shorter now than they were during the century that Singer was a shining light for corporate success. More now than ever, success today is no guarantee of success tomorrow.

Sometimes we spend more time than we should defending the old thing, instead of working to take advantage of the new thing. I bet you can list a dozen "critical" industries that will be as relevant to life in 2020 as Singer is to our world today.

The key difference is that back then, managers and shareholders could stall and fumble and wait out the transition until after they retired. Now, it's almost an annual event. Hiding isn't working, and neither is whining. The best marketing strategy is to destroy your industry before your competition does.

Circling the big domino

Clay taught me a good lesson about making things happen with your brand.

Envision the events that might happen to a brand (shelf space at Walmart, an appearance on Oprah, a bestseller, worldwide recognition, a new edition, worldwide rights, chosen by the Queen, whatever) as a series of dominos.

It turns out that if you start with all of them at once, you'll fail.

And if you start with the big one, you'll fail.

But if you line up all the dominos one by one, in the right order, you may just have enough energy to push over the first one. That one, of course, adds momentum so that when you crash into the second one, that one goes too. All the way to the Queen.


Isn't this obvious? Sure it is. So why is it so often ignored?

Brands get stuck constantly. And they always get stuck circling the big domino. They try to launch worldwide and beat Google. They try to get an endorsement from the Prince of Denmark. They try to break out with a feature on a major blog. They try to act like Coca Cola from the first day. And they try and they try and they try until they get so frustrated, they quit.

A few brands pick out tiny dominos instead. And topple them. And they do it again. They do it so often they create noise, momentum and most important, a sense of inevitability. That's how you win.


Justine plays a game that involves finding yellow cars on the road and shouting the appropriate term as you see them.

What you discover after just a few minutes is just how many yellow cars there are. A lot.

We notice what we choose to notice.

Consider playing a version of spotto involving great customer service or organizations going the extra mile, or employees giving more than they have to. What you'll notice very quickly is that there's a lot more of it out there than you would have guessed, which will make it easier for you and your team to follow suit. Spotto.

On the road to mediocrity

Along the way, we settle.

We settle for something not quite right, or an outfit that isn't our best look, or a job that doesn't quite maximize our talents. We settle for relationships that don't give us joy, or a website that's, "good enough."

The only way to get mediocre is one step at a time.

You don't have to settle. It's a choice you get to make every day.


The Olympics
Kumba Mela
Times Square on midnight at New Year's
Burning Man
The Super Bowl
Calcio Storico
Warren Buffet's annual meeting
The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Your birthday

People love them. We generally agree we don't have them often enough. What if you started one? More than half of the events on the list above were started by one person or a small organization.

Two ways to build trust

You can be a trusted institution or a trusted individual.

A few weeks ago, I set out to buy some imprinted items. I probably looked at a dozen t-shirt options online before I picked CustomInk. Why did I pick them?

They weren't the cheapest (but it's actually very hard to compare). I picked them because the site is clean and professional. I liked that they're not weasels (they quote actual prices and actual ship dates) and  they have non-trivial, easy to use software that makes it easy to upload graphics and build a shirt.

Taken together, they earned my trust. There were plenty of sites with lousy typefaces and come-on pricing and bait and switch and clever Google ads, but none of this works on me. What works is someone walking the walk while they talk a good game.

Interestingly, I bought the hats from a totally different business. Roberts Specialty couldn't be less formal or carefully built. It's clearly a family run business, and their lack of spin and hustle hit exactly the right tone. When you want to order, you send an email to Tony Bennett (you gotta love the fact that his name is Tony Bennett) and he sends an email back. How old fashioned. How trustworthy.

One reason that so many hard sell businesses fail is that they are neither. They aren't (or don't appear to be) trustworthy institutions, nor are they trustworthy humans. So we move on. You do 95% of it right, then use cheesy fonts or lie a bit or try too hard and boom, that's it.

Circles of Convenience

Allan points out that Warren Buffet and Benjamin Graham invested in Circles of Competence. The idea is to buy what you know.

Too often, organizations confuse this with circles of convenience. They stick to the tactics, products, people and channels that they are comfortable with, instead of rethinking what the market demands.

When Amazon offered the New York Times millions of dollars in affiliate revenue a decade ago, the paper turned them down because they feared losing Barnes and Noble as an advertiser. This is a convenient decision, but clearly not a smart one.

When companies look to hire new talent, they often go where they've gone before, because it's convenient. When newly minted MBAs go job hunting, they often go to the placement office because it's convenient as well.

Convenience is hugely attractive in organizations because it is easy to defend and easy to approve. You don't need to call a meeting to try something new, because the convenient option has already been approved. The problem is that convenient approaches rarely break through or generate extraordinary returns.


Dave Balter coined this great term. It describes the quest of marketers for size at all costs. Because marketers were raised on the scale of mass—TV, radio, newspapers—they have a churn and burn mentality. The internet turns this upside down. The internet is about who, not how many. The internet lets you take really good care of 100 people instead of harassing 2,000.

Yet, panicked marketers still look for scale (How many followers can we get? What can we do with a Facebook fan page?) and then hijack that attention, hoping to filter out the masses and get a few sales.

Scalejacking inevitably tarnishes most communities, because individuals (people) hate being treated like numbers just standing by to be filtered.

Stephen Stills wrote, "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." I think he was wrong. On the Internet, the mantra that works is, "Be with the ones you love (and the ones that love you.)" Ignore everyone else. It doesn't have good internal pentameter, but it's true.

What's off the table?

No project is conceived in a vacuum, no decision in isolation and no negotiation with a clean sheet of paper.

But do you know what you're not willing to consider?

If a newspaper company is planning its future, is shutting down the printing presses an option even being considered? Or is it off the table?

Plan a rabbi's wedding and you probably shouldn't even bother to pitch BLT sandwiches or lobster. It's off the table. Not being considered.

Personal marketing plans run into the unstated table problem all the time. Is it off the table for you to quit your job, drop out of school, go back to school, speak up to your boss? I'm not asking if it's going to work or not, I'm just wondering if the possibility is even on the table. If you're not willing to consider it, you can bet you're going to sabotage the thinking that goes into evaluating the choice.

Big marketing breakthroughs always come from doing something that everyone else says is off the table.

You matter

  • When you love the work you do and the people you do it with, you matter.
  • When you are so gracious and generous and aware that you think of other people before yourself, you matter.
  • When you leave the world a better place than you found it, you matter.
  • When you continue to raise the bar on what you do and how you do it, you matter.
  • When you teach and forgive and teach more before you rush to judge and demean, you matter.
  • When you touch the people in your life through your actions (and your words), you matter.
  • When kids grow up wanting to be you, you matter.
  • When you see the world as it is, but insist on making it more like it could be, you matter.
  • When you inspire a Nobel prize winner or a slum dweller, you matter.
  • When the room brightens when you walk in, you matter.
  • And when the legacy you leave behind lasts for hours, days or a lifetime, you matter.

Textbook rant

I've spent the last few months looking at marketing textbooks. I'm assuming that they are fairly representative of textbooks in general, and since this is a topic I'm interested in, it seemed like a good area to focus on.

As far as I can tell, assigning a textbook to your college class is academic malpractice.

They are expensive. $50 is the low end, $200 is more typical. A textbook author in Toronto made enough money from his calculus textbook to afford a $20 million house. This is absurd on its face. There's no serious insight or leap in pedagogy involved in writing a standard textbook. That's what makes it standard. It's hard, but it shouldn't make you a millionaire.

They don't make change. Textbooks have very little narrative. They don't take you from a place of ignorance to a place of insight. Instead, even the best marketing textbooks surround you with a fairly non-connected series of vocabulary words, oversimplified problems and random examples.

They're out of date and don't match the course. The 2009-2010 edition of the MKTG textbook, which is the hippest I could find, has no entries in the index for Google, Twitter, or even Permission Marketing.

They don't sell the topic.
Textbooks today are a lot more colorful and breezy than they used to be, but they are far from engaging or inspirational. No one puts down a textbook and says, "yes, this is what I want to do!"

They are incredibly impractical. Not just in terms of the lessons taught, but in terms of being a reference book for years down the road.

In a world of wikipedia, where every definition is a click away, it's foolish to give me definitions to memorize. Where is the context? When I want to teach someone marketing (and I do, all the time) I never present the information in the way a textbook does. I've never seen a single blog post that says, "wait until I explain what I learned from a textbook!"

The solution seems simple to me. Professors should be spending their time devising pages or chapterettes or even entire chapters on topics that matter to them, then publishing them for free online. (it's part of their job, remember?)  When you have a class to teach, assemble 100 of the best pieces, put them in a pdf or on a kindle or a website (or even in a looseleaf notebook) and there, you're done. You just saved your intro marketing class about $15,000. Every semester. Any professor of intro marketing who is assigning a basic old-school textbook is guilty of theft or laziness.

This industry deserves to die. It has extracted too much time and too much money and wasted too much potential. We can do better. A lot better.

[Update: got more mail about this post than any other post ever. People pointed to Flatworld and to Quirk, and so far, more than 94% of the letters aggressively agree with me. Most of the people are either students, parents of students, former students or other disgruntled customers that are tired of being ripped off by a senseless, broken system. I also heard from a handful of people who said that I was jealous, that the union won't permit the system to change, that textbooks are really good, that professors are underpaid, that professors are too busy or (possibly and) that I'm delusional. I'll note that not one of these letters came from a textbook user.]

Ruby slippers

If you could make one thing come true that would change everything for your project, do you know what the one thing would be?

One breakthrough client, one technical advance, one testimonial? One achievable change in the world?

For Google, the one thing was a big thing, "we need to be the place people come to search." But for many sites, many companies, there isn't a thing. They can't articulate it. They have no wish. If you have no wish, how can it possibly come true?

How big is your farm?

If you own a lot of acres but just have a few bags of seed, you might be tempted to spread out what you've got and cover as much territory as you can. Farmers tell me that this is wasteful and time consuming. You end up with less yield and more work.

Marketers face the same dilemma.

The number of media channels available to you keeps growing. The number of places you can spend time and money is almost endless. Yet your budget isn't. Your time certainly isn't.

Some people would have you spend a little time on each social network, run ads in ten or fifteen media, focus on one hundred major markets and spend time on PR and publicity in every publication willing to listen to you.

Or you could pick one channel and win.

What are the chances that people are eager to join the tribe of the fiftieth most popular brand in a given market? Or that they will pay attention to someone who shows up now and then but is in a huge hurry to get to the next place?

Yield is what matters, and yield comes from getting through the Dip. You punch through the clutter when you allocate more resources and more dedication than everyone else (in that market). Ignore the other markets and the other channels. They're dead to you anyway.

Should Hugh swear so much?

Hugh MacLeod's new book on creativity is out today.

It's brilliant, and if you're willing to be pushed, it will push you.

Some people avoid Hugh's work because he's unafraid (even eager) to write about sex and to use language that looks good on Jack Nicholson. I have no problem with this, but a lot of people do, certainly at work.

So, the question: Should Hugh leave it out?

One school of thought says that if he wants to sell boatloads of books to frightened corporations, then yes, of course, he should and he must.

The other says, wait, you only get to write a classic book like this once in your life, how dare you make it less than you think it needs to be just to sell a few hundred thousand more copies.

JD Salinger took the latter advice. So did Hugh.

It's not commerce, it's art.

The irony, as most multimillionaire authors will tell you, is that it's art that creates the commerce, not the other way around. Hugh set out to write a book that matters, not a book that will please everyone.

Direct and useful project feedback

I'm not talking about annual reviews (which are stupid). I'm talking about how you work as a client for a project that needs to make something.

It might be an internal team developing a website or it might be an outside designer working on a logo. Regardless of the team's make up, as their client, you walk a fine line. On one hand, you want their best, most creative insight, delivered with passion. On the other, you want the people you represent (your boss, the customers) to be happy with what gets made.

Which leads to the feedback part. (Not criticism, feedback).

What do you do when the work that comes in is no good? When it's off target or needs tweaking or even an overhaul?

In my experience, there are three different ways to structure the project. Each leads to a very different feedback loop.

1. The goal of the team is to please you.

2. The goal of the team is to make a product that they love and are proud of building.

3. The goal of the team is to build a great product.

There's more difference between #2 and #3 than it appears.

The first scenario is quite common. It leads to mindreader syndrome, in which alert team members work hard to get you to tell them what you want. If they can read your mind, they'll be successful (and done) that much sooner. The real problem with this approach is that the team has rarely bought in to the project. They don't take ownership because, after all, the goal is to make you happy. They won't give you more than you expect, because they're trying so hard to give you exactly what you expect. This is especially problematic when the team thinks you're an erratic, egomaniacal nutcase with little or no real world chops.

The second scenario is common with well-known freelance help, or agencies or other creatives that bring ego to the table. In this situation, anything you say about the project appears to be a personal attack. That's because, in the eyes of the person that came to you saying, "here is our work," it is a personal attack. If you don't like my logo or strategy or code, well, of course I'm going to be defensive.

You can work with people like this successfully, but to do so involves giving them a clean sheet of paper, not being part of the development process.

The third scenario is the one in which all sides want the best possible project and the team believes that you have valuable insight on how to make that happen. This only works if there's mutual respect around the table. They have to hold you in esteem and trust your judgment (not organizational judgment, but judgment about what makes the project great). That means that, "because I said so," is not effective feedback.

I've seen all three work. The first scenario is really efficient if you are truly in charge, you know what you want and you don't have a lot of time. The second scenario works if you absolutely trust the team and want them to push the envelope. And the third scenario works when you have mature people, a dedicated team and enough time and mutual respect to work it through.

How do you develop the trust and esteem you need in the third example? Sit with the team and jointly criticize other work. Before you start developing, spend time giviing feedback on how someone else could have done a better job (on a design, on the foley in a movie, on a logo). By earning the right to give feedback externally, you make it more likely you've got the right to do it internally.

Guy #3

Paul just sent over this video of a dance tribe forming spontaneously at a music festival.

My favorite part happens just before the first minute mark. That's when guy #3 joins the group. Before him, it was just a crazy dancing guy and then maybe one other crazy guy. But it's guy #3 who made it a movement.

Initiators are rare indeed, but it's scary to be the leader. Guy #3 is rare too, but it's a lot less scary and just as important. Guy #49 is irrelevant. No bravery points for being part of the mob.

We need more guy #3s.


I got some fascinating responses to yesterday's post.

A few were from entitled college grads. They basically asked, "With all this debt, how can I possibly do what you asked? Sure, some people might be able to do this, but I have no choice but to take a menial job, look for work and then party at night so I can have some friends."

More, though, were from people who said, "Yes! I can do this. I'll sleep on a friend's floor and eat beans and rice every night if I have to, but this is as much a part of my education as taking English 101 was." I heard from three recruiters who violently agreed with this plan--who else would you hire?

Marketers have it tough today, just like job seekers, job holders, laid off people and people worrying about being laid off. It's not easy, very few people are getting what they deserve. You can't just run an ad or send in a resume and succeed.

Which is great news if your goal is getting through the Dip. It's great news because if you're a little tougher than people who are ready to give up, or you are a little more creative than people who are stuck, you'll break through.

I built my first internet company before and then during the dot com boom. It was far easier to do great work before everything heated up, far easier to stand out and far easier to make a difference. This is your moment, but I'm afraid it won't be easy.

Graduate school for unemployed college students

Fewer college grads have jobs than at any other time in recent memory—a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers annual student survey said that 20 percent of 2009 college graduates who applied for a job actually have one.  So, what should the unfortunate 80% do?

How about a post-graduate year doing some combination of the following (not just one, how about all):

  • Spend twenty hours a week running a project for a non-profit.
  • Teach yourself Java, HTML, Flash, PHP and SQL. Not a little, but mastery. [Clarification: I know you can't become a master programmer of all these in a year. I used the word mastery to distinguish it from 'familiarity' which is what you get from one of those Dummies type books. I would hope you could write code that solves problems, works and is reasonably clear, not that you can program well enough to work for Joel Spolsky. Sorry if I ruffled feathers.]
  • Volunteer to coach or assistant coach a kids sports team.
  • Start, run and grow an online community.
  • Give a speech a week to local organizations.
  • Write a regular newsletter or blog about an industry you care about.
  • Learn a foreign language fluently.
  • Write three detailed business plans for projects in the industry you care about.
  • Self-publish a book.
  • Run a marathon.

Beats law school.

If you wake up every morning at 6, give up TV and treat this list like a job, you'll have no trouble accomplishing everything on it. Everything! When you do, what happens to your job prospects?

"Why am I here?"

This is a simple mantra that is going to change the way you attend every meeting and every conference for the rest of your life.

You probably don't have to be there. No gun held to your head, after all. So, why are you spending the time?

Do you have an agenda? It might be to change the agenda, or meet someone who will become a client or to learn something that will help you at work tomorrow.

Well, if that's why you're here, tell me again why you're just sitting there? If the only reason you came was to avoid the office, you need a new office. Quick, before the boss decides that for you.

Surely you have a question you can ask the speaker. Surely you have something interesting to say to the person sitting next to you. Surely you can do more than just sheepishly hand someone a business card they have no reason to save or remember or use.

If there isn't a good reason, go home. If there is, then do something. Loud, now and memorable. Productive too, please.


When you start a business, a brand or a project, there's a lot of work to be done. You must tell a story, build credibility and a permission asset. People don't trust you or believe you and you must earn their attention and trust. On top of that, you need skills, systems, machines and a team that works.

Quite an investment.

The goal is to reach the point where there's some harvesting going on. The first sales might cost you a hundred or thousand dollars each to make. At some point, though, you want sales to happen for free, people to show up with money. At some point, you want word of mouth to replace promotion and to earn back the money you invested up front.

That's why it's astonishing to me that people develop projects where harvesting is difficult or impossible. Here are some of the elements of a market where you are likely to reach the point where you can harvest the benefits of your investment:

  • Word spreads. You want a market where stories of your success and reputation will reach other prospects.
  • Needs are similar. You want a market where the skills you developed to help one person can also be used to help another person.
  • Budgets exist. You want a market where there is more than one player with money to spend (on you) to solve a problem.
  • Barriers exist. The market should reward insiders (like you) but make it really difficult for copycats to come in and steal share and lower prices.
  • Price should rise with value delivered. As your work spreads and your reputation increases, you should be able to charge more, not less.

I think 90% of all markets don't meet these standards, and given the choice, I'd avoid them.

You're boring

Sorry, someone had to say it.

Your products are predictable. Your insights are recycled. You don't bring surprise with you when you enter a room.

That's why people are ignoring you.

Which used to be fine, because you could just buy attention for your brand or your company or your sales efforts. But that half-price sale on attention is now over.

The only path left is to lean out of the edge and become interesting, noteworthy and yes, remarkable.

When smart people are hard to understand

If you're in a meeting with smart people and they start discussing a term or concept you don't understand, what do you do?

Do you know what recombinant DNA is? Analytics? Chapter 7? Fair use? RSS? The Long Tail?

If smart people in your industry are talking about an issue you don't know cold, it's very important that you don't just sit there and nod your head sagely. I think there are two constructive paths. The first is to ask. "Wait, I was with you until a second ago. What does that mean?" You'll be amazed at how smart and engaging this makes you seem if you say it at the right time.

The second approach is to write it down and not go to bed that night until you know the topic better than the person who brought it up. How else, precisely, are you going to become one of the smart people?

Learning from the MBA program

In November, I posted about an alternative MBA program that I was going to launch. Unaccredited, residential, free and six months long. A new way to learn about a new way of doing business.

We’re almost done, and it has exceeded every expectation I had for it, and I think there are some broader lessons worth sharing.

Launch and selection:
More than 48,000 people visited the page that described the program and 350 really cool, talented people applied. I picked 27 finalists and all of them flew out to New York to meet each other. This was the most fun I’ve ever had at a cocktail party (it helped that it was at eight o’clock in the morning).

The conversations that day were stunning. Motivated people, all with something to teach, something to learn and something to prove. I asked each person to interview as many other people as they could. After three hours, I asked everyone to privately rank their favorite choices... “who would you like to be in the program with you?”

After they left, I tallied up the results. It was just as you might predict: nine or ten people kept coming up over and over in the top picks. I had crowdsourced the selection, and the crowd agreed. (It turns out that the people they picked were also the people I would have picked).

On January 20th, the most selective (one in 40 got in) MBA program in the world got started. Since then, they’ve never failed to live up to my hopes.

It's interesting to realize that the way I did the application process certainly changed the list of who applied. Same thing happens with jobs, I bet. Your applicants reflect your methods.

None of this would have worked if I was trying to manipulate the process or the people involved. My goal was easy to state and easy to live: I was there to teach (and hopefully to learn as well). The great news is that the students who appeared were beyond my wildest expectations.

I had originally planned on having people work on some of my ongoing projects, because, just as you can’t become a doctor without cutting bodies open, you can’t earn really learn an MBA without running something. It turned out that the group wanted to run their own stuff, not mine, so in fact the group didn’t mess with my stuff. Which was just fine.

Clay Hebert and Ishita Gupta are launching fear.less, a passionate free ebook on stories of overcoming fear. They've interviewed courageous artists, entrepreneurs, bloggers, business and non-profit innovators and how they've dealt successfully with fear. Learn more at

Susan Lewis and Jon Dale are launching Sales Club. It's an exclusive society for top sales performers with attitude. There's a monthly fee, it's invitation only, and you have to be nominated by a member to even be considered. (They've agreed to let my readers self-nominate. If it sounds like your thing, send them an email to sell them on letting you in - salesclub99 (at) If you think about it, what sort of person would actually pay money to associate with great salespeople?

Rebecca Goldstein is focusing on best practices to create online communities to help companies with support, sales, marketing and innovation. She started the 150 Project and is already working with several companies to build their tribes.

Al Pittampalli spent time building Blue Finch, a directory site on various high-interest topics.

Alex Krupp is hosting Swagapalooza, a social media experiment auditioning companies in front of the world's most-followed bloggers.

There are other projects, but not online.

The educational lesson that I found the most striking is that the book knowledge was easy to transmit and not particularly essential. Once you get this far, it's sort of a given that you're good at school. We read more than a hundred books, and the book learning happened quickly . Our culture has done an amazingly good job at teaching talented people how to learn concepts from books.

I taught for five to twenty hours a week, and very little of it was about the books. So, if concepts from books are easy, what’s hard?

Doing it.

Picking up the phone, making the plan, signing the deal. Pushing ‘publish.’ Announcing. Shipping.

We spent a lot of time on this area. Every morning, each person came in prepared to push someone in the group to overcome the next hurdle. This is what growth looks like, and it was energizing to be part of.

We didn’t do this at all at when I was at Stanford. We spent a lot of time reading irrelevant case studies and even more time building complex financial models. The thing is, you can now hire someone to build a complex financial model for you for $60 an hour. And a week’s worth of that is just about all the typical entrepreneur is going to need. The rest of the time, it’s about shipping, motivating, leading, connecting, envisioning and engaging. So that’s what we worked on.

It amazes me that MBA students around the world aren’t up in arms. How can schools justify taking $100,000 in cash and teaching exactly the wrong stuff?

Another lesson: The Samba blog shows just a tiny portion of the writing the group did. Everyone posted every day (sometimes on that blog and sometimes on our private blog), often personal items, sometimes questions or chaff. The act of defending your work in writing became a habit, and once it was a habit, the quality of everything improved.

Another lesson: We used Basecamp. It’s the perfect tool for coordinating this sort of work.

Another lesson: I kept an oversized (perhaps giant is a better word) Moleskine by the door, and we wrote down great moments and quotes as the days wore on. We’ve already worked our way through it frontwards, and now we’ve turned it over and are working back the other way.

There were some great guest lecturers as well. Derek Sivers, founder of CDBaby and David Simon, a former colleague from Yahoo both showed up. Doug Rushkoff came by, as did designer Red Maxwell. Greg Linn from Columbia Records did a killer presentation about relationships as well. Stephanie Henry, who used to work in Ronald Reagan’s post-Presidential office stopped by. Uber-agent Stuart Krichevsky came to talk about his business as well. Michael Cader talked to us about publishing, and Bill Godin, the world's #1 manufacturer of hospital cribs came by for a world-class presentation.

Megan Casey gave us both business insights and a lesson in improv, while her former boss, Adrian Zackheim gave us the inside scoop on book publishing. Jay Parkinson, who is singlehandedly reinventing medicine also stopped by, but left us with no Tamiflu. Frank Eliason gave up Tweeting for a day to share his thoughts with us as well. Dave Balter, a model entrepreneur (as opposed to a model who's an entrepreneur) had plenty of inspiring insights.

Field trips included a detailed exploration of the fabled Stew Leonard’s supermarket, an engagement with maestro Roger Nierenberg at the Essex House and first-hand lesson in leaning at Fahnestock State Park on skis. We also spent a beautiful morning with Sarma Melngailis at her restaurant. Food seemed to show up a lot, and I was privileged to be allowed to cook lunch for all of us a few times a week. Not to mention discovering the power of melted ginger (on rice).

It’s surprising and disappointing that real companies don’t expose their people to this sort of learning. Too busy working, I guess.

While we’ve covered a lot, it’s pretty clear that this is a beginning for the crew, not the end.

Next steps:
Some of the people in the program are already committed to flying off to become entrepreneurs (though we all agree it might take a few cycles before it clicks.) Jon is building a practice of helping authors and book publishers use private social networks to build tribes online.

Susan Lewis is already looking for a new gig. But instead of asking someone to hire her, she is looking to hire a boss. Her unique skill is getting things done, and she wants a place where she can exercise that power to the fullest. Check out the susanhiresaboss site for position qualifications and to apply.

As for me, this has been (and it’s not over yet) an extraordinary learning experience. I have no plans to do again immediately (so please don’t ask and please don’t apply!) but I promise that when I do something like this again, you’ll read about it here first.

Here’s what I told the group, “Maybe the most important thing you'll learn in this program is that you don't need this program. There's not much I'm going to tell you that's not in my blog posts or books. What this program will do is give you the structure and support to encourage you to do what you already know. But you can do that by yourselves.” I think that’s true for the people who weren’t able to be part of it as well.

Final takeaways:

  1. If you have the resources and wherewithal to run a program like this, you should.
  2. If you're stuck, getting unstuck is not only possible, it's an obligation.
  3. Find some peers and push each other.
  4. Making friends for life is difficult to overrate. Every one of these people is an all-star and I'm glad that I got to know them.

Out of bounds

Sometimes people push back on posts of mine they don't like by telling me I'm out of bounds. Somehow, they say, I've crossed the boundary of what I'm allowed to write about. They are angry that I'm now writing about something outside my defined area.

I'm usually taken aback by this, because I didn't realize I'd actually agreed to any boundaries.

Brands run into this all the time. Consumers give them boundaries. Nike isn't allowed to make a computer, for example (unless they partner with Apple). It turns out, though, that marketers decide to believe in these boundaries a lot more than consumers do.

A beautifully made product or service (one that we agree with) gets a lot of slack, regardless of its source. Virgin is a great example of this. Branson can market cola and airplanes with the same brand, largely because we like what he makes. In Korea, there are a few massive brands that are 'allowed' to market anything they like, from dishwashers to cars. Google is allowed to market the very cool new Squares, of course.

The real problem is that when marketers believe they are going out of bounds, the work they do tends to be lousy. Starbucks attempt at chocolate, for example, wasn't as good at being chocolate as their coffee is at being coffee.I think that's because the marketers at Starbucks feel they have permission to care about coffee, but chocolate is merely an extension, an additional profit center, not a passion.

I'm not arguing for carte blanche craziness with your brand. American Express can do travelers checks and credit cards and could have done PayPal... but no, they probably shouldn't launch a line of whiskey any time soon. I am, however, arguing that once you have permission to talk to someone, finding new products or services for them is a smart way to grow.

Thinking about the compromise

If you sell crack to kindergarten students, no need to read this.

Same thing if you donate all your belongings and income to the poorest and sickest in the slums and ghettos.

The rest of us have compromised. We're not profit-maximizing sociopaths, nor are we saints. We're somewhere in between.

It's interesting to consider where we choose to compromise. I know people with $50,000,000 in the bank who still don't believe that they have enough, who still grind away at a job they don't like trying to earn another penny. I also know fundraisers for non-profits (ones that they believe in) who aren't willing to swallow hard and make a difficult fundraising pitch or promote a new approach to raising money that might feel risky.

Would you take a 10% pay cut to market a product you truly love and believe in? Would you pass up a 15% raise to market something like Twinkies?

Everyone is at their own level, but my impression is that most people sort of randomly end up somewhere on the greed/joy/work/good spectrum without really considering moving one way or the other.

If you've built your life around service to others, how much more could you accomplish if you were a little greedier? If you've built an expensive lifestyle around a well-paying job, what would happen to your life if you downsized and sought out more joy or generosity?

No right answers, but some good questions.

Why joint ventures fail so often

There are two reasons joint ventures fail. The joint part and the venture part.

All ventures are risky, because they involve change and the unknown. We set off on a venture in search of something, or to make something happen--inherent in the idea of a venture is failure. It’s natural, then, for fearful people on both sides of a joint venture to back off when it gets scary. When given a choice between a risk and sure thing, many people pick the sure thing. So any venture begins with some question marks.

The joint part, though, is where the real problem arises. Pushing through the dip is the only way for a venture of any kind to succeed. The dip separates projects that begin from projects that finish. It’s easy and hopeful and exciting to start something, but challenging and often painful to finish it. When the project is a joint one, the pressure to push through the dip often dissipates. “Well, we only have a bit at stake here, so work on something else, something where we have to take all the blame.”

Because there isn’t one boss, one deliverable, one person pushing the project relentlessly, it stalls.

Every joint venture involves meetings, and meetings are the pressure relief valve. Meetings give us the ability to stall and to point fingers, to obfuscate and confuse. If a problem arises, if a difficulty needs to be overcome, it’s much easier to bury it at a meeting than it is to deal with it.

In my experience, you’re far better off with a licensing deal than a joint venture. One side buys the right to use an asset that belongs to the other. The initial transaction is more difficult (and apparently risky) at the start, but then the door is open to success. It’s a venture that belongs to one party, someone with a lot at stake and an incentive to make it work.

Only one person in charge at a time.

Won by a walk

I was just informed by the resident baseball fan that the Mets won a game by a walk. By a walk!

Of course, in a 4 to 3 baseball game, you don't win by a walk. You win because before the walk, you scored three runs, and you win because before the walk you limited the other side to three runs. The walk was merely the last event.

The last event has huge impact for organizations. When a non-profit fundraiser brings home a million dollar donation, there's a lot of celebration and the fundraiser (deservedly) gets a lot of credit. But what about the person who started the group thirty years ago? Or the firm that named it or the volunteers that staff it or the heroic work one employee did in Rwanda? What about the CFO who has never missed a quarter in turning in tax returns or the admin who makes that donor feel so welcome every time she stops by?

Marketers take a lot of credit, because marketing is near the end of the game. Part of my mission is to move the work marketers do closer to the beginning of the game. Not because there's more glory there, but because there's more leverage. If you build the right thing in the first place, you're more likely to get a walk at the end.

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