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

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An intensive, 4-week online workshop designed to accelerate leaders to become change agents for the future. Designed by Seth Godin, for you.



All Marketers Tell Stories

Seth's most important book about the art of marketing




Free Prize Inside

The practical sequel to Purple Cow





An instant bestseller, the book that brings all of Seth's ideas together.




Meatball Sundae

Why the internet works (and doesn't) for your business. And vice versa.



Permission Marketing

The classic Named "Best Business Book" by Fortune.



Poke The Box

The latest book, Poke The Box is a call to action about the initiative you're taking - in your job or in your life, and Seth once again breaks the traditional publishing model by releasing it through The Domino Project.




Purple Cow

The worldwide bestseller. Essential reading about remarkable products and services.



Small is the New Big

A long book filled with short pieces from Fast Company and the blog. Guaranteed to make you think.



Survival is Not Enough

Seth's worst seller and personal favorite. Change. How it works (and doesn't).




The Big Moo

All for charity. Includes original work from Malcolm Gladwell, Tom Peters and Promise Phelon.



The Big Red Fez

Top 5 Amazon ebestseller for a year. All about web sites that work.




The Dip

A short book about quitting and being the best in the world. It's about life, not just marketing.




The Icarus Deception

Seth's most personal book, a look at the end of the industrial economy and what happens next.





"Book of the year," a perennial bestseller about leading, connecting and creating movements.




Unleashing the Ideavirus

More than 3,000,000 copies downloaded, perhaps the most important book to read about creating ideas that spread.



V Is For Vulnerable

A short, illustrated, kids-like book that takes the last chapter of Icarus and turns it into something worth sharing.




We Are All Weird

The end of mass and how you can succeed by delighting a niche.



Whatcha Gonna Do With That Duck?

The sequel to Small is the New Big. More than 600 pages of the best of Seth's blog.



THE DIP BLOG by Seth Godin

All Marketers Are Liars Blog

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« July 2009 | Main | September 2009 »

Who gets to decide what you want?

When George Washington was a teenager, did he really, really, really want a car?


In order to want something, you probably need to know it exists. But my guess is that it surely helps if you've been marketed to.

One definition of happiness is wanting the things you're likely to get (or, conversely, not wanting the unattainable). One definition of marketing is persuading the world it wants what you have, regardless of whether they can afford it or not.

We don't hesitate to motivate employees by marketing them the benefits of being promoted, even if they all can't possibly get this. We don't hesitate to tease kids by marketing every conceivable unattainable Christmas gift at them, relentlessly.

Teenage girls are taught what to want by magazines and by peers.

Patients are taught what to want by doctors who prescribe new tests. And doctors are taught to do that by lawyers eager to sue if they don't. Imagine going home and saying, "the doctor wanted to give me another test, but I said no..."

This cycle of assigned wants is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. The game theory demands it.

And so, once again it seems to come down to a personal decision. If you decide what you want (instead of letting someone else decide for you) perhaps you could choose the things that would actually bring you and your loved ones the satisfaction you can live with.

The problem with doing it by heart

The following does not appear in the Star Spangled Banner:

"Babe Ruth through the night..."

When you do something by heart, it bypasses some of the common sense processing we use to navigate our day. Of course Babe Ruth wasn't even a sparkle in Mrs. Ruth's eye during the War of 1812, but if you're singing by heart, you don't think about it.

I walked into a cheap noodle joint in Soho last month and decided I wanted tofu with vegetables. They had a little plate on display (a special, I guess) and I asked for tofu, vegetables, no sauce. The cashier pointed to the display model and said, "like this?"

I said, "with no sauce," because the gloppy stuff didn't appeal to me.

So, after asking, clearly, twice, I sat down. Four minutes later, they called my number and handed me an identical copy to the display item, oozing with fluorescent sauce.

"I was hoping that there'd be no sauce..."

She didn't miss a beat. She said, "that's the way it always comes."

She wasn't being evil. She was merely doing it by heart. Just like the intolerant judgmental guy who can quote you chapter and verse from his spiritual book of choice but never thought about the meaning of the words inside or the status quo protecting technician who isn't a scientist because she's afraid of violating something that feels like a law.

The next time you or one of your people starts rattling off the obvious truth by heart, wonder about whether it's obvious because it's true, or true because it's obvious.

Two ways to hire (and a wrong way)

The wrong way first: interview someone for an hour. If you like them, have them interview three or four other people in your organization for an hour each.

You've invested five hours of your team's time, but really you only were looking for approval, because you'd already decided you liked the person enough to work with them for years.

All the evidence we've seen shows that this is a lousy predictor of future performance. And, let's tell the truth... if the first three people love the guy, are you really going to let the fourth, junior person veto him? Or is it just an annoying courtesy?

There are two approaches you can use as an alternative.

First, you can work with someone for months before you offer them a job. Your pool is smaller (freelancers, joint venture partners, interns) but the exposure to how they work is spectacularly different. You don't get the thrill of finding a pearl in the oyster, the "wow, I found the most incredible hire!" bragging rights. Instead, you get exactly what you expect. Organizing for this sort of hiring isn't particularly difficult, particularly in a down economy. Not surprisingly, I've had 100% success doing this.

Second, and with some controversy, you can admit that an hour interview is actually a five minute sniff test followed by 55 minutes of wasted time, multiplied by four colleagues. Tell the truth and switch to five minute interviews.

If you do five minute initial interviews, you can interview 12 times as many people for each job opening. This initial filtering takes precisely as much time as your wasted one-hour approach, but dramatically increases the chance you'll find someone you actually have good pheromone and body language connection with. After the screening, I can only encourage you to do the projects, reference checks and other serious diligence you're probably too exhausted to do after spending all those hours with one person...

This process takes a lot of work, but it definitely works. If you can interview 60 people in a day or two and then have the three best fits do projects, presentations and freelance work for you, you're way ahead of a company that interviewed only three people and fell in love with one.

Spare no expense!

Costutility The problem with customer service is not a new one. It's about balancing between serving a lot of people a little, or dropping everything to serve a few people a lot.

Getting a lot of benefit for a lot of people for not so much money isn't particularly difficult. In the chart on the right, for example, (a) represents the cost of good signage at the airport, or clearly written directions on the prescription bottle or a bit of training for your staff. It pays off. Pay a little bit and you help a lot of people to avoid hassles. The utility per person isn't huge, but you can help a lot of people at once.

(b) is the higher cost of a bit of direct intervention. This is the cost of a call center or a toll free number or an information desk. You're paying more, you're helping fewer people, but you're helping them a lot.

(c) is where it gets nuts. (c) is where we are expected to spare no expense, where the CEO has to get involved because it's a journalist who's upset, or where we're busy airlifting a new unit out to a super angry customer. The cost is very high, the systems fall apart and only one person benefits.

Of course, if you're that one person, you think it's not only fair, but appropriate and right.

This "spare no expense" mantra is extremely difficult to avoid, because in any given situation, when the resources are available, your inclination is to say, "make the problem go away, spend the money!"

It's certainly possible to build a brand without going to (c) (witness the way Google almost never gets embroiled in special cases or even answers the phone--I know that they're certainly not eager to fix my imap problems), but once you've trained your customers that (c) is an option, it's awfully hard to scale back.

The reason we get trapped by (c) is that, "I'm doing the best I can" is always much easier than, "we need to be disciplined and help more people, even if that means that some special cases will fall through the cracks. The internet makes this even more difficult because people who fall through the cracks are able to amplify their complaints ever louder.

The way around it, I think, is to set expectations early and often. If you're going to give me your phone number, you better answer it. If you're going to offer a warranty, you better honor it. If you position yourself as a company with real people eager to make every single person happy--you better deliver.

No matter what, you should decide. In advance. How much do you want to spend on ad hoc emergencies, how much do you want to reserve on design and helping the masses improve their experience?

“We don’t compare ourselves to other airport restaurants”

Atlanta brags about having the busiest airport in the world. Like most municipal facilities, they don’t brag about having the best, the most pleasant, the most engaging or the most remarkable airport in the world.

That’s a shame, because airports are great opportunities to create value. Lots of curious, alert people with money to spend and connections to make. Yet the lowest-common-denominator is served, relentlessly. If you like fried meat, plenty to choose from. You’d think that rather than cater to the center of the curve 100 times at 100 concessions, they’d pay attention to some of the outliers now and then...

Imagine my delight, then, when I stumbled upon One Flew South, located at Terminal E. Perhaps because it’s at the end of the line, the economic and turnover pressure is less. Regardless, it’s better than we have been taught we should deserve. Jerry the general manager explained why in the simple quote that leads this post off. He’s busy comparing the place to other restaurants, not to other airports. (If you go, say hi to Carolyn at the bar. Tell her I sent you and she’ll take care of you.)

Who (or what) are you comparing yourself to?

Competing with the singleminded

I was talking with a few executives from one of the biggest technology companies in Europe, and they were explaining how their hands were tied in moving forward on the internet. They were doing the best they could under the circumstances, of course, but there were units in their organization that needed to be protected, prices that needed to be supported, sacred cows that couldn't be touched. After all, they argued, how could they wipe out their current business just to succeed online?

This conversation happens every single day at organizations large and small. You want to do the new thing, but of course you must do it in a measured, rational way.

Which is great, unless your competition doesn't agree.

When you have someone who is willing to accomplish A without worrying about B and C, they will almost always defeat you in accomplishing A. Online, of course, this often leads to doom, since there are many organizations that are willing to get big at the expense of revenue, or writers willing to be noticed at the expense of ethics or reputation. But in the short run, the singleminded have a fantastic advantage. And sometimes, their singleminded focus on accomplishing just that one thing (whatever it is) pushes them through the Dip far ahead of you and then yes, they make a ton of money and you've lost forever.

Newspapers, magazines, TV stations, hardware companies, real estate brokers, travel agents, bookstores, insurance agents, art galleries and five hundred other industries need to think hard about this before it's too late.

Add some {brackets}

If you need to get your audacious proposal/clever ad/new project past your boss, go ahead and add some gratuitous brackets here and {there}.

"Hey, what are these weird brackets doing here," she might say.

"Oh, I like them. I think they add drama to the headline."

"Take them out!"

Giving in early makes it easier to keep the important stuff in later.

The massive attention surplus

There was an attention drought for the longest time. Marketers paid a fortune for TV ads (and in fact, network ads sold out months in advance) because it was so difficult to find enough attention. Ads worked, so the more ads you bought, the more money you made, thus marketers took all they could get.

This attention shortage drove our economy.

The internet has done something wacky to this situation. It has created a surplus of attention. Ads go unsold. People are spending hours on YouTube or Twitter or Facebook or other sites and not spending their attention on ads, because the ads are either absent or not worth watching.

When people talk about the problem with free online, they're missing the point. Free is creating lots of attention, but marketers haven't gotten smart enough to do something profitable with that attention.

Hint: funny commercials with chimps won't be the answer.

It turns out that the almost infinitely long tail of attention varieties is what will kick open the monetization of online attention. Yes, I will give my attention to an ad, but only if it's anticipated, personal and relevant. We still give permission to marketers that earn it, but so few marketers do.

Simple example: Ten years ago, there was nowhere for a company like Best Made Axe to advertise. Today, with billions of tiny micromarkets, it's not hard to imagine many audiences of one or two or three or ten that would be delighted to know about their products. Right now, there's no easy way for a marketer to conceptualize that effort, never mind execute it, though it's surely coming.

Big companies, non-profits and even candidates will discover hyperlocal, hyperspecialized, hyperrelevant... this is where we are going, and it turns out that this time, the media is way ahead of the marketers.

Thanks for leading

I want to thank those that have supported my book Tribes. It's been the #1 bestselling leadership book on Amazon for the last 300 days, mostly because the people who like it, talk about it and spread the word.

Here's a favorite excerpt:

Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead.

The scarcity makes leadership valuable. If everyone tries to lead all the time, not much happens. It’s discomfort that creates the leverage that makes leadership worthwhile.

In other words, if everyone could do it, they would, and it wouldn’t be worth much.

It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers.
It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail.
It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo.
It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle.

When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed.

If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.

Not so good at math

A simple quiz for smart marketers:

Let's say your goal is to reduce gasoline consumption.

And let's say there are only two kinds of cars in the world. Half of them are Suburbans that get 10 miles to the gallon and half are Priuses that get 50.

If we assume that all the cars drive the same number of miles, which would be a better investment:

  • Get new tires for all the Suburbans and increase their mileage a bit to 13 miles per gallon.
  • Replace all the Priuses and rewire them to get 100 miles per gallon (doubling their average!)

Trick question aside, the answer is the first one. (In fact, it's more than twice as good a move).

We're not wired for arithmetic. It confuses us, stresses us out and more often than not, is used to deceive. [PS here are some reader-contributed explanations for those still lost: Charlie, and Nariman.]

Brands that matter

In this era, there are two questions every marketer answers:

  1. Do I want people to interact with me and my brand in unexpected ways (as opposed to just quietly consume it)?
  2. When they interact, do I overwhelm people with delight worth remarking about?

If you think about dead brands like Tide or United Airlines, the answer to both questions is clearly 'no'.

On the other hand, vibrant growing brands manage to answer both questions with a resounding 'yes.' It's not an accident and it's not easy, but if you do it right, it may be worth it.

Patient capital, markets that work and ending the endless emergency of poverty

Multiply the population of the US by three. That’s how many people around the world live on about a dollar a day.

Do it again and now you have the number closer to $2. About forty percent of the world lives on $2 or less a day.

What’s that like? What happens to you when you have two dollars a day to live on. It’s almost impossible to imagine. I mean, $2 is the rent on your apartment for about 45 minutes. $2 buys you one bite of lunch at a local restaurant...

And yet, two billion people survive on that sort of income.

The key issue is ‘survive’. Subsistence income means that you have the barest possible cushion, that every penny is spent and you are on the edge at all times. It makes life an emergency.

If every single thing goes perfectly, then you and your family will go to sleep tonight healthy, not too hungry and fairly safe. But of course, every single thing almost never goes perfectly. If you are bitten by a malaria-carrying mosquito, you need to buy medicine and so there’s no money for food. If you need more water, you have to spend two hours walking to and from the nearest half-decent water spot, and those two hours are the two hours you were going to spend harvesting the food your kids need.

From a fundraising point of view, this endless emergency is exactly what a non-profit needs to find and close donors. A dollar donated today will save someone’s life. It will. One dollar, one life. That’s urgent. As urgent as it gets.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t save that person's life forever, it saves it for today. Tomorrow, there’s another emergency, and yesterday’s dollar is gone. So you need another dollar. Two billion people, two billion dollars. Every day. Today, tomorrow, the day after that. It’s an endless emergency, and it never gets better.

That’s where patient capital comes in. It starts with this belief:

The difference between being one penny behind and one penny ahead is profound.Aheadbehind

If you’re one penny behind, then every day you fall further back. Every day, the emergencies get worse, the stress gets worse, your ability to survive (never mind thrive) gets worse.

If you’re one penny ahead, though, just a penny, then every day you build a reserve, every day you are able to invest in productivity or peace of mind, and soon you are two pennies or a dollar or five dollars a day ahead. And then you can send your daughter to college. And then you can buy something from the merchant next door. And then you can plant a better crop. And then you have a stake in the community, and then the world changes.

So, how to create this micro surplus? How to prime the pump of the system to improve productivity enough that things get better?


When two people trade, both win. No one buys a bar a soap unless the money they’re spending for the soap is worth less to them than the soap itself.

When someone in poverty buys a device that improves productivity, the device pays for itself (if it didn’t, they wouldn’t buy it.) So a drip irrigation system, for example, may pay off by creating two or three harvests a year instead of one.

What does that do for the family that buys it? Well, if you have one harvest a year and you’re living at subsistence, it means your income is zero, or probably just a little below. If you can irrigate and get two or three harvests a year, though, your income goes up by infinity. Now, instead of making -1 pennies a day, you’re making 100 or 200 pennies a day. That’s a surplus of $700 a year. That’s enough to participate in other productivity or life-enhancing investments, like a well, or a roof, or health care. Now, the edge is a lot further away.

And what does that do for the family that sells it? When markets arrive, productivity increases and new innovations can be diffused more quickly, because change is brought in by the market.

How does Acumen Fund create these markets? The answer is patient capital. The companies that are selling solar lamps to replace kerosene or water purification systems in tiny villages, or housing projects for peasants in Pakistan or even ambulance services in Mumbai fully intend to make a profit, but the venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road aren’t in a hurry to invest in them. The investments are a little too risky, take a little too long or a little too unproven to take a chance on.

So Acumen finds these entrepreneurs on site in the developing world, funds them, teaches them and pushes them to build really big organizations. A to Z has literally thousands of people in their modern factory creating malaria bed nets in Tanzania. And so it grows.

I’m thrilled at the work Acumen has done, and excited about where the fund is going. I’ve got some interesting fundraising ideas to share with you this fall, and I thought it was worth taking you through my reasoning as to why I chose this organization as the recipient.

Any entrepreneur or marketer can learn a lesson from how new systems create new markets, and how an infinite increase in income or productivity can change everything. Everything.

The modern talking pad

I think this is a big idea, but your mileage may vary.

I've been having great success with a hybrid of the yellow legal pad and a printed presentation from Keynote (or Powerpoint). I use it during small meetings where more interactivity is useful, and where the group is too small for a laptop to be the best way to present slides (I think running a presentation says, "I talk, you listen...")

Here's how it works:

  1. Create a presentation. A good one, not one filled with bullet points. Instead, graphs, images, a few words to anchor a discussion. A page might be nothing but a blank 3 x 3 grid.
  2. On every page, remove some of the information.
  3. Print the presentation out (horizontal, not portrait).
  4. Bring it to Staples and have them spiral bind it with covers. (Not that cheap plastic comb, though.)
  5. Get a good pen.

Now, when you make your presentation, sit next to the person you're meeting with and go through the booklet page by page, writing directly on each page. As you work your way through the ideas in the booklet, the two of you can talk about what's in front of you and mark it up.

It's not a brochure, it's the outcome of a working session. Leave it behind when you go.

The talking pad

Zig Ziglar taught me about the most powerful way to use a yellow legal pad. He calls it a "talking pad."

When you're in a small meeting (you and one or two other people) it's awkward to use a laptop or Powerpoint, because it destroys the intimacy of the discussion. Basically, it says, "I'm going to talk to the screen and you can watch, okay?"

The alternative is to use a thick pen or marker and a legal pad.

Whenever you mention a number or make an assertion or promise, write it down. The act of writing is a verb, it's the process of putting it on the page that underlines what you've said, that highlights the moment. You're also creating a record of what you said, which emphasizes that you're not a weasel.

Salespeople can use this technique as well. Let's say you're trying to sell energy-efficient windows. They cost $800 each, the person needs 30, so you're trying to make a $24,000 sale. That's a big deal, right?

Start by writing these facts down.

Then, working with the person you're sitting with, identify how much is going to be saved every day. Not your opinion, but their estimate based on their energy bill and comparable homes. Agree on a number. Write it down.

Cut it in half. Now it's truly a realistic, conservative estimate. Write it down.

Multiply it by the number of windows. Write it down. People hate math.

Now, pull out your calculator and figure out the cost of the monthly financing. Oh! The cost is way lower than the amount saved. The windows are free.

The talking pad makes the sale. It builds credibility and helps you run the meeting.

The long tale

(not a typo).

The long tale is the never-ending story you tell your prospects, your customers and your employees.

The hard part is getting a little bit of permission to start telling your tale. The overlooked part, the part that wastes all that permission, is that you forget to keep telling your story.

Are you really the same as you were a year ago? How often do you re-introduce yourself? What's truly new (as opposed to what does the salesforce think is new)? What's the next chapter that matters? Almost all the goodness of marketing comes not from the big announcement, but from the long tale.

When the outside world changes, do you? Does the regulatory or environmental or competitive marketplace have an impact on you or us? That's part of the tale. Share it.

Education at the crossroads

Actually, there isn't one, there are three choices that anyone offering higher education is going to have to make.

Should this be scarce or abundant?

MIT and Stanford are starting to make classes available for free online. The marginal cost of this is pretty close to zero, so it's easy for them to share. Abundant education is easy to access and offers motivated individuals a chance to learn.

Scarcity comes from things like accreditation, admissions policies or small classrooms.

Should this be free or expensive?

Wikipedia offers the world's fact base to everyone, for free. So it spreads.

On the other hand, some bar review courses are so expensive the websites don't even have the guts to list the price.

The newly easy access to the education marketplace (you used to need a big campus and a spot in the guidance office) means that both the free and expensive options are going to be experimented with, because the number of people in the education business is going to explode (then implode).

If you think the fallout in the newspaper business was dramatic, wait until you see what happens to education.

Should this be about school or about learning?

School was the big thing for a long time. School is tests and credits and notetaking and meeting standards. Learning, on the other hand, is 'getting it'. It's the conceptual breakthrough that permits the student to understand it then move on to something else. Learning doesn't care about workbooks or long checklists.

For a while, smart people thought that school was organized to encourage learning. For a long time, though, people in the know have realized that they are fundamentally different activities.

The combinations...

Imagine a school that's built around free, abundant learning. And compare it to one that's focused on scarce, expensive schooling. Or dream up  your own combination. My recent MBA program, for example, was scarce (only 9 people got to do it) and it was free and focused on learning.

Just because something is free doesn't meant there isn't money to be made. Someone could charge, for example, for custom curricula, or focused tutoring, or for a certified (scarce) degree. When a million people are taking your course, you only need 1% to pay you to be happy indeed.

Eight combinations of the three choices are available and my guess is that all eight will be tried. If I were going to wager, I'd say that the free, abundant learning combination is the one that's going to change the world.


Here's a surefire way to get and keep the attention of your audience: put on a soap opera.

If there's always a feud, a criminal investigation, secret photos, innuendo, allegations of drug use, partnerships foundering, acquisitions started, delayed or canceled, secret new projects, and possible runs for office, you can bet people will tune in.

I apologize for the lack of drama on this blog (not really).

Michael Jackson, Fidel Castro and Sarah Palin created drama. Paying attention, though, is the not the same as buying or respecting. It's possible to achieve both, but not easy.

Willfully ignorant vs. aggressively skeptical

Challenging the status quo is what I do for a living. Either that or encourage other people to do it.

But there are two ways to do it, and one of them is ineffective, short-sighted and threatens the fabric of the tribe. The other seems to work.

I heard someone screaming about death panels and how the government was not only going to kill his grandmother, but would take out Stephen Hawking himself if it had the chance.

The screaming is a key part, because screaming is often a tool used to balance out the lazy ignorance of someone parroting opposition to an idea that they don't understand. (If you want to write to me about this post, please write to me about the screaming part, not about whether or not you agree with the facts or the science. That's what the post is about, the screaming.)

If you want to challenge the conventional wisdom of health care reform, please do! It'll make the final outcome better. But if you choose to do that, it's essential that you know more about it than everyone else, not less. Certainly not zero. Be skeptical, but be informed (about everything important, not just this issue, of course). Screaming ignorance gets attention, but it distracts us from the work at hand.

It's easy to fit in by yelling out, and far more difficult to actually read and consider the facts. Anytime you hear, "I don't have the time to understand this issue, I'm too busy being upset," you know that something is wrong.

Brands face this as much or more than politicians do. I witnessed a knock-down fight between two teenagers over which operating system was best. There are generations of arguments between Ford and Chevy owners. Motorcycle gangs are often parochial in their choice of bike. And in each case, the less people know, the more they yell.

If you want to change what your boss believes, or the strategy your company is following, the first step is to figure out how to be the best informed person in the room.

Free work vs. internships

I think internships are overrated. Most of the time, the employer thinks he's doing the intern a favor, but he doesn't trust the interns to do any actual thoughtful, intelligent work worth talking about. And to be fair, most of the time the interns are busy hiding, not grabbing responsibility but instead acting like they're in school, avoiding hard work and trying to get an A.

Charlie Hoehn has written a beautifully designed ebook that may change the way you think about this. His argument is that 'free work' is something else entirely. It's done as a freelancer, remotely, without direct supervision and it creates a measurable output.

Free work isn't easy to get. Big companies, for example, have bureaucrats that don't often know what to do with a great offer like this. And some people (I'll put myself in this category) are too hands-on to take advantage of it. But you'd be amazed at how many fast-moving companies or influential individuals are all too happy to share credit if it helps the work get done.

And the benefit to the underemployed? You guessed it: great experience and a resume builder that actually means something. Isn't it odd that we're willing to spend $300,000 to buy an accredited but ultimately useless academic line on our resume, but we hesitate to do a month of hard work to create a chunk of experience that's priceless?

People you can't live (work) without

For a new project, I'm collecting photos of people who make a big difference in your working life.

If you have a photo you can share (see fine print below) of someone you work with, buy from, sell to or interact with professionally--someone who matters, who contributes, who makes a difference--I'd love to include it. It might be your boss, a copyeditor, a waiter, a craftsperson or even (!) a consultant.

All you have to do is attach the photo to an email sent to this address. I won't be able to respond or to read any notes attached, sorry. (Here it is if you have gmail:

Fine print: please don't send pictures of dogs, cats or iguanas. No family members, either, we know you can't live without them. No guarantee of inclusion. Close cover before striking. By sending the photo, you acknowledge that you have the right to share it and you're giving me permission to use it. Thanks.

Deadline: Midnight, September 1, 2009. Don't be late.

Critics that matter

If you invent or launch or market (and you're human) it's likely that you have the voice of the critic in the back of your head. It's natural to fear what they'll say, and if you're not careful, you'll end up redesigning your product to please them before you even launch it.

Imagine the restaurant chef who changes the interior of the restaurant to please the Michelin critic (they insist on a certain quality of cutlery in order to award a three star review). It might be your boss who is the critic. Or consider the B2B manufacturer who alters the product specs in order to meet the standards of the GAO so he can sell to the US Government...

Some critics matter. (Your biggest customer, for example). Some are merely loud. Others are just difficult.

Janet Maslin at the New York Times is a cranky hack. She reviews popular fiction and non-fiction, and as best I can tell, she likes neither very much. She's taken authors to task for questionable copy editing and devoted entire reviews to pointless rants about trivia. Here's the thing: she doesn't matter. Janet's reviews appear to have no impact at all on whether or not a book sells. Her voice is not in my head.

Robert Morris, on the other hand, is a useful guide for people in search of good books. He's reviewed nearly 2,000 books and received almost 25,000 helpful votes for his reviews on Amazon. If he likes your book, you're going to sell more copies--not because he liked it, but because his thorough review lets other people decide if they want to buy it or not.

The challenge is in figuring out which kind of critic is worth paying attention to as you create your product or service. In a business to business setting, pleasing the gatekeeper and the bill payer is essential. On the other hand, pleasing an angry blogger might not matter at all.

In our desire to please everyone, it's very easy to end up being invisible or mediocre. Far better to please the right people.

Lessons from very tiny businesses

1. Go where your customers are.

Jacquelyne runs a tiny juice company called Chakwave. I met her in Los Angeles, standing next to an organic lunch truck. Like the little birds that clean the teeth of the hippo, there's synergy here. The kind of person that visits the truck for lunch is the sort of person that would happily pay for something as wonderfully weird as her juice. And the truck owners benefit from the rolling festival farmer's market feel that comes from having a synergistic partner set up on a bridge table right next door.

2. Be micro-focused and the search engines will find you.

My friend Patti Jo is an extraordinary teacher and tutor. Her new business, The Scarsdale Tutor doesn't need many clients in order to be successful. This permits her to focus obsessively and that gets rewarded with front page results on Google. Not because she's tried to manipulate the seo (she hasn't) but because this is exactly the page you'd hope to find if you typed "scarsdale tutor" into a search engine. Could she do this nationwide? Of course not. But she doesn't want to or need to. Living on the long tail can be profitable.

3. Outlast the competition.

I was amazed at all the empty storefronts I saw in LA on my last visit. On one particular block, three or four of the ten lunch places were shut down. And the others? Doing great. That's because the remaining office workers who used to eat lunch at the shuttered places had to eat somewhere, and so the survivors watched their business grow. A war of attrition is never pretty, but if you're smart about overhead and scale, you'll win it.

4. Leverage.

Rick Toone runs a tiny guitar-making operation. His lack of scale makes it easy for him to share. When others start using his designs, he doesn't suffer (he can't make any more guitars than he already is) he benefits, because as the originator of the design, his originals become more coveted, not less valuable. He leverages his insight and shares it as a free marketing device.

5. Respond.

This is the single biggest advantage you have over the big guys. Not only are you in charge, you also answer the phone and read your email and man the desk and set the prices.

So, don't pretend you have a policy. Just be human.

The scientific method

In most interactions, we take a defensive posture. We try to defend the brand, or our turf or our job. The problem with defense is that it's static. The best way to get smarter, to embrace and to cause change and to triumph in times of market turmoil is to adopt the scientific method.

Ask yourself, "what do I believe that's wrong? How can I change the way I do things? What works? What doesn't?"

If you enter a conversation looking for something to test, measure and ultimately change, it's likely you'll find it. That change makes you more competitive, and you continue to cycle past your competitors. On the other hand, if you enter a conversation concerned about maintaining the status quo, it's likely that this is exactly what you're going to do.

Some people read business books looking for confirmation. I read them in search of disquiet. Confirmation is cheap, easy and ineffective. Restlessness and the scientific method, on the other hand, create a culture of testing and inquiry that can't help but push you forward.

Who spreads your word?

In order for an idea to spread, someone has to do the spreading.

In the dark ages (ten years ago), the only way to spread your idea on a large scale was to do it yourself. Lots and lots of ads.

Today, marketers get all sweaty thinking about how this happens magically, virally, for free. If it were only that easy.

What's interesting to me is that different products and ideas are spread by different groups of people. There isn't just one professional association of idea spreaders, with everyone else being passive.

If your authentic little Welsh restaurant gets hot, it's going to be because the chowhounds, the folks who love to talk about the next great place, are buzzing about it. On the other hand, if your blog gets a lot of traffic, it might just be because a few of the digerati are going on about it, spreading the idea.

This is obvious, of course.

But what you are you doing about it? Have you figured out which portion of your user base are the talkers? Is it possible to focus your development efforts on actually making something that they like? Or, are you confusing the people who talk about your competition or about other industries with the people you need to reach? Might not be the same tribe...

The #1 cause of an idea that's not spreading or a business that's not growing is that they don't have a committed group of people spreading the word about them. If you treat everyone the same, you're not increasing the odds that some people will step up on your behalf.

This is the first question to ask someone who is frustrated at the rate their idea is spreading. "Who are you hoping will talk about you?" If you don't know, it's unlikely to happen all by itself. On the other hand, if a marketer is smart about finding, courting and delighting the group most likely to spread the idea, it's time well spent.

The danger of vague claims

The sign the broker posted in front of the house listed her name and then said, "#1 in Westchester, Top 10 Nationwide."

What does that mean, exactly? That this real estate broker is the most successful broker in the whole county and one of the top ten in the country? I don't think so. Not if she's selling this house. She'd have to sell a thousand houses like this to catch up with someone in a fancier neighborhood who only sells ten.

I think it means that the firm she works for is really big. So what? Is that a qualification for anything? Is the 11th biggest real estate firm way less good than the ninth?

Here's the danger: when the very first interaction we have is one where you are sort of not telling the relevant truth, where do we go from here?

Weirdest billboard ever (or brilliant targeting)


Not photoshopped, I took it myself. The site is real.

I'm trying to imagine someone driving along Highway 11 and making a note of this. For what? The next time someone gets bludgeoned in their living room? (And no, I don't think it was movie inspired).

On the other hand, maybe this is brilliant, because it's police cars that see this sign the most. Go to where your customers are...

When tactics drown out strategy

New media creates a blizzard of tactical opportunities for marketers, and many of them cost nothing but time, which means you don't need as much approval and support to launch them.

As a result, marketers are like kids at Rita's candy shoppe, gazing at all the pretty opportunities.

Most of us are afraid of strategy, because we don't feel confident outlining one unless we're sure it's going to work. And the 'work' part is all tactical, so we focus on that. (Tactics are easy to outline, because we say, "I'm going to post this." If we post it, we succeed. Strategy is scary to outline, because we describe results, not actions, and that means opportunity for failure.)

"Building a permission asset so we can grow our influence with our best customers over time" is a strategy. Using email, twitter or RSS along with newsletters, contests and a human voice are all tactics. In my experience, people get obsessed about tactical detail before they embrace a strategy... and as a result, when a tactic fails, they begin to question the strategy that they never really embraced in the first place.

The next time you find yourself spending 8 hours on tactics and five minutes refining your strategy, you'll understand what's going on.

Are we solving the same problem?

This is the biggest disconnect I know of.

It happens all the time in B2B sales, in service marketing, in getting along with your boss and even in hiring someone.

One side thinks they have figured out a solution. They spend a long time talking about the solution, architecting it, refining it, pricing it, pitching it, delivering it. The other side ends up not liking what they get. The disconnect: the first side says, "this solution is exactly as we described it!" the other side says, "it doesn't work right."

The disconnect is caused because people focus on the solution instead of the problem you were given to solve. It's a lot easier to talk about features and hours spent and someone's resume and a lot more difficult to dig into the problem itself.

This is where the obligating question becomes so critical. "If we can deliver a dam that stops the water flow, will you be delighted?" "If I can hire someone who can answer ten calls an hour and keep customers coming back, will that work?" "If this book cover receives an award for best design, will that be a win?"

The difficult conversation about the problem is far more useful than the endless effort on solutions. The reason is that people don't tell themselves (or you) about the problem they're actually solving. Sure, they'd like an employee that does x, y or z, but you know what, they'd also like that person to be really good looking and willing to do our bidding, waiting on us hand and foot. Sure, we'd like a personal computer with a lot of computing power, but we'd also like it to be light and sexy and covetable...

The more clarity you can get about what a successful solution looks like, the more likely you will be to have a delighted customer when you're done.

The bandwidth-sync correlation that's worth thinking about

Check this out. Every once in a while a cool graph pops into my head.

Here are a dozen or so forms of communication, arranged on two axes.

On the horizontal, they rank from asynchronous (meaning the creator and the responder are separated in time--like a letter) and synchronous (meaning the creator and the responder are in real time proximity to each other--like a phone call).

Up and down, I've charted the quality of the medium. Quality in terms of density of information exchanged. The 140 characters in Twitter is about as low density as you can get other than a stop light. A movie, on the other hand, is loud and bright and two hours long and there's audience reaction and it is edited and designed to evoke a response.

To be clear, then: movies take a long time to make, but they're high impact. Twitter takes a second to do, but there's not a lot of info there. One on one coaching is high enough bandwidth that it can change your life and make you cry, in real time, and the Mona Lisa, while less bits per second than a TV show, has enough emotional bandwidth to matter, even if it's 400 years old.

So, what can you learn here?

  1. There's a huge correlation between how much interaction there is and how powerful a medium is (at least among successful media). Telephones changed the world because the interaction is so real. As you get more interactive, though, you exchange less dense media. You can't have a real time conversation online that carries the digital impact of a movie or some other high bandwidth entertainment.
  2. The bottom left corner is the scrap heap. It's hard to place a commercial value on this part of the grid and there's not a lot of commercially interesting work being done here. People just aren't interested in low bandwidth, non-interactive media. Graffiti, for example, rarely draws a paying crowd.
  3. The top right of the corner is where huge value and difficult sales lie. Not everyone can pay for the scarce resources needed to deliver an in-person seminar or one on one coaching, but those that need and can afford it, love it.

If you had seen this chart three years ago, you obviously would have invented Twitter. Now that you see it today, what will you create?

High Definition

Am I the only person who wants a Hi Def telephone?

A headset that sounds better than the handheld receiver, and a handheld receiver that delivers the kind of quality calls we had back in the day...

I want to have a phone call where I don't have to strain to hear the other person, apologize for static, call people back because they went through a dandelion storm...

I'm happy to trade weight or transportability for this device.

I'm betting there are a dozen other items where the market would love a high definition alternative. Maybe a thousand. We're in such a rush for convenience, sometimes we forget the market will pay for high def as well.

Bear shaving

Global warming a problem? Just shave the bears.

Let's define "bear shaving" as the efforts we go to do deal with the symptoms of a problem instead of addressing the cause of the problem. A rare Japanese PSA (now long lost to the copyright gods) showed a girl shaving a bear so it could deal with global warming (here's a lesser one)...

Example: putting a sophisticated queue management system into the Department of Motor Vehicles so that people waiting in line feel like it's less of a mob. This is bear shaving. The productive approach would be to redefine what actually happens in that building so the line itself disappears.

Example: iPhones come locked so they can't be used with other carriers, so people spend hours and plenty of money to 'unlock' them. That's bear shaving. Better to figure out an easy way to pay AT&T their tribute so they can be truly unlocked...

Example: You have emotional issues associated with eating. You shave the bear by getting bariatric surgery instead of dealing with the issue that caused the problem in the first place.

Example: You have a leaky roof and you shave the bear by buying buckets.

Step one to eliminating bear shaving: call it when you see it.

All storms are perfect

That's what makes them storms.

When someone describes a situation as a perfect storm ("two different backup servers failed, plus there was a blackout, no one could have predicted this, it was a perfect storm,") it's important to remember that if the backup server hadn't failed, there wouldn't have been a problem at all.

Just because a storm is perfect doesn't mean you shouldn't have anticipated it.

Fidelity vs. Convenience

Kevin Maney has a book out in September about the trade off between delivering extraordinary experiences (which he calls fidelity) and doing it in a way that's cheap and easy (convenience). The book takes this simple idea and supports it with dozens of examples.

The simplest example is movies. You pay to go to a theatre when you want the fidelity of the big screen and the crowd and the speakers. You stay home when you want the convenience of Netflix and the pause button. Vinyl records and live concerts offer fidelity, MP3 on your iPod is convenient.

In the words of Bill Gross, in order to win with a new product, you need to be on one axis or another, and ten times better than what you're aiming to replace. Which means ten times more high impact or ten times cheaper and easier.

A refrigerator is ten times more convenient than an icebox. A cell phone is ten times more convenient than a pay phone. A private jet is ten times more joyful/fidelity than first class for the executive that can afford it. A backstage pass at a Cat Power concert is ten times higher fidelity than a ripped MP3.

There are interesting ways to define 'fidelity'. Wikipedia is certainly more convenient, and the presence of a million articles that aren't even in the Brittanica makes it higher fidelity as well. At the start, though, they were neither. It took a (relatively) tiny group of passionate people to create enough content and enough quality that they could be high enough fidelity to be considered an alternative to the printed encyclopedia. It's interesting to watch Luddite teachers refuse to accept it as a source, claiming that convenience shouldn't trump their definition of fidelity...

The mistake that's so easy to make is to be a little bit higher fidelity and a little bit more convenient. Incumbents fall into this trap all the time, assuming that you'll stick with what you've got because they're sorta both. And insurgents almost always fail because as geeky insiders they think that twice the convenience is enough to persuade anyone who cares. Not going to work.

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