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Seth Godin has written 12 bestsellers that have been translated into 33 languages

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The practical sequel to Purple Cow

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

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Poke The Box

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The Big Red Fez

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The Dip

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Tribes

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V Is For Vulnerable

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We Are All Weird

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

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Whatcha Gonna Do With That Duck?

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« March 2010 | Main | May 2010 »

David Byrne is angry with me

I recently bumped into David (he of Talking Heads fame) at a conference. Our paths have crossed before, we share a few friends, I'm a big fan and he uses permission marketing to sell his records now. I said "hi."

David's eyes flashed, he turned his shoulders, muttered something and rushed away.

What did I say? What did I do? Why he is upset with me?

Of course, David Byrne isn't angry with me. David Byrne doesn't even remember who I am. In fact, David Byrne was busy, or late, or trying to figure out where he was supposed to go next. The last thing he wanted to do was patiently spend a few minutes figuring out who I was and then a few more minutes making promises he wouldn't be able to keep.

The next time you're sure someone is angry with you, perhaps it's worth considering that you might be mistaken. Perhaps that customer or prospect or boss has better things to do than being angry with you. Each of us has a huge agenda, and while it's comforting for some to jump to the conclusion that we've offended, it's far more likely that the person you're talking with merely has something else going on.

In a digital age, our cues for social or marketing missteps might be mistuned. Sometimes, believe it or not, it's not (always) about us. (On the other hand, and just as often, people are annoyed and don't have a clue...)

The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer)

For 400 years, higher education in the US has been on a roll. From Harvard asking Galileo to be a guest professor in the 1600s to millions tuning in to watch a team of unpaid athletes play another team of unpaid athletes in some college sporting event, the amount of time and money and prestige in the college world has been climbing.

I'm afraid that's about to crash and burn. Here's how I'm looking at it.

1. Most colleges are organized to give an average education to average students.

Pick up any college brochure or catalog. Delete the brand names and the map. Can you tell which school it is? While there are outliers (like St. Johns, Deep Springs or Full Sail) most schools aren't really outliers. They are mass marketers.

Stop for a second and consider the impact of that choice. By emphasizing mass and sameness and rankings, colleges have changed their mission.

This works great in an industrial economy where we can't churn out standardized students fast enough and where the demand is huge because the premium earned by a college grad dwarfs the cost. But...

InflationTuitionMedicalGeneral1978to2008 2. College has gotten expensive far faster than wages have gone up.

As a result, there are millions of people in very serious debt, debt so big it might take decades to repay. Word gets around. Won't get fooled again...

This leads to a crop of potential college students that can (and will) no longer just blindly go to the 'best' school they get in to.

3. The definition of 'best' is under siege.

Why do colleges send millions (!) of undifferentiated pieces of junk mail to high school students now? We will waive the admission fee! We have a one page application! Apply! This is some of the most amateur and bland direct mail I've ever seen. Why do it?

Biggest reason: So the schools can reject more applicants. The more applicants they reject, the higher they rank in US News and other rankings. And thus the rush to game the rankings continues, which is a sign that the marketers in question (the colleges) are getting desperate for more than their fair share. Why bother making your education more useful if you can more easily make it appear to be more useful?

4. The correlation between a typical college degree and success is suspect.

College wasn't originally designed to merely be a continuation of high school (but with more binge drinking). In many places, though, that's what it has become. The data I'm seeing shows that a degree (from one of those famous schools, with or without a football team) doesn't translate into significantly better career opportunities, a better job or more happiness than a degree from a cheaper institution.

5. Accreditation isn't the solution, it's the problem.

A lot of these ills are the result of uniform accreditation programs that have pushed high-cost, low-reward policies on institutions and rewarded schools that churn out young wanna-be professors instead of experiences that turn out leaders and problem-solvers.

Just as we're watching the disintegration of old-school marketers with mass market products, I think we're about to see significant cracks in old-school schools with mass market degrees.

Back before the digital revolution, access to information was an issue. The size of the library mattered. One reason to go to college was to get access. Today, that access is worth a lot less. The valuable things people take away from college are interactions with great minds (usually professors who actually teach and actually care) and non-class activities that shape them as people. The question I'd ask: is the money that mass-marketing colleges are spending on marketing themselves and scaling themselves well spent? Are they organizing for changing lives or for ranking high? Does NYU have to get so much bigger? Why?

The solutions are obvious... there are tons of ways to get a cheap, liberal education, one that exposes you to the world, permits you to have significant interactions with people who matter and to learn to make a difference (start here). Most of these ways, though, aren't heavily marketed nor do they involve going to a tradition-steeped two-hundred-year old institution with a wrestling team. Things like gap years, research internships and entrepreneurial or social ventures after high school are opening doors for students who are eager to discover the new.

The only people who haven't gotten the memo are anxious helicopter parents, mass marketing colleges and traditional employers. And all three are waking up and facing new circumstances.

Carrying capacity

An organization with eight people in it might be happy, profitable and growing. The same business with twenty might be on the way to bankruptcy.

Ideas, markets, niches and causes have a natural scale. If you get it right, you can thrive for a long time. Overdo it and you stress the inputs.

The earth has a carrying capacity, certainly. It might change as a result of technology (we know how to grow food more efficiently than we did a century ago) but in any moment of time, there's a limit beyond which degradation kicks in. I don't think many would say that we currently have a people shortage. (Impossible to pull off, but worth considering: what if we skipped a growth cycle in the population and everyone in a generation had just two kids? Or even one...)

Your industry might have room for six or seven well-paid consultants, but when you try to scale up to 30 or 40 people on your team, you discover that it stresses the market's ability to pay.

Interesting note: there's also the common problem of under-staffing. More lawyers in a market might create more lawsuits. More effective ad vehicles certainly create more advertising. More lanes on the highway have been demonstrated to lead to more people commuting to work. Sometimes, adding capacity is exactly the right strategy if your goal is to add more revenue.

The next time you find your business struggling, take a minute to think about scale. More people (or fewer) might be the simplest way to solve your problem.

"Powerpoint makes us stupid"--these bullets can kill

The US Army reports that misuse of Powerpoint (in other words, using Powerpoint the way most people use it, the way it was designed to be used) is a huge issue.

I first wrote a popular short free ebook about this seven years ago and the problem hasn't gone away. So much for the power of the idea.

Here's the problem:

  • Bullets appear to be precise
    • They define the scope of the issue, even if they are wrong
    • They are definitive, even if they aren't
  • Bullets that are read from the screen go in one ear and out the other
  • Bullets are used as a defensive measure
    • see, I told you this in the meeting on 12.3.08
  • Bullets are unemotional and sterile
  • The lizard brain causes us to make presentations that are too long so that nothing in particular gets commented on or remembered or criticized
  • It is harder to interrupt and have a conversation with someone who has a clicker

See what I mean?

If there was any other tool as widely misused in your organization, you'd ban it. The cost is enormous in lost opportunity and lost time. Guns don't kill people, bullets do.

The paralysis of unlimited opportunity

There aren't just a few options open to you, there are thousands (or more).

You can spend your marketing money in more ways than ever, live in more places while still working electronically, contact different people, launch different initiatives, hire different freelancers... You can post your ideas in dozens of ways, interact with millions of people, launch any sort of product or service without a permit or factory.

Too many choices.

If it's thrilling to imagine the wide open spaces, go for it.

If it's slowing you down and keeping you up at night, consider artificially limiting your choices. Don't get on planes. Don't do spec work. Don't work for jerks. Work on paper, not on film. Work on film, not on video. Don't work weekends.

Whatever rule you want...

But no matter what, don't do nothing.

Quid pro quo (santa math)

Walk up to the falafel stand and hand the guy $3. He hands you a falafel, no onions.

This for that.

Something for something.

The time between surrendering the money and getting the sandwich is tiny. You gave him something, you got something. It's simple.

Now, stretch it out a bit. You order dinner in a restaurant. They treat you nicely, the room is beautiful, you enjoy the evening, then you pay the bill. This, pause, pause, pause, that.

Go to law school. Pay a lot of money. Spend a lot of time. Be taught a bunch of things you don't particularly want to know, things you probably don't need. Get a degree with a modicum of scarcity. Pay for a bar review course. Pass the bar. Then you get a job that pays a lot of money.

This, then a multi-year pause, then, in return, that for the next forty years. We call it return on investment.

Online, though, I'm not sure the math is so obvious. You don't write a blog to get gigs. You don't help people out in a forum to build a freelance business. Sure, that might happen, but that's not why you do it. If you are busy calculating quid pro quo, that means your heart isn't in it, and the math won't work out anyway.

Online, the something, the quid, the this, doesn't cost cash. It takes heart and energy and caring, which are scarce but renewable resources. As a result, many people are able to spend them without seeking anything external in return. Even better, the act of generosity, of giving without expectation, makes it easier to do art, to create work that matters on its own.

I think it's more like Santa math. Santa flies around the world, giving stuff away, and for what? He earns gratitude, trust and friendship, that's what. Sure, one day he might decide to license his image or try to sell you something. But right here, right now, gratitude, trust and friendship are plenty. Especially if you enjoy doing what you're doing. Quid, no quo.

Empty your library

If you've read one of my books, thanks. I write them to be read, so without you, it would be a pointless exercise.

I'm asking a favor: Would you give your copy (or lend, I'm fine either way) of Linchpin away?

Go find someone you care about, hand them the book and insist they read it. I'd consider that a gift of the first order, and I hope they will too.

In fact, don't just do it with Linchpin, do it with all the books that have changed you, regardless of author or age. They're not earning interest unless people are reading them. Ideas that spread, win.

Thanks.

Deniability

How much of the time you invest in a project is spent preparing excuses, creating insurance, seeking deniability and covering your ass just in case things go poorly in the end?

At some point, that effort becomes so great you never actually ship anything, which of course is the very best protection against failure.

Who judges your work?

Here's the mistake we make in high school:

We let anyone, just anyone, judge our work (and by extension, judge us.)

Sue, the airheaded but long-legged girl in Spanish class gets the right to judge our appearance.

Bill, the bitter former-poet English teacher gets the power to tell us if we're good at writing.

And on and on.

The cheerleaders are deputized as the Supreme Court of social popularity, and the gym teacher forever has dibs on whether or not we're macho enough to make it in the world. These are patterns we sign up for, and they last forever (or until we tell them to go away).

In high school, some people learn to ship, they learn to do work that matters and most of all, they learn to ignore the critics they can never possibly please. The ability to choose who judges your work--the people who will make it better, use it and reward you--is the key building block in becoming an artist in whatever you do.

8 things I wish everyone knew about email

  1. Change your settings so that email from you has a name, your name, not a blank or some unusual characters, in the from field. (ask a geek or IT person for help if you don't know how).
  2. Change your settings so that the bottom of every email includes a signature (often called a sig) that includes your name and your organization.
  3. Change your settings so that when you reply to a note, the note you're replying to is included below what you write (this is called quoting).
  4. Don't hit reply all. Just don't. Okay, you can, but read this first.
  5. You can't recall an email you didn't mean to send. Some software makes you think you can, but you can't. Not reliably.
  6. Email lives forever, is easy to spread and can easily show up in discovery for a lawsuit.
  7. Please don't ask me to save a tree by not printing your email. It doesn't work, it just annoys the trees.
  8. Send yourself some email at a friend's computer. Read it. Are the fonts too big or too small? Does it look like a standard email? If it doesn't look like a standard, does this deviation help you or hurt you? Sometimes, fitting in makes sense, no?

And a bonus tip from Cory Doctorow (who got it from danah boyd). Cory gets more email than you and me combined: When you go on vacation, set up an autoreply that says, "I'm on vacation until x/x/2010. When I get back, I'm going to delete all the email that arrived while I was gone, so if this note is important, please send it to me again after that date."

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