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

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« November 2010 | Main | January 2011 »

Maybe next year...

The economy will be going gangbusters

Your knowledge will reach critical mass

Your boss will give you the go ahead (and agree to take the heat if things don't work out)

Your family situation will be stable

The competition will stop innovating

Someone else will drive the carpool, freeing up a few hours a week

There won't be any computer viruses to deal with, and

Your neighbor will return the lawnmower.

Then...

You can ship, you can launch your project, you can make the impact you've been planning on.

Of course, all of these things won't happen. Why not ship anyway?

[While others were hiding last year, new products were launched, new subscriptions were sold and new companies came into being. While they were laying low, websites got new traffic, organizations grew, and contracts were signed. While they were stuck, money was being lent, star employees were hired and trust was built.

Most of all, art got created.

That's okay, though, because it's all going to happen again in 2011. It's not too late, just later than it was.]

#YearInReview What did you ship in 2010?

This might be a useful exercise. Doesn't matter whether it was a hit or not, it just matters that you shipped it. Shipping something that scares you (and a lot of what follows did) is the entire point.

[Funny, it's actually difficult to publish a list like this... maybe that's another reason we hesitate to ship, because we don't want to tout too much].

Here's a baker's dozen from the year I'm wrapping up... this obsession with shipping can really make things happen:

  • Launch Linchpin
  • Book launch in New York, including triiibes dinner
  • Worldwide blog tour, including book signing with Steven Pressfield
  • Launch and run the Nano MBA program
  • Launch Roadtrip—Boston, DC, Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Los Angeles
  • Two worldwide Linchpin meetups--more than 1500 meetups held
  • Squidoo launches social gaming system and hits the top 90 on Quantcast
  • Speech at the ISB in Hyderabad
  • $40,000 for Charity:Water in July
  • $275,000 for charity from Squidoo to celebrate 5 years
  • 13,000 people at Catalyst in October, including Graceful booklet
  • Launch and run the FeMBA program
  • Announce the Domino Project with Amazon and hire accomplices to help launch it

I didn't do all this myself... far from it. Thanks to Ishita and the thousands of readers and volunteers and colleagues, including the Squids, that pitched in and made these projects happen. There's also another ten or fifteen projects that I started but couldn't find the guts to finish or ship. If it doesn't ship, it doesn't count.

Your turn to post a list somewhere... You'll probably be surprised at how much you accomplished last year. Go ahead and share with your friends, colleagues or the web... don't be shy.

Sadly stuck with the status quo

JetBlue is ordinarily smart with their web site, which is why their broken system is particularly useful to take a look at. I'm guessing that at some point, management said, "it's good enough," and moved on to more pressing issues. And then, of course, it stays good enough, frozen in time, ignored, and annoying.

The problem with letting your web forms become annoying is that in terms of time spent interacting with your brand, they're way up on the list. If someone is spending a minute or two or three or four cursing you out from their desk, it's not going to be easily fixed with some clever advertising.

Here's an illustrated guide to things to avoid, JetBlue style:

Pleasewaitcontinue

First interaction wasn't so great. If you even bother to build a "please wait" page, be sure it says something useful, or perhaps interesting, as opposed to confusing. Should I press continue?

Throughout the form, JetBlue frequently asks for dates (of birth, say, or issuance). Everywhere else on their site (and in the country they're based) the format for dates is July 10, 1960. But here, just this one time, the format is 10, July 1960. And you can't just type in the date, which is fast, you need to wrestle with pull down menus, menus too dumb to list all twelve months of the year at once, but instead requiring you to scroll if any date is after April...

Arubaando

Alert readers know that pull down menus with more than thirty total choices are a petty annoyance for me, and this one is particularly vexing. There a more than a hundred and fifty countries here, including a few I have never heard of. The United States, home to 90% of JetBlue's customers, is listed near the bottom, but not at it (hint: if you insist on this sort of error in form design, list the popular choices at the top, at the bottom and in alpha... no penalty for multiple listings). (A far better alternative is the auto-completion guessing trick Google now uses in search).

Worse, if you try to type the country (U...n...i) it takes you to... TUNISIA!

Four passengers; 8 times I had to scroll down all the way, then slowly scroll up and then click...

It gets more annoying. For each passenger, I had to choose, "Travel document type". But of course, there's only one travel document permitted, "Passport" which hardly requires a pull down choice I think. Rule of thumb: when in doubt about a question, don't bother asking.

They also wanted to know the nationality of traveler, which is fine, but then two items later, they wanted to know, "Issuing country." While I'm confident that there are a few travelers who have a nationality in one country and an issuing country in another, my guess is that it would be considered a nice gesture if the form remembered your answer from three seconds ago and automatically entered it for you, no?

After painstakingly filling out the form, I was presented with these two buttons at the bottom of the page... hmmmmm.

Continuecontinue

Doesn't really matter which one I pressed, though, because lady and the tiger style, I got this:

Timedout


NOOOOOOOO!

And I had to start the entire form over again, from the beginning, with no fields remembered.

I know, I know, this is a rant. But it's a rant with a point:

Fill in your own forms. Make your executives do it. Watch customers do it. See what your competitors are using. Improve the form. Don't use pull down menus for more than 12 choices unless there really is no choice.

"Good enough" is a hard call, but I think we can agree that most online forms, aren't.

Folk wisdom and proofiness

"Is it feed a cold, starve a fever, or the other way around, I can never remember?"

Does it matter if you get the rhyme wrong? A folk remedy that doesn't work doesn't work whether or not you say it right.

Zig Ziglar used to tell a story about a baseball team on a losing streak. On the road for a doubleheader, the team visited a town that was home to a famous faith healer. While the guys were warming up, the manager disappeared. He came back an hour later with a big handful of bats. "Guys, these bats were blessed and healed by the guru. Our problems are over."

According to the story, the team snapped out of their streak and won a bunch of games. Some people wonder, "did the faith healer really touch the bats, or was the manager making it up?" Huh? Does it matter?

Mass marketers have traditionally abhorred measurement, preferring rules of thumb, casting calls and alchohol instead. Yet, there's no real correlation between how the ad was made and how well it works.

As the number of apparently significant digits in the data available to us goes up (traffic was up .1% yesterday!) we continually seek causation, even if we're looking in the wrong places. As the amount of data we get continues to increase, we need people who can help us turn that data into information.

It's important, I think, to understand when a placebo is helpful and when it's not. We shouldn't look to politicians to tell us whether or not the world is getting warmer (and what's causing it). They're not qualified or motivated to turn the data into information. We also shouldn't look to a fortune teller on the corner to read our x-rays or our blood tests.

Proofiness is a tricky thing. Data is not information, and confusing numbers with truth can help you make some bad decisions.

Bigger or smaller?

Every decision we make, every encounter we have... we get a choice.

Are we opening doors or closing them?

It's so tempting to shut people down, to limit the upside, to ostracize, select and demonize. It makes things a lot simpler. Not seeing means you don't have to take action. Not opening means it's easier to announce that you're done. And not raising the bar means you're less likely to fail.

Just about all the things we treasure in our world were built by people who were intent on making things bigger, enabling things to be better, opening doors for us to achieve. The line between a realist and a optimist is hard to draw. And both might be self-fulfilling.

[Please don't confuse this with the issue of focus. Focus involves eliminating options until you have so few moving parts that work actually gets done. You can be focused but still think bigger.]

Measuring busy-ness...

is far easier than measuring business.

Busy-ness might feel good (like checking your email on Christmas weekend) but business means producing things of actual value. Often, the two are completely unrelated.

What if you spent a day totally unbusy, and instead confronted the fear-filled tasks you've been putting off that will actually produce value once shipped?

Family day

If you got a Kindle today, here are some tips to get you started. A million or so people are starting with an empty one.

I hope you enjoy your family and doing whatever truly matters to you today.

A paradox of expectations

Better than expected might be the level of quality that's necessary to succeed.

Of course, once that becomes the standard, the expectation is reset.

Three ways TV changed everything (and what's next)

TV changes everyone it touches.

TV brings mass. For fifty years, TV meant that programmers and advertisers had a very good chance to reach everyone, or almost everyone, at the same time. TV integrates a culture, because there's instant common touchstones being generated daily. (When I say, "yadda yadda yadda" or "where's the beef," you know what I mean, right?)

TV brings pluralism and diversity. This seems to contradict the first, but it doesn't. Once TV has opened a channel to the brain, it can bring in whatever it chooses, without clearing it with you first. So, the viewer can discover that people-who-don't-look-like-us aren't so different, or that women might be good cops, or that a member of the [insert oppressed group] might also be a person too.

and finally, TV brings dissatisfaction. Advertising needs to make you dissatisfied to work. And picture perfect sitcom families have more money and less trouble than most folks (because they're not real).

Now, of course, TV isn't what it used to be. No more three-channel universe. That means that the cable/internet virus changes everyone in a very different way. Call it the million channel world (mcw).

The mcw brings addressability. There is no mass any more. You can't reach everyone. Mad Men is a hit and yet it has only been seen by 2% of the people in the USA.

The mcw bring silos, angry tribes and insularity. Fox News makes a fortune by pitting people against one another. Talkingpointsmemo is custom tailored for people who are sure that the other side is wrong. You can spend your entire day consuming media and never encounter a thought you don't agree with, don't like or don't want to see.

And finally, I have no idea if the mcw is making us happy. Surely, a substantial use is time wasting social network polishing, and that's not really building anyone's long-term happiness. And the mcw makes it easier to get angry, to waste time (there's never 'nothing on') or become isolated. Without a doubt, the short-term impact of mcw is that it makes it easy to spread terror and harder to settle on the truth. At the same time, there's no doubt that more people are connected to more people, belong to more tribes, have more friends, and engage more often than they did before it got here. We got rid of some gatekeepers, but there's a race for some new ones. In the meantime, a lot of smart people are fending for themselves, which isn't so bad.

One thing we learned from the TV age that's still true: more media is not always better, particularly when we abdicate our power to filter and choose.

Just looking

The problem with browsers is that they rarely buy anything.

The prospect who walks up to the salesperson and says, "I'm looking for a pinstripe suit in size 38" is a lot more likely to walk out with a suit than the one who mutters, "No thanks, just looking."

Which is relevant to your quest for a new product or business or job or mate or project worth working on...

If you're still looking around, making sure you understand all your options, getting your bearings or making sure you're well informed, you're most probably browsing.

You missed the first, second and third waves of the internet. You missed a hundred great jobs and forty great husbands. You missed the deadline for that course and the window for this program.

Quit looking and go buy something already.

The first rule of doing work that matters

Go to work on a regular basis.

Art is hard. Selling is hard. Writing is hard. Making a difference is hard.

When you're doing hard work, getting rejected, failing, working it out--this is a dumb time to make a situational decision about whether it's time for a nap or a day off or a coffee break.

Zig taught me this twenty years ago. Make your schedule before you start. Don't allow setbacks or blocks or anxiety to push you to say, "hey, maybe I should check my email for a while, or you know, I could use a nap." If you do that, the lizard brain is quickly trained to use that escape hatch again and again.

Isaac Asimov wrote and published 400 (!) books using this technique.

The first five years of my solo business, when the struggle seemed neverending, I never missed a day, never took a nap. (I also committed to ending the day at a certain time and not working on the weekends. It cuts both ways.)

In short: show up.

Do elite trappings create success? (Causation vs. correlation)

Does a ski trip to Aspen make you a successful bond trader, or do successful bond traders go skiing in Aspen?

It's college acceptance season, and worth considering an often overlooked question:

Do people who are on track to become successful go to elite colleges, buy elite cars, engage in other elite behaviors... (Defining elite as something both scarce and thus expensive).

or

Do attending these colleges or engaging in these behaviors make you successful?

It matters, because if you're buying the elite label as a shortcut to success, you might be surprised at what you get.

There are certainly exceptions (for professions that are very focused on a credential, and for the economically disadvantaged), but generally, most elite products like college are overrated as life changers.

It turns out that merely getting into Harvard is as good an indicator of future success as actually going. It turns out that being the sort of person that can invest the effort, conquer fear and/or raise the money to capture some of the elite trappings of visible success is what drives success, not the other way around.

The learning matters a great deal, and especially the focused effort behind it. The brand name of the institution, not so much.

Don't worry so much if some overworked admissions officer or grizzled journalist fails to pick you. It might mean more that you could go, not that you do.

Does advertising on the Super Bowl make your brand successful? I think it's more likely that successful brands advertise on the Super Bowl.

Who's on your list?

Years before he filmed the Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola met Al Pacino and they almost made a movie together.

Later, when it was time to cast his greatest film, Pacino was an obvious choice for Coppola.

Ask any successful director for a list of actors or cinematographers or screenwriters they'd like to work with and they can answer you, instantly. They're always keeping lists.

Do you have one? If your firm has an opening for a hire or a freelancer, do you have the name ready, instantly, the one you've been waiting for a chance to work with?

The worst time to go looking is when you need one, badly.

What are you working on?

If someone asks you that, are you excited to tell them the answer?

I hope so. If not, you're wasting away.

No matter what your job is, no matter where you work, there's a way to create a project (on your own, on weekends if necessary), where the excitement is palpable, where something that might make a difference is right around the corner.

Hurry, go do that.

Quote cards

Moo is now offering a series of business cards with clever epigrams from yours truly on the back... [Any royalties go to Acumen Fund].

Weasel words are more difficult to get away with

I got a note from someone who "helps lead the internet and Media efforts" at a fairly well known venture firm.

A click over to their website indicates that he's not a Managing Director or a Partner, not a Limited Senior Advisor, nor a Founding Strategic Director, Principal, Director of Business Development, Vice President or even a Senior Associate. He's an Associate. Which is fine, of course, unless the first thing you told a stranger is that you help lead an important initiative.

Organizations have always been good at title inflation, because it's free and it serves their purposes. The net, though, makes it easy to see what the hierarchy actually looks like, so it's better to just be clear, I think.

[A few readers have asked what he should do instead. After all, he shouldn't act like a mere, cog, right? My point is that he should tell the truth, a truth that gets better after being googled.

He could call and say, "I work for Joe Jones (brag about Joe for a while). He's open to meeting with you and I can make that happen if it's interesting to you."

...or he could say, "I'm the junior man here at Tate Industries and my job is to find interesting projects and bring them to the partners. Last year, I started the interactions between us and x, y and z. Is it worth your time to get together and figure out the best way to pitch this project to them?"

In both cases, starting on a clearer footing gives you more power, not less.]

Lady Gaga and me

Do you think it bothers her that I don't listen to her music and wouldn't recognize her if she stopped by and said hi?

It shouldn't.

Even if you're a pop star, you don't need everyone to be a fan or a customer. And especially if you're not a pop star, worrying about whether everyone laughs at your jokes, buys your product or even likes you is counterproductive.

Unless you're running for something that requires a unanimous vote, it's a mistake to focus on the frowning guy in the back of the room or the dolt who doesn't get your subtle references or the miser who isn't going to buy from you regardless...

You're on the hunt for sneezers, for fans, for people willing to cross the street to work with you. Everyone else can pound sand, that's okay. Being remarkable also means being ignored or actively disliked.

BTW, I'm virtually certain that Lady (do her friends call her that?) doesn't read my stuff, so we're even.

How to organize a retreat

(actually, to steal a phrase from Alan and Bill, an advance. Retreat is too negative).

There's a tremendous opportunity to create events where people connect. Unfortunately, it's also easy to turn these events into school-like conferences, not the emotional connections that are desired.

You can create an advance with a team that knows one another from work, or even more profoundly, with a bunch of independent thinkers who come together to energize, inspire and connect.

I've been to a bunch and here's what I've learned, in no particular order:

  • Must be off site, with no access to electronic interruption
  • Should be intense. Save the rest and relaxation for afterwards
  • Create a dossier on each attendee in advance, with a photo and a non-humble CV of who they are and what they do and what their goals are
  • Never (never) have people go around a circle and say their name and what they do and their favorite kind of vegetable or whatever. The problem? People spend the whole time trying to think of what to say, not listening to those in front of them (I once had to witness 600 people do this!!)
  • Instead, a week ahead of time, give each person an assignment for a presentation at the event. It might be the answer to a question like, "what are you working on," or "what's bothering you," or "what can you teach us." Each person gets 300 seconds, that's it.
  • Have 11 people present their five minutes in an hour. Never do more than an hour in a row. The attendees now have a hook, something to talk to each presenter about in the hallway or the men's room. "I disagree with what you said this morning..."
  • Organize roundtable conversations, with no more than 20 people at a time (so if you have more attendees than this, break into groups.) Launch a firestarter, a five minute statement, then have at it. Everyone speaks up, conversations scale and ebb and flow.
  • Solve problems. Get into small groups and have the groups build something, analyze something, create something totally irrelevant to what the organization does. The purpose is to put people in close proximity with just enough pressure to allow them to drop their shields.
  • Do skits.
  • Have a moderator who is brave enough and smart enough to call on people, cut people off, connect people and provoke them in a positive way.
  • Invite a poker instructor or a horseshoe expert in to give a lesson and then follow it with a competition.
  • Challenge attendees to describe a favorite film scene to you before the event. Pick a few and show them, then discuss.
  • Don't serve boring food.
  • Use nametags at all times. Write the person's first name REALLY big.
  • Use placecards at each meal, rotating where people sit. Crowd the tables really tightly (12 at a table for 10) and serve buffet style to avoid lots of staffers in the room. Make it easy for people to leave boring tables and organically sit together at empty ones.
  • Do something really interesting after 10 pm.
  • Serve delicious food, weird food, vegan food, funky food. Just because you can.
  • Don't worry about being productive. Worry about being busy.
  • Consider a tug of war or checkers tournament.
  • Create an online site so attendees can check in after the event, swap email addresses or post promised links.
  • Take a ton of pictures. Post them as the advance progresses.

Here's the goal: new friends. Here's the output: a new and better to-do list.

High margins, Groupon and the magic basket for price differentiators

Some things sell for not much more than they cost to make. Things like steel.

Others? They sell for high multiples of cost. Spa services, fancy ties, long haul airplane tickets, coaching, books--these are things that might cost a bunch to set up, but once the factory is rolling, the marginal cost of one more unit is really low. The challenge, then, is to find a way to get new customers without alienating the folks that have paid full price. Even better, to turn those new trial customers into loyal customers.

One of the challenges of selling to new customers cheap is that you might end up with a price shopper, someone who is always cheap, someone who will never convert into the kind of customer your high margin business needs to survive.

Priceline was a pioneer in figuring out how to isolate one customer type from another. The reason the original Priceline was so incredibly difficult to use (with blind reverse auctions, etc.) was that they wanted it that way. Anyone who was willing to through that hassle and anxiety to save $100 bucks for a ticket on Delta was clearly not someone Delta was going to have an easy time selling a regular ticket to. In other words, Jay Walker had figured out how to create a second type of air travel. One for cheapskates. The alternative to Priceline was a bus ticket or no travel at all... And Delta was fine with offloading excess seats to them, because they didn't have to worry about alienating their core customer.

Groupon is a very different thing. Here, it's not a hassle, it's the fun factor. Buying this way is exciting, you never know what's next, you do it with friends, the copy is funny, it's an adventure. As a result, many Groupon customers in fact do convert to becoming long time patrons of the place they tried, because they're not inherently cheap shoppers. When they're on Groupon they're hunting for fun. But if you offer an astonishing product and great service after they try you, they may convert into shopping with you for the long haul, not because you're a Groupon replacement, but because you bring them more than the alternatives.

And the magic basket? Tim Ferriss just finished offering more than $1600 worth of high-margin items in a basket to people who bought 30 copies of his new book. The marketing partners get trial among a group of people who are each paying more than the cost of a single item in the basket, these customers are proving they're not among the ultra-cheap. And the products are quasi-aligned, appealing to the same sort of consumer. Is there a cheaper way for one of these companies to reach this precise person? I'm not sure there is.

Imagine taking this even further and leaving out the book part. A basket of aligned items, all high margin, none from the market dominator, each holding out the possibility of future business... You could do this with an 8 pack of computer games or phone apps, or drink coupons from a dozen bars in the same town, or even clothing for guys size 38. Alex has experimented with this at Swagapalooza. I'm betting that there's quite a lot to be done in becoming this market creator/differentiator/middleman.

What's missing so far is an intelligent way to get permission, to follow up, to further organize those that do a trial and teach them and connect them so that they see a further incentive in sticking with the thing they just tried.

What's also missing is a willingness on the part of high-margin marketers to use their products and these sort of interactions as a replacement for the unmeasurable and largely ineffective lifestyle advertising they use now.

The net, once again, is making it easier to find and organize tribes of people, even for short durations. When you intersect these aligned groups with high-margin products, you can create fascinating commerce opportunities.

The myth of the simple business plan

The status quo is accepted, regardless how complex, but we demand the new thing be simple.

Here's a business plan for a textbook manufacturer ca. 1955:

Hire a professor, pay them to spend years making a textbook. Hire a lot of salespeople, have them visit other professors and their committees, selling them a book they won't ultimately buy, but will merely force others to buy. Then build an infrastructure to make sure the bookstores have the book that the students are instructed to buy against their will. Then add meaningless updates to the book regularly so the used textbook market doesn't impinge on new book sales.

If someone pitched you that business model a century ago, you'd laugh.

Most giant industries have similarly convuluted plans. For some reason, we require new business models to be far more elegant...

The secret to classic industries is that each step in the plan must be simple. So simple that it's easy to explain and scale. But those simple steps can certainly add up to a complex web.

Everyone and no one

Two things are always not true:

Everyone likes this.

No one likes this.

Sorry.

If you try to please everyone, the few you don't delight will either ruin your day or ruin your sense of what sort of product you should make.

And if you believe the critic who insists that no one is going to like what you made, you will walk away from a useful niche.

One other thing: Sometimes it's easy to confuse, "the small cadre of people I want to impress because my ego demands that this 'in' group is important," with "everyone." They're not the same.

"The answer is simple"

...is always more effective a response than, "well, it's complicated."

One challenge analysts face is that their answers are often a lot more complicated than the simplistic (and wrong) fables that are peddled by those that would mislead and deceive. Same thing is true for many non-profits doing important work.

We're not going to have a lot of luck persuading masses of semi-interested people to seek out and embrace complicated answers, but we can take two steps to lead to better information exchange:

1. Take complicated overall answers and make them simple steps instead. Teach complexity over time, simply.

2. Teach a few people, the committed, to embrace the idea of complexity. That's what a great college education does, for example. That's what makes someone a statesman instead of a demagogue. Embracing complexity is a scarce trait, worth acquiring. But until your customers/voters/employees do, I think the first strategy is essential.

You can't sell complicated to someone who came to you to buy simple.

You will be misunderstood

If you want to drive yourself crazy, read the live twitter comments of an audience after you give a talk, even if it's just to ten people.

You didn't say what they said you said.

You didn't mean what they said you meant.

Or read the comments on just about any blog post or video online. People who saw what you just saw or read what you just read completely misunderstood it. (Or else you did.)

We think direct written and verbal communication is clear and accurate and efficient. It is none of those. If the data rate of an HDMI cable is 340MHz, I'm guessing that the data rate of a speech is far, far lower. Yes, there's a huge amount of information communicated via your affect, your style and your confidence, but no, I don't think humans are so good at getting all the details.

Plan on being misunderstood. Repeat yourself. When in doubt, repeat yourself.

The appearance of impropriety

Marketing is actually what other people are saying about you.

Like it or not, true or not, what other people say is what the public tends to believe. Hence an imperative to be intentional about how we're seen.

It may be true that the effluent from your factory is organic, biodegradable and not harmful to the river. But if it is brown and smelly and coming out of an open pipe, your neighbors might draw their own conclusions.

I know you washed your hands just before you walked into the examination room, but if you wash them again, right here in front of me, all doubts go away.

Yes, Ms. Congressperson, I know that lobbyist is your good friend, but perhaps someone else should host you on vacation.

Your brother-in-law may very well be the most qualified person on the planet to do this project for us, but perhaps (unfair as it might be) it would be better marketing to hire the second-most-qualified person instead.

Sneaking around is a bad strategy. You will get caught. Ironically, it's also a bad strategy to not sneak around but appear to be.

You will never keep people from talking. But you can take actions to influence the content of what they say.

Where's your platform?

That needs to be the goal when you seek out a job.

Bob Dylan earned the right to make records, and instead of using it to create ever more commercial versions of his old stuff, he used it as a platform to do art.

A brilliant programmer finds a job in a small company and instead of seeing it as a grind, churning out what's asked, he uses it as a platform to hone his skills and to ship code that changes everything.

A waiter uses his job serving patrons as a platform for engagement, for building a reputation and for learning how to delight.

A blogger starts measuring pageviews and ends up racing to the bottom with nothing but scintillating gossip and pandering. Or, perhaps, she decides to use the blog as a platform to take herself and her readers somewhere they will be glad to go...

There's no rigid line between a job and art. Instead, there's an opportunity. Both you and your boss get to decide if your job is a platform or just a set of tasks.

The Domino Project

Book publishing is changing. It’s changing faster than it has in a hundred years. I’ve been persistent enough to be part of that change, provoking and poking and wondering about what comes next.

Today, I’m thrilled to report on what’s next for me.

  • To reinvent the way books are created when the middleman is made less important.
  • To reinvent the way books are purchased when the tribe is known and embraced.
  • To reinvent the way books are read when the alternatives are so much easier to find.
  • To find and leverage great ideas and great authors, bringing them to readers who need them.

The notion of the paper book as merely a package for information is slowly becoming obsolete. There must be other reasons on offer, or smart people will go digital, or read something free. The book is still an ideal tool for the hand-to-hand spreading of important ideas, though. The point of the book is to be spread, to act as a manifesto, to get in sync with others, to give and to get and to hand around.

Our goal is to offer ideas that people need and want to spread, to enjoy and to hold and to own, and to change conversations.

Working with a great team at Amazon, I’m launching a new publishing venture called The Domino Project. I think it fundamentally changes many of the rules of publishing trade non-fiction.

Trade publishing (as opposed to textbooks or other non-consumer ventures) has always been about getting masses of people to know about, understand and read your books. The business has been driven by several foundational principles:

1. The middleman (the bookstore) has a great deal of power. There’s only a limited amount of shelf space, and there are more books (far more books) than we have room for. No display, no sale. That’s one reason books are published with the economically ridiculous model of 100% returns from bookstores. Huge stores can carry thousands of books and return them if they don’t sell. Large chains get a say about what’s on the cover, what the title is, and they even get paid for shelf displays.

2. The audience (the reader) is largely unknown to the publisher, and thus to the author. Authors with large followings still have to start over with each book, because they don’t have permission (or the data) to contact loyal readers directly.

3. Pricing and product are static and slow. Once a book is published, the price is set forever. Add to that the glacial speed from conception to publication date and you see a system that is set up to benefit neither the publisher nor the reader.

4. Books are inherently difficult to spread. The ideas in books might travel, but the act of recommending a book, having the idea stick and a new sale get made is slow or broken. Given how important the ideas in books are, this chain has many weak links. It's worth rethinking how a publishing house could organize around its ultimate goal, which is to spread ideas.

The internet and the Kindle are changing all of these rules. The Domino Project is designed to (at least by way of example) remap many of these foundations.

1. There is no middleman. Because there is infinite shelf space, the publisher has more control over what the reader sees and how. In addition, the Amazon platform allows a tiny organization to have huge reach without taking significant inventory risk. "Powered by Amazon” is part of our name—it describes the unique nature of the venture... I get to figure out the next neat idea, and Amazon can handle printing, logistics and the platform for connection.

2. The reader is tightly connected with the publisher and the author. If you like the sort of things I write or recommend, you can sign up here (for free, using your email) and we can alert you to new works, send you free samples and otherwise make it easy for you to be smart about the new ideas that are generated. (RSS works too).

3. Pricing can vary based on volume, on timing, on format. With this project, I’ve made the decision to ignore the rules that publishers follow to get on the New York Times bestseller list. There’s no point in compromising the consumer experience or the product merely to get a nice ego boost and a small shot of promotion. More on this in a future post, but I'll let you use your imagination.

4. Digital goods and manifestos in book form make it easier to spread complex ideas. It’s long frustrated me that a blog post can reach 100 times as many people as a book, but can’t deliver the nuance a book can. The Domino Project is organized around a fundamentally different model of virality, one that allows authors to directly reach people who can use the ideas we’re writing about.

The Domino Project is named for the domino effect—ideas can quickly spread, moving through a previously static set up. Our mission isn’t to become a promotional machine, focused on interrupting large numbers of people or having significant promotional chops through traditional media. Instead, we're grabbing the opportunity to choose and deliver manifestos that are optimized for the tribe, for the small group that wants to grab them, inhale them and spread them. The good ones will spread, first from person to person, then from one circle to another, and eventually into large groups.

That’s a lot to absorb for one post. I’ve been working on the ideas behind The Domino Project since I published my very first book in 1986. The first manifestos won’t be out for a few months, but you can learn more as we go by following the Domino Project blog here.

PS When we roll out our books, there will be sneak previews and other goodies for those first on the list...

The open road

I was driving on a very dangerous two-lane highway in India. More than eight hours of death-defying horror...

Our driver aggressively tailgated whatever car, truck or horse was in front of us, and then passed as soon as he was able (and sometimes when he wasn't).

What amazed me, though, was what he did during those rare times when there wasn't a car in front of us, just open road.

He didn't speed up. In fact, it seemed as though he slowed down.

He was comfortable with the competitive nature of passing (I may not be fast, but I'm faster than you), and he was petrified of the open road and the act of choosing his own speed.

Of course, we do the same thing with our career or our businesses. Most of us need competition to tell us how fast to go.

In search of accomplices

Regular readers know that I've run a few free intensive education programs in my office. You can see details about them here, here and here.

Starting in four weeks, I'm trying a different approach. A paid 7 month gig helping me build a significant new publishing venture (I'll be announcing the details of the venture here on Wednesday morning).

I'm looking for two or three people to work with me in my office outside of New York, engaged in every element of the project, from copywriting and editing to social media to business development to promotion. My goal is to offer you a hands on experience with full exposure to the market, to technology and to shipping great work out the door. When we're done, I think you'll be qualified to start your own gig or find a great job in media.

There's an online application, then an in person interview for a few people in mid-December and we start January 4th. Obviously, this means you'll need easy access to New York, valid work permits and fantastic verbal, technical and writing skills. I'm offering each person as much education as I can, along with a $25,000 stipend in exchange for their work.

If you know someone who can use the boost that this might offer (and can do the work) I hope you'll share this with them. Applications close on December 10th.

Living with doubt

... is almost always more profitable than living with certainty.

People don't like doubt, so they pay money and give up opportunities to avoid it. Entrepreneurship is largely about living with doubt, as is creating just about any sort of art.

If you need reassurance, you're giving up quite a bit to get it.

On the other hand, if you can get in the habit of seeking out uncertainty, you'll have developed a great instinct.

The world's worst boss

That would be you.

Even if you're not self-employed, your boss is you. You manage your career, your day, your responses. You manage how you sell your services and your education and the way you talk to yourself.

Odds are, you're doing it poorly.

If you had a manager that talked to you the way you talked to you, you'd quit. If you had a boss that wasted as much of your time as you do, they'd fire her. If an organization developed its employees as poorly as you are developing yourself, it would soon go under.

I'm amazed at how often people choose to fail when they go out on their own or when they end up in one of those rare jobs that encourages one to set an agenda and manage themselves. Faced with the freedom to excel, they falter and hesitate and stall and ultimately punt.

We are surprised when someone self-directed arrives on the scene. Someone who figures out a way to work from home and then turns that into a two-year journey, laptop in hand, as they explore the world while doing their job. We are shocked that someone uses evenings and weekends to get a second education or start a useful new side business. And we're envious when we encounter someone who has managed to bootstrap themselves into happiness, as if that's rare or even uncalled for.

There are few good books on being a good manager. Fewer still on managing yourself. It's hard to think of a more essential thing to learn.

Cliches

When you launch a new idea or project into the world, you'll probably use connections to what has come before as a way to tell your story.

Caribou Coffee, for example, uses all sorts of metaphors and cues and even verbal tropes that we learned from Starbucks. These signals help us understand that the place we're about to enter isn't a steakhouse, isn't a shoeshine stand and isn't a massage parlor. It's a place to get a latte.

Books that want to be bestsellers work hard to look like previous bestsellers, from the store where they are sold to how many pages long they are to how much they cost. These signals help us determine that this object is something worth buying and reading.

Cable TV does this, politicans do this, computer resellers do this.

Here's the thing: you can't stand out if you fit in all the way, and thus the act of deciding which part isn't going to match is the important innovation.

Matching an element almost looks like failure. Matching not-at-all, on the other hand, is the refreshing whack on the side of the head that causes attention to be paid.

When your car looks like a car but the doors are gullwing, we notice them. When your suit looks like a suit but the lining is orange, we notice it. When you apply for a job and you don't have a resume, we notice it.

This was the secret of the golden age of comic books. 90% of every hero was on key, professionally done, easy to understand... which allowed the remarkable parts to stand out.

You can't be offbeat in all ways, because then we won't understand you and we'll reject you. Some of the elements you use should be perfectly aligned with what we're used to.

The others... Not a little off. A lot off.

The inevitable decline due to clutter

Digital media expands. It's not like paper, it can get bigger.

As digital marketers seek to increase profits, they almost always make the same mistake. They continue to add more clutter, messaging and offers, because, hey, it's free.

One more link, one more banner, one more side deal on the Groupon page.

Economics tells us that the right thing to do is run the factory until the last item produced is being sold at marginal cost. In other words, keep adding until it doesn't work any more.

In fact, human behavior tells us that this is a more permanent effect than we realize. Once you overload the user, you train them not to pay attention. More clutter isn't free. In fact, more clutter is a permanent shift, a desensitization to all the information, not just the last bit.

And it's hard to go backward.

More is not always better. In fact, more is almost never better.

Who owns Wikipedia?

You have probably noticed the big banner ads with Jimbo Wales' smiling face on them... they show up whenever you visit Wikipedia, the single most useful destination online.

The question: why are they there?

After all, if Wikipedia ran Google ads in the sidebar just three days a year, they'd pay for all of their operating expenses.

I haven't talked to Jimmy about this, but here's my guess, one that applies to other community-funded efforts: If the user supports it, she owns it. If support comes from anonymous government money, or some corporate sponsorship, then the interactions don't matter so much, and it's more distant from you.

I would bet that any charity or cause that gets involvement from its supporters (and I believe that volunteer support is worth more than cash) outperforms equally well-funded organizations that don't have as deep a connection.

In other words, you own Wikipedia.

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