Don't Miss a Thing
Free Updates by Email

Enter your email address

preview  |  powered by FeedBlitz

RSS Feeds

Share |

Facebook: Seth's Facebook
Twitter: @thisissethsblog






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

The complete list of online retailers

Bonus stuff!

or click on a title below to see the list


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

Blog powered by TypePad
Member since 08/2003

« March 2011 | Main | May 2011 »

Dreams, princesses and the Disney-industrial complex

"Like a dream come true"

Choose your dreams carefully.

Everyone is entitled to a dream. It gives us hope, focuses our energy, makes us human.

Sometimes, though, we get sold a dream instead of creating our own.

Is it really every girl's dream to become a princess, to be chosen by someone of royal birth and to have a $34 million wedding? Or is that the Disney-industrial complex betraying you, selling you short?

I just read that the folks who brought us the Mall of America are going to redo the troubled Xanadu shopping complex in New Jersey and rename it The American Dream. Is this the best we can do? Shop?

Dreams are too important to sell cheap, to give over to some organization trying to make a buck.

Catherine Casey chose a different dream--to move to Accra on her own to build an outpost of the Acumen Fund. It's a dream that scales, that pays dividends, and most of all, that she can make come true.

It's so easy to be sold on the combination of compliance, consumption and approval by the powers that be. Of course, you're entitled to any dream you like, but I hope you will choose a bigger one.


The only thing worse than being able to say, "my boss won't let me," is having to acknowledge, "my boss will let me."

Over the last fifty years, the amount of headroom offered to white collar workers has dramatically increased. Piece work and time clocks have been replaced with self-policing and keep-your-own-calendar in many organizations. It's entirely possible to do very little, very often, particularly in a big company.

When we say, "my boss won't let me," what we're often saying is, "my boss wants great results, but she's not willing to let me take initiative without responsibility."

I'd be shocked if any smart boss took a different approach. Who's going to give you authority without responsibility?

Just about everyone I meet has far more ability to move up and to make an impact than it's easy or comfortable to admit. Once you do admit it, of course, you have to do something about it.

The paperback choice and my video dilemma

Linchpin is the bestselling and (judging from my inbox) biggest impact book I've ever written. Given the extraordinary feedback I've gotten from readers, it encouraged me to figure out ways to spread the idea to more people.

To that end, the paperback comes out today. It's four dollars cheaper, which in the scheme of things isn't a lot, but paperbacks have proven to make a huge difference in widespread adoption (Eat, Pray, Love sold more than 1000% as many copies after they made the shift). I think a new format sends a message about sharability.

For impact, I still prefer the hardcover, but I really like that this new edition means that the Kindle edition will finally be fairly priced by my publisher--less than half the price it used to be.

To celebrate the paperback launch, I took the audio from a speech I did on the road trip last year and decided to make it into a video, adding the latest in snazzy motion graphics.

Things got out of hand. Way out of hand.

Paul, the creator of the graphics, ended up spending four months of his life on the animation, creating perhaps the most elaborate video of its kind. I gave him free rein to do what he liked, and he took it... 700 hours of creation, 1,000 pieces of art... the rendering alone took 27 hours. This project took on a life of its own, and it took blood, sweat, tears and money to finish it. What to do next?

My original thought was to create a DVD of the presentation and offer it for sale for $300. Shipping worldwide included. Each copy comes with live performance rights, so you can present it to groups (but not online).

That's fine for corporations, coaches and organizations, but I wanted to share it with more people. One way is to create a complex system that would require you to submit a receipt for buying the paperback and getting some sort of passkey, etc.

I decided that this was too complex and not trusting enough.

Hence the honor system. The Road Trip video has been broken into four pieces for manageability and we inserted a tiny blurb for the paperback in each one. You can watch the entire video right now, at no extra cost, online. All you have to do is truthfully type in a password (The password is: iboughtthebook) when you watch each part of the video. Here's the link to the first part.

Have fun. And thanks for your attention, your leadership and for doing the work.

The flip side

It's impossible to have a coin with only one side. You can't have heads without tails.

Innovation is like that. Initiative is like that. Art is like that.

You can't have success unless you're prepared to have failure.

As soon as you say, "failure is not an option," you've just said, "innovation is not an option."

Changing personas

This isn't easy. It's not easy for people or for organizations.

A marketing persona is the posture or approach or attitude you bring to the market. Your strategy might be speed or generosity or petulance. Over time, we tend to adopt the ones that work for us and abandon the others.

A scrappy startup has a persona of thumbing its nose at competitors and convention. It works. They do it more. Then, one day, the startup is actually the dominant player, and there's no one to thumb. A new persona is needed, or the company fails.

A cute kid starts out using the cute kid persona to get attention, treats and preferential treatment. Then he or she grows up and maybe isn't so cute any more. Suddenly, all the tricks that worked before don't seem to work now. No longer cute, now just angry.

A non-profit gets a boost at first because it's the new one, the untested, the great hope. The persona of insurgent fits them well. There are foundations and grants for innovators. A few years later, those grantors aren't so interested anymore, because they only fund the new. If the non-profit wants to keep growing, it will have to change its marketing story and attitude and posture so it appeals to the middle, not the edges.

Someone has success with pouting, with being hard to please, with occasional bits of bitterness. We want to soothe and entertain and please him, so the persona is effective. And then we don't any more. Switch the method you use to get attention or get used to being lonely.

Acknowledging the urgency of the problem and being aware of the need to change personas is the critical turning point for any of these marketers. Once you can see how a game that used to work has ceased to work, then, and only then, can you dream up a new game, a better one.

Please don't tell me about authenticity. Brands and personas are made, not born, and we use them because they work, not because our DNA orders us to. When they stop working, it's time to change them.

Being comfortable with the familiar persona you see in the mirror is not the same as having an appearance that helps you reach your goals.

Shopify contest launches today

I jumped the gun last week. As promised, here's the updated link to the Shopify contest. The first 5,000 entrants get a free hardcover copy of Poke the Box, a chance to win their part of over $250,000 in prizes, support a great cause and build a store at the same time. Check it out.

The bully-victim cycle

A bully acts up in a meeting or in an online forum. He gets called on it and chastised for his behavior.

The bully then calls out the person who cited their behavior in the first place. He twists their words, casts blame and becomes an aggrieved victim.

Often, members of the tribe then respond by backing off, by making amends, by giving the bully another chance.

And soon the cycle continues.

Brands do this, bosses do it and so do passers-by. Being a bully is a choice, and falling for this cycle, permitting it to continue, is a mistake.


Long-term brands and relationships are built on alignment. Here are a few examples ("I" is the royal I, not me in particular):

A perfect relationship: I want your company to help me, and your company wants to help me. We're both focused on helping the same person.

The Walmart relationship: I want the cheapest possible prices and Walmart wants to (actually works hard to) give me the cheapest possible prices. That's why there's little pushback about customer service or employee respect... the goals are aligned.

The Apple relationship: I want Apple to be cool. Apple wants to be cool. That's why there's little pushback on pricing or obsolence or disappointing developers.

The demagogue politician relationship: I will feel more powerful if you get elected and get your way. You will feel more powerful if you get elected and get your way.

The search engine relationship (when it's working): I want to find what I'm looking for. You want me to find what I'm looking for, regardless of the short-term income possibilities.

The Mercedes (formerly Cadillac) relationship: I want a prestige product that reliably delivers an expensive label that's unattainable to many. They want to reliably and consistently charge a lot for a car that sends a message to everyone else.

The farmer's market relationship: I want to eat sustainable foods that make me feel good. You want to grow sustainable foods that make me feel good.

Compare these to the ultimately doomed relationships (if not doomed, then tense) in which goals don't align, relationships where the brand took advantage of an opening but then grows out of the initial deal and wants to change it:

The Dell relationship: I want a cheap, boring, reliable computer. You want to make more profit.

The hip designer relationship: I want the new thing no one else has yet. You want to be around for years.

The search engine relationship (when it doesn't work): I want to find what I'm looking for. You want to distract me and take money to send me places I actually don't want to go.

The reluctant purchaser relationship: I don't want to waste money on something I didn't know I wanted. You want to make a commission.

The troll relationship: I want to laugh at a buffoon who doesn't realize he's making a fool of himself. You want to be respected by the mainstream.

The young actor relationship: I want the fresh-faced young movie star. You want a career that lasts more than a year.

The typical media relationship: I want to see the shows, you want to interrupt with ads.

Alignment isn't something you say. It's something you do. Alignment is demonstrated when you make the tough calls, when you see if the thing that matters the most to you is also the thing that matters the most to the other person.

The tension that comes from misalignment can work for a while, but it's when alignment kicks in that the enterprise really scales.

The opportunity is here

At the same time that our economic engines are faltering, something else is happening. Like all revolutions, it happens in fits and starts, without perfection, but it's clearly happening.

The mass market is being replaced by multiple micro markets and the long tail of choice.

Google is connecting buyers and sellers over vaster distances, more efficiently and more cheaply than ever before.

Manufacturing is more of a conceptual hurdle than a practical one.

The exchange of information creates ever more value, while commodity products are ever cheaper. It takes fewer employees to generate more value, make more noise and impact more people.

Most of all is this: every individual, self-employed or with a boss, is now more in charge of her destiny than ever before. The notion of a company town or a stagnant industry with little choice is fading fast.

Right before your eyes, a fundamentally different economy, with different players and different ways to add value is being built. What used to be an essential asset (for a person or for a company) is worth far less, while new attributes are both scarce and valuable.

Are there dislocations? There's no doubt about it. Pain and uncertainty and risk, for sure.

The opportunity, though, is the biggest of our generation (or the last one, for that matter). The opportunity is there for anyone (with or without a job) smart enough to take it--to develop a best in class skill, to tell a story, to spread the word, to be in demand, to satisfy real needs, to run from the mediocre middle and to change everything.

¡Note! Like all revolutions, this is an opportunity, not a solution, not a guarantee. It's an opportunity to poke and experiment and fail and discover dead ends on the way to making a difference. The old economy offered a guarantee--time plus education plus obedience = stability. The new one, not so much. The new one offers a chance for you to take a chance and make an impact.

¡Note! If you're looking for 'how', if you're looking for a map, for a way to industrialize the new era, you've totally missed the point and you will end up disappointed. The nature of the last era was that repetition and management of results increased profits. The nature of this one is the opposite: if someone can tell you precisely what to do, it's too late. Art and novelty and innovation cannot be reliably and successfully industrialized.

In 1924, Walt Disney wrote a letter to Ub Iwerks. Walt was already in Hollywood and he wanted his old friend Ubbe to leave Kansas City and come join him to build an animation studio. The last line of the letter said "PS I wouldn't live in KC now if you gave me the place—yep—you bet—Hooray for Hollywood." And, just above, in larger letters, he scrawled, "Don't hesitate—Do it now."

It's not 1924, and this isn't Hollywood, but it is a revolution, and there's a spot for you (and your boss if you push) if you realize you're capable of making a difference. Or you could be frustrated. Up to you.

The realization is now

New polling out this week shows that Americans are frustrated with the world and pessimistic about the future. They're losing patience with the economy, with their prospects, with their leaders (of both parties).

What's actually happening is this: we're realizing that the industrial revolution is fading. The 80 year long run that brought ever-increasing productivity (and along with it, well-paying jobs for an ever-expanding middle class) is ending.

It's one thing to read about the changes the internet brought, it's another to experience them. People who thought they had a valuable skill or degree have discovered that being an anonymous middleman doesn't guarantee job security. Individuals who were trained to comply and follow instructions have discovered that the deal is over... and it isn't their fault, because they've always done what they were told.

This isn't fair of course. It's not fair to train for years, to pay your dues, to invest in a house or a career and then suddenly see it fade.

For a while, politicians and organizations promised that things would get back to normal. Those promises aren't enough, though, and it's clear to many that this might be the new normal. In fact, it is the new normal.

I regularly hear from people who say, "enough with this conceptual stuff, tell me how to get my factory moving, my day job replaced, my consistent paycheck restored..." There's an idea that somehow, if we just do things with more effort or skill, we can go back to the Brady Bunch and mass markets and mediocre products that pay off for years. It's not an idea, though, it's a myth.

Some people insist that if we focus on "business fundamentals" and get "back to basics," all will return. Not so. The promise that you can get paid really well to do precisely what your boss instructs you to do is now a dream, no longer a reality.

It takes a long time for a generation to come around to significant revolutionary change. The newspaper business, the steel business, law firms, the car business, the record business, even computers... one by one, our industries are being turned upside down, and so quickly that it requires us to change faster than we'd like.

It's unpleasant, it's not fair, but it's all we've got. The sooner we realize that the world has changed, the sooner we can accept it and make something of what we've got. Whining isn't a scalable solution.

Tomorrow: part II—the opportunity

Improving the trains

While making the trains run on time is a good thing, making them run early is not.

If you define success as getting closer and closer to a mythical perfection, an agreed upon standard, it's extremely difficult to become remarkable, particularly if the field is competitive. Can't get rounder than round.

In general, purple cows live in fields where it's possible to reinvent what people expect.

Hungry or guarded

The hungry person at the all you can eat buffet is happy to take one more item. She doesn't spend a lot of time comparing this to that, or saying 'no thank you' or avoiding certain items. If it's interesting, "sure I'll try a little bit. I can always come back."

The guarded person walking down the street avoids eye contact with the homeless person, doesn't answer a request from the petition-signer and certainly doesn't help a Boy Scout with that old lady.

And this is precisely the dichotomy every cause, every candidate and every marketer faces.

Either you're selling to people who are hungry for what you offer, who are open to hearing what you have to say, who are fans...

Or you're selling to people who are actively protecting themselves, guarding against interruption or a mistake or worse.

How can you possibly have a strategy about what you're going to do next until you determine which mindset you're marketing to?

Here's the key truth: in any given moment, in any given situation, a person is either hungry or guarded. You need to decide which sort of person you'll be telling your story to, because one approach won't work on the other type of person.

[PS the mindset can (and does) change as people go through their day. At the bookstore she might be hungry for a new idea, and just a few minutes later, at the bus stop, she wants to be alone...]

Do the Work is out today

Steve Pressfield's new book is available today.

It's a prequel, sequel and manifesto-companion to one of the best books I have ever read, The War of Art. This new one is the one you can hand out to your co-workers and your students and even your boss. I'm thrilled that Steve entrusted this book to my new venture, the Domino Project.

Of course, subscribers to the Domino blog already knew about the new book and got it for free in digital form. In fact, it's already a bestseller. Not too late to join in...

No matter how you get it, I hope you'll read it, absorb it and share it.

For thoughts about the book and exclusive interviews, check out these blog posts: Elizabeth Marshall, along with Communicatrix, Pam Slim, Chris Guillebeau, Adam Baker, Danielle LaPorte, David Garland, Barry Moltz and Mario Schulzke.

Get better at buying

There's incessant pressure on B2B sellers to get better at it. The boss wants the sales force to figure out how to approach, educate, close and support big companies and get them to buy their products and services.

But what about the big companies (not to mention the smaller ones) that are doing the buying? Ruth Stevens reports that the typical company with more than 1,000 employees has, on average, 21 different people involved in each sale of over $25,000.

Having made sales (when I was younger and more foolish) to ten of the thirty biggest companies in the country, I can testify that 21 might be an understatement. The typical big company's org chart is a mystery, the process is a mystery and there never seems to be an end to the roster of meetings and people. It's almost as though these companies don't want to buy anything.

Of course, the salesperson isn't the enemy, and buying from them isn't charity. The transaction happens because it benefits both sides, yet the byzantine maze, lack of information and endless circle is a real barrier to success for both sides.

First, this is screamingly inefficient. Second, it drives away the great opportunities, leaving the companies with no one but the sales-focused, uber-patient companies willing to put up with 21 different people and a million meetings.

If you want to increase productivity and discover new opportunities, you're going to need better vendors. One way to do that is to streamline your buying process and let the folks selling to you know how it works. They're not the enemy. In fact, they're your best source for off-the-shelf improvements and innovation you can start using tomorrow.

Whoever buys the best, wins.

Your purchasing department shouldn't be a backwater... it ought to be an engine of innovation for the rest of the organization.

I'd start by reaching out to companies that might be able to help your company. Give them an org chart. Give them an overview of the best way to sell to you. Issue a newsletter outlining regular news about successful sales and how they were made. Reward your employees when they help a new vendor make a sale that really benefits you. Hassle your employees if they hassle or lie to your vendors.

If a vendor asks, "are you serious about buying from us," the answer should either be, "yes," or perhaps, "no, thank you." But we're all too busy for power games.

Bringing interesting businesses online

Today, Shopify is launching their annual new online business contest. I’m pleased that they’re making a very significant donation to the Acumen Fund to kick it off, as well as offering everyone who enters a copy of Poke the Box.

[UPDATE! I got the launch date wrong, I'm sorry. You'll have to hold your horses re entering, because the contest isn't actually live yet. I'll repost with details next week when it is. Sorry for the hassle.]

I have no idea if you should be running an online store, it’s certainly not for everyone... but I do know that the only way to grow is to launch, to initiate and to make a ruckus. Good luck

Economies of small

Economies of scale are well understood. Bigger factories are more efficient, bigger distribution networks are more efficient, bigger ad campaigns can be more efficient. It's often hard to defeat a major competitor, particularly if the market is looking for security and the status quo.

But what about the economies of small? Is being bigger an intrinsic benefit in and of itself?

If your goal is to make a profit, it's entirely possible that less overhead and a more focused product line will increase it.

If your goal is to make more art, it's entirely possible the ridding yourself of obligations and scale will help you do that.

If your goal is to have more fun, it's certainly likely that avoiding the high stakes of more debt, more financing and more stuff will help with that.

I think we embraced scale as a goal when the economies of that scale were so obvious that we didn't even need to mention them. Now that it's so much easier to produce a product in the small and market a product in the small, and now that it's so beneficial to offer a service to just a few, with focus and attention, perhaps we need to rethink the very goal of scale.

Don't be small because you can't figure out how to get big. Consider being small because it might be better.

The internet as envy amplifier

Used to be that the only Jones you needed to worry about was the one who lived next door.

Now, if you choose, it's easy to find someone taller, richer, more successful, better liked, with more followers, online friends, connections and endorsements. And certainly it will be someone less deserving than you.

George Carlin liked to talk about the person (there's always someone) who is worse off than you. The web allows you, with not much effort, to find the person who is better off.

Like many authors, I was briefly addicted to the Amazon bestseller list. Every hour, you can check how you're doing. The problem (other than the insane non-productiveness of it) is how tricky "you" and "doing" are in that sentence. A number isn't who you are, and your status compared to other people isn't how you're doing.

I'm not sure the goal needs to be to have more turtles under you than anyone else has. Some things are better left unsearched.

The four horsemen of media--here comes tiny media

The first is when you talk about yourself. Directly to people who care to hear you out.

The second is when you pay someone to carry your message. Media for hire, we call it advertising.

The third is when you cajole the 'editorial' side to talk about you, with authority. Publicity is often worth more than advertising, but it's pesky in that it doesn't perform on demand.

The fourth, the fourth is all the rage right now. That's when unanointed kings of tiny media, when bloggers and tweeters and others talk about you.

Why do we persist in believing that these four have much in common? They don't. Being confused about how to classify them is expensive, or worse.

You know you're in trouble if someone on your team says anything like, "But how do we do this quickly? And at scale? Is there a way interns can churn through names? We have money to spend, hurry!"

There are some that would be delighted if PR and social media would just own up and start playing by the rules of advertising. In other words, you ought to be able to buy this sort of buzz. It's more efficient, more convenient and more predictable.

Of course, it doesn't work that way. Buying your way into the fourth horseman doesn't work. Professionalizing it doesn't work so well either. What works is making something worth talking about.

As it should be.

If you're hoping that this now important form of media is going to sit there and promote your average stuff for average people made in bulk but pretty cheap product merely because you're used to paying media companies to run ads... I think you're wasting a lot of time and money.

This goes deeper than that. You'll need to take that money and change the product and the service instead.

The agenda

The job of the CEO isn't to check things off the agenda. Her job is to set the agenda, to figure out what's next.

Now that more and more of us are supposed to be CEO of our own lives and careers, it might be time to rethink who's setting your agenda.

Buying an education or buying a brand?

It's reported that student debt in the USA is approaching a trillion dollars, five times what it was ten years ago.

Are those in debt buying more education or are they seeking better branding in the form of coveted diplomas?

Does a $40,000 a year education that comes with an elite degree deliver ten times the education of a cheaper but no less rigorous self-generated approach assembled from less famous institutions and free or inexpensive resources?

If not, then the money is actually being spent on the value of the degree, on the doors it will open and the jobs it will snag. If this marketing strategy works big, it pays for itself in no time.

A marketing tactic might move the dial, but that doesn't mean it's always worth the money.

The question is whether a trillion dollars is the right amount for individuals to spend marketing themselves. What would happen if people spent it building up a work history instead? On becoming smarter, more flexible, more self-sufficient and yes, able to take more risk because they owe less money...

There's no doubt that we need smarter and more motivated people in our organizations. I'm not sure we need them to be better labeled or more accredited.

Why you might choose to be in favor of transparency

Thousands of doctors have signed up for a service that, among other things, they can use to try to prohibit patients from posting reviews. You can read a bit about it here.

In Iowa, in a surprisingly similar move, the state government is moving ahead with a law that will make it a crime to take or possess videotapes of factory farming that might harm the commercial interests of the farmer.

In both cases, an organization is trying to maintain power by hiding information from the public. Can you imagine being arrested for possession of a photo of a pig?

It's easy to argue that from the public's point of view, laws like this are a bad idea. The public certainly benefits from the outing of bad doctors and from the improved hygeine of factory farms. In that sense, it's unethical for doctors and legislators to subvert their responsibilities by ordering the unempowered to shut up.

I think it's interesting to think about from the doc's point of view (and the chicken farmer), as well. The temptation is for those in charge to defend the status quo by fighting transparency. This ignores a simple truth:

When book reviews are posted, book sales go up.

Yes, the argument of fairness matters. The patients have no choice, the chickens certainly have no choice and the consumers don't have much choice either. There's an argument that goes beyond choice, though... it turns out that transparency increases profitability.

If every chicken coop has a video camera in it, quality will obviously go up. Confidence in the product will go up. Employee behavior will improve as well, because it's hard to torture a chicken if you know you're going to get caught.

But wait, you might argue... if we have to take better care of the chickens, our costs will go up as well.

Here's the thing: when consumers get used to transparency, they're also more interested in the quality of what you sell, and are more likely to willingly pay extra. They'll certainly cross the street to buy from an ethical provider. And once people start moving in that direction, the cost of being an unethical provider gets so high that you either change your ways or fade away.

Chicken farms don't need a law prohibiting possession of images. They need a producer who will make a ton of great (true) chicken movies. Inundate us with images of cleanliness and quality instead of blacking us out. Don't race to the bottom (you might win). Instead, force your competition to race you to the top instead.

[Aside: the same objection happened when we started regulating hygeine in restaurant kitchens. Yes, it got more expensive to clean the pots and kill the rodents, but it was okay, because post-Duncan Hines, demand for quality went up enough to more than pay for it.]

The same argument holds true for doctors. Once information about good doctors becomes widespread, patients will be more willing to seek out those doctors, rewarding the ones who consistently take better care of their patients. The entire profession doesn't suffer (we'll still go to a doctor) merely the careless doctors will.

One more: A leading politician in India is arguing that bribery (in certain transactions) ought to be legalized. Why? Because if the briber feels free to rat out the bureaucrat, bribery goes down.

In all three cases, sunlight is an antiseptic and the marketplace rewards those that behave--and the entire market grows when the standards increase.

Consumers and those that want their admiration ought to reward those in favor of transparency (what a great opportunity for McDonald's). And the antidote for speech a provider doesn't like isn't a contract or a law. The antidote to speech you don't like is more speech.

Turning the habit of self-criticism upside down

Perhaps this sounds familiar:

When it's time to write a resume or talk to a boss or discuss a project glitch with colleagues, the instinct is to spin, to avoid a little responsibility, to sit quietly. Put a best face forward, don't set yourself up.

When reviewing just about anything you've done with yourself (in your head), the instinct is to be brutal, relentlessly critical and filled with doubt and self-blame.

What if they were reversed?

What if the habit of the project review meeting was for each person to put their worst foot forward, to identify every item that they learned from? What if we took responsibility as a way of getting more authority next time?

And the flip side--when talking to ourselves, what if we were a little more supportive?

It's not an easy habit, but it works.

In search of a biz monkey (why bother?)

Andrew Chen coins a great term. A biz monkey is a replaceable, Powerpoint toting, suit wearing, acronym-spewing middle manager business dude drone. They are quick to comment and sneer, slow to actually ship.

When something is scarce, it's valuable. MBA's with buzzwords and the ability to raise a million dollars around some web idea are not scarce. They are fungible.

People who understand technology and are willing to bend it to their will, on the other hand, are scarce. They can't be found with a classified ad on Craigslist or in a blind project ad on eLance.

The job of the smart business person isn't to fish in waters where coders are cheap. It's to have enough initiative and vision that the best coders in the world will realize that they'll do better with you than without you.

Business people add value when they make things happen, not when they seek to hire cheap.

Wasting the digital dividend

The internet means that many time-consuming forms of white-collar drudgery have disappeared, or at least been offloaded to cheaper people who aren't you, permitting you to spend more time on things that are actually productive and highly leveraged.

No more standing in line at the copier, trudging to the Fedex box, waiting two weeks for a letter to be returned, leaving voice mails, searching for the right person to contact, waiting months to learn a skill or a fact, discovering that a project is hopelessly broken, and on and on.

It's a little like the bump we got after the Cold War ended. The peace dividend was there, just waiting for us to repurpose our military, our military budget and our military research. We didn't. We squandered the window, wasted the money and didn't rush to fill it with the sort of top-down industrial projects (like high speed rail and efficient new forms of energy) that could have changed everything.

So, what are you going to do with the digital dividend? Cruise Facebook?

How to fail

There are some significant misunderstandings about failure. A common one, similar to one we seem to have about death, is that if you don't plan for it, it won't happen.

All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else.

Two habits that don't help:

  • Getting good at avoiding blame and casting doubt
  • Not signing up for visible and important projects

While it may seem like these two choices increase your chances for survival or even promotion, in fact they merely insulate you from worthwhile failures.

I think it's worth noting that my definition of failure does not include being unlucky enough to be involved in a project where random external events kept you from succeeding. That's the cost of showing up, not the definition of failure.

Identifying these random events, of course, is part of the art of doing ever better. Many of the things we'd like to blame as being out of our control are in fact avoidable or can be planned around.

Here are six random ideas that will help you fail better, more often and with an inevitably positive upside:

  1. Whenever possible, take on specific projects.
  2. Make detailed promises about what success looks like and when it will occur.
  3. Engage others in your projects. If you fail, they should be involved and know that they will fail with you.
  4. Be really clear about what the true risks are. Ignore the vivid, unlikely and ultimately non-fatal risks that take so much of our focus away.
  5. Concentrate your energy and will on the elements of the project that you have influence on, ignore external events that you can't avoid or change.
  6. When you fail (and you will) be clear about it, call it by name and outline specifically what you learned so you won't make the same mistake twice. People who blame others for failure will never be good at failing, because they've never done it.

If that list frightened you, you might be getting to the nub of the matter. If that list feels like the sort of thing you'd like your freelancers, employees or even bosses to adopt, then perhaps it's resonating as a plan going forward for you.

The free market

Companies that operate in a free market generally work as hard as they can to make that market not free.

By creating lock in, monopolies, patent protection, long term contracts, chasms in pricing and other barriers to entry, companies profit out of proportion to their risk or investment. That's their job.

Acting on their own behalf, self-interested companies will almost always work to make the playing field unlevel, to create loopholes and to generate barriers that keep the market unfree. It's what their owners profit from.

Their adversaries? Technological change, enforced transparency and regulation in favor of consumer protection and against monopolies. There's no question that an unfettered authoritarian corporate regime is more efficient and effective--in the short run. In the long run, though, the free market triumphs, as long as it isn't destroyed by those that get to play first.

The free market is a great idea, which is why we need to be careful when market incumbents lobby to make it un-free.

Why makers should think a little bit more like managers (and vice versa)

Paul Graham, as usual, is thought provoking.

There's no question that programmers, designers, writers and others that do their best work in a moment of flow do themselves and their organizations a disservice when they are ruled by the clock and spend a lot of it in meetings.

Paul's argument is that makers should be insulated from this sort of wasteful nonsense.

The essay is one of his best ever, but I think he needs to add a key point...

Managers need to act more like makers, because making is more important than ever before. Even the most Outlook-driven manager can benefit from finding the isolation to do truly challenging work.

Makers need to be disciplined enough to interact like managers, else they will become pawns in a system they don't sufficiently influence. If you're not present when decisions are getting made, my guess is that you won't like what gets decided...

Neither side gets to insist on just one way. Both need to do more of the other's work. Not because it's easy or even fun, but because it's still the best way to bring your vision to the world.

Insist on the coin flip

Very often, we’re challenged to make decisions with too little information. Sometimes, there’s no information--merely noise. The question is: how will you decide?

Consider the challenge we faced when setting the pricing for a brand of software we were launching in 1986. It was the biggest project to date of my short career... more than a year of work by forty people. Should these games cost $29, $34 or $39 each? My bosses and I had one day to finalize our decision for the salesforce.

Unlike Harvard case studies, we had no graphs, no history, no data. We were the first in the category and there was just nothing significant to go on. The meeting was held late on a Thursday. In addition to my newly minted Stanford MBA, we also had two from Harvard, one from Tuck and another I think from Wharton in the room.

We talked for an hour and then did the only intelligent thing--we flipped a coin. To be sure we had it right, we double checked and flipped two out of three. The only mistake we made was wasting an hour pontificating and arguing before we flipped.

This is also the way we should settle closely contested elections. We know the error rate for counting ballots is some percentage--say it’s .01%. Whenever the margin is less than the error rate, we should flip. Not waste months and millions in court, we should insist on the flip. Anything else is a waste of time and money.

Or consider the dilemma of the lucky high school student with five colleges to choose from. UVM or Oberlin or Bowdoin or Wesleyan or who knows what famous schools. Once you’ve narrowed it down and all you’re left with is a hunch, once there are no data points to give you a rational way to pick, stop worrying. Stop analyzing. Don’t waste $4,000 and a month of anxiety visiting the schools again. The data you’ll collect (one lucky meeting, one good day of weather) is just not relevant to making an intelligent decision. Any non-fact based research is designed to help you feel better about your decision, not to help you make a more effective decision.

One last example: if you know from experience that checking job references in your industry gives you basically random results (some people exaggerate, some lie out of spite), then why are you checking?

When there isn’t enough data, when there can’t be enough data, insist on the flip.

By refusing to lie to yourself, by not telling yourself a fable to make the decision easier, you'll understand quite clearly when you're winging it.

Once you embrace this idea, it’s a lot easier not to second guess your decisions--and if you're applying to college, you’ll free up enough time to write a novel before you even matriculate.

Limited (and unlimited)

Two deadlines today:

Eight tickets left for the upcoming April 11 full day event in NYC.

A few hours to buy the five-pack of Poke the Box at a big discount. (Not many left, it seems).

It fascinates me that books are generally unlimited. A popular book never goes out of print. An unpopular ebook never goes out of print either. They are here today and they will be here tomorrow.

It's funny how a scarcity of availability and a ticking clock changes our perspective and the desire to take action.

Perfect vs. interesting

There are two jobs available to most of us:

You can be the person or the organization that's perfect. The one that always ships on time, without typos, that delivers flawlessly and dots every i. You can be the hosting company or the doctor that might be boring, but is always right.

Or you can be the person or the organization that's interesting. The thing about being interesting, making a ruckus, creating remarkable products and being magnetic is that you only have to be that way once in a while. No one is expected to be interesting all the time.

Fedex vs. Playwrights Horizons.

When an interesting person is momentarily not-interesting, I wait patiently. When a perfect organization, the boring one that's constantly using its policies to dumb things down, is imperfect, I get annoyed. Because perfect has to be perfect all the time.

Who's responsible for service design?

How many people should be answering the phone at Zappos on a Saturday? What’s Southwest Airlines policy regarding hotel stays and cancelled flights? Should the knobs on the shower at the hotel go side by side or one above the other? Can I turn it on without getting sprayed with cold water? How many steps from the front of the hotel to the registration desk?

Too often, we blame bad service on the people who actually deliver the service. Sometimes (often) it’s not their fault. Sadly, the complaints rarely make it as far as the overpaid (or possibly overworked) executive who made the bad design decision in the first place. It’s the architecture of service that makes the phone ring and that makes customers leave.

Three quick tips for anyone who cares about this:
1. Require service designers to sign their work. Who decided to make it the way it is?
2. Run a customer service audit. Walk through the building or the software or the phone tree with all the designers in the room and call out what’s not right.
3. Make it easy for complaints (and compliments) about each decision to reach the designer (and her boss).

In my experience, most of the problems are caused by ignorance and isolation, not incompetence or a lack of concern.

The difference between blueberries and apples

(one bad blueberry spoils the whole bunch)

If you serve yourself blueberries by the handful, you won’t be able to inspect each one. And so just one rotten blueberry can ruin the entire bowl of cereal.

An apple is different. It’s hand picked. Pick the wrong one and it’s not such a big deal, you can just pick another.

If you sell apples, then, the goal is to make the great ones great, really great. If you’re in the blueberry business, on the other hand, the goal is to eliminate defects.

An artist who works on matters of personal taste, then, can afford to go to the edges... in fact, she must. Let the buyer choose! Books and paintings and houses are apples.

The manufacturer of fungible items, on the other hand, embraces six sigma, because recovering from a failure is expensive (and it’s your fault). Sutures are blueberries.

Moving beyond teachers and bosses

We train kids to deal with teachers in a certain way: Find out what they want, and do that, just barely, because there are other things to work on. Figure out how to say back exactly what they want to hear, with the least amount of effort, and you are a 'good student.'

We train employees to deal with bosses in a certain way: Find out what they want, and do that, just barely, because there are other things to do. Figure out how to do exactly what they want, with the least amount of effort, and the least risk of failure and you are a 'good worker.'

The attitude of minimize is a matter of self-preservation. Raise the bar, the thinking goes, and the boss will work you harder and harder. Take initiative and you might fail, leading to a reprimand or termination (think about that word for a second... pretty frightening).

The linchpin, of course, can't abide the attitude of minimize. It leaves no room for real growth and certainly doesn't permit an individual to become irreplaceable.

If your boss is seen as a librarian, she becomes a resource, not a limit. If you view the people you work with as coaches, and your job as a platform, it can transform what you do each day, starting right now. "My boss won't let me," doesn't deserve to be in your vocabulary. Instead, it can become, "I don't want to do that because it's not worth the time/resources." (Or better, it can become, "go!")

The opportunity of our age is to get out of this boss as teacher as taskmaster as limiter mindset. We need more from you than that.

The worst voice of the brand *is* the brand

We either ignore your brand or we judge it, usually with too little information. And when we judge it, we judge it based on the actions of the loudest, meanest, most selfish member of your tribe.

When a zealot advocates violence, outsiders see all members of his tribe as advocates of violence.

When a doctor rips off Medicare, all doctors are seen as less trustworthy.

When a fundamentalist advocates destruction of outsiders, all members of that organization are seen as intolerant.

When a soldier commits freelance violence, all citizens of his nation are seen as violent.

When a car rental franchise rips off a customer, all outlets of the franchise suffer.

Seems obvious, no? I wonder, then, why loyal and earnest members of the tribe hesitate to discipline, ostracize or expel the negative outliers.

"You're hurting us, this is wrong, we are expelling you."

What do you stand for?

Ten years of changing the world

Acumen celebrates its tenth anniversary this week.

Lesson 1: In fact, you can make a difference, you can start something from scratch, you can build something without authority or permission. Passionate people on a mission can make change happen.

Lesson 2: In fact, philanthropy works. Building systems and enhancing entrepreneurial outcomes generates results far bigger than the resources invested.

Lesson 3: You better be prepared to stick it out, to exert yourself, to last longer than you ever expected and to care so much it hurts.

Some highlights:

  • More than 3 million people have access to safe, affordable, and efficient energy
  • 7,000 people have jobs and hundreds of millions of insecticide treated bednets have been produced by A to Z
  • More than 330,000 farmers are changing their families’ lives with drip irrigation systems
  • Hundreds of thousands have access to quality sanitation in Kenya – and Eco-Tact has become a model for other countries
  • More than 150,000 farmers have access to quality, affordable hybrid seeds in Western Kenya
  • 1298 is now answering more than 30.000 emergency calls every month in India (and has created more than 1250 jobs)
  • Kashf has reached more than 300,000 borrowers with micro-loans and emerged as one of Pakistan’s important civil society institution
  • The first commercial mortgages for the poor have been provided in Pakistan and Saiban has developed a working, sustainable model for low-income housing development
  • More than 350,000 individuals have access to safe drinking water (and this doesn’t include the copycat companies that have emerged as a result of WHI’s innovation in the Indian marketplace)
  • Aravind provides quality eyecare through telemedicine to millions across India and has served as a global model
  • Sekem is the largest exporter of organic goods from the Middle East to Europe (working with 4,000 farmers on reclaimed desert land)

That a small band of talented, driven people could make this happen isn't surprising to me. What surprises me is that we still wonder whether change like this is possible.

Dancing faster than ever, but why?

I just read a relentlessly snarky profile of the brilliant chef Charlie Trotter. Charlie is one of the pioneers of modern cooking, a gracious host and a perfectionist as well.

The Times is disappointed that he hasn't opened chains of restaurants, made a fool of himself on reality TV or decamped to a more expensive building in Chicago. All he's done, it seems, is mentor an entire generation of chefs, consistently create amazing meals and also donate once-in-a-lifetime, multi-course dinners for rising high school students in Chicago (150 times a year).

There will always be someone telling you that you're not hip enough, famous enough, edgy enough or whatever enough. That's their agenda. What's yours?

Shun the non-believers.

Don't be a fool

There's a day (actually, two) reserved for swapping out the batteries in your smoke detector.

Perhaps today could be a day for backing up all the data you care about. All your music, say, or your passwords or your files.

If you need a hard drive, here are three. (Or be double safe and use Dropbox.) But that's not the hard part. The hard part is doing it before you go to bed tonight. And storing it at a friend's house when you're done.

If you care about it, back it up. (After I wrote this, saw this well done pre-steal).

Introducing white space links

Whitespace The challenge of monetizing the web is a tricky one, but a new venture launched right here and right now is out to solve that problem.


It's called whItespAcelInks. 


There's all this unused white space on the web. Spaces in between paragraphs or links. Wasted.


Consumers are tired of being overwhelmed by ads and by pages that are stuffed to the gills with ads. What if the ads were invisible? What if we could insert links into the white spaces, links you didn't have to see but could still be clicked on? What if those ads were carefully targeted, location-based and mobile?


This is even better than permission marketing. It's invisible marketing.


In one fell swoop (does anything ever happen in two fell swoops?) we can double or triple the ad inventory of any website! And there's no need for complicated creative, because, after all, the links are invisible.

Some highlights from the funding plan:

  • We will track every user, protecting privacy by never talking about the fact that we're doing it.
  • We will create persistent browser tools that permit us to generate whItespAcelInks revenue even when you're not online.
  • There will be no push back from regulators because the links are invisible.
  • Will there be Android? Yes. There will.
  • An iPad app? I can't believe you even need to ask. In fact, the iPad app will be so appy that people will pay for it by subscription.


First round funding, announced today, is $11 million. We wanted to keep it modest and prove ourselves in the marketplace. The biggest challenge for us going forward is that the service only runs one day a year.

« March 2011 | Main | May 2011 »