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

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The Big Red Fez

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Whatcha Gonna Do With That Duck?

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« August 2011 | Main | October 2011 »

The alternative to failure

“What would you have me do instead?”

To the critic who decries a project as a worthless folly, something that didn’t work out, something that challenged the status quo and failed, the artist might ask,

“Is it better to do nothing?”

To the critic who hasn’t shipped, who hasn’t created his art, anything less than better-than-what-I -have-now appears to be a waste. To this critic, progress should only occur in leaps, in which a fully functioning, perfected new device/book/project/process/system appears and instantly and perfectly replaces the current model.

We don’t need your sharp wit or enmity, please. Our culture needs your support instead.

Each step by any (and every) one who ships moves us. It might show us what won’t work, it might advance the state of the art or it might merely encourage others to give it a try as well.

To those who feel that they have no choice but to create, thank you.

It's different here

The other day, walking through Grand Central, I bumped into a friend, here on vacation with his fiancee.

I got to thinking about why New York City attracts so many tourists, more than just about any city in the world. Not because of natural wonders or even outdoor sports activities. It might be because:

  • It’s different here (as in not the same)
  • You can find someone to have an argument with, about just about anything
  • There are fringes--cultural, educational, architectural, societal
  • More than 42 languages are spoken at the Queens public library
  • You can get something that’s not the regular kind
  • There are profit-seekers who will happily sell you something, anything
  • There are many who do things for no profit at all and will eagerly entertain, entrance and change you for the better
  • You will find a diversity of religious belief like no other
  • It’s changing
  • The food hasn't been entirely homogenized
  • People are active
  • A stranger will go out of his way for you, perhaps, and more often than you expect
  • There is more information per minute, per meter and per interaction
  • Neighborhoods are more important than homogeneity, and co-existing is most important

The thing is, here can be anywhere. There are New Yorks going on in towns large and small, in companies big and tiny and in families that support and respect at the same time they embrace and encourage difference.

I remember ten years ago like it was yesterday, looking out the window of my office and wondering if it (all of it) was over. I remember those that suffered and were lost, and those brave enough to risk everything. Not sure we'll ever forget, or if we should.

But now more than ever, I believe we have an obligation to stand up, stand out and to do work that matters. Wherever you are, there's an opportunity to be different, with respect.

Mass elite

You’ve probably noticed that the line for regular check in is now shorter than the line for Platinum/First Class/Club/Elite/Diamond/Whatever. That the hold time for your super-exclusive access card is longer than ever.

Marketers have figured out that the incremental cost of promising better service to better customers is pretty cheap. Of course, delivering that is expensive, but that’s someone else’s problem.

Once you create two classes of service, there’s an overwhelming temptation to undo that effort in two ways:
--continually degrade the upper class service as a way of saving money
and
--offer more access to the upper class as a way of leveraging your investment in setting it up in the first place

Should you treat different customers differently? There’s no doubt about it. It’s the single easiest operational way to transform your organization, by giving loyal and profitable customers a reason to come back. The danger is that your team will misunderstand the entire point of the exercise, using it as an opportunity to cut corners on the hoi polloi (who are merely elite customers who haven’t converted yet) at the same time they try to save money by investing less in the very people you set out to serve better in the first place.

Go ahead and charge extra to people who want to pay (in money or loyalty) extra. But don’t forget to give them something in return.

"Do it tomorrow"

Stupid advice, certainly. But free. I didn't charge you anything for it.

There are very few categories where there is less correlation between price and quality than advice. You can buy a million dollars worth of consulting, a thousand dollars worth of coaching or read a few tweets for free--your choice.

This widespread variety of pricing leads to two interesting questions:

Are you confusing what you pay with what you get? (Does expensive advice feel more valuable than the free stuff?)

and

Are you more likely to take action because you've paid a lot?

One of the most effective ways to get your ideas implemented is to charge a lot for them. It increases the perception of value and creates an impulse to execute so that the investment won't be wasted.

Of course, I said that for free...

Getting serious about your org chart

2011.06.27_organizational_charts

Manu's funny brilliance aside, this collection of org charts might help you think hard about why your organization is structured the way it is.

Is it because it was built when geography mattered more than it does now? Is it an artifact of a business that had a factory at its center? Does the org chart you live with every day leverage your best people or does it get in their way?

Tote bag marketing

Retail fundraisers have a choice:

You can give a gift along with a donation and spend all your time talking about how great the gift is. The MS bikeathon in New York is like this. The entire pitch is how rare or fun the ride is, with very little time spent on the difficult chore of selling people on raising money for a disease that's hard to visualize and not ubiquitous. The worst example of this is the gala at the fancy restaurant, where novices expect that $500 a plate somehow means the food is going to be good.

You can give a gift that serves as a badge, a symbol for the tribe. It could be your name in the program, or on the wall, or a t-shirt or coffee mug that lets others see what you did. Maybe you'll sit with someone interesting at the dinner...

Or you could focus on the way it feels to do something good, on the urgency, the emergency and the good that's getting done.

With the End Malaria project, Michael and I spent a lot wrestling with this.

The magic of a digital tote bag is that you can spend a fortune, a huge amount of time and effort, produce something magical and each incremental copy doesn't cost a thing. So instead of boiled chicken or a sweatship gimcrack, you get a world class book by 62 authors. A great book, and an important one for you to read, sure, but once you say to people, "buy this book," then you have to spend a lot of time persuading people to buy any book, to sell reading and the search for wisdom and the notion of actually buying, you know, a book.

"Is the book really worth $20? Can I get a copy at the library? Why not wait?" I'm not good at doing a hard sell of a book--if you don't like books, I can't get you to like them by writing a paragraph or two.

Instead, I hope you'll buy a copy today even if you don't buy books, even if you don't even intend to read it, even if you don't have a Kindle or a Kindle app. That would be fabulous, because it means that the transference of emotion has kicked in, and you have realized what a screaming bargain it is to pay $20 for the peace of mind that comes with saving someone's life.

Way more useful than a tote bag.

PS thanks to you (or your colleagues) as I write this, the book is the #1 business book, an instant worldwide bestseller. As a thank you to those that bought a copy, here's a link to a five hour long podcast interview with some of the authors. It's the honor system, of course. (And thanks to our biggest cash sponsors, Ashley Sleep and HubSpot, for their generous donations to MNM.)

That buzzing in my ear didn't mean I was about to die

Six weeks ago, at midnight, I found myself awake but wiped out from jet lag. I was in a lumpy bed, in the dark, in an obscure, $20 a night, John-Waters'-esque former country club. I was in Kitale, Kenya, near the Ugandan border.

A mosquito was buzzing in my ear. (Why do they buzz in your ear?). I had meds, of course, but what if I didn't? What if, like so many who live here, I had kids and no money for medicine?

Try to imagine that for a second before you click onto the next thing you've got on your agenda for today.

Today is End Malaria Day.

Right this minute, right now, please do three things:

  1. Buy two copies of End Malaria, an astonishing new book by more than sixty of your favorite authors. In a minute, I will explain why this might be the most important book you buy this year (not the best book, of course, just the most important one). You should buy one in paperback too so you can evangelize a copy to a colleague.
  2. Tweet or like this post, or email it to ten friends (It only takes a second.)
  3. And, visit the End Malaria Day website and share it as well.

What would happen if you did that? What would happen if you stepped up and spent a few dollars?

Here's what would happen: someone wouldn't die.

A child wouldn't die from malaria, a disease that causes more childhood death than HIV/AIDS.

It's that direct. Malaria bednets are simple nets that hang over a window or a bed. They're treated with a chemical that mosquitos hate. The mosquitos fly away, they don't bite, people don't get malaria.

Every single penny spent on the Kindle edition goes to Malaria No More, giving them enough money to buy one or two bednets and to deliver them and be sure they're used properly. Low overhead, no graft, no waste. Just effectiveness. And if you buy the beautiful paperback edition, you can easily give it away when you're done and the same $20 donation gets made. None of the authors or anyone at the Domino Project sees your money, there's no ulterior motive, just the fact that a kid won't die.

Wait, there is one ulterior motive: You might be inspired. One of the sixty plus contributors might share a gem or spark an idea.

And I guess there's a second motive: Stepping up feels right. It's a few clicks to buy a book, one you might be able to afford. And for the rest of the day, or even a week, you'll remember how it felt to save someone's life.

Please.

EM_Jacket_Front2DETAIL

And if you could, after you buy a copy, please tweet or post or email your friends. It matters. Thanks.

Talent and vendors

You may be purchasing services from people with magical talents (artists) and it's a mistake to confuse them with vendors.

As we get more and more service oriented, it's an easy mistake to make. You're busy buying cleaning services or consulting or design, and sometimes the person you're working with is a vendor, and sometimes they're not--they're an artist, "the talent."

A vendor is someone who exists to sell you something. It doesn't always matter to the vendor what's being sold, as long as it's being sold and paid for.

The quality of what's being delivered is rarely impacted by the method of transaction. The turnips will still show up, the house will still get painted. You can send an RFP to a vendor, bid it out, get the lowest price, sign the contract and if you write the contract properly, will get what you ordered.

The quality of the work you get from the talent changes based on how you work with her.

That's the key economic argument for the distinction: if you treat an artist like a vendor, you'll often get mediocre results in return. On the other hand, if you treat a vendor like an artist, you'll waste time and money.

Vendors happily sit in the anonymous cubes at Walmart's headquarters, waiting for the buyer to show up and dicker with them. They willingly fill out the paperwork and spend hours discussing terms and conditions. The vendor is agnostic about what's being sold, and is focused on volume, or at least consistency.

While the talent is also getting paid (to be in your movie, to do consulting, to coach you), she is not a vendor. She's not playing by the same rules and is not motivated in the same way.

A key element of the distinction is that in addition to the varying output potential, vendors are easier to replace than talent is.

Target understood this when they reached out to Michael Graves to design a line of goods that sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of items. When I interviewed Michael a few years ago, he had nothing but great things to say about the way Target invited him in and gave him the ability to do his work. Threadless embraces this when they treat the designers of their t-shirts in a non-corporate way. Etsy is built on this single truth.

Most industry is built on vendor relationships, and vendors expect (and sometimes value) the impersonal nature of their relationships. This scales... until you lump in the talent.

Should you treat vendors with respect? No doubt about it. Human beings do their best work when they're treated fairly and with enthusiasm. But when the provider is also digging deep to put something on the table that you can't possibly write a spec for, you're going to have to respond in kind.

Back to (the wrong) school

A hundred and fifty years ago, adults were incensed about child labor. Low-wage kids were taking jobs away from hard-working adults.

Sure, there was some moral outrage at seven-year olds losing fingers and being abused at work, but the economic rationale was paramount. Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries and fought hard to keep the kids at work--they said they couldn't afford to hire adults. It wasn't until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place.

Part of the rationale to sell this major transformation to industrialists was that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn't a coincidence--it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they're told.

Large-scale education was never about teaching kids or creating scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system.

Of course, it worked. Several generations of productive, fully employed workers followed. But now?

Nobel-prize winning economist Michael Spence makes this really clear: there are tradable jobs (making things that could be made somewhere else, like building cars, designing chairs and answering the phone) and non-tradable jobs (like mowing the lawn or cooking burgers). Is there any question that the first kind of job is worth keeping in our economy?

Alas, Spence reports that from 1990 to 2008, the US economy added only 600,000 tradable jobs.

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, they will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.

Do you see the disconnect here? Every year, we churn out millions of of workers who are trained to do 1925 labor.

The bargain (take kids out of work so we can teach them to become better factory workers) has set us on a race to the bottom. Some argue we ought to become the cheaper, easier country for sourcing cheap, compliant workers who do what they're told. We will lose that race whether we win it or not. The bottom is not a good place to be, even if you're capable of getting there.

As we get ready for the 93rd year of universal public education, here’s the question every parent and taxpayer needs to wrestle with: Are we going to applaud, push or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable and mediocre factory-workers?

As long as we embrace (or even accept) standardized testing, fear of science, little attempt at teaching leadership and most of all, the bureaucratic imperative to turn education into a factory itself, we’re in big trouble.

The post-industrial revolution is here. Do you care enough to teach your kids to take advantage of it?

People looking for 'more of the same' aren't actively looking

While there may be a lot of them, they're satisfied with what they've got, which means that they're hard to attract.

No, the real opportunity is in reaching out to the dissatisifed, to those in search of something new.

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