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

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



All Marketers Tell Stories

Seth's most important book about the art of marketing




Free Prize Inside

The practical sequel to Purple Cow





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




Meatball Sundae

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



Permission Marketing

The classic Named "Best Business Book" by Fortune.



Poke The Box

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




Purple Cow

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



Small is the New Big

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



Survival is Not Enough

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




The Big Moo

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



The Big Red Fez

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




The Dip

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




The Icarus Deception

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





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




Unleashing the Ideavirus

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



V Is For Vulnerable

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




We Are All Weird

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



Whatcha Gonna Do With That Duck?

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



THE DIP BLOG by Seth Godin

All Marketers Are Liars Blog

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« October 2011 | Main | December 2011 »

Preparing for the breakthrough/calamity

That's what we spend most of our time doing. The breakthrough speech that will change everything, or the giant insight that opens every door. We fret about the apocalyptic ending, the big crash, the slam climax as well.

Of course, it almost never happens that way.

Products and services succeed one person at a time, as the word slowly spreads. Customers defect one person at a time, as hearts are broken and people are disappointed. Doors open, sure, but not all at once. One at a time.

One at a time is a little anticlimactic and difficult to get in a froth over, but one at a time is how we win and how we lose.

The last hardcover

Today the Domino Project is publishing Sarah Kay's new book. It's a short poem, a great gift and a book I'm proud to publish by an author on her way to big things. I hope you'll take a look.

Almost exactly a year after we started, Sarah's book is the last print book we'll be launching. Twelve books, twelve bestsellers, published in many languages around the world.

I've posted a history of what we built, along with some of what we learned along the way.

By most of the measures I set out at the beginning, the project has been a success. So why stop? Mostly because it was a project, not a lifelong commitment to being a publisher of books. Projects are fun to start, but part of the deal is that they don't last forever.

The goal was to explore what could be done in a fast-changing environment. Rather than whining about the loss of the status quo, I thought it would be interesting to help invent a new status quo and learn some things along the way. Here are a few of my takeaways:

  1. Permission is still the most important and valuable asset of the web (and of publishing). The core group of 50,000 subscribers to the Domino blog made all the difference in getting the word out and turning each of our books into a bestseller. It still amazes me how few online merchants and traditional publishers (and even authors) have done the hard work necessary to create this asset. If you're an author in search of success and you don't pursue this with singleminded passion, you're making a serious error. (See #2 on my advice for authors post from five years ago, or the last part of my other advice for authors post from six years ago.)
  2. The ebook is a change agent like none the book business has ever seen. It cuts the publishing time cycle by 90%, lowers costs, lowers revenue and creates both a long tail and an impulse-buying opportunity. This is the most disruptive thing to happen to books in four hundred years. It's hard for me to see significant ways traditional book publishers can add the value they're used to adding when it comes to marketing ebooks, unless they get busy with #1.
  3. Booksellers have a starfish problem. Without permission (see #1) it's almost impossible for a publisher to be heard above the noise, largely because long tail merchants haven't built the promotional tools traditional retailers have long used to highlight one title over another. You used to be able to buy useful and efficient shelf space at a retailer. Hard to do that now.
  4. There is still (and probably will be for a while) a market for collectible editions, signed books and other special souvenirs that bring the emotional component of a book to the fore. While most books merely deliver an idea or a pasttime, for some books and some readers, there's more than just words on paper. Just as vinyl records persist, so will books. Not because a reader can't get the information faster or cheaper, but because there's something special about molecules and scarcity.
  5. When you combine #1, #3 and #4, you get to Kickstarter, which it seems to me, is going to be ever more important, particularly to new authors, authors that don't write genre ebooks and anyone with a tribe who wants to produce something like a book.
  6. Sponsored ebooks are economically irresistible to readers, to sponsors and to authors. I'm proud to have pioneered this, and I think it's a trend worth pursuing. The value transfer to the reader is fabulous (hey, a great book, for free), and the sponsor gets to share in some of that appreciation. The author gets a guaranteed payday as well as the privilege of reaching ten or a hundred times as many readers.
  7. The ebook marketing platform is in its technical infancy. There are so many components that need to be built, that will. Ebooks are way too hard to give as gifts and to share. Too hard to integrate into social media. And the ebook reader is a lousy platform for discovery and promotion of new titles (what a missed chance). All that will happen, the road map is there, but it's going to take commitment from Apple, B&N and Amazon.
  8. If you're an author, pick yourself. Don't wait for a publisher to pick you. And if you work for a big publishing house, think really hard about the economics of starting your own permission-based ebook publisher. Now's the time.
  9. Most of all, the character of people in the world of books hasn't changed since I started in this business 27 years ago. Every author I dealt with was a delight. Smart, passionate, honest, humble (and yes, good looking). Readers sense this, I think, and treat books and the people who make them very differently than someone hawking a vitamin or a penny stock. Publishing is about passion and writing is a lifestyle, not a shortcut to a mansion and a Porsche. Bestselling authors are like golfers who hit holes in one. It's a nice thing, but there are plenty of people who will keep playing even without one.

I'm not going away, any time soon, but, except for a digital bonus coming soon, the Domino Project won't see any new titles (the current ones will be for sale forever). I'd like to thank Lisa who listened to me rant for more than ten years, the interns who helped me build it, the authors whose ideas we brought to the world and the passionate people (especially Amy and Alan) who made it work.

PS Thanks to everyone who has bought one of our books, and double thanks to anyone who shared a copy with a friend or colleague.

Who comes on opening night?

I understand the folks who wait for a creative work to come out in paperback, to be free on TV, the ones that get the half-price tickets at TKTS near the end of the run. They're cheap, at least when it comes to this particular sort of art.

I understand the audience that waits to read the reviews, that wants to hear from friends and anointed critics before they spend their money. They're careful.

So who comes on opening night? No discounts, no reviews, no warning...

The patrons come. For them, part of the attraction of art is that they don't know in advance if they're going to like it. They come for a simple reason: it feels good to support something because they can, not merely because it's a good value.

And the true fans come. They come because the artist has earned their trust. "If you made it, that's good enough for me," they say. They come because to not come is to not be a true fan, with all that entails.

Opening night is vitally important, of course. The critics come, word of mouth begins, the producers find enthusiasm and the guts to start work on their next play.

I guess the real question is: who would come to your opening? And the follow up is: what would happen after that?

The Confusion of Logistics and Strategy Problem

So widespread, it deserves an acronym: CLASP.

You have a clasp when people criticize your new strategy because they don't know how to execute it.

Yes, a new strategy has to be executable, or it's merely a wish. No, the logistics behind it don't have to be tried and true. It's one job to dream up a strategy and another job to execute it. Whining about how hard the logistics are is just fine, but don't conflate this with thoughtful feedback about whether your strategy makes sense.

Just about every great new project couples a brilliant strategy with impossible logistics that somehow get handled.

A decision without tradeoffs...

isn't a decision.

The art of good decision making is looking forward to and celebrating the tradeoffs, not pretending they don't exist.

When Google comes calling...

In June of 2008, Google launched Knol, a monetizable Wikipedia, or, as some people saw it, a Squidoo killer. Not the same as what we were doing at Squidoo, not focused on individuals and their passions, but close enough for discomfort.

Our tiny team was in the headlights of a very big company.

One of the first things investors and advisors will say to someone launching a business, particularly a tech one, is, "sure, but what happens if Google/AT&T/Starbucks/Apple decides to get into your business? You'll be dead."

While the intent behind this question is generous, it's usually wrong. That's because it misses several fundamental elements of what allows a business to thrive, and how entrepreneurs often have a significant advantage over incumbents when they are building something new.

  • It's almost never about technology. Many companies that are built on tech believe that it's the tech that enabled them to succeed. This is almost never true (I know, I'm biased). It's marketing and stories and connection and tribes and commitment and structure that build businesses. The technology is essential, but it's not nearly enough.
  • First movers can become obsessed with external customers, not internal reports. We paid attention to Knol for about a week (who wouldn't?) but then ignored it. It wasn't relevant to our users, so it wasn't relevant to us. Our little team focused 100% of its energy on delighting our user base (which, while small at the time, was far bigger than Knol's). If you can give your users an experience that they want to tell their friends about, you'll grow.
  • There are no lifeboats. One of the reasons Google was so extraordinarily successful with search was that it was all they had. Sink or swim, those were the only options. Google's competitors a decade ago had tons of things to work on, plenty of sources of traffic and revenue. Google had only one. At the beginning, the founding team at Google came to work every day focused on just one problem. We were in the same position in 2008, and that's the case of most small companies facing down a big competitor. We focused because we had no plan B.

The most disruptive thing about the entrant of a huge player is the impact it has on partners. It's easy to get skittish when the 800 pound gorilla arrives. I'm not sure there's an obvious way to deal with this problem... we resigned ourselves to doing whatever we had to on our own, figuring the partners would figure it out eventually.

This week, three years after the launch, Google threw in the towel and closed down Knol. Our pageviews and our user base have grown by many multiples since 2008. I'm not sure you should wish for (or even plan for) a showdown with the big player, but it should give you solace to know that a focus on your tribe of customers gives you a fighting chance.

Pre digital

A brief visit to the emergency room last month reminded me of what an organization that's pre-digital is like. Six people doing bureaucratic tasks and screening that are artifacts of a paper universe, all in the service of one doctor (and the need to get paid and not get sued). A 90-minute experience so we could see a doctor for ninety seconds.

Wasteful and even dangerous.

Imagine what this is like in a fully digital environment instead. Of course, they'd know everything about your medical history and payment ability from a quick ID scan at the entrance. And you'd know the doctor's availability before you even walked in, and you would have been shuttled to the urgent care center down the street if there was an uneven load this early in the morning. No questions to guess at the answer (last tetanus shot? Allergies to medications?) because the answers would be known. The drive to the pharmacy might be eliminated, or perhaps the waiting time would be shortened. If this accident or illness is trending, effecting more of the population, we'd know that right away and be able to prevent more of it... Triage would be more efficient as well. The entire process might take ten minutes, with a far better outcome.

School is pre-digital. Elections. Most of what you do in your job. Even shopping. The vestiges of a reliance on geography, lack of information, poor interpersonal connections and group connection (all hallmarks of the pre-digital age) are everywhere.

Perhaps the most critical thing you can say of a typical institution: "That place is pre-digital."

All a way of saying that this is just the beginning, the very beginning, of the transformation of our lives.

A great way to give thanks...

for the privileges we've got is to do important work.

Your job, your internet access, your education, your role in a civilized society... all of them are a platform, a chance to do art, a way for you to give back and to honor those that enabled you to get to this point.

For every person reading this there are a thousand people (literally a thousand) in underprivileged nations and situations that would love to have your slot. Don't waste it.

Please consider WEIRD

My latest book, We Are All Weird, came out 8 weeks ago, to very strong reviews and gratifying feedback.

It's likely you haven't had a chance to read it yet. I hope you'll give it a shot. (The Kindle edition runs on all computers and tablets and you can read it for free if you're a US-based Amazon Prime member).

Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the book:

The mass market redefines normal

The mass market—which made average products for average people—was invented by organizations that needed to keep their factories and systems running efficiently.

Stop for a second and think about the backwards nature of that sentence.

The factory came first. It led to the mass market. Not the other way around.

Governments went first, because it’s easier to dominate and to maintain order if you can legislate and control conformity. Marketers, though, took this concept and ran with it.

The typical institution (an insurance company, a record label, a bed factory) just couldn’t afford mass customization, couldn’t afford to make a different product for every user. The mindset was: This is the Eagles’ next record. We need to make it a record that the masses will buy, because otherwise it won’t be a hit and the masses will buy something else.

This assumption seems obvious—so obvious that you probably never realized that it is built into everything we do. The mass market is efficient and profitable, and we live in it. It determines not just what we buy, but what we want, how we measure others, how we vote, how we have kids, and how we go to war. It’s all built on this idea that everyone is the same, at least when it comes to marketing (and marketing is everywhere, isn’t it?).

Marketers concluded that the more the market conformed to the tight definition of mass, the more money they would make. Why bother making products for left-handed people if you can figure out how to get left-handed people to buy what you’re already making? Why offer respectful choice when you can make more money from forced compliance and social pressure?

Mass wasn’t always here. In 1918, there were two thousand car companies active in the United States. In 1925, the most popular saddle maker in this country probably had .0001% market share. The idea of mass was hardly even a dream for the producer of just about any object.

At its heyday, on the other hand, Heinz could expect that more than 70 percent of the households in the U.S. had a bottle of their ketchup in the fridge, and Microsoft knew that every single company in the Fortune 500 was using their software, usually on every single personal computer and server in the company.

Is it any wonder that market-leading organizations fear the weird?

The End of Mass

This is a manifesto about the mass market. About mass politics, mass production, mass retailing, and even mass education.

The defining idea of the twentieth century, more than any other, was mass.

Mass gave us efficiency and productivity, making us (some people) rich. Mass gave us huge nations, giving us (some people) power. Mass allowed powerful people to influence millions, giving us (some people) control.

And now mass is dying.

We see it fighting back, clawing to control conversations and commerce and politics. But it will fail; it must. The tide has turned, and mass as the engine of our culture is gone forever.

That idea may make you uncomfortable. If your work revolves around finding the masses, creating for the masses, or selling to the masses, this change is very threatening. Some of us, though, view it as the opportunity of a lifetime. The end of mass is not the end of the world, but it is a massive change, and this manifesto will help you think through the opportunity it represents.  

The marketing of conspiracy theories

A conspiracy theory is a complex, alternative explanation for the truth.

By definition, they're not true. Of course there are plenty of things that are the result of conspiracies. Call them conspiracy facts instead of theories. Countries, organizations and movies are often the result of people conspiring together, sometimes in secret. But the facts don't fascinate us, the theories do. (And while I have no doubt that there is widespread deception and a lack of transparency, I'm interested today in understanding why these theories spread and stick).

People don't embrace them because they're true, they embrace them because they are more satisfying, they show agency and intent, and they provide a level of solace by implying external causes to significant events.

At the heart of the marketing of a conspiracy theory is that it must be non-falsifiable.

A key tenet of science is that every useful and productive thesis and theory must be able to be proven wrong. For example, if you say, "I have ESP, but it only works if no one is testing or tracking my results," then of course it can't be disproven. If you say, "Columbus set off on his journey because a voice came to him in the middle of the night and told him what to do but he never wrote it down nor told anyone," then we must either take your word for it or move on. No room for science here.

Which is how they market conspiracy theories. Take a look at the many theories about 9/11 or the 12 men in Geneva who run the world or the Kennedy assassination or UFOs and what you'll see each time is that as soon as anything appears to disprove part of the theory, the theory changes. What is being sold is doubt, not proof. Doubt is something people often want to buy, particularly if it gives them comfort.

Marketers of conspiracies understand this, which is why they always lead with the doubt, always reinforce the doubt that we can't help but feel about just about everything. "Are you sure?" is almost always guaranteed to generate a 'no' as an answer.

The problem with amortization

It costs more than a hundred dollars a day to use the wifi at the convention center in Toronto.

A 2 ounce bag of chips at the airport costs $4, the same price a pound costs at the local market.

A three-minute visit to the doctor might cost $250, even though the doctor clearly isn't making $5000 an hour...

What's happening is obvious: you're paying extra to subsidize something else. In order to have a clean lobby or repaired runway or a life-saving but little-used machine on hand, institutions charge some people extra and spread it out over some of their larger costs.

When AT&T first suffered from competition, they accused MCI and others of skimming the cream. They said that a company that sold something like long distance at a reasonable price was taking away their ability to subsidize all the other universal services they offered. They built those services on subsidies.

In the digital age, we get annoyed at these subsidies. That's because competitors are peeling off the cash cows and selling them separately. A $20 cable for your phone costs a penny or a dollar online--because the person selling it to you doesn't have to subsidize all the other costs with an expensive add on, right?

It used to be that the only way to collect the money we needed for roads and facilities and other widely used services was to charge a lot for the few things that were seen as extras. Now, though, it's easier than ever to track actual use, to coordinate consumption with payment. The technology is no longer the problem, it's our habits that are holding us back.

Simple example: a combination of gas tax and digital toll collection could instantly move the vast percentage of transport cost from society to the individual. Drive more, pay more. There are social implications (it's a regressive shift) but more important, people would be outraged--the same ones that don't like paying for a $20 cable(!).

Those that have been subsidized hate having it end, and even those that will save money don't really like the truth of their consumption so clearly exposed.

Your competitive advantage

Are you going to succeed because you return emails a few minutes faster, tweet a bit more often and stay at work an hour longer than anyone else?

I think that's unlikely. When you push to turn intellectual work into factory work (which means more showing up and more following instructions) you're racing to the bottom.

It seems to me that you will succeed because you confronted and overcame anxiety and the lizard brain better than anyone else. Perhaps because you overcame inertia and actually got significantly better at your craft, even when it was uncomfortable because you were risking failure. When you increase your discernment, maximize your awareness of the available options and then go ahead and ship work that scares others... that's when you succeed.

More time on the problem isn't the way. More guts is. When you expose yourself to the opportunities that scare you, you create something scarce, something others won't do.

Moving beyond impressions

Internet advertising is so cheap (particularly Facebook and run of site network buys) that just about anyone can afford a million impressions, and a billion isn’t out of reach.

Pretty soon it turns into noise. An infinite number of impressions is dangerously close to no impressions at all.

The conversation media reps have with advertisers quickly devolves into, "how cheap can I buy a million impressions?" What a waste. That number, out of context, is nothing but a crutch, a poor stand in for the insightful analysis that media buyers ought to be using.

Far better to focus on two things, both leading to the real goal:

Perception. Does the ad you’re running increase the value of your name? Are you perceived as an annoyance, an interruptor--or are you a valued sponsor, a trusted friend, someone who is making things better?


Interaction. Not merely a click that leads to a sale. I’m talking about any sort of interaction with you or your organization, whether it’s an online chat, a phone call or navigating your site. Too often, online marketers are focused on pennies per click instead of long-term value per engagement.

Both perception and interaction lead to permission. Permission to deliver anticipated, personal and relevant messages over time. Permission to tell a story. Permission to earn attention on an ongoing basis.

Impressions don’t automatically get you permission. In fact, they might cost it.

[I'm amused to sometimes hear people refer to my concept of "Permission Marketing" as "Permissive Marketing." Pretty Freudian.]

Optimistic enthusiasm as a form of realism

How does your organization respond to new opportunities?

Most companies launch new things, try out new initiatives, brainstorm new approaches. The internal response (or reaction) to these ventures is a cultural choice, one that often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If your organization is both pessimistic and operationally focused, then every new idea is a threat. It represents more work, something that could go wrong, a chance for disaster. People work to protect against the downside, to insulate against the market, to be sure that they won't get blamed for anything that challenges the system. In organizations like this, a new idea has to be proven to be better than the current status quo in all situations before it gets launched.

On the other hand, an organization filled with people who are rewarded for shaking things up and generating game-changing products and services just might discover that outcomes they are dreaming of are in fact what happen. The enthusiasm that comes from believing that this one might just resonate with the market is precisely the ingredient that's required to make something resonate.

One more thing: outsiders are way more likely to approach your organization with fabulous projects if they think they're likely to both get a good reception and succeed when they get to market.


No, we don't take clients like that.

No, that's not part of what we offer.

No, that market is too hard for us to service properly.

No, I won't bend on this principle.

No, I'm sorry, I won't be able to have lunch with you.

No, that's not good enough. Will you please do it again?

No, I'm not willing to lose my focus, and no, I'm not willing to compromise.

The largest independent content sites

Quantcast makes it easy to see the largest one million sites in the US (by traffic). There's a signficant consolidation going on, with the vast majority of popular sites being owned and controlled by larger, public companies.

Because online traffic follows, as most things do, a power law curve, the top 100 sites account for a huge amount of overall web traffic--probably more than the next 900 sites combined.

After removing public companies and those that only do commerce, here are the [fewer than] thirty independent companies on the top 100:

Self truth (and the best violinist in the world)

The other day, after a talk to some graduate students at the Julliard School, one asked, "In The Dip, you talk about the advantage of mastery vs. being a mediocre jack of all trades. So does it make sense for me to continue focusing on mastering the violin?"

Without fear of error, I think it's easy to say that this woman will never become the best violinist in the world. That's because it's essentially impossible to be the one and only best violinist in the world. There might be 5,000 or 10,000 people who are so technically good at it as to be indistinguishable to all but a handful of orchestra listeners. This is true for many competitive fields--we might want to fool ourselves into thinking that we have become the one and only best at a technical skill, but it's extremely unlikely.

The quest for technical best is a form of hiding. You can hide from the marketplace because you're still practicing your technique. And you can hide from the hard work of real art and real connection because you decide that success lies in being the best technically, at getting a 99 instead of a 98 on an exam.

What we can become the best at is being an idiosyncratic exception to the standard. Joshua Bell is often mentioned (when violinists are mentioned at all) not because he is technically better than every other violinst, but because of his charisma and willingness to cross categories. He's the best in the world at being Josh Bell, not the best in the world at playing the violin.

The same trap happens to people who are coding in Java, designing furniture or training to be a corporate coach. It's a seductive form of self motivation, the notion that we can push and push and stay inside the lines and through sheer will, become technically perfect and thus in demand. Alas, it's not going to happen for most of us.

[The flipside of this are the practioners who bolster themselves up by claiming that they are, in fact, the most technically adept in the world. In my experience, they're fibbing to themselves when they'd be better off taking the time and effort to practice their craft. Just saying it doesn't make it so.]

Until we're honest with ourselves about what we're going to master, there's no chance we'll accomplish it.

Worth it?

That's a question you hear a lot. "Was it worth it?"

Not certain what either "it" refers to, but generally we're saying, "was the destination worth the journey? Was the effort worth the reward?"

The thing about effort is that effort is its own reward if you allow it to be.

So the answer can always be "yes" if you let it.

After you've done your best

(and it didn't work)

...then what do you do?

Slamming your six iron into the ground, yelling at yourself, cursing out your staff, second-guessing, berating bystanders—there are plenty of ways we demonstrate our frustration that our best didn't work this time.

But is it helpful?

Learning from a failure is critical. Connecting effort with failure at an emotional level is crippling. After all, we've already agreed you did your best.

Early in our careers, we're encouraged to avoid failure, and one way we do that is by building up a set of emotions around failure, emotions we try to avoid, and emotions that we associate with the effort of people who fail. It turns out that this is precisely the opposite of the approach of people who end up succeeding.

If you believe that righteous effort leads to the shame of personal failure, you'll seek to avoid righteous effort.

Successful people analytically figure out what didn't work and redefine what their best work will be in the future. And then they get back to work.

Let the guys at ESPN do the racket throwing.

Change worth reading about: update

About six weeks ago, we launched a massive multi-author book called End Malaria.

Here's what's happened since:

  • It became a top 10 bestseller.
  • We raised more than $250,000 in sales and sponsorships for Malaria No More--every penny spent on the ebook goes to them, and the same amount from every paperback copy sold.
  • The book received more than 30 five-star reviews.
  • Conversations were had among hundreds of thousands of people about the ideas in the book--ideas that can jumpstart your projects, change your approach and grow your organization.
  • Thank you for saving lives.

If you haven't gotten your copy, you've missed something. Today is the best day to catch up.

Adversity and the route to success

Resource-rich regions often fall behind in developing significant industrial and cultural capabilities. Japan does well despite having very few resources at all.

Well-rounded and popular people rarely change the world. The one voted most likely to succeed probably won't.

Genuine success is scarce, and the scarcity comes from the barriers that keep everyone from having it. If it weren't for the scarcity, it wouldn't be valuable, after all.

It's difficult to change an industry, set a world record, land big clients, or do art that influences others. When faced with this difficulty, those with other, seemingly better options see the barrier and walk away.

Why bother? The thinking is that we can just pump some more oil or smile and gladhand our way to an acceptably happy outcome.

On the other hand, people who believe they have fewer options take a look at the barrier and realize that even though it will be difficult to cross, it's the single best option they've got.

This is one of the dangers of overfunded/undertested startup companies. Without an astute CEO in charge, they begin to worry more about not losing what they've already got than the real reason they started the project in the first place.

Independence and subjugation

Tribal management often involves power struggles. One thing that's been shown again and again--subjugating another tribe, taking it over--it almost never works. It can take hundreds of years before the two tribes get into sync, if ever.

On the other hand, granting independence to a rising tribe, letting them go--this is harder to swallow but it generally leads to a quick and beneficial relationship between the two new groups.

When Atari was struggling after it was acquired by Warner, many top programmers left, some to start companies like Activision. Activision, ironically, was one of the bright spots for Atari after that. The passion and creativity of the nascent group was exactly what the original group needed.

Or consider the excellent relationship that the UK has with both the United States and India. In both cases, the wars of independence weren't as nearly brutal or as drawn out as they could have been.

While conventional views of power and authority seem to indicate that you should co-opt and capture other tribes, you can often achieve more by freeing your own people to maximize their vision alongside yours.

Lifetime value of a customer/cost per customer

Two things every business and non-profit needs to know:

  • How much does it cost you to get one new customer.
  • On average, what's that customer worth over the relationship you have with her?

The internet revolutionizes both sides of the equation.

Facebook and Twitter are marvels because for each, the cost of a new customer is vanishingly close to zero. When you can get people into a relationship for nothing, you don't need to make much on each one to be delighted with the outcome.

Note that the ongoing, digital connection with a customer can dramatically increase the lifetime profit as well. Netflix is far more likely to have a higher average lifetime value than the local video store. Musicians are moving from making a dollar a listener from CDs to hundreds of dollars a true fan in collectibles and concert tickets--things they can only deliver because they know who their best customers are.

On the other hand, legions of unsophisticated marketers are getting both sides of the equation wrong.

They invest a lot in hoopla, spin and hype to get strangers to notice them (once), making the cost of a connection high, and then, once they borrow a little attention, they put everything into a one shot transaction, which few people engage in, and those that do create little value, because the permission asset is then discarded.

Dates, not singles bars. Subscriptions, not vegomatics.

The unreasonable customer

There are a few reasons to tolerate the customer who makes unreasonable demands:

  • You promised you would
  • She helps you raise your game
  • Her word of mouth is very powerful
  • The cost of frequently figuring out which customers to fire is too high compared to the cost of putting up with everyone

It's probably worth firing a customer if:

  • He willfully corrupts your systems at a cost to other customers
  • Your employees are prevented from doing their best work in the long run
  • His word of mouth can't be changed or doesn't matter
  • He distracts you from delighting customers that are reasonable

In general, organizations are afraid to fire customers, no matter how unreasonable. This is a mistake. It's good for you.

The starfish and the long tail have trouble getting along

We've all heard the parable of the kid throwing back the starfish, even though there are a million on the beach. "It makes a difference to that one!"

The Long Tail argues that if you can aggregate enough choices, people will make a choice and you'll do fine. Netflix, superstores, eBay--these are all long tail businesses. They might not sell that thing, but you can bet they're going to sell something.

Long tail businesses excel at selling anything, but they're not so good at selling one thing.

Which is fine, unless you're a starfish.

In a world of endless choice, it's mathematically obvious that something's going to get picked, but you, you the creator, the marketer, the one with something at stake--you're not at all concerned about something. You're concerned about you and your product.

If you're a starfish, then, don't sign up with the long tail guys. Build your own universe, your own permission asset. Find a tribe, lead it, connect with it, become the short head, the one and only, the one that we'd miss if you were gone.

The long tail is for organizations that own warehouses.

The extraordinary revolution of media choice

In the traditional model, you can only play one program at a time. One radio show or one movie or one show...

Scarcity of spectrum has changed just about every element of our culture. Scarcity of shelf space as well.

There are just a few radio stations in each market, and each station gets precisely one hour to broadcast each hour. Scarcity of spectrum, inflexible consumption (listen now or it's gone forever).

There are only a hundred or so channels on most cable systems. Each viewer is precious and you can only program one show at a time. So program for the largest audience you can find, because that's how you get paid. Share of viewership is everything.

There's only one shelf in front of that bookstore visitor at a time. That bit of shelf space is quite valuable... winner take all. Either the book is on that shelf or it's not.

And every trade show booth takes up a few hundred square feet. There can only be one booth in each location, so the trade show operator charges as much as she can for this particular spot. And having paid so much, the exhibitor tries to get people in and prevent them from leaving so soon. All of them.


And it's a big but...

In a world where everything is a click away, and in a world where everyone can have their own YouTube channel, ten blogs and a thousand email accounts... the only thing that's scarce is attention.

Shelf space is worthless now. Why worry about making a particular hour of radio all encompassing and wildly popular when you are welcome to broadcast a hundred hours--and people can listen whenever they like.

[Stop for a second and think about the fact that there is no real gatekeeper, no scarce shelf space, no superpowerful owner of spectrum in the long run... how does that change your work?]

FlashmaticThe idea that someone can program our consumption is becoming obsolete, and fast. The front page of the paper disappears in a digital world, where there is no front page--merely the page I got to by clicking on a link from a friend. The tenth minute of a sitcom isn't necessarily the part that comes after the ninth minute, and in fact, I might never even get to minute nine.

Fifty years ago, the remote control freaked out TV executives. Today, the exception is the linear consumer, the rare bird that sits from the beginning to the end. Weird is in, mass is fading.

In a world of surfers, all you can do is work to make the best wave you can. The real revolution is that you get to make waves, not just ride them.

There's nothing wrong with having a plan

Plans are great.

But missions are better. Missions survive when plans fail, and plans almost always fail.

Six questions for analyzing a website

It's tempting to believe that any website can become a perpetual motion machine of profit. But before you start one, invest in one or go to work for one, a few things to ask:

  1. What's the revenue per visit? (RPM). For every thousand visitors, how much money does the site make (in ads or sales)?
  2. What's the cost of getting a visit? Does the site use PR or online ads or affiliate deals to get traffic? If so, what's the yield?
  3. Is there a viral co-efficient? Existing visitors can lead to new visitors as a result of word of mouth or the network effect. How many new visitors does each existing user bring in? (Hint: it's less than 1. If it were more than 1, then every person on the planet would be a user soon.) This number rarely stays steady. For example, at the beginning, Twitter's co-efficient was tiny. Then it scaled to be one of the largest ever (Oprah!) and now has started to come back down to Earth.
  4. What's the cost of a visitor? Does the site need to add customer service or servers or other expenses as it scales?
  5. Are there members/users? There's a big difference between drive-by visits and registered users. Do these members pay a fee, show up more often, have something to lose by switching?
  6. What's the permission base and how is it changing? The only asset that can be reliably built and measured online is still permission. Attention is scarce, and permission is the privilege to deliver anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them. Permission is easy to measure and hard to grow.

Do the math on successful companies online and compare it to those that are struggling and these six metrics will help you understand the difference. For example, if the RPM is less than the cost of getting a new visitor, you've got trouble. If the site is relying on fads and occasional PR but isn't building a permission base, that's trouble too.

The good news is that each of them can be changed if you're alert and willing to do surgery on the business model and structure of the site.

The ideal structure is a business that's a platform, not merely a place to stop by. Once people move in and become members, they're hesitant to leave, they share permission over time, they tell their friends, their RPM goes up and the cost of acquiring and hosting members goes down. The real question is: are you on that path?

What do you do when you don't know the answer?

"Nothing" is the most common response.

Do nothing until you do know the answer. Study and practice and wait for approval and then do something.

Which is fine (for a surgeon) but what happens most of the time? Most of the time there's something that needs to be done where the answer is unknowable until you do it...

That's what we're waiting for you to do.

When "minimal viable product" doesn't work

One of my favorite ideas in the new wave of programming is the notion of minimal viable product. The thought is that you should spec and build the smallest kernel of your core idea, put it in the world and see how people react to it, then improve from there.

For drill bits and other tools, this makes perfect sense. Put it out there, get it used, improve it. The definition of "minimal" is obvious.

Often, for software we use in public, this definition leads to failure. Why? Two reasons:

1. Marketing plays by different rules than engineering. Many products depend on community, on adoption within a tribe, on buzz--these products aren't viable when they first launch, precisely because they haven't been adopted. "Being used by my peers," is a key element of what makes something like a fax machine a viable product, and of course, your new tool isn't.

With enough patience and push and consistent enthusiasm, these products have a shot at crossing the threshhold. But if the mindset is "see what works and do it more," you'll often discover yourself giving up long before that happens.

2. There's a burst of energy and attention and effort that accompanies a launch, even a minimally viable one. If there's a delay in pick up from the community, though (see #1) it's easy to move on to the next thing, the next launch, the next hoopla, as opposed to doing the insanely hard work of sticking with that thing you already launched.

Inherent in the process of minimal viable product, then, is a trusting, large permission base that will eagerly listen to you, try your new work and let you know what they think. And you don't have the option of building that audience once the product is ready--that's too late.

What good interview questions are actually trying to discover

How long are you willing to keep pushing on a good project until you give up?

How hard is it to get you to change your mind when you're wrong?

How much do you learn from failing?

How long does it take you to learn something new?

How hard is it for you to let someone else take the lead?

How much do you care?

The rest is merely commentary, either that or they're interviewing you for a job that's not as good as you deserve. For those jobs, the only question they're really focusing on is, "will she fit in around here?"

Invitation to a three-day session with me in New York

This is my last public event of the year.

I'm hoping you will consider coming to the Medicine Ball session, which I'll be holding in a loft outside of New York on December 7, 8 and 9, 2011.

I've discovered a few things about the spread of ideas: first, in-person interaction really can't be beat. While digital ideas spread far and fast, there's something really powerful about being in the same room. And second, it often takes more than an hour or two to really dig in and discover not just who else is in the room with you, but what's holding you back and what's available to move you forward. This session is an experiment in generating both skills and breakthroughs over three intensely-focused days.

Applications are processed first-come, first-reviewed, so if you're interested, I hope you'll check it out soon. Feel free to share this invite with anyone on your team who might benefit. Looking forward to seeing you.

Are you doing math or arithmetic?

I have enormous respect for mathematicians. They're doing work on the edge, a cross between art and science and music.

Arithmeticians, not so much. They are merely whacking at a calculator, doing repetitive work better done by a computer or someone cheaper.

Many fields have precisely this same division. There's a chasm between the proven, repetitive work that can be farmed out and the cutting edge risky work that might just change everything.

When someone asks you what you do all day and you respond, "I take what comes into this basket, do a standard process to it and then put it in that basket," it sounds a lot like you're doing arithmetic, doesn't it? Far better to have a job where there are equal parts magic and art involved in processing the stuff in that basket.

Sure, it's harder to figure out the values of the Ramsey numbers, particularly R(5,5), than it is to add together 318 numbers, repeatedly. It's harder to create an original tweet than it is to retweet. It's harder to find metaphor than it is to work through a to do list. Hard work, true. But worth it.

The fall reading list

A semi-regular feature, here are a bunch of books I've been reading that might change the way you do your work and see the world.

Since posting these lists, my Squidoo pages have earned more than $20,000 for charities like the Acumen Fund. Thanks for that. Feel free to start your own.

Accentuating differences

The easiest way to describe your product (or service or candidate or cause) is to outline how it's different from the competition.

"This is just like Brand X, but 5% cheaper, 10% faster, 20% easier to use and it comes in chocolate..."

We do this so often and so naturally that often, we forget to talk about why we made the thing in the first place.

When selling A against B, we might do a great job of explaining why A is better than B, but it's easy to forget that the prospects you are pitching have another option: doing nothing.

How many baskets?

For many organizations, power and growth come from the idea of having lots of customers and even more potential customers. Lots of eggs, lots of baskets.

When one gets annoyed or leaves for a lower price or goes out of business, no big deal, there's always more where he came from. Believing you have an abundance of alternatives means that you can mistreat, ignore or reject any individual if you like. Or make something that merely delights a few, instead of all.

Even a frequent flyer with 100,000 miles on his account is disposable when you have millions of them.

For a few organizations, the opposite is true. One basket, cared for and watched carefully. When no one else can focus on and serve that customer as well as you (because you have no choice, it's your only basket) you have a huge obligation but you also have a platform to do great work.

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