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« March 2013 | Main | May 2013 »

But I don't want to do that, I want to do this

Some of the response to yesterday's post (and just about every time I talk about 'picking yourself') is predictable, sad and frustrated/frustrating. I'd have a lot easier time if I was in the business of telling people how to get picked, if I was working to uncover the proven, secret, time-saving tricks guaranteed to get you noticed...

"It's my turn."

I know you worked hard on paying your dues, on building your skills and in being next. We all know that. But that doesn't mean that the picking system is going to work when you need it to. It's not going to get you into the famous college of your dreams, or featured in a PR blitz or published by Knopf.

"The only way for me to do what I love (play the flute, trade stocks, volunteer with kids, spread the word about my cause...) is to get picked."

This is, to be really frank, nonsense. If, for example, you graduated from the Eastman School of Music, there are many ways to play the cello that don't involve auditioning for an orchestra. You can play house concerts, you can play on the street, you can build your own tribe, you can organize your own ad hoc orchestra. None of these things are official, none of these things are automatic, none of these things are guaranteed. So?

If you want to devote your work and your efforts to getting picked, that's your choice, and more power to you. But I think it's dangerous to start with the assumption that you have no choice.

I heard from a writer who invoked the Josh Bell story about the famous violinist who is treated shabbily by the mass commuter audience, because of course, to them, he's not famous at all. This is supposed to be proof that it matters if you're famous (picked) as opposed to good. In Josh's case, he's both. But if you can't be picked to be famous, at least you can become remarkable.

If you can't get invited to the main stage of TED, then do a TEDx talk, and make your talk so good it can't help but spread. And if you can't get invited to a TEDx, then start your own TED-like event. And if you can't figure out how to organize people, connect them and lead them, perhaps you could focus more energy and risk on that very skill.

If you've built an app that won't be profitable unless you're featured on the front page of iTunes, the problem isn't with the front page of iTunes, the problem is with the design of your app. Ideas built to spread are more likely to spread.

If your plan requires getting picked and you're not getting picked, you need a new plan. I'm betting it will turn out far better in the end, but yes, indeed, I understand that it's harder than being anointed. Your talent deserves the shift in strategy that will let you do your best work.

The problem isn't that it's impossible to pick yourself. The problem is that it's frightening to pick yourself. It's far easier to put your future into someone else's hands than it is to slog your way forward, owning the results as you go.

Grateful Dead vs. Bay City Rollers.

Getting picked (need to vs. want to)

Sure, it's fun to be picked, anointed, given social approval for what you do—the newspaper writes you up, you get invited to speak at graduation, your product gets featured on the front page of a website or blog...

The thing is, it's really difficult to get picked, and those doing the picking don't have nearly the power they used to. (Pause for a second to consider that double math problem: there are way more offerings, creators and choices, and, at the same time, an order of magnitude more media outlets, each with far less power than Oprah or Johnny ever had).

More than twenty years ago, at what he then believed was the high point of his career, Marc Maron auditioned for Saturday Night Live. Lorne wasn't impressed, nor was he kind, and Marc didn't get picked to become a cast member.

Today, of course, Marc's podcast is popular, lucrative and fun. Marc didn't get there because someone picked him, he picked himself (in fact, now he's the one getting pitched).

In the SNL instance, Marc had a career path where he needed to get picked. Unless a casting agent or booker picked him, he had nothing.

With his podcast, though, Marc might still want to get picked, but he's going to do just fine if he's not. By growing from the grassroots, Marc finds his own power. Not because he's still doing the same thing. No, because he's doing a different thing, in a different way, for a different audience, monetizing it differently.

The artist who struggles in obscurity, unfairly ignored because he hasn't been picked--that's a poignant sight. But at some point, the artist has the obligation to seek a different path, one that isn't dependent on a system that doesn't deserve him.

It's easier than ever to imagine a successful project or career or organization that isn't dependent on being picked by those with power.

If you're frustrated that you're not getting picked, one plan is to up your game, to hustle harder, to figure out how to hone a pitch and push, push, push. But in the era of picking yourself, it seems to me that you're better off finding a path that doesn't require you get picked in order to succeed.

The hard parts

In an industrial setting, the obvious plan is to seek out the easy work. You're more likely to get it done with less effort and then move on. The easy customer, the easy gig, the easy assembly line.

Today, though, it's the difficult work that's worth doing. It's worth doing because difficult work allows you to stand out, create value and become the one worth choosing.

Seek out the difficult, because you can. Because it's worth it.

[An aside for entrepreneurs and anyone starting a new project: if you can't describe the hard parts, how will you focus on them? And if there are no difficulties ahead, what makes you think your project is valuable? When I meet an entrepreneur, I always ask this question first--which part of your project is hard?]

Competence vs. possibility

As we get more experienced, we get better, more competent, more able to do our thing.

And it's easy to fall in love with that competence, to appreciate it and protect it. The pitfall? We close ourselves off from possibility.

Possibility, innovation, art--these are endeavors that not only bring the whiff of failure, they also require us to do something we're not proven to be good at. After all, if we were so good at it that the outcome was assured, there'd be no sense of possibility.

We often stop surprising ourselves (and the market) not because we're no good anymore, but because we are good. So good that we avoid opportunities that bring possibility.

In search of resilience

Most of the time, we build our jobs and our organizations and our lives around today, assuming that tomorrow will be a lot like now. Resilience, the ability to shift and respond to change, comes way down the list of the things we often consider.

And yet... A crazy world is certain to get crazier. The industrial economy is fading, and steady jobs with it. The financial markets will inevitably get more volatile. The Earth is warming, ever faster, and the rate and commercial impact of natural disasters around the world is on an exponential growth curve.

Hence the need for resilience, for the ability to survive and thrive in the face of change.

A non-resilient hospital in New York City closed for months because the designers failed to design for a flood. A career as a travel agent ends when, fairly suddenly, people don't need travel agents any longer. A retirement is wiped out because the sole asset in the nest egg is no longer worth what it was.

The choice is to build something that's perfect for today, or to build something that lasts. Because perfect for today no longer means perfect forever.

Here are four approaches to resilience, in ascending order, from brave to stupid:

  • Don't need it
  • Invest in a network
  • Create backups
  • Build a moat

Don't need it is the shortcut to living in crazy times. If you don't have an office, it won't flood. If you have sixteen clients, losing one won't wipe you out.* If your cost of living is low, it's far less exposed to a loss in income. If there are no stairs in your house, a broken hip doesn't mean you have to move. Intentionally stripping away dependencies on things you can no longer depend on is the single best preparation to change.

Invest in a network. When your neighbor can lend you what you need, it's far easier to survive losing what you've got. Cities and villages and tribes with thriving, interconnected neighborhoods find that the way they mesh resources and people, combined with mutual generosity, makes them more able to withstand unexpected change. And yes, the word is 'invest', because the connection economy thrives on generosity, not need.

Create backups. Not just your data (you do have a copy of your data in two or three places, don't you?) but anything that's essential to your career, your family or your existence. A friend with a nut allergy kept a spare epipen at our house—the cost of a second one was small compared to the cost of being without.

Build a moat is the silly one, the expensive Maginot-line of last resort. Build a moat is the mindset of some preppers, with isolated castles that are stocked to overflowing with enough goods to survive any disaster**. Except, of course, they're not. Because they can't think of everything. No one can.

We're tempted to isolate ourselves from change, by building a conceptual or physical moat around our version of the future. Better, I think, to realize that volatility is the new normal.

Putting all your eggs in one basket and watching the basket really carefully isn't nearly as effective as the other alternatives. Not when the world gets crazy.

**Robin Chase describes a friend who said, "My dad had one job his whole life, I'll have seven, and my kids will have seven jobs at the same time."

**and not just preppers, but corporations that act like them

How big is critical mass?

It's classified.

There's a certain mass and size of plutonium that you need to create in order to start a nuclear reaction... a reaction that tips, that spreads, that cycles out of control.

In the idea business, critical mass is the minimum size of the excited audience that leads to a wildfire. People start embracing your idea because, "everyone else is..."

For every idea that spreads, it turns out that the critical mass is different. For example, if I want to start a yo-yo craze at the local elementary school, critical mass might be as small as a dozen of the right kids yo-yo-ing during lunch. In an environment that small and tightly knit, it's sufficient.

On the other hand, the critical mass for a better word processor is in the gazillions, because the current standard is so deeply entrenched and the addressable market is both huge and loosely knit. The chances that you will launch a new word processor that catches on because everyone else is using it are small indeed.

TED talks don't have to reach nearly the proportions of a typical YouTube video in order to have a significant impact, because the population of curious idea spreaders that watch and spread these talks is small and connected. The same isn't true for a new music video from the musician you manage.

If your idea isn't spreading, one reason might be that it's for too many people. Or it might be because the cohort that appreciates it isn't tightly connected. When you focus on a smaller, more connected group, it's far easier to make an impact.

Your manifesto, your culture

It's so easy to string together a bunch of platitudes and call them a mission statement. But what happens if you actually have a specific mission, a culture in mind, a manifesto for your actions?

The essential choice is this: you have to describe (and live) the difficult choices. You have to figure out who you will disappoint or offend. Most of all, you have to be clear about what's important and what you won't or can't do.

Here's one that was published this week, by my friends at Acumen:

Acumen: It starts by standing with the poor, listening to voices unheard, and recognizing potential where others see despair.

It demands investing as a means, not an end, daring to go where markets have failed and aid has fallen short. It makes capital work for us, not control us.

It thrives on moral imagination: the humility to see the world as it is, and the audacity to imagine the world as it could be. It’s having the ambition to learn at the edge, the wisdom to admit failure, and the courage to start again.

It requires patience and kindness, resilience and grit: a hard-edged hope. It’s leadership that rejects complacency, breaks through bureaucracy, and challenges corruption. Doing what’s right, not what’s easy.

Acumen: it’s the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical world. Changing the way the world tackles poverty and building a world based on dignity.

Starts, demands, thrives and requires. Four words that are not in the vocabulary of most organizations.

Starts, as in, "here's where we are, where few others are." Most politicians and corporate entities can't imagine standing with the poor. Apart from them, sure. But with them?

Demands? Demands mean making hard choices about who your competition will be and what standards you're willing to set and be held to.

Thrives, because your organization is only worth doing if it gets to the point where it will thrive, where you will be making a difference, not merely struggling or posturing.

And requires, because none of this comes easy.

David highlights a very different (but strikingly similar) document from HubSpot. The same dynamic is at work: no platitudes, merely a difficult to follow (but worth it) compass for how to move forward.

Both require the hubris of caring, of thinking big and being willing to fail if that's what it takes to attempt the right thing.

It's easy to write something like this (hey, even the TSA has one) but it's incredibly difficult to live one, because it requires difficult choices and the willingness to own the outcome of your actions. If you're going to permit loopholes, wiggle room and deniability, don't even bother.

You don't have to pander

Merely giving the people what they want is a shortcut to banality, mediocrity and invisibility.

The agency that gives its clients exactly what they think they want never deserves to win Agency of the Year, and worse, is rarely seen as the leader in the field, the trusted advisor that is smart enough to know what the client ought to want instead. They certainly can't charge more or hire better team members.

I'm defining pandering as using your perception of your customer's wishes as an excuse to do work you're not proud of.

The public radio station that puts on empty, sensationalist coverage of the current crisis-of-the-year is chasing others down the rabbithole, a chase it can't (and doesn't want to) win. [The excuse is always the same—it's what the listeners want!]

The bookstore that gives customers toys, games and other junk to survive won't long be able to call itself a bookstore.

The restaurant that eagerly serves kids salty, fatty, tasteless junk food because that's all they will eat is inevitably training an entire generation not to eat at restaurants when they grow up.

The architect who proclaims that times are tough and ends up doing nothing but ticky tacky work because it's easy to sell gets the clients he deserves.

The copywriter/editor who trades in meaning for lists, using calculated SEO keyword loading and sensationalism designed to attract the drive-by audience, earns the privilege of doing it again and again, forever.

The reason you don't have to pander is that you're not in a hurry and you don't need everyone to embrace you and your work. When you focus on the weird, passionate, interesting segment of the audience, you can do extraordinary work for a few (and watch it spread) instead of starting from a place of average.

Go ahead and make something for the elites. Not the elites of class or wealth, but the elites of curiosity, passion and taste. Every great thing ever created was created by and for this group.

There's a surprisingly large amount of room at the this end of the market--among those that care enough about what they do to say no, and better yet, to teach the market why they're right.

They earn their niche at the top of the market by leading, not pandering.

Is this the best you can do?

If the answer to this is "yes," and you think you're done, you might be settling too soon.

The right question is, "Is this the best your team can do?" And if you need a better team, it's never been easier to get one. Especially if you're a soloist, a freelancer or a small company--if your upside is limited by the people you're working with, get new people.

Any time you do work yourself, you've chosen not to use the services of someone who's probably better at it than you are. There might be really good reasons for that choice, but inertia isn't one of them.

Committing to a cycle of honest communication

Is there any better way to start a business partnership? Any partnership?

If you're unable to have substantial conversations with your boss and co-workers, go get some professional help. It's not personal, it's business. 

The inability to say the thing that will make everything better (because of fear of shifting the status quo) is a project killer.

Skeuomorphs = failure

For as long as I've been in digital media, skeuomorphs have annoyed me.

The original CD ROMs, for example, often had a home screen that started with a bookshelf, and you clicked on the 'book' you wanted to 'open' (excessive use of quotations intentional). Here's the thing: bookshelves are a great idea if you want to store actual books on an actual shelf. They're a silly way to index digital information, though.

If you haven't guessed, a skeuomorph is a design element from an old thing, added to a new one. I think that printing a cork-colored filter on a cigarette that no longer has cork involved is just fine. But when skeuomorphs get in the way of how we actually use something or build something, they demonstrate a lack of imagination or even cowardice on the part of the designer. (Sooner or later, just about everything, even the alphabet I am writing with, could be considered skeuomorphic... my point is that embracing the convenient at the expense of the effective is where the failure happens).

Craig Mod writes eloquently about this, which reminded me of some of what we did with the covers for the books from the Domino Project more than a year ago. We can take this thinking even further, though.

If a company is organizing to create music on MP3 or ebooks, it makes no sense to steal the organization of the past labels and publishers. High unit pricing, copy protection, significant advances, big launch parties and royalties all make much less sense when the fundamental rules of the product itself have changed. So do things like office buildings and layers of vice presidents.  

Yes, the brain is organized by analogy. Analogy is the key to understanding. But, no, the analogy doesn't have to hit us over the head. The more obvious the analogy, the less effort the creator has put into telling us his story.

When it's cheaper to ship, then risks are lower and you don't need to staff up to avoid mistakes. This means you can take more risks, be less obvious and abandon what feels safe for what is safe.

This consistency of structure is the single biggest reason that motivated market leaders (in any industry) fail to transition to new paradigms--they insist on skeuomorphic business models, bringing along the stuff that got them this far, even when it's unnecessary. This is why Conde Nast is doomed, even as the population spends more (not less) time consuming media.

Yes, it's far easier to get understanding or buy in quickly (from investors, in-laws and users) when you take the shortcut of making your digital thing look and work just like the trusted and proven non-digital thing. But over and over again, we see that the winner doesn't look at all like the old thing. eBay doesn't look like Sotheby's. Amazon doesn't look like a bookstore. The funding for AirBnB doesn't look like what it took to get Marriott off the ground...

The only reason to venture into the land of the new is to benefit from the leap that comes when you get it right. So leap. (Well, it's not actually a leap, that's an analogy.)

Frequency, repetition and the power of saying it more than once

"I'm only going to tell you this once..."

There's a lot to be said for conditioning your audience to listen carefully. If they know that valuable information is only going to come at them once, they'll be more alert for it.

Alas, as the nois-o-sphere gets noisier still, this approach is hard to justify. 

Repetition increases the chance that you get heard.

Repetition also increases (for a while) the authority and believability of what you have to say. Listeners go from awareness of the message to understanding to trust. Yes, the step after that is annoyance, which is the risk the marketer always faces.

Delivering your message in different ways, over time, not only increases retention and impact, but it gives you the chance to describe what you're doing from several angles.

In many ways, the mantra of permission conflicts with the mechanics of frequency. If people are loaning you their attention and you're delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages, your need for frequency goes way down. 

If you're using frequency as a tactic to make up for the fact that you're being ignored, you can certainly do better. 

For the rest of us though, saying it twice may in fact be twice as good as saying it once.

Majora Carter and Josh Hanagarne: leading underserved tribes

Big tribes, rich tribes, tribes that change elections or root for sports teams get a ton of press. It's easy to imagine that all the slots leading these glamorous groups are already taken. While we might aspire to be the next Steve Jobs or Jon Stewart, we can fall into the trap of believing that these are roles are reserved for other people. And we're probably right. Leading the masses isn't a gig that comes along very often.

Josh Hanagarne is standing up to lead a different tribe... His new book (out in May) chronicles his lifelong battle with Tourette's (and I use the word 'battle' carefully). This book is funny and poignant and brave, and it will inspire and connect millions of people who have previously felt uninspired and disconnected. It's fascinating to see that his fellow librarians (a different, but also underserved tribe), are lining up in droves to support his work. It's worth a read.

Majora Carter made a huge impact with her breakthrough TED Talk seven years ago, and since then has woven a tribe both inside and outside the South Bronx. Her passion is evident not just in her talk, but in the work she does every single day in pushing governments and corporations to recognize and work with previously ignored communities. The courage and audacity of the underserved can turn into a force for good, and more than that, can galvanize the tribe itself to achieve more than it thought it ever could.

Both Josh and Majora are in the business of shining a light and giving identity to tribes that many would prefer to remain invisible. They are outwardly focused, doing the work for the tribe they care about. The magic of the times we live in is that these opportunities are everywhere we choose to find them.

The key is understanding that while the general public can root for you and learn from you, the people you truly care about number in the thousands (or possibly millions) but they're not everyone. They're the people who matter to you. And you to them.

[Lots of free stuff and Tribes book info here.]

Where's your tribe? They need you.

Avoiding the custom bully

Here's the thing: no matter how much you paid for your ticket, you never bother to even try bullying the conductor or the gate agent to get your train or plane to leave a few minutes later.

It leaves when it leaves, that's the deal.

Part of the challenge of selling custom work is that it sometimes seems that everything is up for grabs. You should stay up all night for a week. You should rearrange the orchids in order of smell, because even though it's not in the spec, hey, that would be good service, and we are paying a lot...

Promising perfect is actually not nearly as useful as promising what the rules are.

Boundaries eliminate the temptation to bully. State them early and often and don't alter them and believe it or not, the client will be happier as well. They didn't sign up to ruin your life. They signed up to get the most they could from you and your team, and the limits are the limits.

Conservation of energy in conversation

If you escalate (cut off in traffic, angry at the gate agent, frustrated at your boss), you've just added (negative) energy to a conversation.

If you escalate (high-pitched enthusiasm, a hug, encouraging words), you've just added (positive) energy to a conversation.

Once the energy is added, it has to go somewhere. Often, the person you're engaging with throws it right back, or even increases it. A talented, mature person might take your negative energy and de-escalate it, or even swallow it and permit the conversation to calm down or end. But don't count on it.

Sure, you can 'win' a conversation by overwhelming your opponent with energy they can't handle. But of course, they're not your opponent and you don't really win. Being aware of the energy you add or take from interactions is a sophisticated technique that radically changes the outcomes of the conversations that fill your day. Add the good stuff, absorb the bad stuff and focus on the outcomes, not the bravado.

The easy trap

The prospects that are the easiest to engage with online--the ones that believe big promises, simple come-ons and garish interfaces--are often the very people who will become your lowest-value customers.

The person who's the easiest to get a first date with might not be the person you want to marry. When I was selling new media promotions in 1994 (!), many big companies had someone in charge of buying new stuff. They were easy to meet with, easy to make a small sale to--but ultimately a waste of time. That's because they were charged with buying things that were new, not what worked. Once we weren't new, we couldn't get repeat business from them. No, it was the other guy, the guy who bought what worked, the one in charge of the real budget--he wasn't easy, but he was worth it...

If it's easy to get a meeting or make a first sale, consider that the very ease that enabled that sale might be a sign that the long-term value of this customer is pretty low. It's easy to get the door answered if you're selling vacuum cleaners house to house, not so easy to get a meeting with the head of merchandising at Wal-Mart. It's easy to get the tech-savvy hordes to sign up for your new whiz-bang free beta, hard to visualize how these easily bored window shoppers are going to become your tribe.

But if all you're doing is measuring the response rate of your initial pitches, you're going to ring more doorbells, not do the long-term trust-building work of earning a reputation.

The brand is a story. But it's a story about you, not about the brand.

Why prefer Coke over Pepsi or GE over Samsung or Ford over Chevy?

In markets that aren't natural monopolies or where there are clear, agreed-upon metrics, how do we decide?

Yes, every brand has a story—that's how it goes from being a logo and a name to a brand. The story includes expectations and history and promises and social cues and emotions. The story makes us say we "love Google" or "love Harley"... but what do we really love?

We love ourselves.

We love the memory we have of how that brand made us feel once. We love that it reminds us of our mom, or growing up, or our first kiss. We support a charity or a soccer team or a perfume because it gives us a chance to love something about ourselves.

We can't easily explain this, even to ourselves. We can't easily acknowledge the narcissism and the nostalgia that drives so many of the apparently rational decisions we make every day. But that doesn't mean that they're not at work.

More than ever, we express ourselves with what we buy and how we use what we buy. Extensions of our personality, totems of our selves, reminders of who we are or would like to be.

Great marketers don't make stuff. They make meaning.

Paying attention (to someone else's agenda)

The person who sets your media/incoming queue owns your best work.

There goes another an hour. An hour of responding to incoming from people I can't help, looking at stats that don't matter, thinking about problems that aren't the ones I set out to solve, and waiting for a response when I should be creating instead.

Choose wisely. It's perhaps the most important decision we make, every day.

100 days later

I've been around literally thousands of book publishing projects, and in one respect, they're mostly the same.

They're the same in that the focus is on the launch, on the first week, or two weeks, or maybe a month.

How do we get shelf space and reviews and hoopla? How do we pile up the pre-sales and endorsements and wonderful recommendations? You even hear of authors tweaking the number of words per page or publicists trading people off against one another just to guarantee an early pop.

While this makes sense for the movies, where week 1 determines how many screens you get for week 2, it makes a lot less sense in the land of infinite shelf space that is the online bookstore. Movies get kicked out of first run theater release (and then end up in all-you-can-eatville, Netflix), but a book (and the project you're about to launch, as well) have a halflife measured in years or decades, not days.

The problem with a great launch strategy is it just might sabotage your real goal, which is a project that lasts. The risk of changing your product or service so that it launches well is that you may end up changing it into something that doesn't hold up.

Let's be clear--the product is more than ever the marketing. The danger kicks in when the marketing focus is so weighted toward the launch that we end up changing the product to serve that goal.

Not just books, of course. Google launched slow. So did just about every successful web service. And universities. And political movements...

Every day, I get letters from people who found The Icarus Deception at just the right moment in their careers. It has opened doors for people or given them the confidence to keep going in the face of external (and internal resistance). It's a book for the long haul. I didn't put a brand new secret inside, holding back for the sensational launch. Instead, I tried to create a foundation for people willing to do a better (and scarier) sort of work. 

It doesn't happen on launch day... it happens after people hear an interview or read your book or try your product. One day. Eventually. When you plan for 100 days instead of one, that graceful spread is more likely to happen.

"One of us is wrong...

and it's not me."

That's the way every single conflict begins. Of course it does, because if it didn't, it wouldn't be a conflict, would it?

So, given that the other person is sure you're wrong, what are you going to do about it? Pointing out that they're wrong doesn't help, because now you've said the second thing in a row that your partner/customer/prospect/adversary doesn't believe is true.

The thing that's worth addressing has nothing much to do with the matter at hand, and everything to do with building credibility, attention and respect. Only then do you have a chance to educate and eventually persuade.

We cure disagreements by building a bridge of mutual respect first, a bridge that permits education or dialogue or learning. When you burn that bridge, you've ensured nothing but conflict.

We are not living in a movie

We're not even living in a lousy reality show.

Entertainment has seduced us into believing that we have a chance to live the life they live in the movies. Even the people in the movies don't live that life.

It doesn't take 135 minutes to make a life, it takes almost a century.

Everything doesn't depend on what happens in the next ninety seconds. Ever.

The people around us don't live secret lives. Spaceships and evil cowboys and pathogens aren't going to upend the world tomorrow, either.

Life is actually far better than it is in the movies. And it takes longer.

First, do no harm--three rules for public interfaces

When we think of design, we usually imagine things that are chosen because they are designed. Vases or comic books or architecture...

It turns out, though, that most of what we make or design is actually aimed at a public that is there for something else. The design is important, but the design is not the point. Call it "public design"...

Public design is for individuals who have to fill out our tax form, interact with our website or check into our hotel room despite the way it's designed, not because of it.

In the quest to make it work better, look better or become more powerful, sometimes we do precisely the wrong thing, because we forget about the 'public' part of public design. If the user isn't focused or interested in the innovation of our design, we have an obligation to get out of the way.

Rule 1: The more often a device is used by first-time users, the more standardized the interface should be. 

For example, the shower in a hotel. Some of the most elegant, clever design ever created by man exists in the dials and wheels in the hotel shower. All of it is worse than a waste--it's dangerous and time-consuming. Guests don't want to learn a new way to turn on the shower, they don't want to burn themselves, they just want the water to come out, at the right temperature, in the right direction, with the right quantity. The first time.

Rule 2: Who gets left out is the most important question.

Small ramps are better than a few stairs, given the choice. The more of the public we include, by definition, the better the choice.

Everyone takes a shower without their glasses, and yet the little, indistinguishable bottles in the shower often have 12 point type describing what's inside. No, I'm not going to wear reading glasses in the shower. Shampoo maybe

If the disabled, the elderly, or those without the latest browser can't use what you've created, it doesn't deserve to be in public.

Rule 3: The best interface is no interface.

Great design tells a story. It moves a product from one category to another, increases yield, creates efficiencies and most of all, adds beauty to the interaction.

But it doesn't have to shout. Or confuse. The pro user, the individual who chose your design because it is something she wants to use every day--this user appreciates the power and the beauty you've created. But in public, for the infrequent passerby, do not call attention to what you've built. We have other things to do. The best designer understands what's important.

Don't abdicate the responsibility for great public design. Do not settle for inefficient, banal or ugly. But at the same time, respect the rules. Anyone can grandstand, but it takes real skill to do great public design that works. We're not looking for design we notice... no, it's design that improves the experience for the public that is the best public design.

Where are your assets?

Do work and get paid once. Build an asset and get paid for as long as it lasts.

A retailer or a restaurant owner might work 18 hours a day--but the landlord makes just as much money from that effort, often more. The cheeseburger gets paid for once, but the rent bill comes every month.

Real estate is an obvious and simple form of asset. In 1928, my great grandfather traded his real estate assets for the sure thing of the stock market. The biggest difference between the rental houses he owned and the worthless stocks he bought was that the houses paid rent every month, while the stocks offered merely the promise of a later payoff.

Some of the assets you can build, not just buy:

Your brand. A brand isn't a logo. It's a promise and an expectation. When you overdeliver, you earn trust, trust that can bring you repeat business, access to new opportunities and the privilege of being able to count on your customers coming back. (Yes, it does hurt to ask).

Permission. The privilege of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to the people who want to get them. People who would miss you if you were gone.

Expertise. You might lose your job, but they can't take away what you've learned. If all you've just done is what you've done before, you might get paid, but you didn't earn an asset.

In just three words, then, there's the huge chasm between the trusted, experienced freelancer, the one you're happy to hear from when she has a new idea, and the newbie or the short-term maximizer. Those guys have to start from scratch, each and every time.

Think about the individual, the entrepreneur or the small organization that has built up trust with a given market, that has permission to talk to that market and that has the expertise to execute on what it promises... Once you have those three, you call the shots. If, on the other hand, you're merely a hard-working employee, doing what you're told, you're never going to get what your effort ought to produce.

Other assets companies can build include processes or machinery and a loyal and talented workforce. Individuals, though, can pay attention to, protect and amplify the first three as they do their work. They don't take care of themselves, because there's always pressure to trade them in for short-term rewards.

One of the biggest shifts the connection economy has brought is that assets are no longer reserved for companies and organizations. Now that everyone has the ability to own a slice of the attention paid to media, now that everyone can build and nurture a network, assets are no longer off limits to people who work for a living.

Your choice: intentionally build and nurture your assets, or ignore them in the pursuit of the next thing...

Degrees of freedom

The more choices, the more freedom, the more freedom, the harder it is to decide what to do next.

When parachute jumping, at the key point, there are only two degrees of freedom: jump or not.

When marketing, of course, there are more degrees of freedom than in any other endeavor an organization does. It's almost never A or B. You need several alphabets just to list the available options.

If you don't view that as a good thing, it's probably worth doing something else instead.

When you sell unlimited hope...

then all news is bad news. That's because news is fact, what happened, not hope, and the truth can't possibly be as good as the hope was.

The problem with marketing promises that spin out of control, that pile expectations on top of dreams, is that when reality appears, when the quarterly numbers or the new policies or the final product arrives, it will inevitably disappoint.

This is the challenge of the Kickstarter artist, the growth stock CEO and the well-published author. Dreams are irresistible, but they will never match reality when it finally appears.

Neophilia as a form of hiding

Every once in a while someone will say to me, "yeah, sure, I've heard that before... what do you have that's new?"

In contemporary art or movies, it makes perfect sense to be focused on the bleeding edge, on the new idea that's never been previously contemplated.

But when we're discussing our goals, our passion and the way we interact with the culture, it seems to me that what works is significantly more important than what's new. Racing to build your organization around the latest social network tool or graphics-rendering technology permits you to spend a lot of time learning the new system and skiing in the fresh powder of the unproven, but it might just distract you from the difficult work of telling the truth, looking people in the eye and making a difference.

"I can't describe the value we deliver, I'm too busy integrating this new technology into my workflow!"

All too often, the ones who are aggressively seeking the theory of the day don't have a lot to show for what they did yesterday.


We like positive surprises and fear negative ones.

That means (surprisingly) that it's better to have a consistently negative experience than to confront one that's sometimes negative and sometimes neutral. The TSA, for example, would be easier to take if they were always consistently irrational, time-wasting and disrespectful, thus eliminating the risk and replacing it with certainty.

On the other hand, a positive experience that's positive all the time pales in comparison with the experience that's sometimes neutral but often nice. Beyond a baseline of goodness, you're better off awarding a few people a random discount or a bump up in priority than you are making something consistently (and boringly) slightly more pleasant.

A field guide to the Meeting Troll

The meeting troll is a common creature, one that morphs over time and is good at hiding (snaring you when it's too late to avoid him.)

  1. The meeting troll has a neverending list of reasonable objections. It's the length of the list that makes the objections unreasonable.
  2. The meeting troll never says 'we'. It's all about 'you.'
  3. The meeting troll doesn't actually want you to fail, but is establishing a trail so that if you do, he's off the hook.
  4. Despite his protestations about how much he hates meetings, the meeting troll actually thrives on them, because, after all, this is the only place he gets to do his best work. The very best way to extinguish the meeting troll is to extinguish meetings. The second best way is to not invite him.
  5. A key giveway: The meeting troll will use the phrase, "devil's advocate." More than once.
  6. Growth hackers look for a yes at every turn. The meeting troll thinks his job is to find the no.
  7. The meeting troll never eagerly calls a project meeting, nor does he bring refreshments, volunteer to organize follow up or encourage others to push their ideas even further. He's eager, though, to host the post mortem.
  8. One particularly noxious type of meeting troll says not a thing at the meeting. He uses body language and eye rolling to great advantage, though, and you can be sure that there will be quiet one-on-one undermining going on as soon as the meeting is over. The modern evolution of this is the instant messaging of snide remarks during the meeting.
  9. The meeting troll has a perfect memory for previous failures and complete amnesia when it comes to things that have worked.
  10. Analogies, particularly to vivid flameouts (regardless of how rare or irrelevant) is the easy tool for the amateur troll. He's also good at equating your desire to deal with negative change with the assertion that you somehow caused or were in favor of that negative change.
  11. Open-ended questions that merely hint at failure are sufficient for the experienced troll. He knows that he doesn't have to kill the new project for it to die. He just has to stir up sufficient unease.
  12. The meeting troll is afraid, not merely evil. Change is a threat, and trolling is his well-intentioned but erroneous response to the threat of change.

The loneliness epidemic

The next time you feel lonely, disconnected or unappreciated, consider that unlike many other maladies, this one hits everyone. And unlike other challenges, this one is easily overcome by realizing that you can cure the problem by connecting, appreciating and leading.

The minute we realize that the person sitting next to us needs us (and our tribe, our forward motion and the value we create), we're able to extinguish their aloneness as well as ours.

When you shine a light, both of you can see better.

Is the new Kindle Zero the sign of things to come?

AmazonfreelogoIt was always going to happen, but most of us didn't think it would happen so soon. Every Kindle has been cheaper than the one before it...

This afternoon, Amazon is going to announce the Kindle Zero, (screenshot) the first ebook reader that's free (to Prime members, of which there are millions). If you want one, you should hurry, because free goes quick... (here's a sneak preview of the prototype Zero)

The trend has been clear--electronic devices always get cheaper, and locking people into a platform has always been profitable. Hotmail, search engines... free is the driver of attention.

Beyond the surprise of leaping into the free reader, though, are the announcements from Random House and Wiley that 10% of their titles (the ones that used to be free) will now come with a cash incentive. (HT to Kevin for the original idea).

Read a book, get paid in cash. This is beyond free.

People have long treated reading books as a chore, as work, as something to do as little as possible. Now, for the first time, you can get paid for the drudgery of reading.

What this means is simple: you can now order 150 books and a new Kindle and get paid more than $3,000 just for accepting them and reading them when you can. Dense, difficult books like Russian tragedies and others earn you even more, up to $45. Per book. And of course, how-to books earn you hundreds of dollars each, but you do have to read them.

Of course there will be ads. Once it's free, you're not the customer any more, you're the product.

As a pioneer in free ebooks more than ten years ago, I feel like I have to keep up, hence my announcement today that to go with the new Kindle Zero, the free edition of my new book comes with a new Buick LeSabre or a large fig newton, your choice. While supplies last, one per customer.

[Ways to analyze this post: Check the date. Note the absurdity of $3000 per Kindle (with a million out there, that would a be a three billion dollar hit to an industry that can ill afford it). Note the fig newton reference. Note the silly drawing. See you next year.]

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