Can you change?
Are you stuck with your habits, your knowledge, your weight, your fitness, your interpersonal skills? Is your future a slightly different rerun of your past?
We spend an enormous amount of time and money seeking to reinvent and upgrade ourselves, working to give up something, start something, build something or change something about who we are and what we do.
And we usually fail.
It's tempting to say, "this is who I am, habits are hardwired, it's in my DNA, I'm going to live with it." Tempting, and an easy way out.
Change is hard, sometimes nearly impossible. But if even one person as far behind as we are has dug in and done enough work to finish that marathon, to change that habit or to learn that skill, it means that it's not impossible. Merely (astonishingly) difficult.
Knowing that it's possible is 86% of the project.
Hundreds of years ago, Hermes and Louis Vuitton started out as luxury makers of tools. If you needed a saddle or a suitcase, they offered an extraordinary option, both elite and useful.
Over time, they shifted gears, no longer competing on whether or not their luggage was the most useful, or their saddles the most efficient. They competed on luxury, which is a fundamentally different promise than the optimal design of a tool.
Patagonia is still a luxury tools company. The coats they sell cost more, but some professionals choose them regardless of brand, because in addition to tribal affiliation and the placebo that comes from buying a luxury good, they're still extraordinarily functional.
High end consulting and design firms also sell luxury goods. So do many conferences and elite restaurants and travel destinations. A big part of what you pay for is the story, the experience and the process, not the advice or the logotype or the learning you end up with...
Over the last year, Apple has heavily invested in the luxury component of their future. They've hired executives from Burberry and the Swiss watch industry and re-committed to their luxury-structured retail stores as well.
The challenge they face, the challenge you'll face if you choose to try to combine function with the top of the market, is that eventually, these two paths diverge. When Apple dumbs down Pages or Keynote or allows open bugs to fester for months or years, they're taking the luxury path at the expense of the tools path. Compounding the impact, when systems are upgraded, they often choose to break some of the utility and UI that their tool-using customers rely on. (When tools evolve and get more complicated, the cost of keeping the bugs out goes up. You must either choose to invest in improving the efficacy of the tool or in making it prettier/more luxurious/more popular. It's hard to do both.)
Do we change this system font because it matches our look or because it's more efficient? Do we sell these headphones because they sound better or because they carry a powerful tribal effect? Do we fix these bugs or build something new?
The tension of tools/luxury sounds like this: On one hand, you might hear, "you've lost your cachet," or, "the fit and finish isn't there," or, "I'm seeing the hoi polloi buying the brand at H&M and on the street, it's peaked." This is what happened to Uggs and to countless other brands before them. On the other hand, the tool maker fears hearing, "your analysis isn't crisp," or, "the food isn't as good as it used to be," or, worst of all, "there's a new guy making something that works better."
The luxury maker doesn't really fear hearing that her food isn't cutting edge. On the other hand, she lives in fear that she won't be seen as an essential choice by the fashionable elite. And the tool maker works to avoid the opposite problem.
Those tensions have undermined many large ad agencies recently, as they wrestle with how to help their clients do authentic social media at the same time they have to support the overhead and corporate-luxury positioning that TV enabled.
Honda cars are tools that have been painstakingly evolved over the years to function exactly as promised. But the brand is boring and profits aren't commensurate with how well they've solved the problem they set out to solve. On the other hand, few Jimmy Choo customers complain about their inability to run a marathon in profitable high heels.
It's possible (but unlikely) that Apple will become the first long-term cutting-edge tool maker that simultaneously exists as a profitable luxury brand. It's unlikely that your firm will pull that off as well.
At some point in the evolution of every luxury brand, the users who care more about tools than about luxury begrudgingly shift away to more functional options. Not all at once, but it has always happened (so far).
Do you make your own paper? Do you start with wood pulp and mix and bleach and set and produce the sheets you use? My guess is that you save time (and a lot of money) and just go to Staples and buy a ream or two.
The theory of the firm shows us that when people work together in an institution, they are able to produce more than if they work separately. Ricardo makes it obvious that if one person mixes the dough while the other bakes the loaves, they'll get more done than if each did the whole job.
This explains one reason why big companies keep getting bigger. They gain economies of production and marketing as they specialize their workforce.
But what about the small enterprise, the freelancer, the soloist?
The web now makes just about every task outsourceable with a click. Not only don't you have to make your own paper (or hire a paper maker) but you can have someone process payroll and bills, design a website, answer customer calls, schedule appointments and a thousand other things you used to need to do on your own.
Which leads to the key question: When you can outsource everything, what do you do? When you can choose the kind of value you create, you are also choosing what you're going to outsource and what you're going to do yourself.
Here are three reasons to do something as part of your work, from worst to best:
0. Because you are the cheapest available worker. Because you need to do something, and it's more profitable for you to do this task than to pay someone else to do it. Because you can't find something more beneficial or profitable to do.
1. Because people (clients) will notice when you do it. That might mean that they notice your presence, or they notice the unique nature of what you create (your art) or they will notice that you've learned something doing this when it leads to you doing something great later on. Mario Batali doesn't cook for 99% of his customers (physically impossible), and they can't tell. And he doesn't design 99% (or 5%, I have no idea) of his recipes, because we can't tell. In fact, the only thing people can tell is that it's him on the TV, and that his decisions are guiding what his organization does next.
2. Because you love it. Because the work matters to you, and this task, right now, is the best version of the work you can find.
Every time you hire yourself to do something (make paper, pay a bill, change a logo design), you've just decided not to do something else instead.
The first step: your job is to make decisions about what you do. And my guess is that what you do is make decisions.
The internet and big media are wrestling with chokepoints.
Cable TV companies, for example, are a natural monopoly in the home. Everyone only has one provider. If the provider has an argument with a TV network, they kick them off, the signal doesn't get through, the viewer gets nothing.
One of the arguments behind the common sense of net neutrality is that chokepoints and tollbooths aren't in the interest of the users.
Now, of course, online stores, if they get big enough, can act as chokepoints. And so can Google.
If you're used to getting this blog delivered for free to your gmail account, it might be missing (I understand the irony in telling you this via a medium you no longer get). That's because Google unilaterally misfiled my daily blog into the promotions folder they created, and I have no recourse and no way (other than this post) to explain the error to them...
And it's not just my email that's misfiled. I just discovered that the Acumen course I'm taking online is showing up unbidden in the same promotions folder...
Permission marketing is about delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them. It's a disservice to reader and writer when an uninvited third party decides to change that relationship.
PS there are lots of ways to follow this blog for free. My favorite is RSS, which has no chokepoints.
"Do you know the head of FIFA?"
"I have come up with a way to speed up airport security dramatically..."
"How come the people in script development at Warner won't get back to me about my Matrix idea?"
If you're intent on making an impact by developing and marketing a big idea, two things to keep in mind:
a. avoid trying to contribute solutions to a popular problem. It's too crowded and the people you're trying to help are almost certainly not open or eager to hear from you. Their attitude is the most important factor in whether or not your idea gains traction, so if the door is closed, you're better off solving a different problem, a problem that's a lot less sexy but far more important and profitable for all concerned.
b. avoid seeking out the figurehead, the Richard Branson/Marissa Mayer person who appears to be in charge, just waiting for you to raise your hand with your great idea. You'll just waste everyone's time and get frustrated as well.
Popular problems and figureheads represent shortcuts. Shortcuts in how you think about your project and shortcuts about finding acceptance. But all the work worth doing is about taking the long way.
MBP is a particularly tragic form of child abuse. Parents or caregivers induce illness in their kids to get more attention.
The thing is, the media does this to us all the time. (Actually, we've been doing it to ourselves, by rewarding the media for making us panic.)
It started a century ago with the Spanish American War. Disasters sell newspapers. And a moment-by-moment crisis gooses cable ratings, and horrible surprises are reliable clickbait. The media rarely seeks out people or incidents that encourage us to be calm, rational or optimistic.
Even when they're not actually causing unfortunate events, they're working to get us to believe that things are on the brink of disaster. People who are confident, happy and secure rarely stay glued to the news.
The media is one of the most powerful changes we've made to our culture/our lives (I'd argue that the industrial revolution and advances in medicine are the other two biggest contenders). And yet because we're all soaking in it, all the time, we don't notice it, don't consider it actively and succumb to what it wants, daily.
Steven Pinker's brilliant book makes it clear that the world is safer than it's ever been. A large reason his thesis feels wrong to so many is that the media wants us to think that we're on a precipice, every day. Paradoxically, the cultural-connection power of the media is one reason why things are actually safer. [Check out Matt Ridley's optimistic take as well].
I'm fascinated by this paradox. By connecting us, by integrating cultures and by focusing attention on injustice, the media has dramatically improved the quality of life for everyone on the planet. At the same time, by amplifying the perception of danger and disaster, the media has persuaded us that things are actually getting worse. It creates a reason for optimism and then makes a profit by selling pessimism.
I don't think the media-industrial complex has earned the pass we give it. They built what we wanted, they built what worked, but the race for attention often is conflated with a race to the bottom. It takes guts to say, "no, we're not going to go there, even if the audience is itching for it."
We're the media now, and we can do better.
When you present to a board, to potential investors, they ask themselves some questions about your new project:
Is there a problem?
Do I like the solution—is it free, instant and certain, or at least close enough to be interesting?
Are you the one to take this problem on and create this solution?
Is the way you’re doing it the way I would do it?
And, is it urgent, or can I wait?
Note that the order of the questions matters a lot. If you bring me a solution for a problem I haven't been sold on, you lose. And if your solution is risky and difficult, I'm almost certainly going to work hard to begin diminishing the problem in my mind, because no one finds it easy to walk around with a difficult problem.
"Selling enough records to make another record."
Rick Rubin started DefJam in his NYU dorm. Steve and I built TSR in Curtis Hall, and I went on to build my publishing business in my wife's dorm at NYU. It happens more than you might guess, and the reason it works is something you can use, even if you're not in college or living in a dorm...
You sell enough records to make another record.
You're not trying to sell the company or to make a huge payroll or to make sure the stock options are in place. You're building something.
The only way to build something when you don't have money to invest is to make something so great that people will pay for it in advance, that they'll eagerly sign up to use what you're making. Now not later. Now when it's new. When it's useful and fresh and interesting.
Too often, we look at the serious nature of starting a business (and worse, our imagined serious implications of failing when we do so) and we forget about useful, fresh or interesting. We forget to do that thing that might not work, to expose ourselves to things that are generous and new and fun.
You don't have to quit your day job to start something, just as you don't have to drop out of college to do so. You have weekends and evenings and all that time you're online...
Make another record.
They are tribal symbols. They're a beacon, a way we know where to assemble and where to hang out.
But they are not us. They are not real. Just symbols.
Don't win the game for the wolverine, don't root for one side because of the orange stripes on their flag. That's obvious. But sometimes, a human being is a stand-in for a mascot, and when he misbehaves or disappoints, we confuse his role with what we stand for. We defend him as if we're defending ourselves, because he's a symbol.
Symbols don't do anything. People do. We do.
If you lease a car, borrow money for school or engage in some other complex transaction, there's a contract to sign. It's filled with rules and obligations, and the profit-maximizing finance organization does everything it can to do as little as it can (and make you responsible for as much as it can). This sort of contract has evolved into a battle, an effort to get something now and deliver as little as possible later. Loopholes and fine print are there for a reason, and it's not to make you happy. Contracts like this are about the past. "We agreed on this, go read your copy, we don't care so much that you're annoyed, goodbye."
A handshake deal, on the other hand, is about the future. Either side can claim loopholes or wriggle out of a commitment, but the consequence is clear—if you disappoint us, we won't be back for more. The participant in a handshake deal is investing in the future, doing more now in exchange for the benefits that trust and delight and consistency bring going forward.
It might pay to write your handshake deal down, to memorialize the key promises in an email. If your goal is to delight and to exceed expectations, the more clear you are about the expectations, the more likely it is you'll exceed them.
But it also pays to hesitate when you (or your advisors) start pushing to transform the handshake about the future into a contract about the past. "I'm hoping to do this again with you," evokes a very different reaction than, "but you said..."
Maybe that's the problem.
Perhaps it's better to commit to wading instead.
Ship, sure. Not the giant life-changing, risk-it-all-venture, but the small.
When you do a small thing, when you finish it, polish it, put it into the world, you've made something. You've committed and you've finished.
And then you can do it again, but louder. And larger.
It's easy to be afraid of taking a plunge, because, after all, plunging is dangerous. And the fear is a safe way to do nothing at all.
Wading, on the other hand, gets under the radar. It gives you a chance to begin.
There's not much overlap.
Regardless of how you measure 'best' (elegance, deluxeness, impact, profitability, ROI, meaningfulness, memorability), it's almost never present in the thing that is the most popular.
The best restaurant, Seinfeld episode, political candidate, brand of beer, ski slope, NASDAQ stock, you name it. Compare them to the most popular.
Big is a choice. So is best.
Just one more level on this game, she says. Once I get to level 68, I'll be done.
Just one more tweak to the car, they beg. Once we bump up the mileage, we'll be done.
Just one more lotion, she asks. Once I put that on, my skin will be perfect and I'll be done.
Of course, the result isn't the point. The mileage or the ranking or slightly more alabaster or ebony isn't the point. The point is the longing.
Desire can't be sated, because if it is, the longing disappears and then we've failed, because desire is the state we seek.
We've expanded our desire for ever more human connection into a never-ceasing parade of physical and social desires as well. Amplified by marketers and enabled by commerce, we race down the endless road faster and faster, at greater and greater expense. The worst thing of all would be if we actually arrived at perfect, because if we did, we would extinguish the very thing that drives us.
We want the wanting.
[HT Robert Hass]
The job is no longer to recite facts, to read the bio out loud, to explain something better found or watched online.
No, the job is to personally and passionately make us care enough to look up the facts for ourselves.
When you introduce a concept, or a speaker, or an opportunity, skip the reading of facts. Instead, make a passionate pitch that drives inquiry. In the audience, in your employees, in your customers...
The only reason people don't look it up is that they don't care, not that they're unable. So, your job is to get them to care enough.
[You can even send them to DuckDuckGo, if you can handle three syllables.]
There is famous and there is famous to the family. Cousin Aaron is famous to my family. Or, to be less literal, the family of people like us might understand that Satya the milliner or perhaps Sarma Melngailis or Peter Olotka are famous.
And famous to the family is precisely the goal of just about all marketing now. You don't need to be Nike or Apple or GE. You need to be famous to the small circle of people you are hoping will admire and trust you. Your shoe store needs to be famous to the 300 shoe shoppers in your town. Your retail consulting practice needs to be famous to 100 people at ten major corporations. Your Wordpress consulting practice needs to be famous to 650 veterinarians or chiropractors. Famous the way George Clooney and George Washington are famous, but to fewer people.
By famous, I means admired, trusted, given the benefit of the doubt. By famous, I mean seen as irreplaceable or best in the world.
Here's how to tell if you're famous: If I ask someone in your community to name the person who is known for X, will they name you? If I ask about which store or freelancer is the best place, hands down, to get Y, will they name you? If we played 20 questions, could I guess you?
Being famous to the family is far more efficient than being famous to everyone. It takes focus, though.
Famous to the family (of boardgame fans) is the key to making my friend Peter's Cosmic Encounter Kickstarter hit its goal. Or Ramon Ray's new magazine getting traction. Famous to the family is what this IndieGogo needs in order to change kids' lives. And failing to be famous to the family is precisely why most Kickstarters fail.
[HT to me, I wrote something about this three and a half years ago, but I forgot, and so did most people I talk about this with, so here it is again.]
If you say that in a meeting, you've failed. You've abdicated responsibility and just multiplied the time wasted by the number of people in the room.
When we go around the room, everyone in the room spends the entire time before their turn thinking about what to say, and working to say something fairly unmemorable. And of course, this endless litany of 'saying' leads to little in the way of listening or response or interaction or action of any kind.
The worst example I ever saw of this was when Barry Diller did it in a meeting with 220 attendees. More than two hours later, everyone in the room was bleeding from their ears in boredom.
Leaders of meetings can do better. Call on people. Shape the conversation. Do your homework in advance and figure out who has something to say, and work hard to create interactions. Either that or just send a memo and cancel the whole thing. It's easier and probably more effective.
In a world that lacks so many traditional gatekeepers, there are fewer people than ever to say no to your project, your idea, your song. If you want to put it out there, go ahead.
On the other hand, that also means that there are fewer people who can say yes. That's now your job too.
If you work in an organization, the underlying rule is simple: People are not afraid of failure, they’re afraid of blame.
Avoid looking in the mirror and saying no. More challenging: practice looking in the mirror and saying yes.
Wrap it in a bow
Serve it on ice
What's worth more, the frame or the poster? It turns out that a well-framed bit of graphics is often transformed, at least in the eyes of the person engaging with it. It might be the very same beautiful object that was thumbtacked to the wall, but it sure feels different.
And an unwrapped piece of jewelry is worth far less without the blue box, isn't it?
The wrapper isn't everything, it might not even be the point. But it matters.
"How should I judge this," is something we ask ourselves all the time. When you make the effort to give us a hint, we'll often take the hint.
There's a relationship that's easy to imagine but actually incorrect: We often come to the conclusion that in order to make something magical, we'll need magical events to occur to get there.
Building a startup is hard. Publishing a great book successfully is quite difficult. Launching a non-profit that matters is a Herculean task. I hope you will do all three, and more, often.
But while your intent is pure and your goal is to create magic, the most common mistake is to believe that the marketplace will agree with your good intent and support you. More specifically, that media intermediaries will clearly, loudly and accurately tell your story, that this story will be heard by an eager and interested public and that the public will take action (three strikes).
Or, more tempting, that ten people will tell ten people to the eighth power, leading to truly exponential growth (some day). Because right now, you've told ten people and they have told no one.
Or, possibly, that you will call on businesses and offer them a solution so powerful that they will pay you at that very first meeting, generating enough cash flow that you will be able to immediately hire more (and better) salespeople to grow your organization exponentially.
All great organizations make change. Change is hard. Change takes time. In markets that matter (meaning not gossip, not snark, not spectator sports), people rarely tell dozens of other people about what they've discovered. And action is taken, sometimes, but not as much as you deserve.
No, you'll need to work hard to create something magical, and a big part of that hard work is relentlessly eliminating all magical thinking from your projections and your expectations of how the market will react.
Only count on things that have happened before, a funnel you can buy and time you can afford to invest. Anything more than that is a nice bonus.
[HT, worth reading: Aaron]
On Wednesday, November 5, 2014, I'll be doing a small group master class in San Francisco for tech startups.
I'll also be part of a fascinating series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on December 1.
If you can't make it, some free lectures and podcasts that might come in handy:
The startup school, a 15-session free course, recorded live (forgive the occasional audio difficulties). This one has really resonated with many of the entrepreneurs and freelancers that have listened to it. Also...
With Chris Taylor
With Grant Spanier
With Mark Guay
With Brian Koppelman
Also! Please consider this 1,000 smiles campaign.