"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.
The most urgent jobs tend to be line jobs. Profit and loss. Schedules to be drawn and honored. Projects to deliver.
The line manager initiates. The line manager delivers.
Staff jobs are important, no doubt about it. The staff keeps the lights on, provides resources on demand and is standing by ready to help the line manager. But the staff person doesn't get to say yes and doesn't get to say go.
In fact, the best staff people get that way by acting like they're on the line.
When you can, take responsibility. Say go.
It's tragic but not surprising to watch the marketing of another epidemic unfold.
It starts with, "We" don't have Ebola, "they" do. They live somewhere else, or look different or speak another language. Our kneejerk reaction is that "they" need to be isolated from us (more than 55% of Americans favor a travel ban for everyone, not just the sick). Even fifty years ago, a travel ban was difficult, now it's impossible. The world is porous, there are more connections than ever, and we've seen this before.
Tuberculosis. Polio. AIDS. Fear runs rampant, amplified by the media, a rising cycle of misinformation, demonization and panic. Fear of the other. Pushing us apart and paralyzing us.
The thing is:
We are they.
They are us.
Education—clear, fact-based and actionable education—is the single most effective thing we can do during the early stages of a contagion. Diseases (and ideas) spread because of the social structures we have created, and we can re-engineer those interactions to dramatically change the R0 of a virus. Ebola doesn't 'know' that large funerals are traditional, but it certainly takes advantage of them to spread. Ideas don't 'know' that bad news travels fast, and that the internet makes ideas travel faster, but they take advantage of this to spread.
Cable TV voices that induce panic to make their ratings go up are directly complicit in amplifying the very reactions that magnify the impact of the virus. Attention-seeking media voices take us down. All of us.
It's tempting to panic, or to turn away, or to lock up or isolate everyone who makes us nervous. But we can (and must) do better than that. Panic, like terror, is also a virus, one that spreads.
We have an urgent and tragic medical problem, no doubt, but we also have a marketing problem.
It's possible to bend language to your will, to invest extraordinary amounts of effort and care to make words do what you want them to do.
Our culture celebrates athletes that shape their bodies, and chieftains who build organizations. Lesser known, but more available, is the ability to work on our words until they succeed in transmitting our ideas and causing action.
Here's the thing: you may not have the resources or the physique or the connections that people who do other sorts of work have. But you do have precisely the same keyboard as everyone else. It's the most level playing field we've got.
The first step is to say it poorly. And then say it again and again and again until you're able to edit your words into something that works.
But mostly, you need to decide that it matters.[HT: Shawn]
One list highlights the lucky breaks, the advantages, the good feedback, your trusted network. It talks about the accident of being born in the right time and the right place, your health, your freedom. It features your education, your connection to the marketplace and just about every nice thing someone has said about you in the last week or month.
The other list is the flipside. It contains the obstacles you've got to deal with regularly, the defects in your family situation, the criticisms your work has received lately. It is a list of people who have better luck than you and moments you've been shafted and misunderstood.
The thing is, at every juncture, during every crisis, in every moment of doubt, you have a choice. You will pull out one (virtual) list or the other. You'll read and reread it, and rely on it to decide how to proceed.
Up to you.
We see the same four steps, over and over:
Struggle: At the beginning, no one knows what you make or why they need it. They are unaware and distrustful too. Sometimes the struggle never ends, other times the story is so compelling and the value created so in demand that it appears to go by quickly. But the struggle is always there. Most marketing (as opposed to advertising) lives in this stage, because you're starting from zero.
Servant: As a soon-to-be-successful organization gains traction, it has a choice. It can move to servant mode, delighting and connecting customers, exceeding expectations and performing what seems like miracles. Or it can take profits as soon as it can. The former leads to scale, the short-term approach usually results in more struggle.
Bully: As the organization gains power (and constituents) it is under pressure to increase profits and market share and lock in. The market power leads to more market power and the ability to cause customers or partners to shift their strategy in deference. (To be clear, I define a bully as an individual or organization that uses physical or other power to cause someone less powerful to act against their enlightened long-term self interest to satisfy their demands.) "We make the rules now."
Utility: No organization stays in bully mode forever. The step after this is utility, the organization that serves a function, makes a profit, and is often taken for granted.
Bitcoin is still in the struggle stage. Microsoft clearly went through all four of these stages a decade ago. Federal Express skipped the bully step, as far as I can tell, and moved straight to utility. AT&T also followed the four steps. So did Standard Oil. Religions that last more than a few generations go through these steps too. During their hyper-growth period, AOL had the chance to become a generations-long utility, but probably worked too hard to exercise their power to gain scale before moving to the utility stage.
While the easy examples to find are the famous, international ones, this can happen on the micro level, within industries or locations or sects as well.
I'd like to believe that the goal is to figure out how to live a life in the servant stage, to create an organization that doesn't become a bureaucratic haven or an avarice-focused engine of profit. As markets shift faster (networks grow faster now than ever before in human history) there's more opportunity to find a sweet spot that dances between servant and utility.
The bottom of the stack is essential, but it always gets easier to take for granted.
Of course electricity comes out of the little hole in the wall when you plug something in.
Of course the email engine works every day.
Of course the chipset returns the right calculations.
Of course the webpage loads quickly.
Of course the car starts the first time.
Of course the fax machine always works with other brands.
Of course you can call someone across the world for ten cents...
All of these things used to be really hard, random in their reliability, precious when they worked. Today, for most of us, they're a given (but still important).
Value is created as you work your way up to the newer, harder, scarcer parts of the value creation process. And then we'll figure those out and the stack will get taller still.
When the stack catches up, when the work you do is work that's taken for granted, climb up the stack.
PS I have to finalize the print run, so pre-press signups for my new book (www.yourturn.link) end tomorrow. Thanks!
It's tempting to fall into the trap of believing that being good at math is a genetic predisposition, as it lets us off the hook. The truth is, with few rare exceptions, all of us are capable of being good at math.
I'll grant you that it might take a gift to be great at math, but if you're not good at math, it's not because of your genes. It's because you haven't had a math teacher who cared enough to teach you math. They've probably been teaching you to memorize formulas and to be good at math tests instead.
Being good at standardized math tests is useless. These tests measure nothing of real value, and they amplify a broken system.
No, we need to get focused and demanding and relentless in getting good at math, at getting our kids good at math and not standing by when someone lets themselves (and thus us) off the hook. If you can read, you can do math. Math, like reading, isn't optional, it's our future and it helps free us from our fear of creation.
"Can an eight-inch square pizza fit on a nine-inch round plate without draping over the edge?" is a question that should make you smile, not one you should have to avoid.