Before you're asked.
Before she asks for the memo, before the customer asks for a refund, before your co-worker asks for help.
Imagine what the other person needs, an exercise in empathy that might become a habit.
No content online is 'rare', but here are two presentations you might not have seen before:
...from the Maker Faire, and here's a speech I did last year at Nearly Impossible in Brooklyn:
Sometimes it's fun or profitable to throw your weight around, to get customers or partners or students or the media or even local government agencies to do what you need them to do.
Inevitably, weight throwers come to a fork in the road:
Are you doing this to get people to do what's good for them or what's good for you?
When a teacher uses her power to get students to study (not in their short-term interest, at least not right now), she's doing them a service.
When a retailer or manufacturer uses purchasing power and scale to bring a product to market that people weren't expecting, it's probably because the customers will end up delighted.
Any time an organization pushes to change the status quo on behalf of its mission, causing the change they exist to make in the world, they're building something that will last.
But often, the opposite happens. Organizations in power change their pricing or their technology or their policies because it's good for the organization, because it raises quarterly earnings, most often because it's easier for them. They change the way they do support, or the promises they keep to long-term customers and vendors. Often, the people who count beans are making the decisions, not those that count positive change on behalf of those they serve.
And it works. For a while. And then it doesn't, because even powerful organizations don't last forever, especially when those that have been pushed discover that they might just have other options.
Throw your weight around, please. But do it for those you serve, not against them.
That's a common mantra among those that say that they want to leap, but haven't, and aren't, and won't.
What they're actually saying is, "I don't have any ideas that are guaranteed to work, and not only that, are guaranteed to cause no criticism or moments when I'm sure the whole thing is going to fall apart."
And that sentence is probably true.
But no good ideas? C'mon.
Here's a simple hack that takes whatever word you put in the seed box and comes up with a fresh game idea you've never had before. And it can do it over and over and over again. Pretty good ideas are easy. The guts and persistence and talent to create, ship and stick it out are what's hard.
At least you know what's holding you back. The good news is that those skills are available to anyone who cares enough to acquire them.
Yes, it's possible that your particular challenge is unique, that your industry, your job situation, your set of circumstances is so one-of-a-kind that the general wisdom doesn't apply.
And it's possible that your problem is so perfect and you are so stuck that in fact there's nothing out there that can help you.
Possible, but not likely.
When you complain that you need ever more specific advice because the general advice just doesn't apply, consider looking for your fear instead. As Steve Pressfield has pointed out, the resistance is a wily adversary, and one of the clever ways it will help us hide from the insight that will lead to forward motion is to play the unique, this-one-is-different card.
We can learn by analogy, if we're willing to try and fail, and mostly, if we're willing to get unstuck.
The first step is acknowledging that our problem isn't that special.
Rule one has two parts:
a. the customer is always right
b. if that's not true, it's unlikely that this person will remain your customer.
If you need to explain to a customer that he's wrong, that everyone else has no problem, that you have tons of happy customers who were able to successfully read the instructions, that he's not smart enough or persistent enough or handsome enough to be your customer, you might be right. But if you are, part b kicks in and you've lost him.
If you find yourself litigating, debating, arguing and most of all, proving your point, you've forgotten something vital: people have a choice, and they rarely choose to do business with someone who insists that they are wrong.
By all means, fire the customers who aren't worth the time and the trouble. But understand that the moment you insist the customer is wrong, you've just started the firing process.
PS here's a great way around this problem: Make sure that the instruction manual, the website and the tech support are so clear, so patient and so generous that customers don't find themselves being wrong.
- Resist the ad hoc. Announce that this is a project, and that it matters enough to be treated as one.
- The project needs a leader, a person who takes responsibility as opposed to waiting for it to be given.
- Write it down. All of it. Everything that people expect, everything that people promise.
- Send a note confirming that you wrote it down, specifically what you heard, what it will cost and when they will have it or when they promised it.
- Show your work. Show us your estimates and your procedures and most of all, the work you're going to share with the public before you ship it.
- Keep a log, a notebook, a history of what you've done and how. You'll need it for the next project.
- Source control matters. Don't change things while people are reviewing them, because then we both have to do it twice.
- Slack is your friend. Slack is cheaper, faster and more satisfying than wishful thinking. Your project will never go as well as you expect, and might take longer than you fear.
- Identify and obsess about the critical path. If the longest part of the project takes less time than you planned, the entire project will take less time than you planned.
- Wrap it up. When you're done, take the time to identify what worked and what didn't, and help the entire team get stronger for next time.
- It was designed at home, on the kitchen table...
- by someone who didn't get their name on it
- Never been done before, not guaranteed to get built or to work
- It was criticized by hundreds of leading intellectuals and cultural experts
- It wasn't supposed to last very long
- It's designed to be an icon, it's not an accident
- People flock to it because it's famous
- You can sketch a recognizable version of it on a napkin
Your turn to build one. Happy Bastille Day.
Two hundred years ago, the government of Sweden changed everything: They required all their citizens to be literate. It transformed every element of the culture and economy of Sweden, an effect that's felt to this day.
Television, of course, is a great replacement for the hard work of learning to read and write, but, if you think about it, so are autocratic governments and dogmas that eliminate choice. Unguided reading is a real threat, because unguided reading leads to uncomfortable questions.
Teach someone to read and you guarantee that they will be able to learn forever. Teach an entire culture to read and connections and innovations go through the roof.
Self-driving cars are going to be a huge transformational disruption, and they're probably going to happen faster than most people expect.
Starting in cities, starting with car-sharing, the economics and safety implications are too big to avoid:
- Few traffic jams--cars will have a slower top speed, but rarely stop
- No traffic lights--cars talk to each other
- Dramatically less pollution
- Pedestrians are far safer, bicycling becomes fun again
- No parking issues--the car drives away and comes back when you need it
- Lower costs and more access for more people more often
- Instant and efficient carpooling, since the car knows who's going where
Most of the physical world around us is organized around traditional cars. Not just roads, but the priority they get, the roadside malls, fast food restaurants, the fact that in many cities, more space is devoted to parking lots than just about anything else. It's pervasive and accepted, so much that we notice with amazement the rare places that aren't built around them.
Understand, for example, that the suburb exists because of the car, as does the big amusement park and the motel. All of them were built by people who saw the changes private mobility would cause.
The self-driving car benefits from Moore's Law, which explains that computers get dramatically cheaper over time, and Metcalfe's Law, which describes the increasing power of networks as they get bigger and more connected. Both of these laws are now at work on one of the biggest expenses and most powerful forces in our world: transportation.
Like all innovations, the death of the non-autonomous vehicle is not all upside. The car industry gets mostly commodified, jobs are shifted and distruptions occur. Privacy for teenagers, ordinary citizens and bank-robbers-making-an-escape disappears. The suburbs become even less attractive to some people. But just as you can't imagine a city scene where just about everyone isn't looking at their smart phone and swarming in the virtual cloud, it's going to be a whole new cityscape once cars retreat from their spot at the top of the attention/command chain.
One way this might happen: Certain models will be labeled as Uber-compatible (or whatever network is in place). Buy that car and with a few clicks, the car starts earning its keep. When you're at work or asleep or otherwise engaged, it moonlights and drives other folks around. The combination of security cameras in your car and rider registration pretty much guarantees that your car isn't going to come back wrecked. It's not hard to imagine organizations building fleets to profit from this (a medallion replacement) but it also becomes economically irresistible to the individual as well.
This is a bigger shift than the smart phone, and it might happen nearly as fast.
Near my house, there's a parkway that was built so that owners of private cars would have a place to go where they could drive them without endangering everyone else. I wonder how long before that's what it will be used for again.
I confess I had to look it up.
A truck passed me on the highway and on the side, it said that they did both LTL and FTL shipments.
FTL means "full truckload." For the longest time, a full truckload was the only efficient way to ship goods around. A company would expand operations (not just trucking, but just about everything) so that it could use all of an available resource. No sense having half a shipping clerk or half a secretary or half a truck shipment--the rest was going to go to waste, so might as well use it all.
As Lisa Gansky wrote about in her seminal book the Mesh, the massive shift in data (and knowledge) produced by the net means that FTL isn't nearly the advantage over less than a truckload it used to be. Since it's so cheap and effective to coordinate activity, that extra space isn't wasted, not at all. It's shared.
Since we can share resources, expanding to use all of something (a car, a boat, a vacation home) isn't just inefficient, it's wasteful.
Now that it's cheaper and faster to share, an enormous number of new opportunities exist. Short runs, focused projects, marketing to the weird--mass is dead in more ways than we can count.
I realized the other day that most people grow up thinking in terms of professional affiliations. "I'm going to be an accountant." "I'm going to work for General Dynamics."
Somehow, I always thought of my career as a series of projects, not jobs. Projects... things to be invented, funded and shipped. Sometimes they take on a life of their own and last, other times, they flare and fade. But projects, one after the other, mark my career. Lucky for me, the world cooperated and our entire culture shifted from one based on long-term affilitations (you know, 'jobs') to projects.
I had a two-part approach to building a career about projects. The first was to find a partner who was willing to own the lion's share of the upside in exchange for advancing resources allowing me to create the work (but always keeping equity in the project, not doing it merely for hire). Publishers are good at this, and it enabled me to bootstrap my way to scale. The second was to grow a network, technology and the confidence to be able to take on projects too big for the typical solo venture. Complicated projects, on time, is a niche that's not very crowded...
The stages of a project—being stuck, seeing an outcome, sharing a vision, being rejected, finding a home, building it, editing it, launching it, planting the seeds for growth—I'm thrilled it's a cycle I've been able to repeat hundreds of times over the years.
There's a difference between signing on to someone else's project and starting your own. The impresario mindset of initiation and improvisation are at the heart of the project. It's yours, you own it. Might as well do something you're proud of, and something that matters, because it's your gig.
Over time, the project world has changed. Thanks to digital tools, it's cheaper than ever to build and launch something based on content. Distribution is far faster and cheaper as well. We used to need a publishing partner or a partner with a platform (a record label, a media company...) to get the word out; now, in many cases, this adds time and hassle without creating sufficient benefit. Because it's easier to launch, we can spend more time focusing on what the audience wants, as opposed to merely pleasing (and pitching) the middleman. On the other hand, that makes it a lot harder to dig in and create, because there isn't that moment where someone says, "yep, I'll publish it..."
For me, the trick is not to represent the client, or the publisher, or the merchant. The trick is to represent the project, to speak up for the project, to turn it into what it needs to be. And over the years, I've found the each project gets just a little more personal than the one that came before.
The lack of a gatekeeper presents a fascinating shift, now. It used to be that the gatekeeper was somewhat of a partner, a ying to your yang, a safe way to find out something might not resonate. Now, it's so much easier to go straight to market that we need to find our own internal compass, something to replace the external one we all used to depend upon...
Here are a handful of the projects I've created and shipped over the last three decades--not my favorites, necessarily, or the biggest, but ones that indicate where I was when I was doing them. This is way more self-referential than I'm usually comfortable with, but the combination of timing and the specifics that come from the example made me think it was worth posting a chronology. Happy anniversary, and thanks for letting me create...
1984—Telarium, a huge project that started my path with a flourish. I was incredibly lucky to be given the resources to create something magical by David and Bill. A story for another day, but it took me a long time to again come close to an experience like this one.
1985—Tennis and golf on VCR, British video games on floppy disk and other Spinnaker projects.
1986—Business Rules of Thumb, my first book. Followed by 900 rejections in a row, 30 projects dead, including The Fortune Cookie Construction Set and How to Hypnotize Your Friends and Make Them Act Like Chickens.
1987—The Select Guide to Law Firms, an ad-supported directory of fancy law firms given to the most elite law students in the country. I learned an enormous amount about direct mail, rejection and lawyers from this project. It ran for three editions and kept me in business during several really lean years.
1988—Isaac Asimov's Robots, a VCR mystery game. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up... This one was a leap in complexity, involving Doubleday, Kodak, Asimov, game designers, packaging designers, an editor, a union cast, and yes, robots. Or at least people in robot costumes.
1989—Score More Points, a series of VCR tapes that taught kids how to cheat at Nintendo games. I was certainly waiting for the web to arrive, but it hadn't, yet.
1990—Guts, an online game for Prodigy, launched. It was one of the most popular online promotions of its time, and it contained thousands of hand-built trivia questions incorporated into several different editions of the game. This was a chance to see how much content added to technology, and how it could leverage and spread ideas.
1991—The Worlds of Power series. It took me more than three years to get all the licenses I needed to launch this series of novels, each based on a video game that was popular on Nintendo. We sold more than a million of them.
1992—One day, I saw that Cliffs Notes had published a list of their most popular notes. Using the 80/20 rule as a guide, I realized that the top 30 titles probably accounted for more than 95% of their sales. Hence: Quicklit, a book that should have been incredibly popular, but wasn't. Betting that high school students would plan ahead was a bad idea. I also had the delightful opportunity to work with a giant, Walter Dean Myers, in creating a series of novels for overlooked young adults. Walter died last week, and his impact on millions of kids can't possibly be overstated.
1993—In between multi-year, complex projects, we found time to do things a bit more lighthearted. The Smiley Dictionary started as a phone call with my friend and colleague Michael Cader, was sold the next week and finished a week after that. Without a doubt, my time would have been better spent building a search engine.
[During this seven-year peak period of making over 100 books, my team and I got about a dozen rejection letters a week, or 500 a year, relentlessly, year after year. They were rejections from people who reject things for a living. I wasn't spamming people, I was submitting proposals to people who wanted to get them. This is a useful lesson for project creators...]
1994—This one stretched my philosophy of scaling up to take on bigger book projects. The original Information Please Business Almanac was almost 800 pages of densely-packed facts, advice, resources and more. Five full-time editors worked together (in my attic) and we built a desktop publishing system to collate and manage all the data we organized and presented. Too bad the web made us obsolete, because we were the easiest way to find the phone number for the Honolulu Public Library (open late!). We did this at the same time we built The Guerrilla Marketing Handbook.
1995—For more than five years, I patiently courted Stanley Kaplan (the person) about turning his iconic brand into a series of test prep books. After an arduous development process, we finally launched with five titles (the best part were the cartoons from Bizarro)...
1996—At Yoyodyne, we built an organization that excelled at inventing and launching projects. We created the first million-dollar online sweepstakes, as well as a growing series of promotions from American Express, P&G and others.
1997—The Bootstrapper's Bible was a great idea, and after a few years, I got the rights back and decided to share an abridged edition online for free.
1998—This was a peak year for project craziness, with books and online projects coming out at a feverish pace. At one point, I did project presentations in three different states in one day. I finally (and painfully) realized that entrepreneurs were different from freelancers, sold my companies and shifted gears.
1999—Permission Marketing was, after creating and launching 120 books, seen as my first 'real' book, a solo effort that was marketed the way most books are. I also started writing columns for Fast Company, a monthly launch discipline that suited my need to invent and ship.
2000—Unleashing the Ideavirus was launched, no publisher, no bookstores, no revenue. I went on to quickly create and self-publish a hardcover which became a bestseller, proving to me that the world of projects was going to be different from now on.
2001—I spent ten hours a day, just about every day, researching and writing Survival is Not Enough.
2002—The CD patents were expiring, and Sony launched SACD but forgot to produce original music in that format. I launched Zoomtone records as an experiment with some passionate and talented musicians. Alas, the high-end stereo community wasn't interested.
2004—This is the year, a decade ago, when this blog really hit its stride, and when it became clear that connecting people online was a useful and powerful platform. I launched the Bull Market ebook as well as Free Prize Inside, a book about how to make a purple cow. The book came in a cereal box, which probably gilded the lily and certainly didn't make bookstores happy. Also! As a summer project, launched Changethis.com, which thrives to this day.
2006—This is Broken, a talk I gave exactly once, took months to create. I'm glad Mark filmed it.
2007—The Dip, my shortest book, with the most impact per page by far, launches.
2008—Launched Tribes, a significant shift in my writing focus. If marketing is everything that an organization does that changes perceptions, then leadership is the most important marketing tool. Doing the right thing is at least as important as knowing what the right thing is.
2009—The six month MBA. What a project, one that continues to weave a web of friends, passion and change. We sat together in my office every day for six months, and it directly led to significant shifts in thinking for all of us. Also, unrelated, mini me went to the Minnesota State Fair.
2010—Linchpin was published. This might be my book project that has had the biggest impact. Followed it up with a self-organized event in NYC and then Chicago. Once again, the world says to the project creator... go ahead, pick yourself.
2011—Started as a summer project in 2010, 2011 was devoted to launching a dozen Domino Project books. Each was a bestseller, with special editions, letterpress and experiments in design, pricing and distribution. Publishing the master, Steve Pressfield, was one of my all-time career highlights. After a year of launches, the books remain, but new work goes elsewhere.
2012—The key project of the year was my Kickstarter project, launching four books at the same time (this is not recommended). I learned a lot in closing the circle and turning the reader into the middleman. Writing, designing, marketing and trafficking the four books required most of what I've learned in thirty years. If you're considering a Kickstarter (just one book, please), I hope you'll read this first...
2013—On time, The Icarus Deception, V is for Vulnerable, Watcha Gonna Do With that Duck and the behemoth shipped. The craft of a project is sometimes daring to write a short little book about Smileys and let someone else print it, ship it, promote it and keep it in print for a decade, and sometimes it's about touching every element of the project by hand, hauling boxes, renting storage units and making sure the box got to New Zealand... Thanks to Bernadette Jiwa and Alex Miles Younger for being critical elements of this insane plan. Also, as a bonus, I worked with a fabulous team to build and launch Krypton Community College. (Here's a curriculum on shipping, the heart of the project life).
2014—My Skillshare courses on Entrepreneurship and Marketing both launched and became Skillshare's most successful. The HugDug project launched, raising money for charity: water, Acumen, Save the Children and other worthy causes.
I'll do another update in thirty years... What an opportunity each of us now has to create a project worth making.
In action movies, the hero doesn't mind destroying the aircraft, road or bridge he just crossed, because it's always a one-way journey.
Retreating armies used to burn bridges as they crossed them so those in pursuit couldn't follow.
And that very mindset, the mindset of, "I am so intent on my goal that I am willing to push through this person, push through this relationship, push through this interaction, whatever it takes," is precisely how we burn our bridges.
The difference, of course, is that life is long and very few paths are only one way. You will need to come around here again.
A bridge well-crossed gets better over time. When you need to break it down to push through, you've not only hurt the person you trampled on, you've hurt your reputation.
He only cares about what's trending now. The only worthy examples are this week's examples, or even better, tomorrow's examples.
The zeitgeister will interrupt a long-term strategy discussion to talk urgently about today's micro-trend instead. The zeitgeister has little or no knowledge of the foundations of his industry, merely an out-of-context understanding of today's state of the art. He's encouraged by the media, of course, because the media are in the zeitgeist business. It's easier.
The challenge, of course, is that the momentary zeitgeist always changes. That's why it's so appealing to those that surf it, because by the time it's clear that you were wrong, it's changed and now you can talk about the new thing instead.
You are brave.
Such a generous soul, someone who doesn't hesitate to leap when others shrink in fear. Your work means so much to you and to the people you share it with, we can't help but be inspired at the way you make your magic.
You're a warrior in the service of joy and you never seem to stop standing up and speaking up and doing your very best work.
Sometimes, a particular audience doesn't deserve you. But that doesn't matter in the long run, because of your relentless generosity in sharing your gift.
I can't wait to see your next work, and the one after that.
How much do you trust your people to do the right thing?
Consider giving every person on your team a budget—$1000 a year? $200 an incident? and challenging them to spend the money to make things right, to create efficiency, to delight.
If the CFO freaks out, invite her to meet with each employee at the end of the year to hear how they chose to spend the money. $5 extra to park close enough to the airport to not miss a flight. Giving an unhappy customer a refund on the spot. Buying a subscription to an inexpensive web app that dramatically decreases customer service time...
At the Ritz-Carlton, every single employee (even the maintenance folks) has a budget of $2,000 per guest to make things right. On the spot, without asking.
Without a doubt, the guest is blown away by this rapid response. A caring person who, instead of saying, "I'll have to ask my supervisor," just makes it right. But even more important, I think, is the effect of trusting your people. You've already given them the keys to your brand, you've already made them the face of your organization—isn't it time to trust them enough to do the right thing?
Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding are built around many individuals coming together to make something happen.
But crowds don't make things, people do.
Terry and Sarah and Herbie, not the crowd.
When we say to a group, "everyone help me with this," it's easy to let someone else do it. And those asked can see the surplus, the wasted energy, the duplication implied with 'everyone'. If the crowd is assigned to help every person down on his luck, or to keep the city or the planet clean, well, that everyone doesn't have to be me.
Bobsourcing and Lisafunding, on the other hand, understand that a clear, 1:1:1 relationship between individual, project segment and organizer can change everything. Wikipedia thrives partly because the 5,000 core editors can each monitor certain articles. None of them are required to worry about all of Wikipedia, just their article.
One component, one person, one contribution, all urgent and necessary and vital.
When we rely on the crowd, we get deniability. The organizer doesn't have to ask anyone specificially, and the individual is easily off the hook. But sometimes, the hook is exactly what you want.
The answer to this is so obvious to me that it took me a while to realize that many people are far more comfortable with 'no'.
The easiest and safest thing to do is accept what you've been 'given', to assume that you are unchangeable, and the cards you've been dealt are all that are available. When you assume this, all the responsibility for outcomes disappears, and you can relax.
When I meet people who proudly tell me that they don't read (their term) "self-help" books because they are fully set, I'm surprised. First, because all help is self help (except, perhaps, for open heart surgery and the person at the makeup counter at Bloomingdales). But even this sort of help requires that you show up for it.
Mostly, though, I'm surprised because there's just so much evidence to the contrary. Fear, once again fear, is the driving force here. If you accept the results you've gotten before, if you hold on to them tightly, then you never have to face the fear of the void, of losing what you've got, of trading in your success for your failure.
And if you want to do this to yourself, well, I guess this is your choice.
But don't do it to others. Don't do it to your kids, or your students, or your co-workers. Don't do it to the people in underprivileged neighborhoods or entire countries. Better might be difficult, better might involve overcoming unfair barriers, but better is definitely possible. And the belief that it's possible is a gift.
We owe everyone around us not just the strongest foundation we can afford to offer, but also the optimism that they can reach a little higher. To write off people because you don't think getting better is comfortable enough is sad indeed.
Better is a dream worth dreaming.
Is as big as any difference we encounter. All we need is 'nearly' and we have completely transformed the problem--changing it from one to avoid to one to commit to.
Here's the hard part: having the ability to see (and to announce) the 'nearly' part.
Almost every breakthrough comes from someone who saw nearly when no one else did.
What other people think of you is called "other-people esteem." That's a different thing altogether.
If it's better to think well of yourself, then by all means, go ahead. No need to wait for us to do it for you. Without a doubt, uncaring people can tear you down and make this more difficult, but at some point, you can make a choice.
Self esteem is something that is done to childen, but for adults, it becomes a choice.
It's up to you.