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When you notice it, it’s news

I just read a post that said that some musicians were reporting that their perfect pitch (the ability to know exactly what a perfect A sounds like) is fading away. What could be causing this?

I don’t think anything is causing it.

Out of every 10,000 musicians, it’s not hard to imagine that throughout history, a few (2, 5, 10?) have had their pitch fade away. But in the old days, we never heard about it. Word didn’t spread. Perhaps you told your husband or the ensemble, but that was the end of it.

As word (about your product or your brand or your career or anything) is amplified and spread, it bumps into other news and becomes a trend.

This is a subtle but huge change in the way we think about the world. The connection of customers and employees and users and citizens and good guys and bad actors and everyone… it means that the way we see and understand information is changed forever.

I would take two things away from this:

1. Just because you heard about something happening for the first time doesn’t mean it’s the first time. It may just mean that it’s the first time it’s been widely reported. Sort of like what happens after you get a digital thermometer in your house–everyone suddenly gets a fever.

2. Be prepared for everything to be widely reported.

Dewey defeats Truman

Headlines matter now more than they ever did.

Headlines provoke and introduce. They cajole and they position.

No headline, no communication.

This spreadsheet you just sent me… what does it say? What does it mean? It has no headline. Trashed.

That person you met at a conference: What’s his headline? Are you actually going to spend ten minutes with him before you determine whether or not he’s interesting enough to talk with? Of course not. No headline, no communication.

You can have sub-headlines
The great direct mail copywriter Joe Sugarman taught me this. Every ad had a headline, and so did every paragraph. If the paragraph didn’t warrant a headline, it didn’t go in the ad.

This might be a shame
I’m not saying that headline-world is the place we want to or should live in. I’m merely saying that we do live there, and if you want to communicate (your resume, your trustworthiness, your graciousness) you need to be sure your headline is compelling, accurate and a viable foundation to the message you’re ultimately trying to send. (That last one is very important. Just because it gets you newsstand sales doesn’t mean it’s a headline you want to live with.)

Headlines don’t always look like headlines, of course. That outfit you wore to work today is quite a headline, bub. Headlines may not look like they belong in a newspaper, but they always work that way. Now or never.

You’re not going to win a Pulitzer Prize

… and neither am I. Nor will any blogger, including those far more deserving.

The Pulitzer folks, stewards of one of the most influential and important awards in any field, have just announced their new rules. You can win a Pulitzer for commentary online now, but only if the place you post your commentary is a significant news gathering site. You know, sites like MinnPost and Voice of San Diego. So, Tom Friedman can win a well-deserved prize for writing what is essentially a blog for the NY Times, but if he goes off on his own, he’s out.

What a shame.

As newspapers melt all around us, faster and faster, the people in the newspaper business persist in believing that the important element of a news-paper is the paper part.

What an opportunity (for someone) to start taking advantage of the huge pool of talent and passion that is moving online, and to work to raise the bar. We don’t need more gossip sites from celebrity magazine editors. We need to identify and reward voices that push hard against the status quo, that report eagerly and accurately and that speak truth to power.

Here’s what we’re going to miss, and quite soon: the cost of having a printing press and the money to run one meant that there were newspapers with gravitas. Newspapers that invested for the long haul, that stood for something, that spoke up. When you can launch a blog for nothing and disappear quite easily if it doesn’t work, the gravitas is a lot more difficult to find. When the newspapers are gone (and it’s happening a lot faster than the people in the industry are able to admit) that’s what we’re going to miss the most.

The opportunity, then, is to organize and network and identify and reward that activity when it happens online. Not because the site is owned by a paper or because the founder has connections to the old media. No, because they’re doing work that matters.

If I ran the Pulitzers, I’d hand out a dozen more every year to people working exclusively online.

What to do with your ideas for other people

Steve wrote me a note pointing out that as a marketer, he’s always coming up with groundbreaking ideas that can help large companies or other marketers. Should he just let them go? Try to sell them? Submit them to the company?

Another reader wrote in complaining about Apple’s insistence that they don’t want to know about your great ideas. They refuse to read them.

You’ve probably been asked to sign a formal NDA document–someone wants to tell you a big secret and you’re not allowed to tell anyone, at least not during this century.

It’s frustrating. You’ve got this great idea, but no one wants it, or they’re going to steal it.

Here’s the essential distinction: Selling ideas is a fundamentally different business than having ideas.

It’s like being a really fast runner but being unwilling to take a hit or unable to block. You may be fast, but you can’t play football. Two different skills are involved, and having one is insufficient. Remember, the selling is a business onto itself, not something that you do after you get a great idea.

If you want to sell ideas to organizations, you need to invest heavily in the skills and status to do that. The quality of ideas is not a factor in whether or not you will be in a position to have a chance to sell those ideas. (That sentence is shocking but true, so reread it).

If you’re unable to be in that position, my best advice is that you blog the ideas. At least you’ll get them out of your system and get bragging rights if anything ever happens.


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Warning: The internet is almost full

Due to the extraordinary explosion in video, blogs, news feeds and social network postings, the internet is dangerously close to running out of room.

Nothing can grow forever, and exponential growth is always short lived. We’re running out of disk space, so if you have something left to say, better hurry. Once it’s full, it’s full.

Of course, the decentralized nature of the net means that it will never be physically full. As long as we can keep making hard drives, we won’t run out of space to store those inane videos of your Aunt Sally. What is full is our attention.

Ten years ago, you had a shot of at least being aware of everything that mattered. Five years ago, you had to be really selective about what you took in, but at least it was possible to know what you didn’t know. Today, it’s impossible. Today, you can’t even read every article on a thin slice of a thin topic.

You can’t keep up with the status of your friends on the social networks. No way. You can’t read every important blog… you can’t even read all the blogs that tell you what the important blogs are saying.

Used to be, you could finish reading your email, hit "check email" and nothing new would show up. Now, of course, the new mail is probably a longer list than the mail you just finished processing.

The internet isn’t full, but we are.

Lesson learned from my biggest business mistake

My biggest mistake (at least in terms of income avoided) was not believing in the world wide web in 1994.

It’s not like I didn’t know about it. I had written a book called "Best of the Net". I’d even written the cover story for some now-defunct magazine on how to surf the internet. But in those days, the Net referred to Archie and Veronica and the online services… there was no real browser, no search engines to speak of, just a bunch of conferences and some guys in the Valley.

Not only did I ignore it, I actively ignored it. I didn’t register hundreds of domain names or build out the website for Yoyodyne beyond much of a placeholder. Instead of expanding my online game show/promotions company into the web, we focused on Microsoft’s Chicago service and Apple’s eWorld. Sigh.

Instead of building a search engine, I wrote a book called The Smiley Dictionary. Earnings to date: $10,000 or so.

I’m going into all this painful detail to let you know what an idiot I was. How many clues were just sitting there, how much access I had, how deliberate I was in ignoring them.


I think the answer is simple: Because the rules of this new business didn’t match the rules of my existing business.

Businesses live in ecosystems. A series of rules and assumptions that, taken together, make a thriving mechanism

Example: The oil ecosystem involves prospecting, drilling, transporting, refining, etc. If you don’t understand the role of automobiles or plastics in the oil industry, then you don’t understand the industry. You don’t ‘get it.’ On the other hand, if you understand the ecosystem of automobiles and of oil, then the ecosystem of windmills on homes and hydrogen in cars may be just too weird to grasp.

The ecosystem of the worldwide web was just being filled in. It had some assumptions clearly laid out (no money to view the content) and some waiting to be sketched in (can attention turn into cash?). But for someone in the business of selling books and internet content, this seemed impossible. Different rules, rules I didn’t understand and couldn’t accept.

And that’s where we get stuck. We get stuck because we believe that the rules of our ecosystem are permanent and transferable. In fact, they are almost always temporary and rarely transferable.

My approach now is simple: take a look at the rules of the new ecosystem. Do they make sense? Is it possible they’ll come to pass? If they do, what happens to you?

Pre-steal this book

This is a long, rambling story with a useful punchline. I posted it on a weekend so you could skip it without feeling guilty. Thanks to my friend Michael for reminding me.

Twenty five years ago, I led the creation of a line of computer adventure games in conjunction with major science fiction and mystery authors. Ray Bradbury, Michael Crichton, Erle Stanley Gardner’s estate, etc.

One night, I took Harry Harrison out drinking (he drank, I drove). After a few tequilas, Harry announced, "I don’t speak to Crichton!" Intrigued, I asked why not. I thought he was a perfectly nice guy.

"Well," Harry said, "I actually have never met him, but if I did meet him, I’d shun him."

It turns out that Harry had spent six months writing a science fiction novel about a virus that comes from space and wipes out a small town. As he was finishing it, The Andromeda Strain came out and was a mammoth bestseller. Harrison had to throw his manuscript in the trash. He said he was angry that even though Crichton had never heard of or seen his work, he had pre-stolen it. It’s entirely possible that Crichton had spent time imagining what Harry and authors like him would have written next… and then written it.

So, what’s keeping you from pre-stealing my next book, or Malcolm‘s? Why not pre-steal the next great innovation from Kevin Kelly or someone else you admire?

The market rarely rewards off-the-charts creativity that comes from another solar system. It’s more likely that a successful innovation is already in the works somewhere. Just think like them but be bolder and faster.

Building an albatross

I spent hours watching the albatross in the Galapagos hang out. The first thing you notice is that they have a terribly difficult time taking off. In the water, an albatross will have to spend hours waiting for the right wind to come along. On land, they're ungainly, but when they find the right conditions… they take off. And fly and fly and fly. An albatross can fly for days or weeks, with a heart rate similar to its resting heart rate. Possibly the best bird ever invented.

Albatross businesses are great to have but not easy to launch. Rather than the excitement of the big time launch and then the constant promotion and high expense of a typical business, an albatross business mucks around for a while, but since it's designed for effortless long flight, it gains steam and then keeps going.

Today is the third anniversary of the launch of Squidoo into alpha. We certainly had a slow take off, then a bump in the wind 18 months ago with spammers and the search engines, but we've reached a glide path. Note two things about this chart:

1. It takes three years to be an overnight success, sometimes more.

That means you need to either raise enough money from patient investors to stick it out… or, as in our case, be so lean and efficient that the cost of lasting long enough to make it profitable is one you can handle.

2. It's possible to organize a company around the idea that success breeds success.

Traditional businesses don't do that… if you're a wedding photographer or a restaurant, you're not going to have an albatross business. These businesses need ongoing promotion which leads to ongoing business, and around and around. There's clearly a benefit to reputation and word of mouth, but you're rarely going to see the hockey stick that is the goal of most internet businesses.

The two secrets, I think, are:

1. Plan for the long slow ramp up. That means super low overhead and patience and not trying to launch with a huge splash because you're impatient.

2. Architecture matters. If you intend to build an albatross, you'll want to design a business where each customer brings you new customers, where the more it gets used, the better it works.

We have a  l o n g  way to go before Squidoo hits the stride we're seeking, but on our third anniversary, it seemed like a worthwhile time to take a look of how close we are getting to our flight path. An albatross can achieve a 22:1 glide path–22 meters out for every meter down or up. That's the goal, leverage.

PS if you've never seen the albatross mating ritual, you really should. Time consuming, a lot of noise, very little action.

The noise

It’s noisy and getting noisier.

If you looked at web activity, you could rightfully assume that the web consists largely of porn, gossip, Britney Spears searches, trolls, trivia, anger, complaints, flirting and self-absorption.

If you look at the logs of who is calling your toll free number, you could rightfully come to the conclusion that 92% of your customers are mad at you and the other 8% are merely stupid.

If you look at the ads in the magazines you get, you could understandably come to the conclusion that all people buy is cars, pills and shoes.

The thing is, not all data is equal, and measuring the truth based on volume is almost certain to get you in trouble.

Most voters don’t have a blog. Most of your customers don’t picket your offices. Most people who take Motrin have no idea what Twitter is.

I’m not encouraging you to ignore the noisy edges. Far from it. The noise makes it far easier than it has ever been before to hear the thunder in the distance, to get early indications of what the fringes of the market are about to spread to the rest.

It’s easier than ever to amplify the noise of the edges, to bring it close, make it vivid and immerse yourself in it. You could spend all day watching your name or your brand morph among the loud people online. Just because it’s easy, though, doesn’t mean you have to do it at full blast.

What I’m encouraging you to do is to constantly readjust your balance. Figure out the difference between early warnings and selfish noise. Figure out what’s loud merely because it’s angry and personal, and what’s loud because it’s important.

And most of all, get straight on who you are trying to please, and why.