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Learning from Singer

At one point, the Singer Corporation had more than 12,000 people working in a single plant. They were selling more than a million sewing machines a year and had hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. By any measure, it was one of the most important manufacturers in America. It was fun while it lasted.

Back then, it was easy to believe that Singer represented everything that was right with our economy, and that our future was intrinsically attached to the company's.

When as the last time you even thought about Singer (or a sewing machine for that matter)?

The cycles are far shorter now than they were during the century that Singer was a shining light for corporate success. More now than ever, success today is no guarantee of success tomorrow.

Sometimes we spend more time than we should defending the old thing, instead of working to take advantage of the new thing. I bet you can list a dozen "critical" industries that will be as relevant to life in 2020 as Singer is to our world today.

The key difference is that back then, managers and shareholders could stall and fumble and wait out the transition until after they retired. Now, it's almost an annual event. Hiding isn't working, and neither is whining. The best marketing strategy is to destroy your industry before your competition does.

Circling the big domino

Clay taught me a good lesson about making things happen with your brand.

Envision the events that might happen to a brand (shelf space at Walmart, an appearance on Oprah, a bestseller, worldwide recognition, a new edition, worldwide rights, chosen by the Queen, whatever) as a series of dominos.

It turns out that if you start with all of them at once, you'll fail.

And if you start with the big one, you'll fail.

But if you line up all the dominos one by one, in the right order, you may just have enough energy to push over the first one. That one, of course, adds momentum so that when you crash into the second one, that one goes too. All the way to the Queen.


Isn't this obvious? Sure it is. So why is it so often ignored?

Brands get stuck constantly. And they always get stuck circling the big domino. They try to launch worldwide and beat Google. They try to get an endorsement from the Prince of Denmark. They try to break out with a feature on a major blog. They try to act like Coca Cola from the first day. And they try and they try and they try until they get so frustrated, they quit.

A few brands pick out tiny dominos instead. And topple them. And they do it again. They do it so often they create noise, momentum and most important, a sense of inevitability. That's how you win.


Justine plays a game that involves finding yellow cars on the road and shouting the appropriate term as you see them.

What you discover after just a few minutes is just how many yellow cars there are. A lot.

We notice what we choose to notice.

Consider playing a version of spotto involving great customer service or organizations going the extra mile, or employees giving more than they have to. What you'll notice very quickly is that there's a lot more of it out there than you would have guessed, which will make it easier for you and your team to follow suit. Spotto.

On the road to mediocrity

Along the way, we settle.

We settle for something not quite right, or an outfit that isn't our best look, or a job that doesn't quite maximize our talents. We settle for relationships that don't give us joy, or a website that's, "good enough."

The only way to get mediocre is one step at a time.

You don't have to settle. It's a choice you get to make every day.


The Olympics
Kumba Mela
Times Square on midnight at New Year's
Burning Man
The Super Bowl
Calcio Storico
Warren Buffet's annual meeting
The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Your birthday

People love them. We generally agree we don't have them often enough. What if you started one? More than half of the events on the list above were started by one person or a small organization.

Two ways to build trust

You can be a trusted institution or a trusted individual.

A few weeks ago, I set out to buy some imprinted items. I probably looked at a dozen t-shirt options online before I picked CustomInk. Why did I pick them?

They weren't the cheapest (but it's actually very hard to compare). I picked them because the site is clean and professional. I liked that they're not weasels (they quote actual prices and actual ship dates) and  they have non-trivial, easy to use software that makes it easy to upload graphics and build a shirt.

Taken together, they earned my trust. There were plenty of sites with lousy typefaces and come-on pricing and bait and switch and clever Google ads, but none of this works on me. What works is someone walking the walk while they talk a good game.

Interestingly, I bought the hats from a totally different business. Roberts Specialty couldn't be less formal or carefully built. It's clearly a family run business, and their lack of spin and hustle hit exactly the right tone. When you want to order, you send an email to Tony Bennett (you gotta love the fact that his name is Tony Bennett) and he sends an email back. How old fashioned. How trustworthy.

One reason that so many hard sell businesses fail is that they are neither. They aren't (or don't appear to be) trustworthy institutions, nor are they trustworthy humans. So we move on. You do 95% of it right, then use cheesy fonts or lie a bit or try too hard and boom, that's it.

Circles of Convenience

Allan points out that Warren Buffet and Benjamin Graham invested in Circles of Competence. The idea is to buy what you know.

Too often, organizations confuse this with circles of convenience. They stick to the tactics, products, people and channels that they are comfortable with, instead of rethinking what the market demands.

When Amazon offered the New York Times millions of dollars in affiliate revenue a decade ago, the paper turned them down because they feared losing Barnes and Noble as an advertiser. This is a convenient decision, but clearly not a smart one.

When companies look to hire new talent, they often go where they've gone before, because it's convenient. When newly minted MBAs go job hunting, they often go to the placement office because it's convenient as well.

Convenience is hugely attractive in organizations because it is easy to defend and easy to approve. You don't need to call a meeting to try something new, because the convenient option has already been approved. The problem is that convenient approaches rarely break through or generate extraordinary returns.


Dave Balter coined this great term. It describes the quest of marketers for size at all costs. Because marketers were raised on the scale of mass—TV, radio, newspapers—they have a churn and burn mentality. The internet turns this upside down. The internet is about who, not how many. The internet lets you take really good care of 100 people instead of harassing 2,000.

Yet, panicked marketers still look for scale (How many followers can we get? What can we do with a Facebook fan page?) and then hijack that attention, hoping to filter out the masses and get a few sales.

Scalejacking inevitably tarnishes most communities, because individuals (people) hate being treated like numbers just standing by to be filtered.

Stephen Stills wrote, "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." I think he was wrong. On the Internet, the mantra that works is, "Be with the ones you love (and the ones that love you.)" Ignore everyone else. It doesn't have good internal pentameter, but it's true.

What’s off the table?

No project is conceived in a vacuum, no decision in isolation and no negotiation with a clean sheet of paper.

But do you know what you're not willing to consider?

If a newspaper company is planning its future, is shutting down the printing presses an option even being considered? Or is it off the table?

Plan a rabbi's wedding and you probably shouldn't even bother to pitch BLT sandwiches or lobster. It's off the table. Not being considered.

Personal marketing plans run into the unstated table problem all the time. Is it off the table for you to quit your job, drop out of school, go back to school, speak up to your boss? I'm not asking if it's going to work or not, I'm just wondering if the possibility is even on the table. If you're not willing to consider it, you can bet you're going to sabotage the thinking that goes into evaluating the choice.

Big marketing breakthroughs always come from doing something that everyone else says is off the table.

You matter

  • When you love the work you do and the people you do it with, you matter.
  • When you are so gracious and generous and aware that you think of other people before yourself, you matter.
  • When you leave the world a better place than you found it, you matter.
  • When you continue to raise the bar on what you do and how you do it, you matter.
  • When you teach and forgive and teach more before you rush to judge and demean, you matter.
  • When you touch the people in your life through your actions (and your words), you matter.
  • When kids grow up wanting to be you, you matter.
  • When you see the world as it is, but insist on making it more like it could be, you matter.
  • When you inspire a Nobel prize winner or a slum dweller, you matter.
  • When the room brightens when you walk in, you matter.
  • And when the legacy you leave behind lasts for hours, days or a lifetime, you matter.