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You’re boring

Sorry, someone had to say it.

Your products are predictable. Your insights are recycled. You don't bring surprise with you when you enter a room.

That's why people are ignoring you.

Which used to be fine, because you could just buy attention for your brand or your company or your sales efforts. But that half-price sale on attention is now over.

The only path left is to lean out of the edge and become interesting, noteworthy and yes, remarkable.

When smart people are hard to understand

If you're in a meeting with smart people and they start discussing a term or concept you don't understand, what do you do?

Do you know what recombinant DNA is? Analytics? Chapter 7? Fair use? RSS? The Long Tail?

If smart people in your industry are talking about an issue you don't know cold, it's very important that you don't just sit there and nod your head sagely. I think there are two constructive paths. The first is to ask. "Wait, I was with you until a second ago. What does that mean?" You'll be amazed at how smart and engaging this makes you seem if you say it at the right time.

The second approach is to write it down and not go to bed that night until you know the topic better than the person who brought it up. How else, precisely, are you going to become one of the smart people?

Learning from the MBA program

In November, I posted about an alternative MBA program that I was going to launch. Unaccredited, residential, free and six months long. A new way to learn about a new way of doing business.

We’re almost done, and it has exceeded every expectation I had for it, and I think there are some broader lessons worth sharing.

Launch and selection:
More than 48,000 people visited the page that described the program and 350 really cool, talented people applied. I picked 27 finalists and all of them flew out to New York to meet each other. This was the most fun I’ve ever had at a cocktail party (it helped that it was at eight o’clock in the morning).

The conversations that day were stunning. Motivated people, all with something to teach, something to learn and something to prove. I asked each person to interview as many other people as they could. After three hours, I asked everyone to privately rank their favorite choices… “who would you like to be in the program with you?”

After they left, I tallied up the results. It was just as you might predict: nine or ten people kept coming up over and over in the top picks. I had crowdsourced the selection, and the crowd agreed. (It turns out that the people they picked were also the people I would have picked).

On January 20th, the most selective (one in 40 got in) MBA program in the world got started. Since then, they’ve never failed to live up to my hopes.

It's interesting to realize that the way I did the application process certainly changed the list of who applied. Same thing happens with jobs, I bet. Your applicants reflect your methods.

None of this would have worked if I was trying to manipulate the process or the people involved. My goal was easy to state and easy to live: I was there to teach (and hopefully to learn as well). The great news is that the students who appeared were beyond my wildest expectations.

I had originally planned on having people work on some of my ongoing projects, because, just as you can’t become a doctor without cutting bodies open, you can’t earn really learn an MBA without running something. It turned out that the group wanted to run their own stuff, not mine, so in fact the group didn’t mess with my stuff. Which was just fine.

Clay Hebert and Ishita Gupta are launching fear.less, a passionate free ebook on stories of overcoming fear. They've interviewed courageous artists, entrepreneurs, bloggers, business and non-profit innovators and how they've dealt successfully with fear. Learn more at fearlessstories.com.

Susan Lewis and Jon Dale are launching Sales Club. It's an exclusive society for top sales performers with attitude. There's a monthly fee, it's invitation only, and you have to be nominated by a member to even be considered. (They've agreed to let my readers self-nominate. If it sounds like your thing, send them an email to sell them on letting you in – salesclub99 (at) gmail.com.) If you think about it, what sort of person would actually pay money to associate with great salespeople?

Rebecca Goldstein is focusing on best practices to create online
communities to help companies with support, sales, marketing and
innovation. She started the 150 Project and is already
working with several companies to build their tribes.

Al Pittampalli spent time building Blue Finch, a directory site on various high-interest topics.

Alex Krupp is hosting
Swagapalooza, a social media experiment
auditioning companies in front of the world's most-followed bloggers.

There are other projects, but not online.

The educational lesson that I found the most striking is that the book knowledge was easy to transmit and not particularly essential. Once you get this far, it's sort of a given that you're good at school. We read more than a hundred books, and the book learning happened quickly . Our culture has done an amazingly good job at teaching talented people how to learn concepts from books.

I taught for five to twenty hours a week, and very little of it was about the books. So, if concepts from books are easy, what’s hard?

Doing it.

Picking up the phone, making the plan, signing the deal. Pushing ‘publish.’ Announcing. Shipping.

We spent a lot of time on this area. Every morning, each person came in prepared to push someone in the group to overcome the next hurdle. This is what growth looks like, and it was energizing to be part of.

We didn’t do this at all at when I was at Stanford. We spent a lot of time reading irrelevant case studies and even more time building complex financial models. The thing is, you can now hire someone to build a complex financial model for you for $60 an hour. And a week’s worth of that is just about all the typical entrepreneur is going to need. The rest of the time, it’s about shipping, motivating, leading, connecting, envisioning and engaging. So that’s what we worked on.

It amazes me that MBA students around the world aren’t up in arms. How can schools justify taking $100,000 in cash and teaching exactly the wrong stuff?

Another lesson: The Samba blog shows just a tiny portion of the writing the group did. Everyone posted every day (sometimes on that blog and sometimes on our private blog), often personal items, sometimes questions or chaff. The act of defending your work in writing became a habit, and once it was a habit, the quality of everything improved.

Another lesson: We used Basecamp. It’s the perfect tool for coordinating this sort of work.

Another lesson: I kept an oversized (perhaps giant is a better word) Moleskine by the door, and we wrote down great moments and quotes as the days wore on. We’ve already worked our way through it frontwards, and now we’ve turned it over and are working back the other way.

There were some great guest lecturers as well. Derek Sivers, founder of CDBaby and David Simon, a former colleague from Yahoo both showed up. Doug Rushkoff came by, as did designer Red Maxwell. Greg Linn from Columbia Records did a killer presentation about relationships as well. Stephanie Henry, who used to work in Ronald Reagan’s post-Presidential office stopped by. Uber-agent Stuart Krichevsky came to talk about his business as well. Michael Cader talked to us about publishing, and Bill Godin, the world's #1 manufacturer of hospital cribs came by for a world-class presentation.

Megan Casey gave us both business insights and a lesson in improv, while her former boss, Adrian Zackheim gave us the inside scoop on book publishing. Jay Parkinson, who is singlehandedly reinventing medicine also stopped by, but left us with no Tamiflu. Frank Eliason gave up Tweeting for a day to share his thoughts with us as well. Dave Balter, a model entrepreneur (as opposed to a model who's an entrepreneur) had plenty of inspiring insights.

Field trips included a detailed exploration of the fabled Stew Leonard’s supermarket, an engagement with maestro Roger Nierenberg at the Essex House and first-hand lesson in leaning at Fahnestock State Park on skis. We also spent a beautiful morning with Sarma Melngailis at her restaurant. Food seemed to show up a lot, and I was privileged to be allowed to cook lunch for all of us a few times a week. Not to mention discovering the power of melted ginger (on rice).

It’s surprising and disappointing that real companies don’t expose their people to this sort of learning. Too busy working, I guess.

While we’ve covered a lot, it’s pretty clear that this is a beginning for the crew, not the end.

Next steps:
Some of the people in the program are already committed to flying off to become entrepreneurs (though we all agree it might take a few cycles before it clicks.) Jon is building a practice of helping authors and book publishers use private social networks to build tribes online.

Susan Lewis is already looking for a new gig. But instead of asking someone to hire her, she is looking to hire a boss. Her unique skill is getting things done, and she wants a place where she can exercise that power to the fullest. Check out the susanhiresaboss site for position qualifications and to apply.

As for me, this has been (and it’s not over yet) an extraordinary learning experience. I have no plans to do again immediately (so please don’t ask and please don’t apply!) but I promise that when I do something like this again, you’ll read about it here first.

Here’s what I told the group, “Maybe the most important thing you'll learn in this program is that you don't need this program. There's not much I'm going to tell you that's not in my blog posts or books. What this program will do is give you the structure and support to encourage you to do what you already know. But you can do that by yourselves.” I think that’s true for the people who weren’t able to be part of it as well.

Final takeaways:

  1. If you have the resources and wherewithal to run a program like this, you should.
  2. If you're stuck, getting unstuck is not only possible, it's an obligation.
  3. Find some peers and push each other.
  4. Making friends for life is difficult to overrate. Every one of these people is an all-star and I'm glad that I got to know them.

Out of bounds

Sometimes people push back on posts of mine they don't like by telling me I'm out of bounds. Somehow, they say, I've crossed the boundary of what I'm allowed to write about. They are angry that I'm now writing about something outside my defined area.

I'm usually taken aback by this, because I didn't realize I'd actually agreed to any boundaries.

Brands run into this all the time. Consumers give them boundaries. Nike isn't allowed to make a computer, for example (unless they partner with Apple). It turns out, though, that marketers decide to believe in these boundaries a lot more than consumers do.

A beautifully made product or service (one that we agree with) gets a lot of slack, regardless of its source. Virgin is a great example of this. Branson can market cola and airplanes with the same brand, largely because we like what he makes. In Korea, there are a few massive brands that are 'allowed' to market anything they like, from dishwashers to cars. Google is allowed to market the very cool new Squares, of course.

The real problem is that when marketers believe they are going out of bounds, the work they do tends to be lousy. Starbucks attempt at chocolate, for example, wasn't as good at being chocolate as their coffee is at being coffee.I think that's because the marketers at Starbucks feel they have permission to care about coffee, but chocolate is merely an extension, an additional profit center, not a passion.

I'm not arguing for carte blanche craziness with your brand. American Express can do travelers checks and credit cards and could have done PayPal… but no, they probably shouldn't launch a line of whiskey any time soon. I am, however, arguing that once you have permission to talk to someone, finding new products or services for them is a smart way to grow.

Thinking about the compromise

If you sell crack to kindergarten students, no need to read this.

Same thing if you donate all your belongings and income to the poorest and sickest in the slums and ghettos.

The rest of us have compromised. We're not profit-maximizing sociopaths, nor are we saints. We're somewhere in between.

interesting to consider where we choose to compromise. I know people
with $50,000,000 in the bank who still don't believe that they have
enough, who still grind away at a job they don't like trying to earn another penny. I also know
fundraisers for non-profits (ones that they believe in) who aren't
willing to swallow hard and make a difficult fundraising pitch or
promote a new approach to raising money that might feel risky.

you take a 10% pay cut to market a product you truly love and believe
in? Would you pass up a 15% raise to market something like Twinkies?

is at their own level, but my impression is that most people sort of
randomly end up somewhere on the greed/joy/work/good spectrum without really
considering moving one way or the other.

If you've built your
life around service to others, how much more could you accomplish if
you were a little greedier? If you've built an expensive lifestyle
around a well-paying job, what would happen to your life if you
downsized and sought out more joy or generosity?

No right answers, but some good questions.

Why joint ventures fail so often

There are two reasons joint ventures fail. The joint part and the venture part.

All ventures are risky, because they involve change and the unknown. We set off on a venture in search of something, or to make something happen–inherent in the idea of a venture is failure. It’s natural, then, for fearful people on both sides of a joint venture to back off when it gets scary. When given a choice between a risk and sure thing, many people pick the sure thing. So any venture begins with some question marks.

The joint part, though, is where the real problem arises. Pushing through the dip is the only way for a venture of any kind to succeed. The dip separates projects that begin from projects that finish. It’s easy and hopeful and exciting to start something, but challenging and often painful to finish it. When the project is a joint one, the pressure to push through the dip often dissipates. “Well, we only have a bit at stake here, so work on something else, something where we have to take all the blame.”

Because there isn’t one boss, one deliverable, one person pushing the project relentlessly, it stalls.

Every joint venture involves meetings, and meetings are the pressure relief valve. Meetings give us the ability to stall and to point fingers, to obfuscate and confuse. If a problem arises, if a difficulty needs to be overcome, it’s much easier to bury it at a meeting than it is to deal with it.

In my experience, you’re far better off with a licensing deal than a joint venture. One side buys the right to use an asset that belongs to the other. The initial transaction is more difficult (and apparently risky) at the start, but then the door is open to success. It’s a venture that belongs to one party, someone with a lot at stake and an incentive to make it work.

Only one person in charge at a time.

Won by a walk

I was just informed by the resident baseball fan that the Mets won a game by a walk. By a walk!

Of course, in a 4 to 3 baseball game, you don't win by a walk. You win because before the walk, you scored three runs, and you win because before the walk you limited the other side to three runs. The walk was merely the last event.

The last event has huge impact for organizations. When a non-profit fundraiser brings home a million dollar donation, there's a lot of celebration and the fundraiser (deservedly) gets a lot of credit. But what about the person who started the group thirty years ago? Or the firm that named it or the volunteers that staff it or the heroic work one employee did in Rwanda? What about the CFO who has never missed a quarter in turning in tax returns or the admin who makes that donor feel so welcome every time she stops by?

Marketers take a lot of credit, because marketing is near the end of the game. Part of my mission is to move the work marketers do closer to the beginning of the game. Not because there's more glory there, but because there's more leverage. If you build the right thing in the first place, you're more likely to get a walk at the end.

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