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Two seminars in November


Thanks to everyone who signed up.]

I haven't done a public seminar in six months or so. It's clearly time.

All the details are here. There is one in New York City on November 19th and for the first time, a small roundtable session in my office on November 13th. The small session is by application only.

If you're interested in either one, I hope you'll sign up soon, because they sell out quickly.

Hope to see you there.

Apparent risk and actual risk

There are people who I will never encounter in a restaurant.

That's because when these people go out for dinner, they go to chain restaurants. These are the tourists in New York who seek out the familiar Olive Garden instead of walking down the street to Pure.

That's fine. It's a personal choice.

But it got me thinking about the difference between apparent and actual risk, and how that choice affects just about everything we do.

The concierge at a fancy hotel spends her time helping tourists and business travelers avoid apparent risk. She'll book the boring, defensible, consistent tour, not the crazy guy who's actually a trained architect and a dissident. She'll recommend the restaurant from Zagats, not from Chowhound.

Apparent risk is what keeps someone working at a big company, even if it's doing layoffs. It feels safer to stay there than to do the (apparently) insanely risky thing and start a new venture.

Apparent risk is what gets someone who is afraid of plane crashes to drive, even though driving is more dangerous.

Apparent risk is avoiding the chance that people will laugh at you and instead backing yourself into the very real possibility that you're going to become obsolete or irrelevant.

When things get interesting is when the apparently risky is demonstrably [less safe] than the actually risky. That's when we sometimes become uncomfortable enough with our reliance on the apparent to focus on the actual. Think about that the next time they make you take off your shoes at the airport.

Traction and friction

A big car on a wet frozen lake goes nowhere. No traction, no motion.

A small bug working its way across a gravel driveway takes forever. Too much friction, too little motion.

If you're stuck, it's probably because one of these two challenges.

There's not enough traction online. Too many choices, too few boundaries. It's easy to get stuck because there's nothing to push off of, no box to think outside of.

There's too much friction in stuck industries. The walls have been expanded for so long, you just can't get over them.

The power of online platforms is that they create traction. No, you can't write more than 140 characters, no you can't design any layout you want, no you can't spam everyone with your inane sales pitch. You have something to leverage against, but it's that thing, the friction, that makes it work.

The best marketers I know make up rules for themselves and they don't break them. It's very easy to surrender to the moment and walk over to the next hill. It's more productive to climb this hill instead.

When will the world make fun of you?

Tom's Shoes continues to make a difference, combining an innovative business model with brilliant storytelling.

Which leads to parodies, of course, which Tom's loves. Spread the word, share the story. If it's worth telling, it's worth parodying. When will we be able to parody what you do?

The last one is the real deal, of course. (PS here's the correct address if you're an ecommerce rockstar looking for a job at Tom's: ecommerce@tomsshoes.com).

The three elements of full employment

You will never be out of work if you can demonstrably offer one of the following:

  • Sales
  • Additive effort
  • Initiation

Sales speaks for itself. If you can sell enough to cover what you cost and then some, there will always be someone waiting to hire you.

Additive effort is distinguished from bureaucracy or feel-good showing up. Additive effort generates productivity far greater than the overhead you add to the organization. If your skills make the assembly line go twice as fast, or the sales force becomes more effective, or the travel office cuts its costs, then you've produced genuine value. That surly receptionist at the doctor's office–she's just filling a chair.

The third skill is the most difficult to value, but is ultimately the most valuable. If you're the person who can initiate useful action, if you're the one who makes something productive or transformative happen, then smart organizations will treasure you.

“What do you need me to do?”

This is a question that defines the person asking it. It is very different from, "here's what you might need…"

If you ask people for the next task on the list, if you allow them to define the thing they are buying from you, you have abdicated responsibility. Your work product becomes dependent on the insight and guts of the person giving you an assignment. This is especially dangerous for consultants and freelancers, because the answer might be, "nothing." Or it might be a paying gig that's profitable in the short run but a career deadener over time.

Far better to reach a level of confidence and skill that you can describe solutions rather than ask for tasks.

The tacky techie conundrum


[click picture to enlarge]

Our Culture (high and popular) is usually created by people who are happy with the systems the world has given them. Magazine editors don't spend a lot of time wishing for better technology. Opera singers focus more on their singing than on microphone technologies. Novelists proudly use typewriters.

Sure, there are exceptions like Les Paul (who developed the electric guitar) and Mitch Miller (who invented reverb) but these exceptions prove the rule: often, culture is invented by people who are too busy to seek out new technology.

(The bottom left corner of the grid shows the tech-phobic culture-phobic contingent. Not relevant to this discussion so much, but scary nonetheless).

If you take a look at this chart, you can see the danger anyone who introduces new technology faces. While you'll attract Les Paul and the 37Signals guys, you're more likely to attract spammers, scammers, opportunity seekers and others that will bring our culture down as easily as they'll bring it up.

The challenge is in designing structures and transparency that will attract the good guys while burying or repelling those that seek the new technology (because they can't find anywhere else to go). In other words, you either need to move the top left to the top right (not easy, but possible*), or educate the bottom left of the grid in how to contribute to the culture (really difficult indeed). The best new media (like blogs and possibly twitter) open doors to people who didn't used to have a voice. The worst ones (like blogs and possibly twitter) merely create new venues for scams and senseless yelling.

*The much-anticipated folding of Gourmet magazine is proof of what happens when the top left refuses to move right. Most of the Conde Nast empire is facing the abyss of this problem right now.

Promiscuous dispersal of your email address

I just went through the hassle of trying to get some B2B firms the details needed to give me an informed quote on a project.

I visited eight sites. Six of them hide their email address. They use forms of one sort of another. One firm refused to accept more than 500 characters in the "how can we help you" box, while three of them wanted to know what state I was in, etc.

Email contact is like a first date. If you show up with a clipboard and a questionnaire, it's not going to go well, I'm afraid. The object is to earn permission to respond.

If you sell something, set up an address like "sales@xyz.com". Put this on your home page, "contact us if you're looking for more information or a price quote." Sure, you'll get a lot of spam, but deleting spam is a lot easier than finding customers. (Hint, ask your IT people to make it a mailto link, with a subject line built in. That way, you can use the subject line to find the good email).

Crowded at the top

In the 260 weeks from 1966 to 1970, there were only thirteen musical acts responsible for every  #1 album on the Billboard charts.

In the 260 weeks that accounted for the first half of the 1970s, it was 26. (hat tip to John Marks for the stat).

Sometimes, we define a golden age in a market as a time of stability, when one or a few giants capture all of our attention. AT&T telephones, Superman comics, Beatles records, IBM computers, The New York Times… and now Google. Choices are easy, the market grows without a lot of effort and we marvel over the ease of success. Ironically, the success of these winners attracts quixotic entrepreneurs, people who set out to challenge the few who are winning. While we might root for these underdogs, it turns out that they're not the ones who usually change everything. The powerful are still too powerful.

The real growth and development and the foundations for the next era are laid during the chaotic times, the times that come after the leaders have stumbled. Harry Chapin didn't trip up the Beatles, but the breakup of the Beatles allowed Harry Chapin his chance. The next golden age of journalism, of communications, of fashion, of car design–those are being established now, in a moment when it's not so crowded at the top.

The very best time to launch a new product or service is when the market appears exhausted or depleted. There's more room at the top and fewer people in a hurry to get there.

Less than zero

The long tail is real, but sometimes the longest parts reach underwater. When there's enough choices, it means that some things will never get picked.

Charles Blow reports in the NY Times that:

"A study last year conducted by members of PRS for
Music, a nonprofit royalty collection agency, found that of the 13
million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single
and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs.
That’s less than one percent of the songs."

The internet has allowed ease of entry into the market. You can advertise anything, any service, any good, any piece of junk in your garage–essentially for zero. You can go into business effortlessly, telling yourself you'll just hang out on the long tail and do just fine. Understand that zero is a very real probability, perhaps even a likelihood. Derek reminds us that 0% of a really big number is still zero.

What direct marketers have always understood is that you must make something work in the small before you bet the farm and market it to the masses. If you can't sell to 1 in 1000, why market to a million?