Entrepreneurial hope is essential. It gets us over the hump and through the dip. There's a variety of this hope, though, that's far more damaging than helpful.
This is the hope of the magic lottery ticket.
A fledgling entrepreneur ambushes a venture capitalist who just appeared on a panel. "Excuse me," she says, then launches into a two, then six and eventually twenty minute pitch that will never (sorry, never) lead to the VC saying, "Great, here's a check for $2 million on your terms."
Or the fledgling author, the one who has been turned down by ten agents and then copies his manuscript and fedexes it to twenty large publishing houses–what is he hoping for, exactly? Perhaps he's hoping to win the magic lottery, to be the one piece of slush chosen out of a million (literally a million!) that goes on to be published and revered.
You deserve better than the dashed hopes of a magic lottery.
There's a hard work alternative to the magic lottery, one in which you can incrementally lay the groundwork and integrate into the system you say you want to work with. And yet instead of doing that work, our instinct is to demonize the person that wants to take away our ticket, to confuse the math of the situation (there are very few glass slippers available) with someone trying to slam the door in your faith/face.
You can either work yourself to point where you don't need the transom, or you can play a different game altogether, but throwing your stuff over the transom isn't worthy of the work you've done so far.
Starbucks didn't become Starbucks by getting discovered by Oprah Winfrey or being blessed by Warren Buffet when they only had a few stores. No, they plugged along. They raised bits of money here and there, flirted with disaster, added one store and then another, tweaked and measured and improved and repeated. Day by day, they dripped their way to success. No magic lottery.
What chance is there that Mark Cuban or Carlos Slim is going to agree to be your mentor, to open all doors and give you a shortcut to the top? Better, I think, to avoid wasting a moment of your time hoping for a fairy godmother. You're in a hurry and this is a dead end.
When someone encourages you to avoid the magic lottery, they're not criticizing your idea nor are they trying to shatter your faith or take away your hope. Instead, they're pointing out that shortcuts are rarely dependable (or particularly short) and that instead, perhaps, you should follow the longer, more deliberate, less magical path if you truly want to succeed.
If your business or your music or your art or your project is truly worth your energy and your passion, then don't sell it short by putting its future into a lottery ticket.
Here's another way to think about it: delight the audience you already have, amaze the customers you can already reach, dazzle the small investors who already trust you enough to listen to you. Take the permission you have and work your way up. Leaps look good in the movies, but in fact, success is mostly about finding a path and walking it one step at a time.
When Blythe and her partners started Lula's Apothecary, the best vegan ice cream stand in this hemisphere, they didn't have enough money to afford the letters to put "Dairy free" on the sign in their window. They couldn't even afford "vegan." So the signage says nothing about what they don't put in their ice cream.
What they discovered was that word among the tribe of vegans in the East Village of New York City (an even bigger group than you might imagine) spread fast. The product was remarkable enough that just a few happy customers were enough to spread the word.
The other thing they discovered is that non-vegans were willing to walk on in if the place looked cool enough. In fact, the lack of ingredient-declaration on their window actually helped them reach out to people who might have been scared away at the lack of milk.
Ink on the website is free, so they use the v-word there, but even though they can now afford it, the window is still proudly mute on their rigor regarding ingredients. No sense scaring away customers who don't care (and the customers who do care probably heard the news from their friends in advance.)
Shipping is fraught with risk and danger.
Every time you raise your hand, send an email, launch a product or make a suggestion, you're exposing yourself to criticism. Not just criticism, but the negative consequences that come with wasting money, annoying someone in power or making a fool of yourself.
It's no wonder we're afraid to ship.
It's not clear you have much choice, though. A life spent curled in a ball, hiding in the corner might seem less risky, but in fact it's certain to lead to ennui and eventually failure.
Since you're going to ship anyway, then, the question is: why bother indulging your fear?
In a long distance race, everyone gets tired. The winner is the runner who figures out where to put the tired, figures out how to store it away until after the race is over. Sure, he's tired. Everyone is. That's not the point. The point is to run.
Same thing is true for shipping, I think. Everyone is afraid. Where do you put the fear?
When you have a big idea, the question is, how to spread it?
You can go through a traditional publisher and have it printed in the tried and true way, like Clay Shirky. I had a chance to read Clay's new book a few months ago. No surprise: it's pure gold, unalloyed insight about the state of media and the world.
If you're looking for big ideas and are prepared to lose a little sleep, there's no better book to buy right now.
You can have someone take a short speech based on your book and have them turn it into a animated video. Dan Pink's video has been seen about 20 times as often as his book has been purchased. Video spreads.
You can turn your idea (like a focus on entrepreneurs) into cool trading cards, like Evan did.
You can skip the printing altogether and start your own video university, like Khan Academy.
Perhaps write a short manifesto and watch it spread as a free ebook. Like Changethis, a free service that has reached millions with the work of top authors from around the world.
Don't forget podcasts or mp3s, which can be very funny or motivational.
Consider starting a conference with a unique platform and worldwide reach, like TED.
Or you can blog your idea for several years in a row, slowly building up trust and making an impact over time.
Of course, there's no right answer. But there's probably a best answer that matches your time frame, budget, audience and idea.
One way to do indispensable work is to show up more hours than everyone else. Excessive face time and candle-burning effort is sort of rare, and it's possible to leverage it into a kind of success.
But if you're winning by cheating the clock, you're still cheating.
The problem with using time as your lever for success is that it doesn't scale very well. 20 hours a day at work is not twice as good as 18, and you certainly can't go much beyond 24…
What would happen if you were prohibited from working more than five hours a day. What would you do? How would you use those five hours to become indispensable in a different way?
Go ahead, try it. Just for a week. See what happens. Even if you go back to ten, you'll discover you've changed the way you compete.
There's a gulf between hourly work and linchpin
You should pay people by the hour when there are available substitutes. When you rely on freelancers you can put a value on their time based on what the
market is paying. If there are six podiatrists in town, and all can heal your foot, the going rate is based on their time and effort, not on the lifetime use of your foot.
On the other hand, if there are no short term substitutes, then you don't pay what the market will bear, instead you pay what someone is worth. Big difference.
Consider, for example, someone putting together a series of concerts for which they intend to sell subscriptions or even have the musicians sell tickets.
They could seek out pretty good musicians and imagine that paying them $500 or more per hour is very fair compensation. After all, that's more than a podiatrist gets, and she gives you back the use of your foot.
But when they find a linchpin, someone who will either make it easier for them to sell subscriptions or will bring an audience with them, the
question isn't how much time it took for the musician to do her set, the question is what did she
bring in terms of value, right? An indispensable person, someone with a rare asset, has few substitutes and an hourly rate makes a lot less sense.
So, if a musician is going to sell 300 subscriptions for you and you earn $200 a subscription
from that effort, that person just added $60,000 worth of value. Who
cares if it took a minute or a day? What's on the table is who gets what
portion of the value added…
I had a college professor who did engineering consulting. A brand new office tower in Boston had a serious problem–there was a brown stain coming through the drywall, (all of the drywall) no matter how much stain killer they used. In a forty story building, if you have to rip out all the drywall, this is a multi-million dollar disaster. They had exhausted all possibilities and were a day away from tearing out everything and taking a loss. They hired Henry in a last-ditch effort to solve the problem. He looked at the walls and said, "I think I can work out a solution, but it will cost you $45,000 if I succeed." They instantly signed on, because if he succeeded, the project would be saved.
Henry asked for a pencil and paper and wrote the name of a common hardware store chemical and handed it to them. "Here, this will work." And then he billed them $45,000. That's quite an hourly wage. It's also quite a bargain.
When I was a struggling freelancer, I hated to spend money. I hired myself to do everything possible, because money I spent was money I didn't get to keep.
When I was hiring researchers to find great leads for my first internet company, I loved to spend money. Every penny we spent made us four pennies, so I spent as many pennies as I possibly could.
And there's the key distinction between two approaches to money.
If you build a business that processes inputs (leads, articles, code, attention, visitors, employees) and produces outputs that work, you want as many as you can possibly find. And if you view the world as a small pie with a finite number of pieces, better not spend on anything you can possibly avoid.
The trick is this: if your business isn't working as you hope, perhaps it's because you need to flip your approach.
Is it an expense or an asset? Is it a tax or an opportunity? Is it an investment or a risk?
It turns out that people have a very difficult time making the leap. Big company executives leave their jobs to start little companies but keep spending like money doesn't matter. Freelancers skimp on spending that would certainly pay off, and quickly.
This simple decision needs to be an intentional one.
Steve Jobs reports today that Apple is selling an iPad every three seconds.
This is a pretty urgent moment for my friends on the Kindle team, so here are some bonus thoughts on pricing, business models and competition:
1. The paperback Kindle. Don't worry about touchscreens or color or even always available internet to download new books. Make a $49 Kindle. Not so hard if you use available wifi and simplify the device. Make it the only ebook reader in town.
2. The Kindle as razor. Buy any 8 bestselling books on the Kindle ($10 each) and get a paperback Kindle for free.
3. Kindle of the month club. In the 1950s, the most powerful person in all publishing was the guy who chose the book for the book of the month club. It didn't pay the author glamorously well, but if your book was chosen, it guaranteed people would talk and it would become a bestseller.
Sign up to get a Kindle book of your choice every month for 12 months and get a free Kindle. Amazon presents you with ten book choices, and since the cost of delivering it is zero, there's plenty of margin for all…
4. Let publishers, leaders and corporations push PDFs and chosen books directly to their tribes via the Kindle. For example, I could put Kindles in the hands of the 1,000 service techs of my ventilation company and they'd see the new service manual daily. Or an author could create her own version of a book club, collecting a monthly fee and pushing the latest book directly to people who want to read it. Simpler still, how about letting me gift a book directly to anyone I know who has a Kindle? (thanks Lisa, for this idea).
The only way to get authors and publishers to embrace this device is to sell 20,000,000 of them. You either become the best and only platform for consuming books worth buying or you fail. And the only way to create that footprint in the face of an iPad is to make it so cheap to buy and use it's irresistible.
I saw a two-year old kid (in diapers, in a stroller), using an iPod Touch today. Not just looking at it, but browsing menus and interacting. This is a revolution, guys.
- People don't like deadlines. They mean a decision, shipping and risk. They force us to decide.
- Deadlines work. Products that are about to disappear, auctions that are about to end, tickets that are about to sell out–they create forward motion.
- Deadlines make people do dumb things. Every time I offer a free digital document or an educational event that has a deadline, I can guarantee I will hear from several (or dozens of) people with ornate, well-considered and thoughtful arguments as to why they missed the deadline. Never mind that they had two weeks… the last fifteen minutes are all they are concerned with. If it's important enough to spend an hour complaining about, it's certainly important enough to spend four minutes to just do it in the first place.
- Deadlines give you the opportunity to beat the rush. Handing in work just a little bit early is a sure-fire way to tell a positive story and get the attention you seek. The chart below tracks the day (out of 10) that I received each of the more than a thousand applications for the free nano MBA program. Want to guess which day's applications got the most attention from me?
- When we set ourselves a deadline, we're incredibly lax about sticking to it. So don't (set it for yourself, in your head, informally). Write it down instead. Hand it to someone else. Publicize it. Associate it with an external reward or punishment. If you don't make the deadline, your friend gives the $20 you loaned her to a cause you disagree with…
- They have a lousy name. Call them live-lines instead. That's what they are.
Key takeaway: Deadlines are a cheap and useful tool to for yourself (and others) to make a decision and to ship.
There may be no bigger opportunity online for bootstrappers than finding people who would benefit from being connected and then connecting them.
Not so they can waste time sending digital love notes back and forth, but so they (and you) can create value for others.
Build a network of experts and make it available for hire.
Build a network of researchers and generate information useful to others.
Build a network of leaders and represent them to advertisers, marketers or recruiters.
Getting people and organizations in sync is the project of our times.
COMDEX was the largest trade show in the world for years, and it generated millions in profits as well as billions in value to the attendees. What happens if you do that in the small? But more efficiently…