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How big is your red zone?

Redzone Every activity worth doing has a learning curve. Riding a bike, learning to read, using Facebook… the early days are rarely nothing but fun.

Take a look at this three part chart. The first shows how much joy someone gets out of an activity. Over time, as we discover new things and get better at it, our satisfaction increases. At some point, there's a bump when we get quite good at it, and then, in most activities, it fades because we get bored. (In the top graph I've also added the Dip, showing the extra joy from being an expert, but that's irrelevant to this discussion).

The second graph shows the hassle of that same activity. Riding a bike, for example, is horrible at first. Skinned knees, bruised egos. Twitter is really easy to use the first few times, so not so much red ink there.

The third graph is just the two overlaid. That zone on the left, the red zone, is the gap between the initial hassle and the initial joy. My contention is that the only reason we ever get through that gap is that someone on the other side (the little green circle) is rooting us on, or telling us stories of how great it is on the other side.

The bigger your red zone, the louder your green dot needs to be. Every successful product or passion is either easy to get started on or comes with a built-in motivator to keep you moving until you're in. This is so easy to overlook, because of course you're already in…

The right price the first time

The way you price expensive transactions is going to train your partners and customers in how to behave.

When selling a book to a major publisher, it’s common for the publisher to offer an advance against royalties. In fact, the advance is the most significant tool that publishers use to get a coveted author to pick one house over another–royalties and most everything else are fixed.

It turns out that if an agent offers a hot book to multiple publishers at the same time, the advance offered goes up, often dramatically. Obviously, the publisher was capable of offering the higher advance without the auction, but it was the risk of losing the book that got them to pony up more money.

This trains agents and authors to be disloyal, to shop around and to create an artificial game to raise the price.

Or consider the real estate developer who calls up an electrician to re-wire a building. She uses this electrician often, and the estimate comes back at $18,000. The developer shops around and finds a similarly talented electrician for $14,000. Loyalty is great, but that’s a huge difference. She switches to the higher value choice. Indignant, the original electrician says, “why didn’t you tell me! I could have beaten that price.”

The answer, of course, is, “well, why didn’t you quote me that price in the first place?”

You might leave money on the table if you reward people for being loyal (and don’t make them shop around each time). I think it’s money well spent, because loyalty is worth more than a little more margin. If you train your partners to shop around, expect them to shop around.

Resilience and the incredible power of slow change

Most existing systems (organizations, cities, careers, governments) are resilient to external shocks. If they weren't, they wouldn't still be here. Earthquakes, edicts and emergencies come and they go, but the systems remain.

And yet, it's the emergencies we pay attention to.

No single event demolished the music business. It was a series of slow changes over the course of two decades, all the way back to the CD.

Smoking killed far more people than terrorists ever did. It's just not as dramatic.

No single technology destroyed the business model for newspapers. Sure, Craigslist hastened their demise, but the writing has been on the wall for a decade or more.

Your career won't be made or broken on the back of one interview, one meeting, one sales call. Sure, it might help (or hurt), but the sudden impact of one event isn't sufficient to change everything forever.

The slow changes in the media landscape are accelerating and virtually every pre-digital system is in danger. The slow changes in the marketing landscape are in their second decade and these changes will have their effects on every business and cause as well.

Cultural shifts create long terms evolutionary changes. Cultural shifts, changes in habits, technologies that slowly obsolete a product or a system are the ones that change our lives. Watch for shifts in systems and processes and expectations. That's what makes change, not big events.

Don't worry about what happened yesterday (or five minutes ago). Focus on what happened ten years ago and think about what you can do that will make a huge impact in six months. The breaking news mindset isn't just annoying, it may be distracting you from what really matters. As the world gets faster, it turns out that the glacial changes of years and decades are become more important, not less.

Foundation elements for modern businesses

When you sit down to dream up a new business, you can imagine a world without constraints. Or you can choose to build in fundamental pieces that will make it more likely your idea will pay off.

Here are some fundamental pieces of most new successful businesses. The goal is to build these elements into the very nature of the business itself, not just to tack them on. For example, the Scotch tape people at 3M can't do #5, because of the structure of retail distribution and the way they mass produce and can't track who is buying what.

You can live without some of these, but go in with your eyes open if you do:

  1. Build in virality. Consider: Groupon.
  2. Don't sell a product that can be purchased cheaper at Amazon.
  3. Subscriptions beat one-off sales.
  4. Try to create an environment where your customers are happier when there are other customers doing business with you (see #1).
  5. Treat different customers differently.
  6. Generate joy, don't just satisfy a need for a commodity.
  7. Rely on unique individuals, not an easily copyable system.
  8. Plan on remarkable experiences, not remarkable ads.
  9. Don't build a fortress of secrets, bet on open.
  10. Unless there's a differentiating business reason, use off the shelf software and cheap cloud storage.
  11. The asset of the future is the embrace of a tribe, not a cheaper widget.
  12. Match expenses to cash flow–don't run out of money, because it's no longer 1999.
  13. Create scarcity but act with abundance. Free samples create demand for the valuable (but not unlimited) tier you offer.
  14. Tell a story, erect a mythology, walk the walk.
  15. Plan on obsolescence (of your products, not your customers).


3. The cost of selling a subscription to your product or service is not a lot higher than the cost of selling just one, but you benefit by having sales you can count on at low cost. Your customers benefit because you depend on them more and they save time.

5. Everyone has different needs and expectations and resources. The internet lets you tell people apart and give them what they need.

7. AKA as Linchpins.

9. If you're building a business on trade secrets or lack of information among your customers, you're trying to fill a leaky bucket. Far easier to bet on the more people know, the better you do.

10. Because cheap software and the cloud are going to continue to get cheaper, and custom work that's worth anything is going to continue to get more expensive.

12. The best people to fund your growth are your customers.

13. When the marginal cost of an interaction approaches zero, you benefit by creating plenty of them.

14. We can tell.

Exploration and the risk of failure

People seem to be in one of two categories:

  • Those who seek stability, affiliation, work worth doing and the assurance it (whatever it is) will be okay.
  • Those who explore, need to know that failure is an option and quest to make a dent in the universe.

You can be in either category, the world needs and rewards both. But pick a brand and a job and a posture that matches your category, or you'll fail, and be miserable until you do.

Hint: there is no category of: "does risky exploration, never fails."

When technology and tradition diverge

What be the effect on voting patterns if we used digital technology to announce the current vote tally every hour (or every hundred votes).

People would see the direction an election was going and be more likely to be pulled in. Voter attention and ultimately voter involvement would go up, and fraud would be more difficult. [I'm well aware this is a fairly lame variation, there's actually a million interesting alternatives, I just picked a simple one.]

So why don't we do it?

When the secret ballot was introduced, it just wasn't possible to count the votes in less than a few days. So a tradition was established, driven by the technology, not because it was the best way. Now, of course, the technology doesn't need that tradition any longer, but it's still here.

One by one, traditions that supported technology are falling as the technology changes. The simple thank you note, for example, is a long tradition based on the technology of couriers and then the postal service. Of course it arrives three days later, because that's how long it takes. At first, the email thank you note seems too impersonal, too easy, too digital. Then, we begin to appreciate the speed and it become ubiquitous and then expected.

There are huge opportunities for marketers seeking to upend traditions that have outlived their usefulness. Just don't expect it to happen overnight.

The places you go

Over the weekend I visited one of my favorite places. It didn't matter that I hadn't been there in a while, or didn't know most of the people I encountered. The second I walked in, heard the noise, saw the walls… even the way it smelled… I was transported.

It’s incredible to think about–a room could magically change the way I felt. A physical room with the right memories can do this in just a heartbeat. So can a metaphorical one, even a brand.

The states of your emotions (your moods and passions) are like rooms in a house.

Anxiety, flow, joy, fear, exhaustion, connection, contemplation, emotional labor… each one can be visited at will if we choose. Sometimes by entering a real room, but more often in metaphor…

Do you have a friend you can have an intimate, tearful conversation with anytime you pick up the phone? Is there a topic that if you bring it up with your boss, it will quickly lead to contention? Is there a place or a memory that never fails to bring melancholy along with it?

Occasionally we encounter emotions at random. More often, we have no choice, because there’s something that needs to be done, or an event that impinges itself on us. But most often, we seek emotions out, find refuge in them, just as we walk into the living room or the den.

Stop for a second and reread that sentence, because it’s certainly controversial. I’m arguing that more often than not, we encounter fear or aggravation or delight because we seek it out, not because it’s thrust on us.

Why check your email every twenty minutes? It’s not because it needs checking. It’s because the checking puts us into a state we seek out. Why yell at the parking attendant with such gusto? Teaching him a lesson isn’t the point–no, in that moment, it’s what we want to do, it’s a room we choose to hang out in. It could be something as prosaic as getting involved in a flame war online every day, or checking your feeds at midnight or taking a shot or two before dinner. It’s not something you have to do, it’s something you choose to do, because going there takes your emotions to a place you’ve gotten used to, a place where you feel comfortable, even if it makes you unhappy.

There’s a metaphorical room I can go to where I’m likely to experience flow–a sense of being in the moment and getting an enormous amount done. Down the hall is the room where there’s a lot of anxiety about something I can’t change. I can visit that room if I choose, but I don’t. And yes, it’s a choice.

Great brands figure out how to supply a ‘room’ to anyone who chooses to visit. Soap opera fans, for example, can count on being put into a certain state anytime they tune in. The Apple store is carefully calibrated as an architectural and retail room that will change how you feel when you enter it. Chiat Day built offices in New York and LA that triggered huge waves of creativity. And there's nothing like the face of a kid eating a Hershey's bar…

YouTube isn't just video. It's a room. Not everyone uses it the same way, but most people use it the same way every time they use it. If it's the site people go to see stupid pet tricks and write stupider comments, then they know why they're going and it's going to be hard for it to become something else…

Is your brand providing the right room to the right people at the right time? Most products, most services–they provide a thing, a list of features, but not a room for my emotions.

This insight about our moods and your brand is all well and good, but it becomes essential once you realize that there are some rooms you’re spending way too much time in, that these choices are taking away from your productivity or your happiness.

Why are you going there again?

Every time you go to that room, you get unhappy, and so do we. Every time you go that room, you spend more time than you expected, and it stresses out the rest of your day. Every time you go to that room you short-circuit the gifts you give to the rest of the team.

Once your habit becomes an addiction, it’s time to question why you get up from a room that was productive and happy, a place you were engaged, and walk down the hall to a room that does no one any good (least of all, you). Tracking your day and your emotions is a first step, but it takes more than that. It takes the guts to break some ingrained habits, ones that the people around you might even be depending on.


The number one reason people give me for giving up on something great is, "someone else is already doing that."

Or, parsed another way, "my idea is not brand new." Or even, "Oh no, now we'll have competition."

Two big pieces of news for you:

1. Competition validates you. It creates a category. It permits the sale to be this or that, not yes or no. And this or that is a much easier sale to make. It also makes decisions about pricing easier, because you have someone to compare against and lean on.

2. There are six billion people in the world. Even if your market is hand-made spoke shaves for left-handed woodworkers, there are more people in your market than you can ever hope to track down.

There are lots of good reasons to abandon a project. Having a little competition is not one of them. Even if it's Google you're up against.

The decision before the decision

This is the one that was made before you even showed up. This is the one that sets the agenda, determines the goal and establishes the frame.

The decision before the decision is the box.

When you think outside the box, what you're actually doing is questioning the decision before the decision.

That decision is far more important and much more difficult to change than the decision you actually believe you're about to make.

Sleeping funny

It's not a joke. Sometimes you sleep funny, wake up tired and feel cranky all day. No comic timing required.

Do you ever work funny?

Ever have a day when none of the things you need to focus on materialize, when the emotional labor doesn't come naturally?

Most of us have come up with a strategy for days we're working funny–we do the busy work, we reply, react and occasionally respond. We show up at the meetings and we answer our email, and we go home feeling as though we accomplished at least a little something (though we didn't.)

The danger is this: this working funny habit leaks into the days when we're on our game. When you're on a roll, you still find yourself going to meetings, answering email and working through someone else's to-do list. That's a waste.

Don't toss and turn if you don't have to.