The two best ways to break through a rut and to make an impact:
- Find things that others have accepted as the status quo and make them significantly, noticably and remarkably better.
- Find things that you're attached to that are slowing you down, realize that they are broken beyond repair and eliminate them. Toss them away and refuse to use them any longer.
When a not-so-good software tool or a habit or an agency or a policy has too much inertia to be fixed, when it's unbetterable, you're better off without it. Eliminating it will create a void, fertile territory for something much better to arrive.
Derek Sivers, founder of CDBaby, has written a brilliant new book. It's a brand new way of thinking about entrepreneurship, as fresh as Rework, but very different.
I sent my friend Jerry a copy last week and he sent me a note that said, "I'd like to buy a 52 pack of the hardcover version to give away to my clients. (yeah, it's that good.)"
I love it when that happens. It's on the Kindle too.
Michael Ellsberg, writing in Forbes, "One of the best hours you’ll ever spend will be reading Derek Sivers’s new book…"
At the risk of going overboard for a book I'm proud to have published, Derek's reading of the audio is just killer, and he's offering $200 worth of music as a gift to anyone who buys a copy in any format.
This is a short book worth reading, sharing and remembering. It's a generous gift to anyone with a dream.
Well done, Derek.
Here's the schedule. Follow it.
There's your in box. Empty it.
When something is imminent, speed up. When you're off the deadline machine, take a breath and poke around a bit, explore, relax.
The goal isn't to do work and hand it in just before it's due. The goal is to do the work as beautifully as you can, faster than anyone else, so you can do more work.
If it takes a deadline to get you off your butt and to push past the resistance, then move the deadlines forward.
You don't work on an assembly line any more. You work in project world, and more projects mean more chances to screw up, to learn, to make a reputation and to have more impact.
When it's you against the boss, the goal is to do less work.
When it's you against the project, the goal is to do more work.
Kevin asked me: "Do ‘great ideas’ possess universally some sort of Wow Factor?"
The problems with this question: What does 'great' mean? And who decides what 'wow' is?
The challenge is this: lots of people think they know what both words mean in their area of endeavor, and many of them are wrong.
Consider the case of web 2.0 companies. People like Brad Feld and Fred Wilson are brilliant at understanding what wow means from the point of view of an investor. They have great taste about what's going to pay off. They have a sense for which teams and which ideas will actually turn into great businesses.
The peanut gallery at tech sites, though, don't have such great abilities (if they did, they'd be Brad, not anonymous voters). As a result, they mistake consumer wow for investor wow, and often focus on the wrong attributes when they're criticizing or congratulating a company.
This is endemic in the book business, which resolutely refuses to understand the actual P&L of most of the books it publishes. As a result, there are plenty of editors who continue to overpay for the wrong books, because their wow isn't the market's wow.
In his book Money Ball, Michael Lewis wrote about how virtually every single scout and manager in baseball was wrong about what makes a great baseball player. They had the wrong radar, the wrong wow. When statistics taught a few teams what the real wow was, the balance of power shifted.
By definition, just about every great idea resonates early with those that have better radar than those that don't. The skill, then, is to expose yourself often enough, learn enough and fail enough that you get to say wow before the competition does.
They're shutting down Jimmy Wang's store. Shutting down a succesful little business.
Walgreen's is moving into town, my town, a town with three or four small drugstores and plenty of places to buy stale cookies, thank you very much.
I've written about Brother's market before, an anchor in my little town. The only place to get hand-picked fresh food, pretty much, and the sort of market you could imagine moving to town just to be near. Remember those little markets where they actually care about the produce they sell? In a world filled with bitter cash register jockeys, Brother's was different. A smiling face, a family member mentioned, a don't-worry-about-the-pennies sort of interaction.
I've probably shopped there a thousand times, and every single time it brought a smile to my face.
The problem is that while Brother's was in a race to the top, a race to create more and better interactions, Walgreen's is in a race to the bottom. They exist to extract the last penny from every bit of real estate they can control. That's the deal they made with their shareholders.
The landlord who owns this land lives in another state. He doesn't care. He can ignore the protests and the petitions.
And Walgreen's won't even notice the community outrage. We can write letters or call or boycott the new store (or all their stores) and the local manager, the local region manager, the state-level manager, the head of store operations–none of them care, of course, because it's just a job to them.
Real estate is the soul killer here. You can't have a beloved local market and a public drugstore chain occupying the very same spot. Pundits like me can talk all we want about being remarkable, about leading and about making connections, but when a public company wants your spot, when it can extract a few extra pennies per square foot, you lose.
The internet has opened the door for millions of businesses to do things differently, because there are other assets now, assets that can transcend location. Your permission to talk to customers, your reputation, your unique products–you can build a business around them online. But that doesn't work so well if you depend on local (and leased) real estate, if you're selling watercress or radishes, apparently.
One by one, store by store, the chains expand, earning a few more dollars a share and further insulating themselves from the communities they used to serve. No, my neighbors and I don't need another drugstore, we have plenty. That's not going to change Walgreen's mind, and it's not going to help Jimmy and his team, either. My heart goes out to them. Thanks for everything you did for our community, guys.
The race to the top continues. It's just a lot harder if you have a landlord.
Here are Orwell's rules, edited:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. You don't need cliches.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do. Avoid long words.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active. Write in the now.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. When in doubt, say it clearly.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Better to be interesting than to follow these rules.
The reason business writing is horrible is that people are afraid.
Afraid to say what they mean, because they might be criticized for it.
Afraid to be misunderstood, to be accused of saying what they didn't mean, because they might be criticized for it.
Orwell was on the right track. Just say it. Say it clearly. Say it now. Say it without fear of being criticized and say it without being boring.
If the goal is no feedback, then say nothing. Don't write the memo.
If the goal is to communicate, then say what you mean.
My best tip is this: buy a cheap digital recorder. Say what you want to say, as if the person you seek to persuade is standing there, listening. Then type that up. Simplify. Send.
Here's a perfect test case for thinking about consumer marketing and ethics. (I'm more interested in the structure of the problem than I am in sunscreen in particular). The question is: should a company do whatever it can to make a short-term profit, or should it work to do the right thing?
Sunscreen has no purpose other than to avoid both a burn and skin cancer. It doesn't bring social status, the joy of application or any placebo benefits with it. It either delivers a medical benefit or it doesn't.
For a decade, sunscreen marketers have been arguing with the FDA about labeling and formulation rules. Largely, they've been pushing for less regulation, particularly in labeling. While this is going on, more than 80,000 people have died of skin cancer in the US.
There are plenty of ways to rationalize false marketing claims (hey, at least they'll use something…) but it's pretty clear that marketers have done little to educate the public about what's going on (did you know that 95% of the radiation that hits us is cancer-causing and skin-aging UVA, the kind that SPF has no relevance to?)
New regulations were recently announced, though it's not surprising that many think the regs were watered down as a result of lobbying.
It turns out that in the US, sunscreens have been extraordinarily over-hyped, with variations being called 'waterproof, 'full spectrum' and 'effective' without being any of these. You need to use a lot more, and a lot more often, than the labels currently indicate. Marketers would prefer a magic bullet, as it's easier to sell, but sunscreen doesn't work that way. It's not easy to make an effective sunscreen, and so competitors with lesser products have hyped them with false or irrelevant claims. (SPF 120 anyone?)
Here are the two questions that occur to me:
How can consumers look at this example and not believe that the regulation of marketing claims is the only way to insulate consumers from short-term selfish marketers in search of market share, marketers who will shade the truth, even if it kills some customers?
Why aren't ethical marketers (of any product) eager to have clear and well-defined regulations, creating a set of honest definitions so that they can actually do what they set out to do–make a difference and make a living at the same time? If you're busy competing against people willing to cut corners, I'd think you'd want the rules to be really aggressive, clear and obvious.
Who owns the trail of digital breadcrumbs you're leaving behind?
Is understanding who you know and how you know them and where you visit and what you're interested in and what you buy worth anything?
Perhaps you should own it. Richard Thaler's provocative idea shouldn't be that provocative, and it represents a significant business opportunity. He argues that you (not some company) ought to own your caller history, your credit card history, etc. If it was available to you as a machine-readable file, you could easily submit it to another company and see if there was a better deal available. You could make your preferences and your history (you, basically) portable, and others could bid for a chance to do better for you.
This is an idea that feels inevitable to me, and I think that entrepreneurs shouldn't wait for the government to require it. There are already services that scrape financial pages (like Mint), but it could go further. We need software on our phones that can remember where we go and what we do, software for our browsers that can create profiles that save us time and money, and most of all, software for our email that gets ever smarter about who we are and who we're connecting to.
Data about data is more important than ever, and being on the side of the person creating that data is a smart place to be.
One of the characteristics of the industrial age was the reliance on external motivation.
Go to work on time or the boss will be angry.
Work extra hard and the boss will give you a promotion.
If you get paid to work piecework, then your paycheck goes up when you work harder.
This mindset is captured by the Vince Lombardi/pro sports/college sports model of the coach as king. Of course we'll have our non-profit universitiess pay a football coach a million or more a year, of course we need these icons at the helm–how else will we get our players to perform at their best?
I was struck by a photo I saw of male fencers at Cornell who practice with the women's fencing team. Clearly, they're not allowed to compete in matches (though the university counts them for Title IX). I got to thinking about what motivates these fencers. Are they doing it because they're afraid of the coach or getting cut? Would they fence better if they were? [update: it turns out the men at Cornell do compete, just not on a formal varsity team. My error, sorry guys.]
The nature of our new economic system, that one that doesn't support predictable factory work, is that external motivation is far less useful. If you're looking for a big payday, you won't find it right away. If you're depending on cheers and thank yous from your Twitter followers, you're looking at a very bumpy ride.
In fact, the world is more and more aligned in favor of those who find motivation inside, who would do what they do even if it wasn't their job. As jobs turn into projects, the leaders we need are those that relish the project, that jump at the chance to push themselves harder than any coach ever could.
Of course, it's not done. It's never done.
That's not the right question.
The question is: when is it good enough?
Good enough, for those that seek perfection, is what we call it when it's sufficient to surpass the standards we've set. Anything beyond good enough is called stalling and a waste of time.
If you don't like your definition of 'good enough', then feel free to change that, but the goal before shipping is merely that. Not perfect.