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The Grateful Dead and the Top 40

I wonder if Jerry ever got jealous of acts that were able to put songs on the radio. (The Dead had exactly one hit record…)

I hope not. Jerry was in a different business. Sure, he played music. Elton John also plays music. But they were in different businesses, performing for different audiences, generating revenue in different ways, creating different sorts of art.

In a world filled with metrics and bestseller lists, it's easy to decide that everyone is your competitor and easier still to worry about your rank. Worry all you want, but if it gets in the way of your art or starts changing your mission, it's probably a mistake.

It used to be that the non-customers, passers-by and quiet critics of your venture were totally invisible to you. They drove by, or muttered under their breath or simply went to someone else. Now, all is visible. Just because you're vividly aware of your shortcomings in market share doesn't mean it's important.

The next time you have a choice between chasing the charts (whichever charts you keep track of) and doing the work your customers crave, do the work instead.

Adopt vs. adapt

An early adopter seeks out new ideas and makes them work.

An adapter, on the other hand, puts up with what he has to, begrudgingly.

One is offense, the other is defense. One requires the spark of curiousity, the other is associated with fear, or at least hassle.

Hint: it's not so easy to sell to the adapt community.

Dangerous (in a good way)

A path on the way to building a reputation:

  • When someone asks you a question, they get an answer bigger than they ever expected.
  • When someone gives you a project, they get a plan scarier than they hoped for.
  • When you take on a project, you finish it.

If this is your reputation, what sort of projects and gigs will you find yourself getting? Not a good way to fit in, but an excellent way to be the one people seek out.

Coordination

Our economy is almost entirely based on a Darwinian competition–many products and services fighting for shelf space and market share and profits. It's a wasteful process, because success is unpredictable and unevenly distributed.

The internet has largely mirrored (and amplified) this competition. eBay, for example, not only pits sellers against one another, it also pits buyers. Craigslist makes it easy for buyers to see the range of products and services on offer, making the marketplace more competitive. Google, most of all, encourages an ecosystem where producers can evolve, improve and compete.

I think the next frontier of the net is going to use the datastream to do precisely the opposite–to create value by making coordination easier.

A pre-internet pioneer of this: the method residents are assigned to hospitals after med school (the Match). The competitive way to do this is the same way we do college–we tell students to apply to a ton of schools, and perhaps you get into four, perhaps you get into none. Perhaps someone else gets into your favorite and chooses not to go… while you're left behind.

The Match coordinates instead. You tell the system your favorites, in rank order, and it uses application feedback from the hospitals to maximize the happiness of the largest number of applicants. No sense wasting scarce acceptances on people unable to work in two places at once.

Consider the way Logos is determining which books to bring out. They challenge readers to indicate the most they'd be willing to pay for a particular title, and then, based on the number of people voting with their dollars, can bring out titles at the lowest possible price for the largest number of people.

In both cases, the system works because it can become aware of buyer preferences in advance. Kickstarter takes this to an extreme, allowing producers to pre-sell items before making them. But this is not nearly as nuanced as it could be, and a lot of effort is wasted in acquiring the attention of potential purchasers.

Any wasting asset–a restaurant table, a seat at a conference, a wasting box of fish–can be efficiently used instead of wasted if we use technology to identify and coordinate buyers.

Synchronizing buyers to improve efficiency and connection is a high-value endeavor, and it's right around the corner. It will permit mesh products, better conferences, higher productivity and less waste, while giving significant new power to consumers and those that organize them.

Excuses are easy to find (but worthless)

Even good excuses, really good ones, don't help very much.

Explanations, on the other hand, are both scarce and useful.

And accurate forecasts and insightful intuition are priceless.

Who pays for the news media?

It's easy to act as though the news media is something that is done to us. Some alien force, projected onto all of us, pushed out by them.

Of course, that's not true. It's something we buy, something we pay for.

We're paying for superficial analyses, talking points, shouting heads, *****gate of the moment, herd journalism and silly local urgencies instead of important international trends. We're paying for fast instead of good. We believe we're paying for hard questions being asked, but we're not getting what we're paying for.

We might pay with a dollar at the newsstand, but we're probably paying with our attention, with attention that is turned into ad sales.

Too often, we fail to stop and say, "Wait, I paid for that?"

Almost everything else we buy is of far higher quality than it was twenty years ago. The worst car you could buy then was a Yugo… clearly we've raised the bar at the bottom. Is the same thing true of your news?

As the number of outlets and channels has exploded, media companies have faced a choice. Some have chosen to race to the bottom, to pander to the largest available common denominator and turn a trust into a profit center. A few have chosen to race to the top and to create a product actually worth paying for.

I fear that the race to the bottom will continue, but it's hard to see how anyone could be happy winning it.

Their civic obligations aside, it's up to us to decide what to buy.

The last minute (a case against brinksmanship)

Putting your demands on the table at the last minute is traditionally a successful negotiating strategy. It's at the last minute that people are focused, that the stakes are higher and that you're the most likely to extract concessions.

There are two problems with this as a tactic, though. The first is that the professional negotiator on the other side has precisely the same tactic, so it's hard to use it productively.

More important, though, is the notion that maybe, just maybe, both sides are in it for the long haul. If the relationship has to persist, if you are in this for more than this one go round, it's essential to recognize that brinksmanship costs both sides. It makes the pie smaller and it makes it more difficult for you to build something going forward.

Professional, long-term negotiations by adults should avoid the last minute out of principle. It's foolishly selfish, because it hurts both sides, thus requiring you to take even more off the table in order to benefit.

Either you negotiate to make the whole bigger, to have both sides benefit–or you negotiate to have the other side lose. Winning by punishing the other side isn't a particularly long lasting or satisfying strategy.

Giving umbrage

Funny how umbrage is always taken, but rarely given.

"I can't believe the item they sent me was navy blue! I ordered light blue! I will never, ever buy from them again and I will tell all my friends."

Like little kids begging mom for a treat after a skinned knee, the newly empowered consumer feels compelled to share every slight, no matter how small or how imagined.

The thing is, consumers are complaining to the wrong companies about the wrong things.

Organizations that shut out consumers, politicians that don't listen, companies that are willfully isolated–these folks aren't the ones that get yelled at. So we yell at the few companies that are actually trying and actually listening, rewarding their goodwill with a good public flogging.

It's the long-term ripoffs, the business models built on misleading people and the subtle but serious health and financial threats we ought to be whining about instead.

But, apparently,  it's more fun to concentrate on the trivial and give it a good loud vent.

Summer reading, 2011

By request, here's a grab bag of books you might not have read yet.

PS congratulations to my friend Steve on the publication of The Profession.

In praise of programming

Not computer programming, which is important, but content programming.

Someone decides what to put on the radio after that song you just heard. Someone realizes that Conan needs to do more than just tell standup. Someone decides that if every tweet is just like the tweet you just sent, it's boring.

We're all programmers now. We all have to decide what to post next, what to point to next, what to launch next. Is there a skill in dreaming up Must-See Thursday nights, or in establishing a season of Shakespeare or even in deciding what's on the special list at the restaurant? I think there is.

Yes, you must do great work. You also need to figure out how to program for your audience, even if the audience is only one person.

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