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Inventing a tribe

I can't think of a single time that an individual or an organization has created a brand-new worldview, spread it and then led that tribe.

There were Harley-type renegades before there was Harley Davidson. There were digital nomads before there was Apple. There were pop music fans before there were the Beatles and Rastafarians before Marley.

Without a doubt, a new technology creates new experiences. But the early adopters who gravitate to it were early adopters before we got there.

Our job is to find the disconnected and connect them, to find people eager to pursue a goal and give them the structure to go achieve that goal. But just about always, we start with an already existing worldview, a point of view, a hunger that's waiting to be satisfied.

The wrong question to ask yourself before crowdfunding

A friend explained to me all the reasons for her upcoming Kickstarter campaign. The machine she wanted to buy was sorely needed, it would increase her productivity and also make her day significantly easier–it made perfect business sense.

These are all great reasons to borrow money from a bank or a professional investor. They aren't good reasons to crowdfund.

No, the right question is, "how will the new financial relationship I offer to my biggest supporters enhance their lives?" There's a huge amount of emotion and story we tell ourselves before we send in money to crowdfund something. Almost none of it involves how it will help the organizer's business goals.

For many hammer-wielding entrepreneurs in search of money, crowdfunding looks like a nail. But we're seeing again and again that engaging directly with fans and friends in this way is more about connection and the audience's role in making a difference than it is about cash.

[Also on this topic.]

“This will blow over”

Your employees notice when you take action. And when you don't.

When a storm hits your company, the instinct is to wait it out, to seek shelter, to work to set an agenda, not to let the outside world set it for you.

And sometimes this works. But even if the storm passes, your employees remember. They remember the standard you've set and the way things are around here.

Every time we give someone the employee of the month parking space for perfect compliance, or fire someone for creating a culture of disrespect, we send a message.

Action or inaction are both forms of leadership and standard setting.

Of course it’s been done before

John Koenig calls it vemödalen. The fear that you're doing something that's already been done before, that everything that can be done has been done.

Just about every successful initiative and project starts from a place of replication. The chances of being fundamentally out of the box over the top omg original are close to being zero.

A better question to ask is, "have you ever done this before?" Or perhaps, "are the people you are seeking to serve going to be bored by this?"

Originality is local. The internet destroys, at some level, the idea of local, so sure, if we look hard enough we'll find that turn of a phrase or that unique concept or that app, somewhere else.

But no one is asking you to be original. We're asking you to be generous and brave and to matter. We're asking you to step up and take responsibility for the work you do, and to add more value than a mere cut and paste. Give credit, definitely, but reject vemödalen.

Sure, it's been done before. But not by you. And not for us. 

Is a photo of a Magritte painting better than the original?

A major Magritte show ran at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was fascinating to see all of his greatest hits in one place, nicely curated and hung.

Unlike the Louvre, photography was forbidden, which got me thinking about ideas, photos and originals.

In front of the Mona Lisa are hundreds of people, all taking a picture, sometimes with their cameras held overhead to get a better view. Why? What's the point of taking a picture of the most famous, most photographed painting in the world? You're certainly not going to take a better picture than you can find online with a few clicks.

It feels obvious that people aren't capturing the painting, they're capturing the moment, their proximity with a celebrity. "I was there, here look." Can you imagine going to the Louvre and walking right by the Mona Lisa? (I did this once, and I confess it wasn't easy). I mean, she's famous.

Magritte was an artist who worked in ideas, not in craft. A photo of his painting is totally sufficient to get the point he was trying to make. The paintings themselves almost feel like ghosts, like non-digital represenations of the purity of his original idea, the one we saw a thousand times before we ever walked into the museum.

By forbidding photography, the museum does nothing at all to protect copyrights, but instead creates a different sort of intimacy. Is this a famous painting? Can I prove I was here? 

The most useful impacts of a show in real life, I think, are the juxtapositions created by intelligent curation and display. Missing for me was any connection at all to the other people in the room, the buzz of celebrity, the tribal aspect of, "oh, hey, you're here too?"

For those of us who work in ideas (which is most of us, now) the real question the Magritte show asks is, "if your ideas spread far and wide, do we need to see the original?"

When the idea is famous enough, what is the original, anyway?

“I need you”

Three magic words. They light up our brain, they grab our attention, they initiate action.

But they're being corrupted by the ease of reach and the desire by some organizations to grow at all costs.

I doesn't always mean a human. More and more, "I" means us, the corporation, the shareholders, the faceless. I is actually, "we," and you're not a part of that we.

NEED more and more means "want." We want you to do this, to buy this, to forward this, to write about this. We want it because it will give us more.

YOU doesn't mean you in particular. It actually means, "anyone." Anyone who can see this site or read this email or drive by our billboard. If you've got money or clout or attention to spare, sure, we want you.

Political fundraisers have turned this from an art to a science to an endless whine. So have short-term direct marketers with access to a keyboard and the free stamps of internet connection.

We used to have our ears open to anyone we loved or trusted whispering, "I need you." It's been overwhelmed lately, though, by selfish marketers shouting, "WE WANT ANYONE."

Crowding the pan

One thing you'll discover when you start pan roasting brussel sprouts or tomatoes (or running a theater or an airline, or just about anything for that matter) is that more is not always better.

Sure, I know that you have three uncooked sprouts left, and it would be a shame to not serve them, but if you add those three to the pan with the others, the entire batch will suffer.

Adding one more is just fine, until adding one more ruins everything.

Greed costs.

Staffed by mimes

If someone asked you how to do something, would you act it out, using no words at all? 

Of course not. Yet, in our increasingly post-literate world, it seems like organizations are afraid to use prose. It doesn't cost anything, and when you post a link, you have all the room in the world to clearly write out a narrative of how something works. You can even do it in 200 languages without too much trouble.

Here's the fundamental mistake that marketers make: Great design often needs little explanation. And so, natural, organic, effective design often comes without written instructions. But, and it's a huge but, the converse is not true. Shipping something without instructions doesn't mean it's a great design.

What are the chances that a guest is going to use this hotel shower properly the first time? 

Why does Ikea believe that providing nothing but little pictures is the best way to teach someone to do something?

After wasting hours trying to figure out the proseless instructions for a fancy lamp I purchased from an Italian company, I wrote a narrative for the company, in the vain hope that perhaps they'd save other people the trouble.

Most people would never choose to read it. Except the people who are stuck and confused, which is precisely the group you write instructions for. When in doubt, write it down. By all means, you still need pictures, even video. But there's nothing to replace the specificity that comes from the alphabet. Use labels. Use words.

The time to think about middlemen is before there’s only one

I grew up near a mall that had 42 shoe stores. If a store didn't carry what you wanted, it wasn't a big deal to walk 22 feet to a store that did.

The core issue of net neutrality isn't whether or not a big corporation ought to have the freedom to maximize profit by choosing what to feature. No, the key issue is: what happens when users are unable to choose a different middleman?

In a town with ten newspapers, finding a newspaper that brings you the truth you seek is not a challenge. But network effects and lock in mean that in more and more arenas, there's a natural monopoly arising.

The simple example is cable TV. It doesn't pay to wire a town with five or six competing cable companies, and so we end up with one middleman. The simple understanding of net neutrality: When there's only one middleman, who gets to decide what you see?

When local retailers disappear, who decides what you can buy? Do we want a middleman to be able to lock content out for their own reasons? I think it's reasonable to have the following principle in place: Promote what you approve of, but don't black out what you don't.

We can argue that it's smart branding and good business to let your users have what they want. But often, corporate short-term interests fly in the face of long-term customer satisfaction, and the race to profit gets in the way of our culture's need to hear and see and read work that might not fit those interests.

What if search engines or ISPs decide to 'disappear' content they don't like? When there are plenty of middlemen, it's not really an issue. But when there's lock-in, it's too late to have this discussion.

We make a deal with the natural monopolies in our lives. They get the privilege and the profit of being the only one, but in exchange, they accept the responsibility of being open middlemen, of being neutral, of not blacking out those that don't pay up or that don't agree.

If ConEd or your local power utility said, "sorry, our electricity can't be used on Maytag appliances because they didn't pay a slotting fee," you'd be appropriately incensed. But when it happens to ideas, I fear the cost is even greater.

We live in the connection economy, a world based on ideas. When a few corporate titans can control the flow of those ideas and the essence of that connection, we've given up far too much.

An end of radio

Eight years ago, I described how city-wide wifi would destroy the business of local radio. Once you have access to a million radio stations online, why would you listen to endless commercials and the top 40?

I realized last week that this has just happened. Not via wifi, but via Bluetooth and the smart phone.

The car-sharing driver (Bluetooth equipped car, with a smart phone, of course) who picked me up the other day was listening to a local radio station. It was almost as if he was smoking a pipe or driving a buggy. With so many podcasts, free downloads and Spotify stations to listen to, why? With traffic, weather and talking maps in your pocket, why wait for the announcer to get around to telling you what you need to know?

The first people to leave the radio audience will be the ones that the advertisers want most. And it will spiral down from there.

Just as newspapers fell off a cliff, radio is about to follow. It's going to happen faster than anyone expects. And of course, it will be replaced by a new thing, a long tail of audio that's similar (but completely different) from what we were looking for from radio all along. And that audience is just waiting for you to create something worth listening to.