Welcome back.

Have you thought about subscribing? It's free.

“A good product at a fair price”

Some people say that marketing doesn’t work on them. That all they want is a good product, a fair price, and they’ll be on their way.

But that’s a marketing story as well.

Who decided what ‘good’ was? And ‘fair’? Your preference for the straightforward is still a preference. Your expectations for what you need are simply yours.

It’s all a story.

Great marketers don’t invent frills and fluff in order to create value. Great marketers have the wisdom to know that they will be judged and the practical empathy to go to where those that would judge them are.

The true cost of customer response

“Your call is very important to us.”

If you hear that, it means someone is not just lying, but also isn’t good at arithmetic.

Your company spends $6 on digital ads to get a click, and one in a hundred clicks leads to an inquiry. Which means that every inquiry sitting in the queue cost you $600. Inquiries are a bit like cronuts, in that they go stale quickly. Waiting an extra day to get back to just one person probably costs you more than the entire day’s salary of a customer service salesperson.

Your company spends $2,000 a day on rent for its showroom. And you paid that rent (along with all of those ads) for a month before John walks into the store. The uninterested, undertrained, under-compensated salesperson is finishing up a personal call, John gets bored and leaves. That (non) interaction cost you $20,000.

Jon, the reservationist, is overwhelmed by incoming calls, and he’s snippy when a regular calls for a table this Saturday night. So the patron, rebuffed and feeling disrespected, goes to a different restaurant, loves it, and never returns. Let’s see–10 business dinners a year at $200 including tip and wine–you can do the math.

“You can do the math,” while true, is rarely followed up by, “I did the math.”

Three deadlines (and Instagram!)

Here’s what someone posted yesterday in The Freelancer’s Workshop discussion board:

I was really just hoping to pick up a few insights from Seth. I got one of those yesterday, but meeting and interacting with other people struggling with the same things as me has been amazing.

The deadline to sign up for The Bootstrapper’s Workshop and The Freelancer’s Workshop is this weekend. Today’s your last best day to level up.

The next altMBA is now accepting applications, and the early deadline is April 26. Our August session is often one of the most powerful, because there’s more time to dig in.

And thanks to Sam and Taylor, we’re back on Instagram, experimenting with short-form videos and other interactions. See you there.

Dancing with infinity

If your little bagel shop suddenly had everyone in the world waiting in line to buy a bagel, that would be stressful indeed. You’d need riot police to keep order and you’d run out of sesame seeds in no time.

On the other hand, it’s easy to hope that your YouTube video, your Facebook post or your professionally published book be seen by everyone in the entire world. Because digital scales. Because there’s apparently no useful limit. Because you believe in it and more is better.

But more isn’t always better.

Better is better.

And better might mean more specific. More respected. More exclusive. More trusted. More cherished.

Dancing with infinity isn’t free, and if you do it too long, it’s corrosive. You’re busy being busy, instead of doing what’s important.

Make things better

I’ve come to realize that this is a controversial statement for some people.

Two issues, it seems:

  1. Better implies that what we have right now is imperfect. Better requires change, and change is scary. Better might be in the eye of the beholder. Better is an assertion, one that requires not just the confidence to say it, but the optimism to believe that it’s possible.
  2. Make implies that it’s up to us. Someone needs to make it better, and it might just be you. In fact, if you don’t enlist to produce better, you’re part of the status quo, which is a problem.

I’ve seen that there are pockets of our culture where both of these ideas are difficult to embrace. That authority pushes us to fit in, not to seek improvement, and deniability encourages us to whine instead of doing something about it. Power enjoys passivity in others.

Power doesn’t want you to get uppity, doesn’t enjoy your dissatisfaction, doesn’t want to be on the hook to continually upgrade all of its systems. And so power has sold a cultural norm of acceptance, deniability and ennui.

And yet…

Everything in our built world–the water we drink, the food we eat, the place we live–if it’s good, it’s good because someone, a generation or two ago, decided to make it better. And if it’s not good, or not good enough, only our action is going to make it better.

We can see the world around us, and if we try, we can see it becoming better.

It might be a podcast or a political campaign, an engineering insight or a more inclusive policy. It probably involves finding and organizing others on a similar path. It definitely takes guts.

I’ll reiterate my belief that we each have a chance to assert. To announce our vision, to propose a change, to do the hard work to make things better.

It’s on us, right now.

Make things better by making better things.


Beloved 1,000-year-old buildings disappear in the blink of an eye.

Celebrities we’ve never met die young. Babies are born. Music goes from cutting edge to current to oldies. Technology that was prized becomes obsolete. A medical breakthrough averts certain doom…

Our experience with time keeps changing. The concept of the time machine was only invented in the 1800s, and people who lived when they were building Notre Dame had little concept of what the world was like a thousand years before them, and no imagination at all of what the world might be like today.

We didn’t have time zones until we had clocks, and we didn’t have clocks until we invented cities…

As we’ve learned about history (not the details, simply the concept of it, that someone came before), we’ve also spent time thinking about the future. About our role in it and whether or not it will turn out the way we hope it will.

My hunch is that two things are true:

• We have much less direct control over the future than we hope, and that it will always surprise us.

• We have far more ability to make an impact than we expect. The only people who can change our culture (and thus our future) are us.

We can’t control the future, but we can bend it. And we can’t freeze the world as it is, but we can figure out how to be a part of it.

The work we do every day, the stories we tell, the paths we follow and the connections we make define our culture, and culture determines what’s next.

No guarantees, but yes, urgency.

The gap between ‘have to’ and ‘get to’

Deadlines work. They work because they focus the mind and create urgency. They work to get us to file our taxes or finish an assignment. They’re an external lever for the work we have to do.

On the other hand, dessert works too. You don’t need an external force to encourage you to eat dessert after you’ve finished all your vegetables. It’s something you get to do, not something you have to do.

You can build a work life around deadlines. You can procrastinate, pay the late fines and push through the last minute emergencies because you need all of that in order to get to ‘have to’ mode.

Or, you can follow the path of the most productive and happy people you know. By redefining the work you’ve chosen to do as something you get to do.

And yes, I’ll point out that you can even do that with your taxes. It’s something you get to do because you’re successful and lucky enough to live in a civil society.

“You can hire just about anyone…”

“and you’re in luck, since I’m just about anyone.”

It’s time to start avoiding the Fiverr trap.

You can fill your day as a freelancer taking easily accessible work from clients who simply want you to meet spec.

Or you can build a career as a freelancer by getting better clients.

Websites that offer lowest common denominator jobs for freelancers (like Fiverr, Uber, ZocDoc, Mechanical Turk etc.) are focused on the generic. They intentionally blur the identities of the people doing the work–a simple star rating, a measure of reliability, that’s all.

These are easy jobs to get. If you’re the cheapest, you’ll be busy all day.

But is being cheap and busy the point?

Because that’s a race to the bottom. And the problem is that you might win that race. You’re not generic, so why act that way?

The alternative is to be distinct. To be uniquely you. To bring a point of view to the work, one that is worth seeking out, paying for and remarking on.

It is the difference between, “what do you need me to do?” and “I can offer you this.” It is the difference between being handy and being indispensable.

Why is this so difficult? Two reasons:

The first problem is that the typical client doesn’t want that. The typical client wants cheap and reliable. And you’re not going to persuade the typical client to change his or her mind. Which means that if you’re going to do your best work, you’ll need to send the typical client to someone else.

The second problem is that it takes guts to be specific. To stand for something. To turn down mediocre work for clients that will settle for mediocre. It takes guts to have a point of view, a protocol, and a skill set. It takes guts to make a stand.

Your day is priceless. You only get it once. And then another chance tomorrow. Your career is what you invest in it, and if you spend your days building a career that consists of doing reliable work by being the lowest bidder, you’ve bought yourself a job that’s hardly rewarding or steady.

The alternative, the one you deserve, is to find better clients. Not to resent your ordinary clients, but to focus your energy and your passion earning better ones.

To become the sort of freelancer who can proudly say that you deserve it. Because your clients deserve your best work.

I hope you’ll consider joining our new workshop. It takes guts and support to make these choices, and it helps to find the others on a similar journey. That’s what we do–assemble and connect and inspire the sort of people you want next to you as you go on this journey.

The elegance of nothing

What ever happened to details?

The red sole of a Louboutin shoe, or the elegant tag on a pair of Tom’s? The sweeping fenders of a Porsche 911 or the needless complications of a fancy watch…

Today, a certain kind of customer is using a Muji notebook, or wearing a plain Everlane t-shirt. Is this what we’ve come to? One might come to the conclusion that consumers have rejected all the effort that designers and marketers have produced in a statement that rejects design. Not so fast.

Design is the new marketing. It is the product itself, not the ads or the slogan. Design is the supply chain of Patagonia, the ethics of Purple Carrot and the customer service at Union Square Cafe. It’s design, not advertising, that turned Apple into the most valuable luxury brand (and the most valuable company) in the world.

But design requires a point of view. The confidence to make an assertion. And the skill to turn that assertion into something that resonates with the person you seek to serve.

It’s probably easier to create heavily adorned mash-up than it is to produce a Field Notes notebook. Stripping away the artifice doesn’t always leave something pure. It often creates banality, the simple commodity that’s easy to buy cheaper one click away.

The elegant nothing brands aren’t about nothing. Not all. They merely have a different, more difficult sort of artifice. The artifice of no artifice. The elegance of leading with utility as its own form of style.

And what is a brand? It’s not the logo, certainly. I have no idea what Everlane’s logo is. The brand is our shorthand for the feelings that an experience creates, the promises that a product or service brings with it.

If Nike announced that they were opening a hotel, you’d have a pretty good guess about what it would be like. But if Hyatt announced that they were going to start making shoes, you would have NO IDEA WHATSOEVER what those shoes would be like. That’s because Nike owns a brand and Hyatt simply owns real estate.

For a company that stands for few details to become a brand, then, there needs to be a promise associated with what they make and what you’ll get if you engage with it instead of buying the cheaper commodity.

In most cases where brands have been built, the brand has:

1. Served users who care about origin and elegance. They resist the idea of buying the cheaper commodity, because telling themselves they have the real one creates personal value. Beyond that, these users have the sensitivity (or taste) to be able to tell the difference between the real one and the knock off. Cayce Pollard (the fictional heroine of Gibson’s Pattern Recognition) only wears an authentic MA-1 jacket (you can buy a real life version right here). Her narrative about sensitivity, origin and authenticity makes the jacket worth the $675, even though she knows she could buy the knock off for 10% of that artificially high price.

2. Served users who care about status. The status of ‘people like us do things like this.’ These users know that their peers will recognize the invisible products they’re carrying, and this recognition is worth far more than the product itself costs. Seeing a designer with a genuine Uni-ball Signo UM-151 Gel Pen in her hand (from Japan) is to see someone who is better than you (perhaps). Better in the sense that she cares enough to go to the trouble. That she cares enough to know the difference. That she cared enough to pay a bit extra in time and money, because it matters–to her, and perhaps to you.

3. Found the intestinal fortitude to play a longer game. There are shortcuts everywhere, corners that can be cut, profits that can be taken. Once you get a small head start, you can license your name to others. You can cash out with a vodka or an affiliate deal of what sort or another.

The invisible brands that last, though, realize that the artifact is only an artifact. It’s not the point. It’s a souvenir of the point. The point is that people like us do things like this. Our tribe, our group. That when we see the others, we see ourselves.

Will the momentary mania among a small group who is busy measuring just how invisible they can be in their design fade away? Of course, it will. It always does. The cycle moves because the very people who drive the market, the neophiliacs, are in search of something new. Because something new gives them a new chance to tell a story, to earn status, to engage with that which is scarce.

But the brands that matter are voices that choose to matter. Voices that make assertions on behalf of their users. Who market with people, and for them, not to them or at them.

Work that matters for people who care.

The second bowl

I broke two bowls today.

I was emptying the dishwasher, holding both small clean bowls in one hand. One of them slipped, and I watched, aghast, as it started to fall in slow motion toward the hard kitchen floor.

In a valiant but vain attempt to miraculously catch the bowl, I dropped the second one as well.

Now both were gone.

Often, the best thing to do with a lost cause is to let it go. Because pursuing it gets in the way of the causes you haven’t lost yet.