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A little more than a bushel, a little bit less

Marketing works best when the effort you put into it is a little more than you think you need and a lot more than the market expects from your project.

And projects work best when the amount you need to get done is a little less than the resources you have available.

Marketing rewards a taut system, a show of confidence, the ability to be where you need to be with a true story that works.

Projects reward slack, the ability to keep your schedule and your quality, to watch the critical path and to make smart decisions.

The common errors, then: Pick too big an arena for your marketing, and seem underwhelming. And pick too big an agenda for your project, and run out of slack.

You have a bushel basket. The generosity of overflowing it makes it much more appealing when it's on the shelf. But when your job is to transport those apples, overfilling it even a little makes it likely you won't get to where you're going.

Make unexpectedly big promises. Keep them. Show up with enough resources to do both.

The tragedy of the last 10%

In a competitive market, if you do the work to lower your price by 10%, your market share grows.

If you dig in deep, analyze, reengineer and make thoughtful changes, you can lower your price another 10%. This leads to an even bigger jump in market share.

The third time (or maybe the fourth, or even before then), you only achieve a 10% savings by cutting safety, or quality, or reliability. You cut corners, certainly.

The last 10% costs your workers the chance to make a decent living, it costs your suppliers the opportunity to treat their people with dignity, and it costs you your reputation.

The last 10% isn't worth it. 

We're not going to remember how cheap you were. We're going to remember that you let us down.

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.

A Peter Corollary

The original Peter Principle made perfect sense for the industrial age: "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence." In other words, organizations keep promoting people up the organization until the people they promote reach a job where they are now incompetent. Competence compounded until it turns into widespread incompentence.

Industrial organizations are built on competence, and the Peter Principle describes their undoing.

Consider a corollary, one for our times:

"To be promoted beyond your level of confidence."

Too often, the person who wrecks our work is us.

In every modern organization with upward mobility, good people are promoted until they get to the point where they lose their nerve.

You can check out the original Peter Principle here.

Choosing those that choose you

We have the privilege about being picky in who we expect/hope/count on/need to pick us.

Pity the foolish 8-year-old boy who gives a kid just a year older the power to make his day. In that moment, being picked for the kickball team is the most important thing in the world, and his dreams are in the hands of a kid with a demonstrated history of poor judgment. If you were walking by the playground and he yelled, "Hey Mister! Wanna be on our team?" it would (I hope) mean little to you. You're no longer willing to be judged by a kid who can't even ride a bike.

But what if your organization or your brand or your self esteem has chosen a chooser you can't rely on,  or one you're not qualified to expect to have come through? If you say, "we need 100 of the top CIOs at the biggest companies in this region to choose our technology," you've made it clear who the choosers are. But if this group is swayed by bribes (which you won't pay) or local salespeople (which you don't have), you have a disconnect.

Or what if you "need" to be picked by the anonymous crowds on social networks, or picked by the apparently powerful editor or the bouncer at the club?

A huge swath of human unhappiness is generated by selecting someone to pick you, only to have that person abuse the power, let you down or otherwise seduce you into pursuing something that's not going to happen. Unchoose those people as choosers.

The person or organization you're seeking to be chosen by: Do they have a good track record? Do they choose wisely? Coherently? Reliably? Do they abuse their power, seducing you into acting against your interests? Do they make you miserable? Do they have good taste?

Do you have the resources and reputation necessary to be picked by someone like the person you're needing to be chosen by?

If you've signed up to be approved by, selected by, promoted by or otherwise chosen by someone who's not going to respond to your efforts, it's not a smart choice.

And one last thing: The ultimate privilege is to pick ourselves. To decide that the most important person to be chosen by is ourself. 

If you pick yourself as the chooser, if you give yourself the power to say 'go', I hope you'll respect how much power you have, and not waste it.

Wall Street gets what it wants

In the magical abundancy-based, post-industrial world, it's tempting to look at the massive web companies that connect us as benevolent overlords, institutions that want what we want.

But then they go public.

Here's a Wall Street analyst with Needham & Company speaking her truth, about Facebook: 

“Wall Street cares about the business model. We care less about changing the world.”

The reality of being a senior executive at a fast-growing public internet company is that you're surrounded by thousands (or tens of thousands) of people who make millions of dollars every single time the stock price goes up a dollar.

And that's where the seeds of demise are sown.

Say whatever you want to say, the people around you are all paying attention to the stock price, and Wall Street is driving you to mediocrity, to breaking your promises, to interrupting, shaving corners, and most of all, getting stuck.

Wall Street thinks it wants industrial-style reliable incremental growth, the stuff they got accustomed to getting from General Electric, General Mills and General Dynamic. But in fact, what they invested in this time is changing the world.

The world is going to change with or without this public company. It's bumpy for us along the way, though, because we trusted the companies that are now owned by people who want something else.

Getting there

Is there an alternative to one step in front of the other, barely getting by, slogging it out? Is the only way to do good work to be a zombie (until you get to the end)?

How about, "how fast will this thing go?" Not because you want to get there faster, but merely because you want to find out what it can do.

The guys who delight in designing cars aren't worried so much about getting from point A to point B. Social media heroes like Gary Vee can't point to a direct ROI for everything they do. The famous chef probably isn't using those knives merely because they help her cut the carrots...

Taking delight in the journey takes confidence. It pushes the envelope of design. And it's fun.

The tiny cost of failure

...is dwarfed by the huge cost of not trying.

This is news, a state of affairs due to the significant value of connection, to the power of ideas that spread and to the low cost of production.

Delighting a few with an idea worth spreading is more valuable than ever before.

Clawing your way to the bottom

We don't usually use that cliche, but it's true.

Trading in your standards in order to gain short-term attention or profit isn't as easy as it looks. Once-great media brands that now traffic in cheesecake and quick clicks didn't get there by mistake. Respected brands that rushed to deliver low price at all costs had to figure out which corners to cut, and fooled themselves into thinking they could get away with it forever.

As the bottom gets more and more crowded, it's harder than ever to be more short-sighted than everyone else. If you're going to need to work that hard at it, might as well put the effort into racing to the top instead...

Digital is slippery

When you build a building, it stays around for a long time.

When you invest and staff a factory, it's something significant, and it lasts.

When Heinz gets shelf space at the supermarket, the status quo is powerful and that shelf space might last a generation or two.

Today, the smart money is investing in digital assets, and legions of entrepreneurs are trying to build long-term value online, where it just seems so easy. 100,000 downloads of your new app, or a quick rise to #1 for your new ebook or a million 'hits' to a new website.

Easy come, easy go.

The digital asset that matters is trust. Awareness first, then interaction, and maybe a habit, but all three mean nothing if they don't lead to permission and trust. The privilege of connection.

Everything else is slippery.

Despite, in spite of, because... three ways to manage creativity

The people you hire will do creative work despite your management style, sometimes.

Or they might do it in spite of your approach, rarely.

But the most likely way to get the work you seek is to earn it, to have people bring their best ideas forward because of the leadership and guts you bring to the table.

You can't demand creativity, not for long. You can earn it though.

I am not a cobbler

... but that doesn't mean I'm unable to choose well made and comfortable shoes.

You might not be a writer, but that doesn't mean you can't read.

You might not be a chef, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy your dinner.

You might not be a scientist, but that doesn't mean you're unable to understand the scientific method and accept a well-discussed thesis.

You might not be a programmer, but that doesn't mean you can't use Excel or the internet.

You might not be the boss, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't care about what happens next.

And you might not be a political scientist, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't vote.

Vote tomorrow. Even if it's for a person who is sure to lose (especially if it's for a person who is sure to lose). If non-voters started voting for outliers who live their morals, our democracy would change completely in less than a decade.

But not people like you

We're hiring, but not people like you.

I'm looking for a doctor, but of course, not someone like you.

We're putting together a study group, but we won't be able to include people like you.

Redlining is an efficient short-term selection strategy. At least that's what we tell ourselves. So the bank won't loan to people in that neighborhood or people with this cultural background, because, hey, we can't loan to everyone and it's easier to just draw a red line around the places not worth our time...

The challenge with redlining, beyond the fact that it's morally repugnant, is that it doesn't work. There's a difference between "people like you" and "you." You, the human being, the person with a track record and a great attitude and a skillset deserve consideration for those things, for your psychographics, not your demographics.

When there's not so much data, we often resort to crude measures of where you live or what you look like or what your name is to decide how to judge. But the same transparency that the net is giving to marketers of all sorts means that the banks and the universities and the hiring managers ought to be able to get beyond the, "like you" bias and head straight for "you."

Because 'you' is undervalued and undernoticed.

When we say, "I don't work with people like you, I won't consider supporting someone like you, I can't invest in someone like you," we've just eliminated value, wasted an opportunity and stripped away not just someone else's dignity, but our own.

What have you done? What do you know? Where are you going? Those are a great place to start, to choose people because of what they've chosen, not where they started. Not because this will always tell us what someone is capable of (too many people don't have the head start they deserve) but because it is demonstrably more useful than the crude, expensive, fear-based shortcuts we're using far too often.

In a society where it's easier than ever to see "you," we can't help but benefit when we become anti-racist, pro-feminist, in favor of equal opportunity and focused (even obsessed) on maximizing the opportunity everyone gets, early and often.

Organizing for growth

Maybe it’s (finally) working. Maybe demand is up, opportunities keep presenting themselves and people want to work with you.

So why are you so stressed out? It might be because different organizational choices lead to different paths for growth.

Consider a house painter. His business has always been okay, but thanks to his skill and a local building boom, jobs keep showing up.

The traditional method: He lays out the money for paint, he does the work, he sends a bill, and soon, he gets paid.

The good news is that as a freelancer, he's super flexible and can withstand tough times. But in this environment, all sorts of trouble hits. First, there's a cash flow issue. New jobs mean more need for paint and materials, but he has to lay out his own cash to pay for it. Second, new jobs mean more work, but he's the best (and the cheapest) employee, so he ends up working way more hours. No cash, no time, no joy.

An alternative is for the painter to create a scalable system. He could require a down payment on every job, an amount calculated to cover all of his cash costs. Second, he could spend the time to build a pool of journeyman painters, a Rolodex of talent ready when he needs it. In this scenario, the painter becomes a foreman, not a painter any longer.

Or, consider one step beyond that, in which the painter hires several foremen, each responsible for his own Rolodex. Now, the painter is a CEO, a salesperson, the architect of a brand, an organization and its growth. But that still involves a lot of risk as he scales.

The last structure I'll point out is the idea that the painter could refine his system and instead of dealing with homeowners, he could find partners, and license them the system. The system might include his brand name, his sales approach, a computerized, data-driven direct marketing program and most of all, a rule book that lets people who don't have his initiative enter this business. By charging every partner who joins an upfront fee (this is how franchises work) as well as a share of their income, he can grow from state to state, building a nationwide painting behemoth.

There's no right answer. Not everyone should run a national painting franchise business. The key insight is to feel the pain that an organizational choice leads to and fix that instead of merely chasing demand and embracing each opportunity (no matter how juicy) as it comes along.

The key things to focus on, I think, are:

Cash flow

Demand enhancement

Increasing the ability to keep your promises by investing in a pipeline of talent

And most of all, reminding yourself why you're doing this in the first place.

Plasticity

Can you change?

Are you stuck with your habits, your knowledge, your weight, your fitness, your interpersonal skills? Is your future a slightly different rerun of your past?

We spend an enormous amount of time and money seeking to reinvent and upgrade ourselves, working to give up something, start something, build something or change something about who we are and what we do.

And we usually fail.

It's tempting to say, "this is who I am, habits are hardwired, it's in my DNA, I'm going to live with it." Tempting, and an easy way out. 

Change is hard, sometimes nearly impossible. But if even one person as far behind as we are has dug in and done enough work to finish that marathon, to change that habit or to learn that skill, it means that it's not impossible. Merely (astonishingly) difficult.

Knowing that it's possible is 86% of the project.

Decoding Apple as a luxury tools company

Hundreds of years ago, Hermes and Louis Vuitton started out as luxury makers of tools. If you needed a saddle or a suitcase, they offered an extraordinary option, both elite and useful.

Over time, they shifted gears, no longer competing on whether or not their luggage was the most useful, or their saddles the most efficient. They competed on luxury, which is a fundamentally different promise than the optimal design of a tool.

Patagonia is still a luxury tools company. The coats they sell cost more, but some professionals choose them regardless of brand, because in addition to tribal affiliation and the placebo that comes from buying a luxury good, they're still extraordinarily functional.

High end consulting and design firms also sell luxury goods. So do many conferences and elite restaurants and travel destinations. A big part of what you pay for is the story, the experience and the process, not the advice or the logotype or the learning you end up with...

Over the last year, Apple has heavily invested in the luxury component of their future. They've hired executives from Burberry and the Swiss watch industry and re-committed to their luxury-structured retail stores as well.

The challenge they face, the challenge you'll face if you choose to try to combine function with the top of the market, is that eventually, these two paths diverge. When Apple dumbs down Pages or Keynote or allows open bugs to fester for months or years, they're taking the luxury path at the expense of the tools path. Compounding the impact, when systems are upgraded, they often choose to break some of the utility and UI that their tool-using customers rely on. (When tools evolve and get more complicated, the cost of keeping the bugs out goes up. You must either choose to invest in improving the efficacy of the tool or in making it prettier/more luxurious/more popular. It's hard to do both.)

Do we change this system font because it matches our look or because it's more efficient? Do we sell these headphones because they sound better or because they carry a powerful tribal effect? Do we fix these bugs or build something new?

The tension of tools/luxury sounds like this: On one hand, you might hear, "you've lost your cachet," or, "the fit and finish isn't there," or, "I'm seeing the hoi polloi buying the brand at H&M and on the street, it's peaked." This is what happened to Uggs and to countless other brands before them. On the other hand, the tool maker fears hearing, "your analysis isn't crisp," or, "the food isn't as good as it used to be," or, worst of all, "there's a new guy making something that works better."

The luxury maker doesn't really fear hearing that her food isn't cutting edge. On the other hand, she lives in fear that she won't be seen as an essential choice by the fashionable elite. And the tool maker works to avoid the opposite problem.

Those tensions have undermined many large ad agencies recently, as they wrestle with how to help their clients do authentic social media at the same time they have to support the overhead and corporate-luxury positioning that TV enabled.

Honda cars are tools that have been painstakingly evolved over the years to function exactly as promised. But the brand is boring and profits aren't commensurate with how well they've solved the problem they set out to solve. On the other hand, few Jimmy Choo customers complain about their inability to run a marathon in profitable high heels.

It's possible (but unlikely) that Apple will become the first long-term cutting-edge tool maker that simultaneously exists as a profitable luxury brand. It's unlikely that your firm will pull that off as well.

At some point in the evolution of every luxury brand, the users who care more about tools than about luxury begrudgingly shift away to more functional options. Not all at once, but it has always happened (so far).