Seth Godin – Marketing Guru and Author
SETH GODIN AND THE FUTURE OF CHANGE
Definition of a Change Maker – a change maker is someone who can see what needs to be done, and then does it, with generosity of spirit. Either is not enough, you have to have both.
Marketing guru and multiple New York Times bestselling author Seth Godin explains why you should focus less on doing what you’re told and more on doing work that’s worth doing. If you want to demonstrate real creativity, originality and genius, you’ll need to step out of line. The current system – the education-industrial complex, as Godin calls it – was engineered long ago to cater for a world much different to our own. And in order to best take advantage of the unique opportunities afforded by our times, some rules just have to be broken. This message isn’t designed to disrupt any one industry; it’s meant to inspire readers to disrupt them all.
He’s a household name in entrepreneurial circles. At Foundr, we love his work and have followed his career with especial attention. But the first thing we should mention is his efficiency. Godin moves quickly. Within hours of our making initial contact to set up an interview date, we had him on Skype – telling us it was better to strike while the iron was hot because he was completely booked up for the near future. We were already fans, but for him to make talking to Foundr top priority? That was about enough to damn-near make us disciples.
Some people just get ‘it’. They grasp the spirit of the times in ways that ordinary people don’t. They understand the patterns and progression of history, and can interpret current events and trends with rare wisdom and insight. Seth Godin is one such person. You might say that his knowledge about the world of business borders on the prophetic. You could also safely say Seth Godin is a man who sees the world not for what it is, but for what it could be. He’s in the business of change: predicting it, implementing it, and watching it unfold.
It’s not hard to find remarkable things to say about Seth Godin. You’ve seen his TED talks, his books, his blog, his podcast; he’s one of those characters who’s grounded, yet somehow still larger than life. For those late to the Godin party, he’s a marketing guru, founder of Squidoo.com and world-renowned author of 17 business bestsellers including Linchpin, Unleashing the Ideavirus, Tribes, and Purple Cow. For a man who understands tribes, he has proved time and again that he can walk the talk, building, in the process, a legion of raving fans – people who thrive on his palatable blend of business and sociology.
Godin preaches a large-scale rejection of homogenised dreams, and a new way of engaging with the world. Many of his writings revolve around the idea that the current system of work, marketing and education, is not so much broken, but was perfectly engineered for a past age.
To really understand where we are, we need to know how we got here.
“We evolved culturally, and probably physically, to understand that obeying people in power was a good idea,” he says. Walking us through some ancient history, Godin explains that toeing the line was essential to Neolithic humans, as disobedience to tribal authority probably meant removal from the tribe and ultimately, danger.
ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL
It’s fair to say the program to obey has been with us from the start, making us all proverbial cogs in the wheel. “The first public school in the US was started by Horace Mann in Massachusetts,” Godin says, explaining its founding was based on industry’s need for masses of compliant workers. “They couldn’t find enough people who were willing to stand or sit in a dark factory for 10 or 12 hours a day and do what they were told. So we invented public school to train people to be obedient. The school you went to, and the school I went to, is optimised to create obedient cogs in a productive factory setting.” And in terms of fostering industrial change two centuries ago, “that was really important. For a really long time.”
Since we’re conditioned to be part of an obedient, cohesive mass from an early age, many of our expectations of work spring from an understandable, but now anachronistic, view of how life should be. “Now that individuals like you and I can do the work we care about without a job, and without a boss, we shouldn’t be teaching every single kid how to be ‘normal’,” Godin says. “We should be teaching kids two things: how to solve interesting problems, and how to lead.”
In a world of fairly arid business environments, Godin’s work is rich and refreshing. Focus on your differences. Be weird. Do work that matters.
And smiling from behind buttery-yellow framed glasses, you can see the man practises what he preaches.
THE ORIGIN STORY
Initially hailing from Mount Vernon, New York, Godin attended Williamsville East High School, where he found himself at odds with traditional structures and authorities right from the start. “In my yearbook,” he recalls, “my English teacher wrote that I was the bane of her existence, and that I would never, ever amount to anything.” Such a glowing recommendation did nothing to convince him of the value of traditional schooling.
Growing up as an avid science fiction fan might explain why Godin is insistent about pushing society forward. “I read a lot of science fiction, growing up, about changing things.” That Isaac Asimov, the godfather of science fiction, was a personal friend of his, comes as no surprise.
Small business always beckoned. Drawn to entrepreneurialism from an early age, he started his first “little company” at 14. “When I was 16, I had my first real company. And when I was in college, I co-founded the largest student-run business in the US. And each of those things was never about ‘how do I make money doing something?’; it was ‘how do I find enough resources to do a project that I’m interested in?’” Words that have since become his M.O.
While completing his MBA at Stanford, it was at Spinnaker Software where, as brand manager back in 1983, Godin cut his marketing teeth. As one of his few ‘real’ jobs to date, you’d think working for The Man in an office would have been something akin to torture. But Godin fondly refers to his time at Spinnaker as “a revelation”, saying, “I worked with truly amazing people. The co-founders gave me an enormous amount of trust as well as pushing me to lead.” Godin wasn’t the only one to benefit. His Spinnaker co-workers have ended up running significant portions of Apple, Columbia-TriStar, and McAfee, to name but a few. As such, Godin’s story of breaking out of the cage is rather gentler than you’d expect. “In 1986, I left [Spinnaker] to move to NY in order to get married.” Unable to find a Spinnaker equivalent in New York, Godin started Seth Godin Productions, a book-packaging outfit.
Even for Seth Godin, those first few years of going it alone were rocky. “I had no idea how long a slog it was going to be,” he says. But with several years of being “an inventor and a builder,” he readily developed a customer base “that were eager to hear what people like me had to say”.
“I haven’t had a job since 1999,” he says, referring to his time as Yahoo’s VP of direct marketing. “And before that I hadn’t had one since ’86. I think that focusing on doing the work instead of having a job is a key part of being an entrepreneur.”
It seems fitting that his success came from “trying hard to not have a job or please any superiors”. Godin first started turning the world of marketing on its head when founding Yoyodyne in 1995. Annoyed with outdated ‘interruption marketing’ models, he pioneered the idea of marketing companies to users, with contests, online games, and scavenger hunts. With this – which he sold to Yahoo! for a cool $30 million in 1998 – and later community web platform Squidoo, he cemented his reputation as an innovator, disruptor and chronic ruffler of feathers.
But just to set the record straight, Godin isn’t anti-jobs or anti-employment. You can challenge existing norms without a resignation letter. To Godin, it’s all in the approach. “Even if you’re working for someone, you don’t have to act as if it’s a job. A job is where you try to please someone who tells you what to do, and that person usually wants you to do what you did yesterday, but a little faster, and a little cheaper. Whereas impresarios, and people who make projects, are playing by a completely different set of rules.”
STARTUPS VS. STARTUP CAPITAL
It begs the question, if you do go it alone, what’s the best way to create a successful start-up? Is it a matter of needing money to make money? Apparently not. “I’ve written down a lot of what I know about starting a business with no money, which is my favourite kind of business to start.” He outlines his approach further in his free ebook, The Bootstrapper’s Bible. “The secret of starting a business with no money is to make a service or a product that your customers want so much that they will pay you for it in advance. The idea is, you go to a big corporation, and say, ‘If I could do this, and save you $50,000, will you pay me $10,000?’ And most of them, if they believe you, will say ‘yes’. The key lies in identifying a problem, and a scalable approach to solving it.”
Stop us if you’ve heard this analogy before. Odds are, you haven’t. Godin presses us to imagine a marketing campaign as a waiter at a restaurant. Now imagine it’s “spam-filled, interruption-oriented, filled with promises it doesn’t keep, selfish, aggressive, bullying, hoping a few people are silly enough to be lured into it.” If you had a waiter like that, would you give them a tip? Probably not. But, Godin argues, “when we have a waiter who is kind and clear, who puts in an effort, is aware of what we need, shows up when we need, guides us to the next thing that delights us, that person gets a 25% tip, and for good reason.” Flipping traditional models of marketing and advertising on their heads, he argues that it’s more akin to a service. And according to Godin, it’s a service that’s simple to get right, but sadly, that’s often the exception rather than the rule.
As a marketer, poor marketing hits a sore spot for Godin. You might say poor marketing methods (including all variants of interruption marketing) helped create Seth Godin. Much of his life’s work has been spent advocating its antithesis. One of his first works was a scathing attack on interruption marketing, and it made waves because many companies hadn’t considered there was an alternative.
The idea of shipping a new product can strike fear into the heart of entrepreneurs young and old. However, Godin argues shipping need not be the anxiety-inducing struggle many find it to be. “Start shipping a small amount of work and start putting ideas into the world,” he says. “Watch them morph and grow and change people.” He argues against the go-big-or-go-home mentality prevalent in some start-up circles, instead advising aspiring business people to “start small, and start now.” According to Godin, that means do something that someone will pay you $5 for. “Put an idea into the world that someone will respond to. Aim to create something that will delight your customer.” Does that mean your product needs to be perfect? “There is no perfect,” he says. “Your product will never be perfect and there will never be a perfect time to ship it. The work of the professional is shipping,” he says. “The professional doesn’t wait around for perfect.” And just to clarify, that doesn’t mean rushing, either. “If you are saying, ‘Oh, what the hell,’ and put it out there, you are hiding,” Godin says, asserting that instead, the bolder and more professional outlook is: “I’ve got a lot at stake here, this is magical, but I can’t wait any longer.”
THE SCHOOL OF FAILURE
At one point during the interview, we accuse him of having something akin to the Midas touch. Did everything he attempt always turn to gold? He pulls us up short. “Let’s be clear. I’ve built even more unsuccessful businesses [than successful ones]. And I think one of the things success takes is a willingness to build an unsuccessful business.” Even if you’re setting out to disrupt a market, the message is clear: fail and fail again, until you don’t. Godin emphasises that it’s the willingness to take risks, and bring certain truths to the marketplace, that delivers an edge. “If you care about the project, and you care about the customer, you will not dilute your work, and that ironically will make your work more likely to catch someone’s attention.”
SO YOU WANT TO BE THE NEXT SETH GODIN?
“No one is going to be the next Seth Godin,” he asserts, “and no one wants to be the next Seth Godin. But there is plenty of room for the next you, because we need you – a different person – to stand up, and say, ‘Here, I made this.’ Those doors aren’t going to be open forever, but they’re open right now, and I just don’t see why you wouldn’t walk through them.”
No one needs to be ‘normal’ anymore, he reassures us. “If you want to sing, sing. If you want to talk, talk. Here’s a microphone. And the people who aren’t grabbing the microphone are hiding. I think almost everyone has some generosity in them, some insight in them, some idea or notion or concept that would make the world better if they shared it. And if we can just shift our posture to one of generosity, I think we’ll see an enormous step forward.” Now there’s a disruptive thought.
SETH GODIN’S 5 ESSENTIAL ACTION STEPS FOR ENTREPRENEURS
It’s your turn. These 5 steps have worked well for Seth Godin – so, disrupt, disobey, and create your own change!
- Stop being an aspiring entrepreneur, and be an entrepreneur. Meaning – ship some work, and get paid for it. The idea is to start small, and start now. Do something that someone will pay you $5 for. Put an idea into the world people will respond to. This is the most important step.
- Figure out who you can teach. That act of teaching someone who doesn’t know something you know makes you significantly smarter. Just find someone who needs your help, and help them.
- Blog every day. It doesn’t matter if anybody reads it; it doesn’t matter if you put your real name on it. Blog every day, because the act of writing something down that you believe in, that you’ve thought about, and knowing you have to do it again tomorrow, will make you better at everything you do.
- Get thirsty. I don’t care about your passion, and I don’t care about your idea. Those are myths that hold us back. You do not need to be passionate about your idea, and your idea does not need to be a good one. What you need is thirst. A thirst for learning, creating, and shipping.
- Forget perfect. Nothing that you admire is perfect. No electronic device, no hotel, no steak has ever been perfect. The work of the professional is shipping. The professional doesn’t wait around for perfect. Start shipping a small amount of work, and start putting ideas into the world. Aim to create something that will delight your customer.
- How to when to ship a project and when its ready to be released into the world
- Why perfect doesn’t exist
- Seth’s failures
- The best analogy we have ever heard for good marketing
- The importance of blogging every day
Full Transcript of Podcast with Seth Godin
Nathan: Hello, and welcome to the Foundr Podcast. My name is Nathan Chan and I am your host coming to you live from Melbourne, Australia. Thank you again for joining me for another episode of the Foundr Podcast. You guys are in for an absolute treat because this episode, I bring you one of my all-time favorite marketers, idols. And this guy is just an absolute beast. Like, I love his work so much.
And ever since I became an entrepreneur who, you know, got into this whole entrepreneurship thing about two and a half years ago, I’d never heard of Seth and I didn’t really know his work but once I started getting into the scene and really hearing about his work, reading it, and learning from it, and reading a lot of his books, and reading it, you know, signing up to his mailing list and reading all his blog posts and stuff like that. I’ve learnt so much and I…when this guy speaks, I take it very, very seriously, and I’m always listening. And I’m always watching what he’s doing because he’s a true innovator, true marketer, and entrepreneur.
So, I’m really, really pumped to share this conversation with you. Funny little story is I pitched Seth like a Friday night. It was like a Friday night, pitched him at 11:30, and then I woke up to his reply saying, “Hey, can you do this in half an hour from now?” And it was like 7 a.m. or 8 a.m., and I was just like freaking out. And I was like, “Oh my God,” because this guy is like one of my idols and, yeah, I just rolled with it and jumped on Skype and it was an amazing conversation. It was a really…yeah, for me, it was a really big win to finally speak with Seth. I didn’t realize he’d get back to me so fast. And he’s just a really generous guy with his time and, yeah, I actually went out to one of my favorite restaurants to celebrate with my family because it is a big win for the magazine, it’s a big win for the brand, and big win for me and my own development.
So, yeah, without further ado, here is the conversation with Seth Godin. We go through what it means to start small, start now, how do you know when to ship a project, how do you know how to market a product. Seth gives us some serious gold on marketing and validating your idea. And also, what I really, really liked is he talked about the education model and why you shouldn’t do what you’re told. And he talks about his latest book as well. We talk about that just briefly. Now, if you do want a copy of Seth’s latest book, to buy them…I had to buy them in bulk. So, I have a couple spare extra copies. The first two people to get in touch with me and leave a review for the podcast and the magazine and send it to me and send me an email, [email protected], I will send you his hard copy book. I’ve got two here, love to send it to you guys. It’s a brilliant book, amazingly designed, really, really cool. It’s just like a really nice book to have on your coffee table too. So, yeah, please hit me up. I’d love to hear from you. If you are enjoying this episodes, you know, please do leave us a review even though if you don’t want the book, it helps more than you can imagine. All right. That’s enough rambling from me. Let’s jump in. Can you tell us about just quickly how you got your job?
Seth: Well, I’ve worked extraordinarily hard not to have a job and I haven’t had a job since 1999 and before that, I hadn’t had one since ’86. And I think that focusing on doing the work instead of having a job is a key part of being an entrepreneur.
Nathan: And what triggered that change in 1996?
Seth: It was ’86.
Nathan: 86′, geez.
Seth: So, when I was 14, I started my little company, and when I was 16, I had my first real company. And when I was in college, I cofounded the largest student-run business in the US. And each of those things was never about how do I make money doing something? It was how do I find enough resources to do a project that I’m interested in? How do I be able to put on a show that I care about? And if there’s a business component to it, that’s fine. But for me, the work has always been to do a project. And sometimes those projects can be amplified by working for someone, but even if you’re working for someone, you don’t have to act as if it’s a job. A job is where you try to please someone who tells you what to do and that person usually wants you to do what you did yesterday but a little faster and a little cheaper. Whereas impresarios and people who make projects are playing by completely different set of rules.
Nathan: So let’s talk about stealing dreams and your concept of that. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Seth: Well, you know, the thing that enabled the world as we know it, including the fact that you and I are 10,000 miles apart and having a conversation for free is industrialism. Industrialism is the idea that large organizations profit by getting bigger by hiring efficient productive workers who do what they’re told. And the magic of industrialization, which has been around for 200 years or so, is that it enabled large, large numbers of people to go from being subsistence farmers to being in the middle class. And it’s magical.
But the challenge was, there weren’t enough factory workers. They couldn’t find enough people who were willing to stand or sit in a dark factory for 10 or 12 hours a day and do what they were told. So, we invented public schools to train people to be obedient. I’m not making this up. That’s actually its function. The first public school in the United States was in Massachusetts and Horace Mann, the guy who started it quickly ran out of teachers. So, he needed to start a school to train women to be teachers. And do you know what he called this school? He called it The Normal School because the goal was to teach women to teach kids to be normal.
So, school, the school you went to and the school I went to, is optimized to create obedient cards in a productive factory setting. And that was really important for a really long time. But now that these platforms exist, now that individuals like you and I can do the work we care about without a job and without a boss, we shouldn’t be teaching every single kid how to be normal. We should be teaching kids two things, how to solve interesting problems and how to lead. And if we have more of that, I think we’re gonna see our culture accelerate. So I wrote a manifesto about this called “Stop Stealing Dreams.” It’s free on the internet.com and I also did a TEDx talk-about for those who don’t wanna read it.
Nathan: Yeah, I know. It was extremely captivating. And, you know, we’ve all had this thing planted in our mind that ever since you were little, you go to school, you get good grades, and you get a job, and you buy a house. And we’re all used to that security. And I really love your latest book. It’s quite different to what you’ve usually done. It’s got beautiful artwork and it’s called, “Your Turn.” Can you tell us about why people waiting to be picked. Why do you think that is? Why are we used to this security of a nine to five job?
Seth: Well, part of it goes back to 200,000 or so years. If you lived in a tribe, a Neanderthal or Neolithic human walking around the steps of eastern Europe or northern Africa, there was a chief. And if you offended the chief, if you spoke up too much, they were gonna throw you out. And if you got thrown out, you would be eaten by a lion and you would have no grandchildren to pass your genes on to. So we evolved culturally and probably physically to understand that obeying people in power was a good idea. And this was certainly compounded by public school, compounded by the industrial age.
You know, if you start insulting Henry Ford, Henry Ford is gonna kick you off the factory floor and you’re not gonna have a job anymore. And so, being picked, which is amplified by television, by government, by celebrity culture is something that we seek. One study that I can’t believe is true but is, researcher talked to thousands and thousands of high school students and he gave them a choice of five jobs they could aspire to when they grew up including Supreme Court Justice, senator, successful entrepreneur.
But far and a way, the job that was the most popular among 17-year-olds was assistant to a celebrity. Not even celebrity, assistant to a celebrity. Because if you are the assistant to a celebrity, it means someone picked you. It means you have proximity to fame without any of the fear or risk of fame. And so it goes really deep. And entrepreneurs are infected with this and they think that their win is getting picked. And if we talk about apps, and I know you have an interest in this, you know, the challenge with the app store is that there are millions of apps in there.
Last year, the app infrastructure paid more money to app developers than Hollywood earned from all the movies they make. That sounds like a big number except for the fact that Hollywood releases about 400 movies a year and there’s millions and millions of apps. So, it’s a little bit of a circus game especially if you think that the only way your app is gonna work is if Apple picks you to be on the front page of the ITunes Store. Because if your whole mindset is, “I better get picked by Apple,” you’re gonna lose, because the odds of getting picked by Apple are about the odds of getting drafted to play in the NBA.
Nathan: Yeah, look, you know, it’s actually funny because we…this is a funny story. We actually, we were picked by Apple. I never expected it. And they asked this for promotional cover like promotional artwork and they never got back to me. How strange is that? I don’t mind. Like, we don’t need to be picked. Question, what would you like to say to anyone listening to this that is sitting on the fence that has, you know, an idea around a business or a project or a problem that they’re really passionate about? What would you say to someone standing on the fence right now?
Seth: Well, it’s gonna surprise you. The first two things I would say are, “I don’t care about your passion and I don’t care your idea,” that, these are myths that hold us back. You do not need to be passionate about your idea and your idea does not need to be good one. What you need is thirst. You need to be a thirsty human who is intent on learning and shipping. That, the idea is not go big or stay home, the idea is to start small and start now. And that means do something that someone will pay you $5 for. Put an idea into the world that someone will respond to. Find someone who needs your help and help them. That if you start shipping this small amount of work, if you start putting ideas into the world and watching them morph and grow and change people, you will cease to be afraid and you will stop looking for the perfect idea and you will stop waiting to be super passionate. That the professional does the work of shipping stuff and doesn’t wait around for perfect. That good is more than good enough if you can get into this game and be professional at it and then keep playing.
Nathan: When you talk about shipping, you have a very high quality, high standard of work. I’ve had some friends that have done your internships and they’ve told me about how hard you push them and how hard your standard is. How do you know when good is good enough and when to ship?
Seth: Well, let’s agree that perfect is silly because nothing that you admire is perfect. There’s no electronic device, there’s no hotel, there’s no steak at a restaurant that has ever been perfect. So we’re not going to seek to be flawless. The definition of good enough is it’s good enough for the customer to be delighted enough to talk about it, delighted enough to come back for more, delighted enough to miss it when it’s gone. So good enough doesn’t mean junk. Good enough doesn’t mean what the hell. Good enough is actually a huge standard. It says, would the person I’m offering this to missed it if I didn’t make it? And most people don’t meet that standard. So I wanted to just make it clear, if you are sitting there saying, “I can’t ship because it’s not perfect,” you’re hiding. But if you were saying, “Oh, what the hell?” and put it out there, you’re also hiding. That the place of not hiding is, “I’ve got a lot of stake here. This is magical but I can’t wait any longer.”
Nathan: And that’s great. Few more questions around you. You’re stating a lot of facts. I’ve always curious to know who do you learn from and who influences a lot of your decisions, you know, where you have all your projects and ideas and everything that you work on.
Seth: Well, let’s think. I’m most inspired by my readers, most inspired by people like you who show up and do something that never occurred to me and do it consistently even in the face of a stumble or two. Well, who do I learn from? I read, you know, a few 100 books a year. I don’t have to finish them. I just read until I get the point. I read hundreds of blogs a day. And in terms of facts, 66% of the time I make them up.
Nathan: Are there any game changing notable resources that’s really impacted you? You always talk about Zig Ziglar. Is there anyone else?
Seth: Oh, I think there’s 100. I also talk often about Pema Chödrön, I talk about Krista Tippett and her podcast which is so powerful. I talk about my friend Tom Peters, who I knew and have known for a long time. Jay Levinson, who I was lucky enough to bring into the world of book packaging. I did a bunch of books with him. People like Amanda Palmer, her new book is really something. Jackie Huber has written a couple great books. Bernadette Jiwa, J-I-W-A, who is from Perth but is moving to Melbourne soon. Her blog is fabulous and so are her books. Pam Slim has written some great books. The work of early digestible science fiction from Neal Stephenson. My friend Isaac Asimov who I knew years ago before he died. I’ve read a lot of science fiction growing up that changes things. Cory Doctorow, just by himself, reading Cory Doctorow is sufficient for somebody to be inspired on a regular basis. So, there’s a quite a long list and I try to name-check people as often as I can.
Nathan: Yeah. So, you’re always meeting people and you’re always consuming stuff. I’m curious, can you give us an insight, because I did not expect you to just jump on a call with me that quickly. You know, what does Seth Godin’s day look like? What are you working on right now and how do you manage your time?
Seth: I work super hard not to have a typical day. The consistent things are I don’t watch television and I don’t go to meetings. And those two decisions save me 8 to 10 hours a day. So that’s 8 to 10 hours a day I have that most people don’t have. And I strongly recommend you try it. And other than that, the goal is to do this work that’s worth doing and sometimes it means locking myself up in a room with no destructions, and other times it means talking to people who are working on interesting projects. I give probably 30 or 40 speeches a year. I go on a few seminars on my own. We’re getting ready for one in March now that sold out today. So, it’s a mixture on purpose. You know, I’m super lucky that the internet likes people with ADD because if it hadn’t shown up, I would have been in really big trouble.
Nathan: Yeah, you mentioned the internet and I always tell people this, like, “If you’re going to start something, now is the time.” The internet has changed the game. It changed the playing field, right? And you say it all the time, you know, anyone with a voice can have one now.
Seth: Yeah, if you wanna sing, sing. If you wanna talk, talk. Here’s the microphone. And the people who aren’t grabbing the microphone are hiding. And I think almost everyone has some generosity in them, some insight in them, some idea or notion or concept that would make the world better if they shared it. And if we can just shift our posture to one of generosity, I think we’ll see an enormous step forward.
Nathan: Let’s switch gears and talk about the Acumen Fund. Can you tell me why that is so important to you?
Seth: Sure. I think the Acumen Fund is one of the philanthropies that is working to change the endless emergency of poverty. So let me decode that sentence. Poverty is a very effective way to raise money in the short run. You know, “Give us some money or this kid will die.” That idea of a bag of rice to a hungry person, is at the heart of what made a philanthropist 10,000 years ago. The problem with that approach is, in a world of more than 7 billion people, you’re always gonna be short. And instead, what we’re looking for is a scalable solution so that once and for all, we live in a planet where everybody has enough.
And I think the way we get there is the same way that Howard Schultz solved the coffee shortage in the United States. That, there used to be no Starbucks and now there’s more than 10,000 Starbucks. How did that happen? Did he do a fundraiser and then build a lot of Starbucks? No. Every time he built a Starbucks, he makes enough money to build another Starbucks because Starbucks pay for themselves. So the idea of Acumen is to invest in entrepreneurs who will build businesses that do business with the poor in a way that makes the poor better off and makes enough of a profit that they can do it again. Because the way markets work is no one engages in a transaction if it doesn’t help them. So, if you buy a coffee for $3 it’s because you think it’s worth $4, not because you’re doing them a favor.
So some of the companies that Acumen has funded include VisionSpring which sells reading glasses to people in remote villages who are in their 50s and can’t see anymore. If you buy a pair of reading glassed for $3, it will pay for itself in two days and VisionSpring will make enough money to go sell somebody else a pair of reading glasses. Or D.Light, which is selling solar lanterns that replace kerosene which is dangerous and expensive and dirty. Or A to Z which is a factory in Tanzania that makes malaria bed nets so that not only is it enriching the community, it’s saving millions of people from dying from malaria. Or Ecotact, a company in Kenya that runs pay toilets in places where there is no alternative.
So, you can either poop in the street, or you can have your dignity for a shilling. And they can use the money from a successful Ecotact to open another one. And so if you get any of these businesses right, what you end up doing is solving the problem because they will keep scaling until there’s no one left and that’s the magic of commerce, right? Is that businesses grow until they can’t grow anymore. And the other reason that I’m fascinated with Acumen is that Jacqueline Novogratz, the woman who founded it, is an extraordinary human being who brings her whole self to this mission and does it with such clarity of purpose that it inspires me everyday.
Nathan: Yeah, I know it’s…I’ve done it a lot from you and it’s some brilliant cause.
Seth: Well, thank you.
Nathan: Let’s talk about what it takes to build a successful business. You’ve built quite a few. It’s something you’ve done many times in your career. What does it take?
Seth: Well, let’s be clear, I’ve also built even more unsuccessful businesses…
Nathan: Yeah, that too. Yes, you mention that a lot.
Seth: And I think that one of the things it takes is the willingness to build an unsuccessful business. That if you have to succeed, you’ll probably fail because you’re competing against everyone else who has to succeed. And like them, you’re not willing to take certain risks or bring certain truths to the marketplace. But, if you care about the project and you care about the customer, you will not dilute your work and that, ironically, will make your work more likely to catch someone’s attention.
I’ve written down a lot of what I know about starting a business with no money which is my favorite kind of business to start. And people can find it by searching for “The Bootstrapper’s Bible” online. It’s free. But basically, I think that secret of starting a business with no money is to make a service or a product that your customers want so much that they will pay you for it in advance, which is a little bit like Kickstarter, right? But, the idea is if you go to a big corporation say, “If I could do this and save you $50,000, will you pay me $10,000?” And most of them if they believe you will say yes. And so now, you’ve identified a problem, you’ve identified a scalable approach to solving it. You bring resources to bear, repeatedly solve the problem as you scale. That’s very different than the mindset of, “Let’s raise $36 million in Silicon Valley and serve everyone free lunch for a year and then we’ll come out with something that will get us on the cover of Time Magazine.”
Nathan: Let’s also talk about marketing. You know, you’re one of my favorite marketers. I learn so much from you. Can you just tell me like…there’s something you mentioned there about caring. To me, that’s something that people will notice that subconsciously if you care. And it’s not necessarily a tactic but in essence, it can be too. Like, just, you know, it’s caring. What are some basics around good marketing and somebody that wants to get better at their marketing with their business?
Seth: Well, here’s a good experiment that you might wanna try. I’m assuming in this experiment that you are a good tipper when you go to a restaurant. Meaning, you don’t always give 10% or 15%, I hope it’s not 10%. But if the person who’s waiting on you does a great job, you give them more of a tip. Now, imagine you’re marketing in human form as a waiter. Imagine that it’s the, you know, it’s spam-filled interruption-oriented, filled with promises you don’t keep, hyping your way through things hoping a few people are silly enough to latch into it, selfish, aggressive, bullying. If you had a waiter like that, would you give them a tip at all? Probably not.
But, when we have a waiter who is kind, clear, putting in an effort, aware of what we need, showing up when we need them, guiding us to the next thing that delights us, that person gets a 25% tip and for a good reason, right? And so, for me, I am really moved when I encounter someone on the telephone, someone in person, someone who is doing their job who clearly cares. And I would go out of my way to do business with that person. And so when I do my work and I try to talk about how people can do their work, that’s the goal, right? The goal is, “You are a human. Your customer is a human. Let’s treat each other that way.”
Nathan: Yeah. I love that. You know, that’s brilliant. Great analogy. Few more questions. We have to work towards wrapping up because I know you gotta run soon. One, what have you had to sacrifice to get where you are today? What have you had to give up?
Seth: I think the biggest thing I’ve had to give up is the quiet certainty that I have made my boss happy. You know, the apparent safety of saying everything in my inbox is done, I can just relax this afternoon. And that means that I will find myself at 3:00 in the morning writing something down and I post it that I can’t read the next morning because something popped into my head that I wanted to share. And it means that I never get what some people think of as the privilege of saying, “I’m done.”
And a lot of people have trouble imagining a life where you’re never done. But every time I get close to the point of saying, “You know what? I should just stop.” I realize I would hate being able to say I’m done. So, I don’t think I’ve sacrificed very much. I’ve worked super hard not to sacrifice anything in terms of my family and I don’t think working a lot of hours is correlated in any way with success, so I don’t. And I do think that working with more passion than most people is correlated with success. And so when I’m done with work, I’m pretty empty.
Nathan: And, out of all your success, you know, “success in the eye of society,” I know you probably see that way, what do you value the most out of all your achievements, accomplishments?
Seth: Three years ago, I was in Kibera, which is the biggest slum in Kenya, and a bunch of young men and a few young women had started a book club. And the Kibera book club had read my friend Jacqueline’s book first and then they read “Linchpin,” and I went to run their meeting. And, watching people who by every measure of the privileged world, did not have any of the things that we think are essential, eagerly just with such detail talking about my book that these 40 people had read my book more closely than anyone I had ever talked to including friends and family. It was stunning to me that I could travel 10,000 miles across the earth, safely and in comfort, go to a place that, by many measures, isn’t a place that most people would choose to live and be invited into the home of these group of people and see that not only did it impact them, but that they were already eagerly impacting everyone around them. It gave me real hope for who we are as a people and it invigorated me to step back into the kind of work that I’m privileged to be able to do.
Nathan: That’s amazing story. You know, I’m with you. I think that’s where the real gold is that having that impact. And I’ve seen those emails come through where somebody says, you know, you’ve changed their life. You know, you can’t put a price on that, hey.
Seth: That’s right, you can’t. And the thing that’s extraordinary is, you know, not only did my English teacher write in my yearend book that I was the bean of her existence and that I would never ever amount to anything. But the door is still open, right? Like, no one is gonna be the next Seth Godin. No one wants you to be the next Seth Godin. Bbut there’s plenty of room for the next you because we need you, a different person, to stand up and say, “Here, I made this.” Those doors aren’t gonna be open forever but they are open right now and I just don’t see why you wouldn’t walk through them.
Nathan: Yeah, I’m loving this conversation, Seth. I could speak the whole day. Last question though because I know you gotta hit the road. Action items for our audience, aspiring, and novice entrepreneurs. Three action items.
Seth: Well, I guess action item number one, the most important one is, stop being an aspiring entrepreneur and be an entrepreneur, and that means ship some work and get paid for it. Action item number two is figure out who you can teach. You know, most people who ask someone to mentor them would be better off mentoring someone else instead because that act of teaching someone who doesn’t know something you know will make you significantly smarter. And then, I guess, the third simple building block action item is, blog every day. It doesn’t matter if anybody reads it, it doesn’t matter. If you put your real name on it, blog every day because the act writing something down that you believe in, that you’ve thought about, and knowing you have to do it again tomorrow will make you better at everything you do.