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In Case You Missed It: A Conversation With Seth Godin

This week, bestselling author and entrepreneur Seth Godin visited STORY for a special evening as we discussed the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership and – most of all – how to change everything. (And for those who couldn’t make it in-store, we streamed it live on Facebook and fielded questions from viewers tuning in!) Many of our touch points with Godin are included in his latest book, What Does It Sound Like When You Change Your Mind? a limited-edition, 800 page, 17 pound collection of some of his work from the last four years, including posts, ebooks, and other rarities. It was a very special night that brought together curious entrepreneurs and longtime fans of Godin. In case you missed it, here are a few highlights from our conversation (Godin’s answers are abridged), or, check out the full conversation below.

What is one thing we can’t find out about you from googling?
I was a customer at STORY in your very first week!

Given the climate today – with so many different channels of distribution and technology – what are some hacks or insights that you find intriguing?
More than ever, the long way is the best say. The shortest pay off is to do the hard, long trek. Hacks used to have a payoff of six months, and now they have a payoff of three days. You used to be able to find some short cuts and surf it – the waves were big and intermediate. But the waves have gotten choppier and choppier, and the life cycle has gotten shorter and shorter. There was a good five years when blogging was a really good strategy, and all you had to do was show up and build a following. Those days are over.  Now, how long is the window open when you can build a following on Snap and sell a book for a lot of money? You can keep chasing these things, but they’re going to keep moving faster and faster. You can chase everyone, and be whatever everyone wants you to be, or you can choose to matter by being the thing everyone will most you for when you’re gone.” That gets you better clients, and when you get better clients, you get better work.

You wrote a post last week about the language of marketing. Words and meaning are very different from how they functioned in the past – can you elaborate a little bit on that?
If you’re going to build something,  you have two choices. You can build it just for you, or you can build it for an audience. You must choose. You can’t do a good job and be a professional and say it’s for everyone. There are two forks in the road. One is, “Hey, I got a table for two at this brand new restaurant that hasn’t been reviewed yet. It’s in Staten Island,” versus, “Hey, I got a table for two at Per Se.” They are two completely different opportunities. They are both about food, but neither are about food. One is where the purpose of going is to be amazed and surprised and dance with a risk. And the other one is guaranteed to be what it is supposed to be. When you think about the words you use, the mistake we make is that we bring our narrative to everyone, assuming they will know everything. You only get three words. Which three words are you going to hang on?

Have you thought of other ways of sharing your wisdom in other formats?
As someone who has been a theorist of media for 30 years, that’s all I think about. But it’s very noisy out there. When a new thing comes out, you have to make a choice, “what would I be less good at if I decide to do this?” When twitter came out, it was an easy choice. I didn’t do it a little bit, I didn’t do it at all, because you want to be really good at whatever platform that you embrace. With my blog – I don’t care about how many people read it. It’s my passion, and it’s a place that matches how I want to write.

Are there any times when you just don’t feel like writing or struggle to come up with an idea?
If you think your problem is, “I don’t have enough good ideas,” that may be true, but you’re solving it the wrong way. What you need is more bad ideas. If you can get comfortable with bad ideas, sooner or later a good one will slip in. I do five or six blog posts a day and most of them are terrible but every once in a while, I’ll save one. Once I give myself permission to write bad blog posts, writing blog posts is really, really easy. So you just keep doing that. Most of the people I know who have trouble writing cannot show me their “bad writing,” because they’re afraid of that first step. The magic of the internet, you can have a bad blog and put it under a different name. Then, when it gets good, attach your own name to it.

Do you ever take digital detoxes?
For me, it’s no Facebook, no twitter, no breaking news, no being a pawn in what the media wants me to do. I refuse to let the phone in my pocket make me unhappy. And I don’t read my reviews. I’ve never met an author who said, “I’ve read all my one star reviews and now my writing is better.”

What are the top three things you would prioritize before launching a physical item to maximize success?
Kickstarter shouldn’t be called Kickstarter – it should be called “Kickfinisher.” It’s not the place to go to start your project. It’s the place you should go to to finish the process. That means you need a drive, a following, “1000 true fans.” Then you can use Kickstarter and stay “this is the easy part.” So the first question is, “are there people in the world who are listening to you and trusting you sufficiently enough so that when you tell them what you’re doing, there’s a likelihood that they want it?” The second thing is that it feels like you get points for pursuing an extremely risky production. But the truth is, you don’t. The third thing is, please understand cash flow. There’s a big difference between an order and money in the bank, or who you have to pay, and when you have to pay them.

Where do you generate your ideas from?
I read widely and I stop reading all the time – I try to understand the point of what someone is writing, and once I get the joke I put it down unless the actual wording is so beautiful that I’m really really enjoying myself. So a couple of books a day, a couple hundred blogs. The posture here is, “are there unexplained phenomena that you can figure out?” Any time there’s a “why” question that emerges, it’s very hard for me to walk away from it.

What advice do you have for old, institutional brands, and how they should be approaching new marketing channels?
What’s a brand? A brand is not a logo. A brand is a promise. The shorthand for what we expect to get from the thing we just transacted with. If you try to change who you are, you often have to give up your existing set of promises and expectations. Most traditional consumer brands were built during the Mad Men era, where if you bought enough ads, you’d make enough money, and buy more ads. They were all built on TV. None of the brands today – not one – is built on TV. So if you’re a heritage brand, what you have to understand is that being a heritage brand isn’t an advantage, it’s a disadvantage. I would double down on what I stand for, and not spend a lot of money. It’s a cash cow. Take the cash that you get from that and then build something new. Just because you have a logo doesn’t mean you have to make it grow.

Fit in or Stand out – What does that mean from a marketing point of view?
Fit it means there are nine brands of ketchup, and you have your place in line amongst them. Stand out means you’re in the milk section, and there’s all this milk, but only one brand of soy milk – that’s how Silk was built. Because it wasn’t like all the others. But it’s a choice. But in practice, the only way to stand out is to be able to produce along the way with people who trust you. So if the Silk guys also stood out with their production strategy, accounts receivable strategy, you would never have seen it because they fit in all the way until the last part. Where you’re going to fit in to earn the right to stand out? That’s the question.