Godin, Seth (No. 3)

Seth Godin in yellow shirt and blue tieSETH GODIN is the author of 9 books that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 20 languages. Permission Marketing was a New York Times bestseller, Unleashing the Ideavirus is the most popular ebook ever published, and Purple Cow is the best selling marketing book of the decade.

In addition to his writing and speaking, Seth is founder of squidoo.com, a fast growing, easy to use website "for people who want to build a page about their passions." His blog (which you can find by typing "seth" into Google) is the 20th most popular in the world, out of 80 million blogs (and counting).

American Way magazine called Seth Godin, "America's Greatest Marketer," but that's not really true, he says, the readers of Tom's blog are.

Erik talks to him about his new book, The Dip: The Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick). Seth's blog's description of The Dip: It's a mind grenade, a little bit of insight that will help you see what's causing your organization (or you) to get stuck.

The Dip book cover

tompeters.com asks ...

You're in the middle of an unconventional book tour for your new book, The Dip. What's the story here?

SG: Something bad happened to me thirteen years ago when my first book came out. I went to Barnes & Noble for a book signing. I had sprained my ankle the night before, so I was on crutches. I sat down next to stacks and stacks of Business Rules of Thumb, and no one came. After about five minutes, some guy walked over, picked up my book, looked at the front, looked at the back, put it down, and walked out. I swore right then and there that I would never do another book tour as long as I lived, because my ego can't handle it.

When this book came out, I thought, well, it's possible that people would show up in a bookstore, but a deal's a deal. So, instead, I posted on my blog, "If you can get a whole bunch of people in your city to buy five books in advance, I'll come speak to all of the people there for free. I'll give a lecture and a Q&A. I've already made deals in Chicago and Philly where they have radio stations that will promote it. But if you are in another city, give it a shot."

I heard from a guy in Tempe, Arizona, who started a petition drive, and then Salt Lake City tried to catch up, and then Silicon Valley. I had thousands of people do this and ended up pre-selling more than five thousand copies of the book in hardcover. The speech was free. These people set up the venues. They did all the work. They found sponsors. Everyone who came got five copies for fifty dollars. After they left, they had four books they could give to their friends, which was the point.

It was so thrilling to walk into a room of people who wanted to read my book, who had been keeping up with the blog, who were interested in the topic, and who finally got a chance to meet each other. Connections were made in the audience that ended up being really neat. Two of the people who co-sponsored the gig in San Francisco had never met before and now they're best friends. Very cool.

You're becoming a community organizer.

SG: Apparently.

Or, you're sitting in the middle of the community encouraging others to organize.

SG: Right. I'm not the organizer; I'm just the totem pole.

So, what is "the dip"?

SG: The dip is the screen. It's the hard spot. It's the place where most people quit. It is organic chemistry on your way to being a doctor. Lots of people announce that they're pre-med. Their grandmother gets all excited and they have fun until they take organic chemistry. It's hard and makes people quit. That's why there aren't so many doctors, because there's a screen.

In the business world, I like to talk about Starbucks. I was at Pike Place Market in Seattle. The original Starbucks is there right next to four or five other cafés and bakeries that could have been what Starbucks has become. They could have had 12,000 branches by now.

If you run a Mom & Pop and you grow to two or three stores, you just work harder, but it's basically the same work. When you hit four or five stores, there's a dip. At four or five stores, you need professional management, an ad budget, investors, a bank. When most people hit the dip at that stage, they quit and end up really unhappy. It would have been better if they'd just stuck with one or two stores.

But a few organizations realize that there's a dip and that on the other side of that dip, good things start to happen. Opening Starbucks No. 12,332 is trivial compared to opening Starbucks No. 6. If you get through the dip, then you're on the other side—a place where you're a superstar, where there's scarcity, and where you do a lot better.

You say quitting is a great strategy sometimes, but sometimes it's exactly the wrong thing to do, and that there's a simple way to tell the difference.

SG: Right, because there are some things that are a dip—where there's a screen and then scarcity—and other things that are a cul-de-sac, which is the French word for "bottom of the bag" or dead end. A dead end is like a hamster on a wheel: You work every day, you get a little bit older, but nothing gets better. I think of Tom's dad and his work at Baltimore Gas & Electric. Every single day he went to work and did the same job. It didn't matter how much harder he worked; he wasn't going to break through and suddenly get appointed to be CEO of the company. He was on a dead end.

If that is okay with you, if work is the thing you do to build a stable life, then it's great. But if you're making sacrifices and hoping for the world to change, don't stick out a dead end because it never ends.

As Penelope Trunk has recently written, if you put off change for too long, you compromise your ability to orchestrate it.

SG: Exactly. If you build your life around living in a dead end, once your expectations match that, then change becomes a threat. The punchline of the book is that it's not really a book about quitting. I wouldn't have fun talking about quitting for a year or two, and quitting isn't the point. Once you understand that you can choose whether to quit or not, that the strategy is up to you before you start, and that quitting in the dip is the worst moment to quit, you'll discover that you'll quit a lot less because you'll fall in love with mastery. You'll fall in love with going through processes where you can actually become the best in the world, where you can invest enough resources to get out the other end. Once you get in the habit of doing that, then the way you make things, approach your career, or run your organization is different.

Could you explain Zipf's law and how it pertains here?

SG: Zipf checked how many times the letters in the alphabet appeared in print. The letter e appears ten times as much as the tenth most popular letter in the alphabet. This curve is consistent with best-selling albums, best-selling books, salaries of employees, almost every distribution. The stuff near the top dramatically outsells the stuff that's not near the top. The curve gets steep. If there was a straight line between good and great, it wouldn't be worth sticking, because it would be a lot more effort, but you wouldn't get a lot more reward.

So that was actually the first recognition of the Long Tail, before it became The Long Tail.

SG: Right. I actually mentioned it in a book before Chris Anderson did. He was clever enough to name it properly and research it, as opposed to just making up numbers like I did.

What fun is that?

SG: He pointed out that the long tail is this powerful thing if you own the whole curve. Meaning Netflix, Amazon, iTunes Store, and others benefit because Zipf's law says that when you extend the curve way out to the horizon, Lithuanian language records can make you enough pennies that when you line up enough of them, you're really glad you have the whole catalogue.

But most people don't own the whole curve. They just get to pick a spot on the curve. And if you have a choice between a record label that makes one record a year that's a Top 40 hit or one record a year that's Lithuanian language tapes, make the Top 40 hit, please. It turns out that the short head—the short, fat, juicy part of the curve—is way more attractive if you can get there than being way out on the end.

Do you believe that everyone in the world has the capability of being the best in the world at something?

SG: I do, because Google made the world bigger and smaller at the same time. It's bigger because Google plus Federal Express plus the Internet means I can have a copyeditor who lives in Rochester whom I've never met and an art director who lives in North Carolina whom I see once a year. I can buy stuff, like bread from Paris, and have it show up the next day. What's available to me—the marketplace—gets bigger. But it also gets smaller because I don't have to settle for one kind of pen. I can say, "I only use number four lead in my pencils." And that can be a market that also has Zipf's law. There are lots and lots of micro-markets now.

I don't believe that very many people have a shot at having a No. 1 Billboard hit. But if I add a descriptor to that, like No. 1 Christian Rock, No. 1 Christian Classical, No. 1 Jewish Traditional Music, and go down the list, there are a thousand No. 1 Billboard hits available every week.

In a way, this leads to a blue ocean strategy where it's up to you to try to figure out how to create a market in which you can be number one.

SG: Exactly. Many Zipf's laws, many Long Tails. Figure out how many resources you have and pick a dip that matches them. I think it's foolish for a start-up to say, "We're going to make a better search engine than Google," because the dip's too big, right? I also think it's foolish for a company as big as Microsoft to choose to come out with a piece of software when the market only has four hundred people in it. Not worth their effort.

You have to match it up. You have to say, "How much money and passion and commitment do I have? Can I find a dip where my guess is that I'll have enough to get through it?" Because the dip is not your enemy. The dip is nothing to be feared. The dip is your friend, because if the dip isn't there, you're on a dead end. There is no dip for a longshoreman, whereas there is a dip for someone whose company will profit if they get their product to the cash register at Walmart. You can track what kind of progress you're making in the quest to be at the cash register at Walmart. Once you get through that dip, on the other end is success.

What's your most recent dip?

SG: Well, Squidoo has been a series of dips, and that's why we built it. It could have ended up being a dead end where we'd get a certain amount of traffic and revenue and that would've been the end of it; there would've been nothing we could have done to make it budge. But, in fact, we have reliably increased all of our metrics. Now we're growing at twenty to thirty percent a week in terms of traffic.

We sat down two weeks ago and said, "Look, getting from the No. 2,000 most popular website on Alexa to No. 1,000 is pretty easy, because all you need to do is beat someone like GetYourChurchPewInAHurry.com and PurpleChampagne.com, or whatever. But to get from 1,000 to 500, and 500 to 200 gets harder and harder because the people you're beating are bigger and more focused." So we said, "What are we going to quit? What initiatives are we working on that we're not going to work on anymore, so that this small team can devote everything necessary to getting through the dip of feeding this traffic monster?"

What did you guys quit?

SG: We quit dozens of business development projects. We quit dozens of really interesting engineering projects that were in various stages of development, some that were very close to being finished. But we said, "If we keep developing new technology, we're not going to be able to have our best programmers make the site go faster."

You have a small team working on Squidoo. Are you guys sitting around talking in terms of the dip? Having written this book, I guess you've been talking about this for a while. Does it change the dynamic of how you come to work each day or how you have meetings?

SG: It doesn't surprise me that it changes what we do, because it changed the way I thought, which is why I wrote the book. But the cool thing is that the book has only been out for two weeks and it's changing the way that people who have nothing to do with me are talking to each other. According to the emails I'm getting and the conversations I'm hearing when I'm out there talking to people, they're adopting this terminology. What I do for a living is notice things and give them names. I noticed this thing that didn't have a name, and now people can talk about it among themselves, which is the goal. So, yeah, we use words like that all the time.

Val Willis recently wrote a blog post at tompeters.com asking if the readership was working on projects that are doomed to failure. It generated a lot of talk in the comments section. People don't have the patience anymore to continue to work on something when they realize it's dead in the water, whereas twenty years ago, you just went to work and that was okay. You'd say, "Well, they'll still pay me." The workplace dynamic is drastically different now.

SG: Cycles are shorter. People twenty years ago said, "This may be doomed, but it's going to be ten years before they figure it out and I'll be fine." [Laughter] But now, people realize that it could happen in sixty days. The opportunity cost of sticking around at the wrong place is too high. A woman at one of my seminars was seventeen years old. She's a sophomore in college and she wants to drop out, because she's in too much of a hurry. I think that's a mistake, and I told her so. But in general, if you're working on a dead end or something that's fading away, you're wasting your personal brand and your personal resources if there isn't a commitment from the top and from the bottom to say, "We have to over-deliver and demolish this thing in terms of getting through the dip, or we shouldn't bother."

The Huffington Post is a cool example. The Huffington Post is one of the top three blogs in the world. Next week, they're shifting the entire structure from having ten or twenty regular contributors to having hundreds or thousands. She changes the game the minute she does that. Anyone else who is trying to compete in that space is going to have to think about how the dip just changed and how they can lean into it and play a different game.

With the big company mindset, what Microsoft is great at doing is getting through a dip when it's not too big, and then building a valley of death behind them to make the dip huge for anyone who wants to upset them or come after them. Microsoft Word is unassailable on the PC platform. Lots of people have tried to make word processors since, but why would anyone switch? The dip's too big.

Even in Mac world, you basically have to have Word.

SG: But Google figured out that if the operating system changes, the dip changes, too. Once everyone decides to use a word processor online, you have to start the game over again. It's a smaller dip. They can get through that one by over-investing in an online word processor. Then Microsoft probably won't be able to catch up with them.

You really think so?

SG: I do.

I feel like we're stuck with Word for the rest of our lives.

SG: We are, if the operating system stays the same. But if Google owns the operating system—if the search engine is integrated with my Gmail, which is integrated with my word processor, and it's all about sharing the doc—then it's a different thing. It's not really a word processor anymore; it's a Web processor. You change the definition, and then you can build a new dip that the next startup can't get through.

The book is small, 78 pages. It's the kind of thing that you might find at the checkout counter at a bookstore. Why?

SG: It's fascinating. Not one person out of the thousand pieces of mail I've received about this book so far has sent me a note saying, "I wish it was longer." [Laughter] You could view that as insulting, but I don't. I thought I had a really clear idea, but it was a brief one. If I made it longer, it wouldn't spread.

Why bother with a book?

SG: Because ideas need a vessel to carry them. The vessel could be email. The vessel could be a PDF file. But those vessels don't travel to certain people in certain ways. My dad has a factory. The people who work in the factory are organized by the United Auto Workers and they bend steel. Every one of them has read this book because he gave it to them. He gives them other books, not just mine. But by handing them a short book, they can read it without having to boot up a computer.

There's a Southern Baptist church in Buffalo, New York, that has a thousand parishioners. The reverend preached a sermon about quitting last week, and the whole congregation's going to read the book. He couldn't get the whole congregation to read a PDF.

You're right, at least at this point in time.

SG: But I am confident in saying that blogging has ruined me as a writer of long books. I can't do it anymore. The publisher wants my next book to be long. I wrote the longest book I could, and he just sent me a note saying it's too short. [Laughter]

Apparently you have to convene your customers, your correspondents, with your publishers, because they're clearly living in two different worlds.

SG: Right. The good news is that my publisher is more flexible than my customers. I think he'll see the light. It's hard for me to imagine that there's much life left in the four hundred-page business book. I think that's over. I think the two hundred-page business book is close to being endangered.

I agree. Things are moving too quickly. It's about getting one idea clear and then moving on to the next idea somewhere else. Trying to get a whole conglomeration between two covers just doesn't work anymore.

SG: Exactly.

We're all going to end up being incapable of reading at some point!

SG: It's already happened. We're lucky enough to be a little bit older and still remember how. The true story is, I was doing a talk for a new line of lingerie, a Victoria's Secret launch called Pink. I was speaking to their spokesmodels, their college campus sales reps. My wife made me sign a document before I went to give this speech.

[Laughter] I'm sure she did.

SG: As it turned out, they weren't chosen because they were supermodels; they were chosen because they were popular on campus. They were sorority sisters and such. I was talking about The Purple Cow, which is around 160 pages.

I finished my talk, high energy, really focused. Questions? A woman raised her hand. She said, "If we only have time to read twenty pages, which twenty pages would you recommend?" [Laughter] I thought that was a classic moment.

Did you recommend a twenty-page segment?

SG: I confess that I gave in to the snarky gene, and I said, "I already made the book as short as I can, and the pages are really short. Why don't you just read the first twenty pages and if you're not interested, you could just stop there."

Good answer.

SG: Thank you, Erik.

Thank you very much for the interview, Seth.

Websites: www.sethgodin.com, www.squidoo.com
Book website: www.squidoo.com/theDipBook/, or see sethgodin.typepad.com/the_dip/
Blog: sethgodin.typepad.com

Email: sethgodin (at) - yahoo.com