Up until now, getting a professional degree and working in corporate America was considered a surefire, safe way to success. Starting a business was a whole lot riskier. But bestselling author Seth Godin says this is no longer the case.
In his new book The Icarus Deception, Godin says success today requires being creative, genuinely connecting with people and moving outside your comfort zone. In other words, taking an entrepreneurial approach is now the “safest” approach.
We spoke with Godin about this massive shift, and what this means for small businesses.
How do you avoid making a commodity?
Going forward, there are going to be two types of products and services. One is something that you buy the cheapest one of, and cheap is going to keep getting cheaper but less profitable. And the other is going to be the thing that’s special—the thing that you seek out, the thing that you’re going to be willing to pay extra for, and that’s what we’re going to seek out.
Just as a subway station that has lots of trains going through it is worth more than one at the end of the line, we know that being the nexus of connection, connecting lots of people and being trusted by lots of people is worth more than being isolated. So the value in our economy is no longer created by people who have a clever machine, because anyone can make a machine, probably cheaper than you. The value is created by people who are trusted, and the Internet makes that more productive than ever before.
What do business owners have to do to stand out?
Everything that Michael Dell did, do the opposite. If you look at Dell vs. Apple 15 years ago, all the decisions at Dell were about, “how do we make it a safe decision, how do we make it cheaper, how do we make it more of a commodity?” If you worked there, you were rewarded for bringing your boss things that were easy to make, cheap commodities, because that’s what the stock market was rewarding.
The way you run an organisation that makes what I call “art” is that you don’t merely applaud the things that work, you applaud the efforts that lead to innovation, which means you also applaud right thinking that doesn’t necessarily pan out.
How do you get that sort of innovation out of employees?
Well, that’s part of the magic of our data-driven economy, right? It’s harder than ever to hide from what works and what doesn’t. If you’re going to build a lean enterprise, you can test and measure how often the company ships iterations, how often it fails, how often it is putting things in front of people that don’t work.
If you have employees who don’t ship very often and don’t fail very often, then the message you have to send to the rest of the organisation is that [you’re] going to fire those people because they are playing it safe and acting like our enemy is failure, as opposed to the people you need, who understand that the enemy is boring. If you’re boring no one wants to connect with you. If you’re boring no one’s going to pay extra for you.
So success should be measured not by productivity, but by creating something unique?
Something we would miss if it was not there. Remember the industrialist doesn’t like change. The industrialist has a system, and as long as the system is running he makes money. And so you don’t get rewarded for walking into a corporation that’s an industrialist and saying, “I think we should shake things up because it would be fun.”
Now if it were up to industrialists, the world wouldn’t change at all, but the world is changing. So given the fact that the world is changing, the industrialist has the chance to innovate, but innovation brings with it daily failure. That’s part of innovation: figuring out what doesn’t work.
Do you think people end up unhappy because they confine themselves into a narrow, safe pathway?
Most people have bosses who hire them to fill a slot in the work chart and to do what they are told. And most people who are doing what they are told feel safe; it feels reliable. If you go to a famous college and then you go to a place in an office and you get a job and you get trained and you do what you are told, it’s safe. And there isn’t a lot of emotional labour, because you can blame someone else.
That works fine until you get laid off. That works fine until your company is under stress. And then what do you do? You stand up and say to the world, “Here, I made this.” You go to meetings not to take notes but to say to your boss, “Wait a minute, why don’t we do that?” And that is a massive shift and it’s something that a lot of people find uncomfortable. It resonates with them when they think about it, but they’re not seeking it out because it’s so scary.
How do you reduce the fear of putting yourself out there?
My answer is: The fear is a good thing. The fear is a compass, if you are not fearing the fear, you’re not making progress. We waste enormous amounts of time and energy trying to make the fear go away. Artists, like the Bob Dylans and Amanda Palmers of the world, say, “Fabulous! The fear is back. I am on to something.” And that’s what we need to do. We need to train ourselves to look forward to saying the ridiculous things and to feeling the fear.
How did you end up being an entrepreneur and thought leader instead of working at a big company?
I guess the answer—and it will probably be true for most people—is that there are probably 20 things that happened to me, not one. I was lucky enough to co-found a business in college that ended up with 400 employees, and I launched 20 different projects while I was there—a project a week. I didn’t get paid to do it; it was just a non-profit that we ran as part of the university, and that was thrilling. I started a ticket bureau at a snack bar and a travel agency and a laundry service and a temporary employment agency that I took over with a partner. I couldn’t imagine how I could have more fun doing something that was called a job.
Unfortunately, after I graduated from college, they didn’t have jobs like that for 20, 21-year-olds, so I went to Stanford Business School. It became clear to me at Stanford that there were two paths being offered: One path was to fake it well enough to get hired by a big company or consulting firm, and the other path was to go make something. Once I picked the second path, that was it.
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