American Way Magazine calls Seth “America’s Greatest Marketer,” and his blog is one of the most popular in the world written by a single individual. As an entrepreneur, he has founded dozens of companies, most of which have failed. His latest company, Squidoo.com, is ranked #36 in the US by Quantcast for traffic. It allows anyone (even you) to build a page about any topic you’re passionate about. The site raises money for charity and pays royalties to its million plus members.
Click to tweet: Fire Nation, Seth shares his incredible journey on EntrepreneurOnFire today!
- “This might not work.” – Seth Godin click to tweet!
- Seth has led a remarkably inspired life. In this interview, we get a sneak peak at a time when Seth was threatened by the head of AOL. “If you step foot on my property, I will have you arrested.” Wow, listen to how he bounced back from that one.
Entrepreneurial AHA Moment
- Seth is all about living an inspired life, so his AHA moment is nothing short of fantastic.
- Seth gives us an inside glimpse at his Kickstarter campaign with Icarus. There is a lot to take in from this section.
Small Business Resources
- Dispatch.io: Get real work done. Together.
Best Business Book
- The Republic of Tea by Mel Ziegler
- The Tom Peters Seminar by Tom Peters
- Secrets of Closing the Sale by Zig Ziglar
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John Lee Dumas: Alright, Fire Nation. We’re going to get started right now. I am simply ecstatic to introduce my guest today, Seth Godin. Seth, are you prepared to ignite with us?
Seth Godin: Well, that’s quite an offer. How about if I give you the answer in five minutes? But why don’t we start and see how it works?
John Lee Dumas: I love that answer. American Way calls Seth “America’s Greatest Marketer” and his blog is one of the most popular in the world written by a single individual. As an entrepreneur, he founded dozens of companies, most of which failed. His latest company, Squidoo.com, is ranked number 36 by Quantcast for traffic. It allows anyone – even you – to build a page about any topic you’re passionate about, and the site raises money for charity and pays royalties to its million plus members.
I’ve given Fire Nation a little overview, Seth, but why don’t you take it from here? Tell us about you personally, and then about your business.
Seth Godin: Okay. Well, I would say that I could characterize my 35 year career as a series of well-intentioned failures, occasionally interrupted by noteworthy successes. I have a big new book – big in that it weighs 19 pounds – coming out at the end of December. On one page is a long, long list of projects I’ve done that have failed, and it’s only a partial list. I’m as proud of the things I’ve done that haven’t worked as the others. In fact, more proud because I think that innovation is the act of doing something that doesn’t work again and again until you find something that does.
So to give you the short version of my history, I started my first business when I was 14 or 15. When I was in college, I co-ran the largest student-run business in America at Tufts University. We launched a new division every week or so. We had a snack bar, a ticket bureau, a temporary employment agency, a travel agency, a birthday cake service. We had people walking up and down the halls every night, yelling, “Bagels!” and selling snacks in the dorm.
John Lee Dumas: [Laughs]
Seth Godin: That sort of created a pattern for me. My partner at the time went off to Harvard Business School and became a capitalist tool for giant corporations, doing interesting strategy stuff for them. I went to Stanford where I didn’t really go to class very much, but learned a lot about what it meant to bring stuff to the world, bring it to market and see what happens. I started my first adult business when I was 26. That was a book packaging company, and the vestiges of it still exist today. There’s people who worked for me who are doing it still. Then I started my first Internet company in ’91 before there was an Internet, and grew that to more than 70 people. It ended up merging with Yahoo! It was very good time. Ever since the year 2000, I have been on my own as a speaker and writer, but even as a writer playing on the Internet, as you mentioned, with Squidoo and launching projects, I’m very focused on a lifestyle built not around a building or a factory, but on people you trust making projects you’re proud about.
John Lee Dumas: I love that, Seth. Let’s use that great background to launch into our first topic, which is the success quote, because at EntrepreneurOnFire, we love getting the motivational ball rolling and we really want to get you ignited, and we want to get our audience ignited. So what do you have for us for a success quote that you feel as though could really resonate with entrepreneurs?
Seth Godin: As somebody who pundits for a living, I try to come up with at least one blog post a day. So I can’t pick one that’s a favorite, but I’ll pick the shortest one that I have handy, which is “this might not work.”
John Lee Dumas: “This might not work.” That is very short. I can definitely see how it is handy as well. How would you say that an entrepreneur could or should apply that to their mentality?
Seth Godin: Well, if we think about all the meetings that we go to in big companies and small, in the industrial mindset what you’re expected to stand up and say is “This is going to work. I have figured out the answer. I am sure.” That’s what you say to your investors and your bankers and your board and your spouse. It’s what you say to your coworkers and your partners and your employees, but if you’re sure it’s going to work, then it’s not art, then it’s not new, then it’s not innovative because how can you be sure? On the other hand, it takes a totally different kind of guts and approach to stand up and say, “You know, this might not work. Let’s do it anyway.” So Bob Dylan decides to play electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. His manager didn’t say, “Yes, that’s going to work.” Bob said, “This might not work.”
The same thing is true when Mark Zuckerberg is building a business with the guys from 1-800-Got-Junk? or starting something. If the typical banker had been sitting there when they guys from 1-800-Got-Junk? showed up, I’m pretty sure her answer would have been, “You guys are insane!” Right? That’s not even the name of a company. Never mind a viable business model. And yet, that’s what we talk about when we talk about something growing. Over and over and over again, bestsellers are surprise bestsellers. Everything comes out of the left field to change our culture. Not the obvious stuff. Not the stuff that’s guaranteed to work, but the stuff that might not work.
John Lee Dumas: Those are such great insights, Seth. That just moves us perfectly into our next topic because EntrepreneurOnFire is all about the journey, and you’ve already shared with us so generously a good part of your journey as an entrepreneur that truly is fascinating. But if you could pull out one failure or challenge or major obstacle that you really encountered at some point, the major pivot or that you just had to overcome for some reason that really made you grow as an entrepreneur, can you pull out that point and share it with Fire Nation?
Seth Godin: I’ll give you two. One, when I went out on my own, the first day I sold a book to the first publisher I pitched it to for $5,000. I said, “Wow! This is great! If I could do this every two weeks, I could make a living at this.” Then I got 900 rejection letters in a row and sold nothing for over a year, and it’s because of the way I was going to market and the story that I was telling through my actions. It wasn’t until I was lucky enough that someone showed me how they were doing it and I was open enough to learning as opposed to being so arrogant that I knew that I was able to shift. Then the second time was at the peak of Yoyodyne, my first Internet company. AOL was our biggest client by far, and we also had an account doing Arrid Extra Dry Deodorant promotion.
Right as AOL was growing the fastest, we sent out 3 million emails as we were supposed to, but the AOL emails went to the Arrid Extra Dry people and the Arrid Extra Dry emails went to the AOL members. We got a call from this woman named Audrey who was a Vice President at AOL and she was literally screaming. I promised her that we would fix it and we had it covered. So a week later, the phone rings again and it’s Audrey, and now she is screaming. It had happened again. I said, “Look, I’m going to get on a plane. I’ll fly down to Virginia. We can work this out.” I’ll never forget what she said. She turned to me and she said on the phone, she said, “If you step foot on our property, I will have you arrested.” It was a big shift for my company because we took a deep breath, we spent the money, we hired some true professionals who we couldn’t afford to come transform our company from one guy’s off-the-cuff what can we do now kind of thing to a much more professional organization commensurate with the projects and the promises that we were making.
John Lee Dumas: Man! That is a powerful story, Seth. If you can just really pull out like a lesson that you learned from that and that you applied to a future endeavor, can you do that?
Seth Godin: Well, I think that what’s important is not to bring a knife to a gunfight. I don’t view entrepreneurship through the prison of war as some people do, but at the same time, I’ve come to understand that you sell things to people who want to buy them and you tell stories to people that are going to resonate with them. If you’re not succeeding, it’s almost certainly because you’re telling the wrong story to the wrong person in the wrong way. And that what I took away from this is that it’s worth spending five more minutes to think hard about who’s listening, why are they listening, and how can you tell a true story that is more likely to resonate with them.
Seth Godin: I struggled for a really long time, John, and for more than seven years, I was two weeks away from bankruptcy, and I would do whatever it took to make payroll and make things work. I found myself working on a business plan as a consultant for a series of nursing homes that were about to be acquired. So there I was at 26 years old, 27 years old, walking up and down the halls of a nursing home with the smell and the feeling in there. And I looked at myself in the mirror and I said, “If this is what I have to do every day to get to where I want to go, I want to go somewhere else.”
It’s so easy as entrepreneurs to fall into the trap of making into a job, of saying, “Show me the proven path.” How do I get a franchise? Where is the dummy’s guide? What did those people at YEO tell me they did? I’m going to do exactly what they did. For someone who gives advice, it’s ironic, but I’m telling you, listening to advice isn’t the best path, and making a living, doing whatever it takes, isn’t the best path. That you’re doing this, I hope, not to make the maximum amount of money. You could make more money on Wall Street. You’re doing this because you want to make art, because you want to make something that you made, that stands for you. Something where you can stand up and look someone in the eye and say, “Here, I made this.” I think we need more people in the world who will do that, but what it means to stand up and say, “Here, I made this” is that you better be proud of what you’re making.
John Lee Dumas: So Seth, you had that powerful aha moment where you looked in the mirror and decided that you wanted to create something that you could stand up for. What actions did you take from that point forward?
Seth Godin: One example is more than half of my business came from a client who was just incredibly difficult and litigious and mean and driving us crazy. We knew we could handle it, but we also knew that that would turn my organization into one that was good at dealing with nasty clients, and I didn’t want to become that. So we gave them the business back. We said, “Here. Keep it. We know we own it, but we’re giving it to you.” In the nine weeks that followed, my team and I were so energized by the freedom, we more than replaced the missing business. But it’s hard decisions like that that get to the heart of what you actually stand for, where you start telling yourself the truth about who you are and what you do.
John Lee Dumas: That is great insight. Seth, entrepreneurs look at this question in a lot of different ways, and they look at this moment particularly in a lot of different ways. Have you had an I’ve made it moment?
Seth Godin: When a project comes off, I don’t say to myself, “I’ve made it.” What I say is, “Great! Now I have to do another project.”
John Lee Dumas: That’s one thing that it does really sound like you have a great grasp upon, is that it’s the journey that really needs to be appreciated. I’ve made it moments may come and go, but it’s really important that we’re standing for something, we’re setting goals, we’re reaching those goals, and then we’re, again, putting that next lofty goal even higher to drive forward, but enjoying those milestones along the way because that’s what’s going to create a good business, is creating that aura and that success and achievement that you’re actually accomplishing good things along the way. So thank you for sharing your angle on that. Let’s move now, Seth, into what you currently have going on. If you just could say one thing that’s really exciting you about your business right now, what would that be?
Seth Godin: Well, I think that what’s happened is – well, first, I don’t really have a business about what I do all day. What I do all day, about blogging and writing and such, is my passion and a platform that I can connect over. What I’m finding in that business is – if you’re going to call it a business – is that there’s a critical mass now. That I don’t spend any time at all trying to get more people to hear what I have to say. And as soon as you free yourself up to do writing for your readers instead of trying to find readers for your writing, it’s transformative because you can write with confidence as opposed to trying to please the anonymous masses. At Squidoo, we grew 50% in the last 12 weeks in terms of scale, and we are finding that platforms on the Internet keep getting stronger if you feed them properly. Given that there’s only 70 people on the team, we’re finding it extraordinary that after all these seven years of work, we are getting to the place where we want to go, which is really scary and gratifying at the same time because it means that now that we have this leverage, we better not waste it.
John Lee Dumas: Absolutely. You mentioned the word “critical mass,” Seth. How did you realize that you had in fact reached critical mass? What was the tipoff for you?
Seth Godin: Well, a lot of people don’t understand what critical mass is. It comes from atomic bombs and stuff. Once you have enough uranium in a small enough space, a chain reaction occurs. You don’t need more uranium to have more power be released. Critical mass works for any business when the people who are your customers are doing a better job of marketing you than you are, and getting to that point means finding the right scale. It means you have to have low enough overhead and high enough leverage that getting to that point where people can spread the word for you is doable. So lots of times we’ll see big companies fail because they invest so much money into marketing that they’re never going to be able to get over the top.
This is one of the things that’s going on in presidential politics. Now that it costs a billion dollars to get elected President, word of mouth is dwarfed by how much money you’re spending, which is a shame because word of mouth is this magical, genuine, authentic power that really makes our culture work. So what you look for is can I put something into the world that the world – not the whole world. Just my corner of it – cares enough about and loves so much, they will tell other people.
John Lee Dumas: What besides time helped you with your blog reach a critical mass?
Seth Godin: I think showing up day after day, year after year. I think never caring so much about a single sale that I wanted to compromise my principles. I didn’t do the Permission Marketing Workbook, Permission Marketing 2, Purple Cow’s Deluxe Second Edition, Tenth Edition. I didn’t milk those things. I just went on to the next interesting in the time, but I’m glad I did.
John Lee Dumas: Thank you for sharing that, Seth. One thing that you’ve recently done that I was so excited to be able to be a part of, and this just goes back to you being so consistent with your blog and just resonating so well with me for so long. Every day, I’m going through your blog and I’m really connecting with your words on so many levels, that when you came out with your Kickstarter campaign to talk about your book “Icarus,” I just knew I had to be a part of it on some level. I was obviously not alone because it was such a phenomenal success. Can you tell us, Fire Nation, about why you went into that in the first place, and then just everything that surrounded that process?
Seth Godin: Okay. Well, here’s the thing. I’ve been playing on the edges of book publishing for 25 or 30 years and been thinking deeply about it for a long time. I did a project for a year with Amazon because I saw they had an interesting method of going to market. Publishing and printing have nothing to do with each other. Publishing is the act of bringing an idea to someone who wants to hear about it. So what I wanted to do with Kickstarter is a transparent project to show authors that it was possible to organize purchase intent in advance. And if you did that, you could then bring that news to a publisher, if you chose, and that will let the publisher leverage what you’ve done. So I wanted to take my own advice and show how it worked.
So we created this kickstarter – I think it was in June – where I said I’m not doing this for the money, but there’s all these prizes I’m offering from a $4 free e-book preview all the way to about a thousand bucks for an LP and eight copies of the book, and another book and a third book, and dancing monkeys and everything else.
John Lee Dumas: [Laughs]
Seth Godin: I was thrilled that it hits minimum really fast. I knew it would, but I was also much more thrilled to see how big it scaled. It would have gotten much bigger, except I limited the amount of each one because I wasn’t trying to make this the business. I was trying to make this a point to the story. So I left a lot of orders on the table, but that’s okay because I was trying to make it so that in January, plenty of people would hear about it, but some people would still be left to want to get it. I’ve learned a great deal since then about how Kickstarter works. Hint: it’s a pain in the neck. I don’t advise many people who don’t have a lot of organizational support to start messing with the Kickstarter backend. But the concept of building a tribe, connecting the tribe, getting their permission, organizing them, getting them into sync, getting purchase intent, is very, very, powerful, and I think it will work for a lot of businesses.
John Lee Dumas: Wow! Well, I’m really excited to continue to see this through the end. It’s been a great journey. I just received my email about my part of it that’s going to be coming out in January. Some very interesting things. Thank you for sharing that. So Seth, we’ve now reached my favorite part of the show – the Lightning Round – because I get to ask you a series of questions. You can come at us, Fire Nation, with amazing and mind-blowing answers. Does that sound like a plan?
Seth Godin: Go for it.
John Lee Dumas: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Seth Godin: Oh, I’ve already blown it because it’s the Lightning Round.
John Lee Dumas: [Laughs]
Seth Godin: Nothing was holding me back from becoming a freelancer. I started on my own when I was a kid. What was holding me back from being an entrepreneur is a lack of understanding that it means leverage and the fear of bringing on people smarter than me so that I could build a business that could last and work even when I wasn’t there.
John Lee Dumas: What is the best business advice you ever received?
Seth Godin: Don’t listen to business advice.
John Lee Dumas: [Laughs] Love it. What is something that’s working for you right now?
Seth Godin: Connecting people to each other and to my ideas.
John Lee Dumas: Do you have an Internet resource like an Evernote that you’re just in love with that you can share with Fire Nation?
Seth Godin: Email.
John Lee Dumas: Love it. Anything in specific like Gmail?
Seth Godin: No. I have a very complicated setup that no one should ever try.
John Lee Dumas: [Laughs]
Seth Godin: Also, I’ll say that more and more, I’m using something called “Dispatch.io” that some friends of mine have put together. It’s a free service that lets you connect groups to have conversations about the work you’re doing.
John Lee Dumas: Awesome! Dispatch.io, I will link that up in the show notes. What is your favorite business book?
Seth Godin: I think if I have to pick one book to point people to that’s really actually a business book, it would be “The Republic of Tea” by Mel and Patricia Ziegler. If I get a couple other nominations, they would include “The Tom Peter Seminar” by Tom himself and Zig Ziglar’s “Secrets of Closing the Sale.” Then if I’m going to pick a book that’s not in the business section, it would be Pema Chodron’s book, “Don’t Bite the Hook.”
John Lee Dumas: “Don’t Bite the Hook.” Wonderful! Well, all these will be linked up in the show notes. I will say your books have been mentioned numerous, numerous times in this section of the Lightning Round. So let’s end with the last question, my favorite question, but it’s kind of tricky, Seth. So you can take your time, digest it, and then just come back at us.
If you woke up tomorrow morning in a brand new world, identical to earth, but you knew nobody. You still have all the experience and knowledge that you currently have right now, but only $500 in your pocket, a computer with Internet, and your food and shelter is taken care of. What do you do in the next seven days?
Seth Godin: Well, the only thing I need the $500 for is food and shelter, but I need way more than seven days. I need 70 days or 700 days to generously teach, generously share, generously connect. If my food and shelter is taken care of – and all I need is brown rice and black beans – I will eagerly contribute for as long as the world is willing to accept it because if you do that enough, your income takes care of itself. I have never once met somebody, never once, who said, “I am respected and trusted by my circle. They view me as an important, honest thought leader, but I can’t make a living.” I’ve never heard someone say that. So the answer is not come up with some clever scheme to make a living. The answer is come up with some honest process to become the trusted and respected leader.
John Lee Dumas: Beautiful insight. Seth, you’ve given us some great actionable advice this entire interview and we are all better for it. Give Fire Nation one parting piece of guidance, then give yourself a plug, and then we’ll say goodbye.
Seth Godin: I got to say that the desire on the part of the Internet to boil everything down to one parting note or a one tip or a one sentence is a real mistake. Nobody is succeeding because they know all the one line tips. People are succeeding because they go deep and they become human and they make their art. So I guess my tip is listen to fewer tips, and instead, do something that scares you and something that’s generous at the same time.
I really don’t feel like plugging myself, but if you type my name into Google, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy.
John Lee Dumas: Plenty. Seth, you’ve been so generous with your time. Fire Nation, we salute you, and we’ll catch you on the flipside.