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Akimbo by Seth Godin. Episode 1

Listen to this episode and read show notes on Akimbo

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A new podcast! Cool! Who’s the first guest? What are we going to call it? No guests? What does Akimbo mean? That’s never gonna work. 

Hey, it’s Seth. And this is Akimbo.

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The Italians have a wonderful phrase: “salto mortale”, the dangerous leap. The leap into the void.

That fear we get in the pit of our stomach just before we commit. That fear that it’s not gonna work out. It’s too soon. I’m not ready. And so, we wait.

But some people, some people don’t wait. 

Carl Benz, when he launched the car, did it in Germany, where it was against the law to drive a car and there were no passable roads and there were no gas stations. He should have waited.

Gutenberg, pioneer of movable type launched the book when there were no bookstores and when no one knew how to read. And when reading glasses were required but hadn’t been invented yet. He should have waited. 

Internally there´s constant pressure to hesitate, to hold back, not to launch, to find flaws, to give ourselves one more chance.

But recently we made it worse. We made it worse because, in all capital letters, we had it LAUNCHED BIG that you need a Grand Opening. That if you can´t have a home run you shouldn’t even try.

I blame it on Gilligan, on The Brady Bunch and on The Beverly Hillbillies. It goes all the way from there to The Odd Couple, all the sitcom we grew up with. The Flintstones which is sort of like The Honeymooners but in prehistoric times. The Brady Bunch: “Here is the story of a lovely lady…”. 

All these shows had a lot in common. One of them was this: the first forty-five to sixty seconds was a theme song that explained in detail the entire storyline of the show. Even though the show after commercials was only twenty-four minutes long, the network insisted that they spend a minute to catch everybody up.

That’s make no sense. Why would you do that? So it’s a mystery then. 

Why invest so much of this precious time in repeating a long theme song to make sure that no one was confused.

Well, that’s not that much of a mystery if you understand that before the internet and cable there were only three TV channels. Half the country was watching three channels. And if people switched from one to the other you’d lose them, maybe forever.

The show was live, that was it. Once and done. And so you got conservative because you needed the grand opening, the big win, every time.

Where did this idea come from? Because it doesn’t line up with the way that Civilization evolved. For a really long time if you bought something you were buying it from someone that you already knew. The people in the village were the people in the village. 

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, they didn’t need a hype man, an advance man. They didn’t need somebody pushing for the big grand opening. They were there yesterday and they were gonna be there tomorrow.

I think it’s worth understanding it came from the Carnival, from the traveling salesman, from the medicine man, from the people going village to village. They sent their hype man upfront, their advance man. They knew they only have one day, two days, four days to make the sale, and then they were leaving town again. If you blew it, it was live, you weren’t going to get another chance.

And so the grand opening, and so the need to pigeonhole yourself. The need to get it right the first time. To go big or stay home.

The carnies, the guys in the Carnival called it a bally. The bally wish the stick, the theme song, the thing you say over and over again, to make sure that every single time you interact with somebody you can make the sale.

Here’s one from a bunch of years ago trying to get people to go in and see the piranhas: “Get your tickets and come in. Killers of the Amazon, can devore a cow in a matter of seconds, can leave nothing but the bare bones. First time shown in your city. And you may never have the chance to see it again. Alive, alive, alive.”

As you can see the goal isn’t to edify, to educate, to create an environment that you gonna come back again and again. The goal is to take your money and then leave town. 

And this idea that we´ve got to be in a hurry, spread from that to the mass marketing of TV to the movies. It used to be that a movie could run for three months, six months, nine months in the theatres before it went away, usually forever. 

But then TV come along, and TV advertising, and what the movie studios figured out was that they had the chance using TV to have really big opening weekends. And so they spent a fortune on Thursday nights advertising movies so the people would see them on the weekend.

What they discovered was that giving away all the attractions on the TV ads and more important making a movie that lent itself to TV advertising didn’t lead to movies that we’re gonna play in the theatres for months. Three days, ten days, twenty days, gone.

And so the same thing happened that had happened to TV. We need to hype it. We need to promo it. We don’t have very much time, we wanna reach the largest number of people.

Let’s fast-forward just a little bit more to Kickstarter which I think should be called Kick finisher. The reason it has to be called Kickfinisher is that in order to make a Kickstarter succeed, except for the obvious edge cases, the random one in ten thousand (to get lucky, someone has to get lucky), in order to make a Kickstarter succeed you need to begin with the following: you need to begin with people who trust you.

A Kickstarter is the end of a multi-month or multi-year effort to earn trust and attention. It’s not a grand opening, it’s grand ending.

That what you get to do when you make a successful Kickstarter is go to people, the edge cases, the loyal ones, the true fans, go to those people and say: I’m ready for you now, we’re doing a Kickstarter

Those Kickstarter‘s always work. If you have a sufficient following before you begin they always work. 

So it’s not a lottery. It’s not a chance to grab a brass ring. 

That is, Kevin Kelly has pointed out one thousand true fans is sufficient to make it as a creative person. One thousand people who will listen to you, who will pay you, who will show up, who care about you, who will miss you if you are gone. Only a thousand. 

So let’s compare that to the grand opening thinking of I need ten million people to watch this TV show or it doesn’t work. That’s a ten thousand X difference. 

You don’t need to play that game. You can play your own game. And your game is slow and steady. Daring, risky, thrilling but slow and steady.

Because the goal isn’t to hype your way with an advance man using a bally, day after day, to get one more group to give you a dollar, to see your piranha. 

No, you’re playing a different game. The game we’re playing doesn’t need a grand opening. It needs a grand finishing.

There must be an alternative. 

How did Wikipedia grow without a grand opening? What about Harry Potter or The Martian? What about Fifty Shades of Grey or Microsoft or KiVa, or the Union Square Cafe? The list goes on and on. 

Most of the brands, most of the organizations that we care about, they didn’t have a grand opening, they didn’t have a hype man, they didn’t launch with a bang. 

There must be another way.

The alternative is called “First, ten”. 

Everyone knows ten people. Everyone has ten people who will listen to them. Tell ten people. See what happens. If those people tell others, the word will spread. If they don’t, make better work.

Take your novel. Send it to forty people. Forty people who trust you and like you. See what happens. Maybe they’ll share it. If they share it, it’ll spread. If it spreads, it’ll reach more people. Sooner or later someone will reach out to you and ask you to write something else.

First, ten. Ten by ten by ten. You put an idea in the world, not everyone in the world, just the people who want to hear it, and then maybe it spreads. And if it spreads, it grows. And if it grows, you’ve got to do it again.

Almost twenty years ago I was at a conference, there was some cool people there, and we’re going around the circle introducing each other and a guy says: “My name is Sergey and I have this little search engine, called Google.” And at the time a lot of people knew about Google but it wasn’t the world wide phenomenal we know today. And then he said something profound. 

He said: “We don’t do any outbound marketing promotion or hype. And let me tell you why. We figure that one day everyone will use Google. And we also know that everyday Google gets better. And since we’re getting better everyday we’re in no hurry to have people use it for the first time, because tomorrow or the day after that is soon enough, cuz it’ll be better. They’ll have a better first impression. We’re in no hurry. Instead, we’re gonna make the best thing that we know how to make, and wait for people to tell others.”

But it’s not just digital stuff. There was a little tiny restaurant in the East Village of Manhattan, years ago, called Momofuku. No one has ever heard of it. You can walk on it any time. Its guy named David Chung, sort of crazy, had a little counter and a bunch of tables. 

And my family and I used to go there sometimes for lunch on the weekend, and there’s all this rules, you couldn’t leave this out, no subtractions, there is no additions, and eat what you eat that’s all you get.

But what happened day by day is the word spread. It got to the point that Yogi Berra said where no one goes there cuz it’s so crowded. And it turned into an entire empire. 

Or consider the amazing podcast 99% invisible from Roman Mars. How did you hear about it? Did you hear about it from those Super Bowl ads they ran? Of course not. There were dozens and dozens of episodes of 99% invisible before you heard about it. 

Because Roman took the same approach. How do I make something for a few, something special, something that is really hard to pigeonhole, something new.

Or consider a piece of software like Dropbox. I don’t recall ever seen an ad for Dropbox until just recently. Instead what Dropbox did was build a service that was important to share. Not just to talk about it but to use it with other people.

Or my friend Jill Greenberg, one of the most talented and well-known photographers in the world. How did Jill get there? She didn’t get there by being picked by somebody to push her to the masses. She got there by making corky art. By saying: “I don’t shoot pictures like everybody else, I shoot pictures like me.” And so her photographs are distinctive, they don’t fit in. 

Early on lot and lot of people didn’t buy the photographs she wanted to sell to them. The magazines, the commercial shoots that she needed it. No, she was too far out there for the masses to adopt. So she did the smart thing. She didn’t complain or conform, instead she made something that the masses didn’t want. 

She made something for the early adopters. She refused to pigeonhole it. She didn’t have to hype it. Cuz the early adopters, they’re looking for something on the edge and she had something on the edge. 

And then of course it spreads, right? The first thing that happens is the art director says: “Get me Jill Greenberg.” And of course, the art director says: “Get me someone who looks like Jill Greenberg.” And then you know you’ve made it.

The goal here, when we are making our best work, the work we seek to make, is not to listen to the people in the middle of the curve. Cuz the people in the middle of the curve aren’t  listening to us.

The goal is not The Flintstones or The Brady Bunch or The Beverly Hillbillies. The goal is to go to the fringe, to the edge, to the people who are listening, to the people who care. 

No with a bally but with something real. To invite them in and tell them something that they didn’t know before. To bring them something that’s a little more complicated. Then an NBC executive wouldn’t gone for. To take them on a journey from here to there. 

Not with a grand opening but with a small opening. With a whisper. Here, I made this. Here, I made this. That’s our work.

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This is the first episode so I don’t have your questions yet about episode zero cuz there wasn’t an episode zero. Instead we’re kean you guys up to give me feedback and questions about this episode wich I’ll answer next time. And while we’re waiting to hear from you, here’s a question for you and your team:

How would it be different if you weren’t in the hype business, if you weren’t focused on hoopla, and the ratings, and how many likes you have right this minute? 

How would you build your product or your service or your cause if your goal was to make it deeper and more elegant, if complexity wasn’t a challenge, it was a goal? 

What would happen if instead of seeking to make noise you decided to do something that mattered, instead? 

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If you want to submit a question just visit akimbo.link and click on the appropriate button. 


Seth Godin

Transcription: Maya Vázquez

HT Luana Budani