Influences: Seth Godin

I have this influences series which I began a few years ago. I began it because I think it is very important to both understand and respect the influences which brought you to where you are in life. It’s been a while since I contributed to the series, but today I’d like to continue with Seth Godin.

Seth, as he is known, is a rather latter stage influence in my life. He’s been well-known in internet circles for over 20 years. Maybe I heard of his name earlier, maybe I didn’t. I certainly didn’t have an accurate view of what it is he does and why he is so famous. Today I want to highlight my favourite learnings from Seth Godin.

Background

Seth is a highly prolific author, perhaps a result of his earlier career as a book packager. I have read quite a few of his books. He has a policy of quickly framing an idea and developing it, rather than procrastinating and polishing. In aggregate I find his messages to be brilliant, but of course there are some duds out there. In the following I want to highlight four of the most valuable resources and insights which I have found in his work

I first learned about Seth Godin from two podcasts I listened to a lot about 5 years ago (Unmistakable Creative, Design Matters). He is essentially a very similar character to Eric Ries of Lean Start-up fame. Ries is younger and has had ridiculous levels of popular success. But Godin has a much higher hit-rate and a true track record of success. Both of them encourage a testing-based approach to creating a company.

The Start-up School Podcast

This is a completely under-recognised resource. Seth did a Start-up School for entrepreneurs and recorded the sessions. In the podcast he packages 15 episodes extracted from these sessions.

The quality of the editing is low. The purpose here was to provide an audio copy of the sessions. Certain private details have been edited out. But this is by far the best single resource which I have found to-date of the thought processes of a top entrepreneurial thinker.

The Ship-It Journal

I first encountered the ship-it concept in the above mentioned podcast. In a nutshell, Seth claims that most people never ship their work. Many people work for a while on ideas. But only rare individuals actually ship a product (or creative endeavour).

I agree with him. I had never realised how endemic this problem is until he highlighted it. But I had already encountered it in my academic training. Most people I have worked with like to think and think and think, but hate to sit down and actually formalise their ideas and risk suffering from negative feedback. This problem is even worse outside of academic circles. Most people want to point to the number of plates they have spinning rather than try one idea and see it fail. Anybody who has every interviewed for a job will know what they are being evaluated on.

The Ship-it Journal is a document which Seth has produced which should be used at a kick-off of a project. I have used it on commercial projects. The buy-in from the team was initially skeptical, but they did get it after a while. And many of Seth’s most important product ideas are encapsulated in the journal.

The Dip

The dip is not a concept which has only been developed by Seth Godin. There are similar concepts in career development works by Cal Newport, such as So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and even in Designing Your Life. However, I find the essence of the concept much better presented in Seth’s book The Dip.

The basic idea is that things worth doing follow a characteristic pattern. Initial practice improves returns. Then there is a dip in which increasing efforts actually just end up net costing you relative to the effort involved. And finally there is an upswing where top-level commitment / expertise / whatever leads to outsized returns.

What is particularly nice is that Seth visually demonstrates not just dip scenarios but also the other common scenarios. Not everything which feels like a dip might one day lead to the outsized returns. Sometimes there is just a diminishing returns scenario. It is important to recognise the circumstance.

Not being average

I couldn’t think of a snappy title for this section. Believe it or not this is the single most important takeaway which I have from Seth’s works and yet I have not found a snappily titled book about it. Rather this concept is so important that it permeates all of his work.

This is nothing to do with excellence. If anything a focus on excellence is often the enemy of shipping products. Rather this is a focus on avoiding a box-ticking mentality to product development.

Think of it in the following manner:

You are entering a product space and the current competitors compete with one another where one competitor is the quality brand, one is the speedy brand and the third is the cheaper brand. A buyer knows where each of these products lies and can make purchasing decisions accordingly.

Almost every team I have ever attempted to mentor starts out looking at a scenario like this and says, well then we have to compete with product 1 on quality, with product 2 on speed and with product 3 on price…. This is nonsense!

You need to differentiate yourself!

You need to look like something different, which purchasers are looking for, and not go head to head with incumbents on their on turf. This is not to say that you cannot come up with a higher-quality process and then compete with the first company alone on quality terms. But you cannot compete with all three unless you switch the axes of comparison.

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