A friend shared this video from Derek Sivers recently. I’d seen a (different) version of same material a couple of years before on Sivers’ YouTube channel, and was reminded how much I’d enjoyed it then.
He talks about the history of CD Baby, how he came to sell it for $22 Million, and how he gave it all away. I’ll let him tell that story.
The 2015 version of the presentation at Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Summit, below, is a timeless reminder to those of us who are obsessed with counting the future and setting goals about what we want to do and how that will look.
It’s not so much about unconventional success, as the unconventional way of getting there. I don’t know that I agree with everything, but the message is to be pushed to think, rather than pushed to follow — a point that Sivers echoes himself in the video.
Don’t pursue something that someone said you should want, instead of what you really want.
(All the quotes in this piece are from Derek Sivers, by the way, from the video)
Derek Sivers’ Uncommon Sense
The video isn’t really anti-goal-setting, in fact, Derek Sivers doesn’t specifically mention goals (although I’m guessing they don’t drive what he does). He talks about what he did, and what he means when he refers to ‘uncommon sense’.
Here are eight of the principles I extracted from watching the video — a quick read if you like to skim and, if you’re intrigued, I encourage you to give the video a chance.
1. Give it Time
He started his ‘little’ website, CD Baby, in 1997, and he said that by 2002, five years later, it really felt like it was turning into something.
There were milestones along the way — thousands of musicians, customers, staff, some senior hirings — but nothing felt like it was ‘real’, until it was.
Ten years in it felt too big, too much responsibility.
The next year he sold for $22 million.
Lesson: don’t get frustrated a few weeks in; give it time.
2. Know ‘Why’ You’re Doing It
Most of us go with the flow most of the time.
We do what we think is ‘normal’ without really thinking about what’s important to us. That’s OK, but admit it and don’t imitate what everyone else is doing, or what you read in this year’s popular book.
The most important thing (according to Sivers, and what’s not to agree with?), is that you should avoid the deathbed regret that you did what someone else wanted, rather than what lit you up.
Optimise your life for what you want.
To do this we have to know what matters to us most in business.
Is it money? Fame? Recognition? Freedom? Something else? Know it so well that you focus on it, that you choose it, and that you don’t diffuse and diversify your efforts.
Learn to say no. Learn that you will need to let go; perhaps you can’t have money and fame. If you have to make a choice, which is it?
Be aware that, whatever you choose, people will always tell you that you’re wrong. It’s inevitable — they think you could do it differently, better.
Maybe you could but stick to your guns, and choose what matters to you.
Lesson: if you hate it, don’t do it. Do the thing that you will regret not doing.
3. Nobody Knows the Future
As an economist, I find it astonishing how much weight people put on forecasts — business, economic, weather… we know they’re wrong more times than they’re right. The most accurate forecast of what will happen tomorrow is actually what happened yesterday.
Counter-intuitive as that may be, the future won’t turn out the way you expect. And, if that’s true, why do we spend so much time and effort trying to plan for it?
Sivers prefers to think like this:
Don’t commit to one idea of the future, commit to a problem that you want to solve.
And there are many ways you can solve a problem.
It’s OK to let go of attachment to what any specific solution might look like. If you’re committed to telling stories that people love, or you’re committed (as he was at CD Baby) to help musicians get their work in front of a wider audience, then go with the flow of any possible solution.
You might find that video is your medium rather than writing, live workshops rather than online courses, one-to-one, deep coaching, becoming a distributor for iTunes. It’s all the same way of solving the problem you want to solve.
Lesson: the future won’t look the way you expect. Don’t keep aiming for something that isn’t real.
4. No Plan Survives First Contact With the Customer
What you think you’re going to sell might actually be different to what you do sell. Be prepared to adapt when people tell you what they want.
In Sivers’ case, he started CD Baby as a payment processor for musicians, they became a ‘record store’ when someone asked, and then a distributor when Apple came knocking.
Where you end up won’t look the way you expected.
Back to the previous point though — you’ll still be doing the work you want to do, solving the problem you want to solve.
Lesson: listen to what your customers are asking you to sell them.
5. Not Everything Needs To Be ‘Revolutionary’
CD Baby had a very simple business model that took it from zero to $10 Million – one fee to set up the CD online, and one fee for each CD sold. Plus they paid the artists weekly.
They only call it a revolution after you’re successful.
Five years in, CD Baby started to get press coverage for revolutionising the music business. They didn’t start out with the idea of revolution — they started out just providing a service to friends. Not everything has to have drama.
Serving people better – often that’s all there is to it.
Lesson: forget about disrupting the status quo, just do good stuff.
6. If It’s Not a Hit, Switch
We know how tough it can be to face rejection, and how we have to be consistent to get to where we want. There’s a difference between persistently trying to sell something that no-one wants to buy, and consistently doing your work, week in week out.
Derek Sivers talks about his years as a musician, and how hard it was. “When I started CD Baby it felt like I’d written a hit song,” he says. “Now I know what it feels like, I know the difference between easy, and hard.”
It reminds me of an interview I heard with Michael Morpurgo recently — the children’s author of the hit film War Horse. The book didn’t sell brilliantly when he wrote it, but that didn’t stop him writing books.
And then someone came along and wanted to make it into an animated stage play. “Great,” he said, “I didn’t think they would actually do it!” But they did, and , later the phone rang, and it was Steven Spielberg asking if he could make War Horse into a film.
When that book wasn’t selling so well, and even when it was, he didn’t stop writing.
You might think your idea is brilliant, that your book is the best thing you’ve ever written, but if it people aren’t buying, let it go and write something else.
Back to Sivers,
Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not persistently pushing what’s not working.
Lesson: not everyone will understand or share your vision. Let it go and move on to the next thing. You’ll know when it becomes easy.
7. Make it Early, Make it Dirty
Just get something out and see how people respond. We know this from The Lean Startup, the idea of the MVP — minimum viable product.
In the video (just press play if you haven’t watched it yet), Sivers talks about someone he met who, for two years, had been trying to get funding for a music recommendation service. They were so focused on the product they neglected doing any testing.
Why don’t you just turn around to someone at a concert, ask him or her what they like to listen to, and then give them a suggestion? To Sivers that’s the 0.1 version of a music recommendation service.
It’s the same with a story or a book idea. Before you spend months on it, why not try it out on your partner over dinner, with the children at bedtime, talk to the stranger on the bus. If it lands, write it. If it doesn’t, tweak it.
Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, is quoted as saying, “If you’re not embarrassed by your first launch, then you’re launching too late.”
For Derek Sivers, ideas on their own are worthless; the value gets added when you execute them.
Lesson: just do it. Ship, as Seth Godin says. Get something out because then you can learn and then you can improve.
8. Small Things Make People Happy
The final part of the video is more specific to CD Baby and the quirky things that they did that got musicians coming to them, staying with them, and recommending them to their friends.
It matters less what these are (you can watch the video for the stories), than to know it’s about doing the things that humanise you or your company. Forgetting the facelessness of the internet and reminding your customers that you are a real person.
Most people don’t, and you’ll be the one who stands out.
Lesson: be human, be weird, and, remember, it’s the small things that make people ecstatically happy.
Are You Ready to Ditch Goals?
I’m not sure that I’m quite as unattached to planning for the future as Derek Sivers — it makes me a little jittery to have nothing fixed, even though I know it’s a false idol. And I wonder if Derek was as unattached when he was growing the company, or if it’s an approach that’s evolved for him too?
But I get it.
I understand that we can’t predict the future, that customers like what they like, not what we want them to like, and that success is about showing up and following the path of what is working, rather than forcing what is not.
If we don’t set goals, if we do the work, maybe, just maybe, we’ll get more done and have more fun doing it.
I’m open to the experiment. Question is — are you?
Do you set goals? What do they look like? And what did you think of the video? I’d love you to let me know on Facebook.