Want to start something? Seth Godin is your man. As the below article from Darling Issue 14 reveals, his books are a go-to for our team. His perspective on marketing shifts a subject that can sometimes feel gimmicky or stale into an empowered way of building a team of people who share an idea.
If you have a vision that you’re passionate about, then look no further. Seth’s interview is sure to get the wheels turning.
Seth Godin: On How Marketing Works, On How to Start a Movement
Interview by Sarah Dubbeldam
Somehow, Seth Godin always comes up in Darling staff meetings because we look to his writings about the way ideas spread, marketing, leadership and changing everything. Godin is the author of 18 books that have been best-sellers around the world (some you might know include “Linchpin,” “Tribes,” “The Dip” and “Purple Cow”). His blog is one of the most popular in the world and his newest book, “What To Do When It’s Your Turn,” is already a best-seller.
Sign up for his emails—we promise your mind will expand—and enjoy his advice below.
Sarah Dubbeldam: So, I heard that you love being a camp counselor. I was also a camp counselor and just thinking about the magic of camp made me want to ask you: What did camp and the youth teach you about business?
Seth Godin: Summer camp completely changed my life and continues to change my life to this day. I went from 1970 to 1982. I went back in 1990 and I co-directed the camp and I’ve been back 22 times since then. It’s a very important thing for me.
Every business I have run in the real world has, at some level, tried to simulate the magic of what I found up in Algonquin Park—the magic mostly of challenging people to build something bigger than themselves. Not in a competitive “I’m better than you” way, but in the way of conquering our fears … or not even conquering but dancing with our fears to become better than ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a canoe or at a keyboard, it’s exactly the same deal.
SD: Such truth. What did camp teach you about marketing?
SG: In terms of the marketing lessons, the way Camp Arowhon works is it’s in a national park and they have canoeing, sailing, riding and tennis and all these other things, but you don’t have to do anything. You just have to do something. As a result, if you’re an instructor—and I was a canoeing instructor, the third best canoeing instructor in the history of the world—you need people to come canoeing or else you fail. But you can’t force them to come, and canoeing isn’t as exciting as sailing, so how do you get people to come? That’s not something you do by buying advertising. It’s something you do by telling a story that resonates with people.
So the thing I learned when I was 17, I did for all those years in a row: “How do you interact with people so they tell their friends? How do you create new work that is worth talking about?” That’s what I have been doing ever since!
SD: I think that there are times in life when we’re heading down a standard path toward something and we just stop and say, “No, I’m not going to go this way, I’m going to go this way and take this risk instead.” Was there a pivotal moment that put you on the trajectory you’re on now?
SG: I think there were a few, and one that I would point out. I was a book packager, which is a lot like being a magazine publisher except for books. So my job was to invent books, sell them to book publishers and then build them. It took five, six, seven years before we were self-sufficient. At that point, I had 10 employees and a huge client that counted for a third of our business.
If we had stuck with this client, we would have tripled again. But they were jerks, and they were difficult, and they sent lawyers to our meetings and were just grinding us up. In that moment, I had to choose between becoming the company that was good at dealing with difficult clients, or instead free us up to focus on the work that mattered to us. All 10 of us took a vote and it was unanimous, so we fired them, gave them all the rights to the project and lost an enormous chunk of our business. But, in the six months that followed, we got it all back plus more because we were so freed and enthusiastic. So I have left a lot of money on the table over the years making choices I’m proud of, and I wouldn’t do it any other way.
I have left a lot of money on the table over the years making choices I’m proud of, and I wouldn’t do it any other way.
SD: My favorite thing about your writing is your ability to be very concise yet powerful with your words. I’m curious if that has always been your style or if this is something that has been highly practiced and learned in your life?
SG: Well, my high school yearbook teacher wrote in my yearbook that I was the “bane of her existence” and I would “never amount to anything.”
SD: Are you serious? [laughing]
SG: Yes. So, I’m not ready to say that I was born a good writer. In college I took precisely one English class. I think that, instead, what I have honed is caring a great deal about the change I am trying to make in the person who is engaging with my work. The reason most people have trouble writing is that they have trouble speaking, and they have trouble speaking because they can’t clearly state the change they’re trying to make.
A perfect symptom of this is somebody who is a public speaker that goes over his or her time. You don’t need to go over your time. You can read the Gettysburg Address in four minutes. You just need to know what you want to say and who you want to change. People are unwilling to do the hard work of figuring that part out before they start writing.
SD: You focus a lot on integrity and authenticity in marketing and business. What has personally made those two attributes so important to you? Was there something or someone in your life who built that into you?
SG: Well, first I’ll put a little parenthesis here, which is (and I wrote a post about this): Authenticity is largely misunderstood. I don’t think any of us have an “authentic self.” The last time we were authentic is when we were sitting in diapers filled with poop. Ever since then, we’ve been putting on a show to help us get what we want. We shave our beard in the morning, or we put on an outfit or we talk nicely to someone we’d rather kick in the shins. We do those things because that’s what it is to be a civilized human being.
So, I’m a little hesitant about the word authenticity. I am really obsessed, though, with people who keep their promises, and with acting as if the person I’m with knows what I know. I didn’t have to get into marketing. There are a lot of things I’ve done in my life. But if I was going to be pegged as this marketing guy, I wanted marketing to be something I was proud of. The marketing I’m ashamed of is payday loans, and people getting tricked into doing stuff, and telemarketers calling old people and selling them stuff they don’t understand, and sweepstakes that pretend if you buy something you have a better chance to win, and on and on and on. This is marketing that I cannot abide. If I’m going to be in a tribe with the other marketers, I want those other people to leave.
SD: So, at Darling, we’re really trying to change the way that culture views beauty and women and the way that women are marketed to. We say that we’re more than a magazine, we’re a movement—and so we’re essentially trying to start a revolution. I’m wondering, in your opinion, what really makes a social revolution possible? Can the needle really be moved by a small group of people?
SG: [Revolution] only happens from a small group of people, and it’s totally possible. We need to understand where the needle is if we want to move it. Where the needle is in one simple sentence: “People like me do things like this.” What I mean by that is, if you went to Bareilly, India, it would never occur to you to wear stiletto heels because you’re surrounded by people who would laugh at you. So the people in Bareilly say to themselves, “People like me, we dress like this!”
If you go to a wedding, you’re not going to wear jeans and a T-shirt because people who go to weddings say, “People like me, when we go to a wedding, we dress like this.” That is the definition of culture. Culture is which group we think we’re a part of and how we think that group behaves in a situation “like this.” So marketers—good marketers—aren’t evil.
Good marketers, though, are doing things that work. So, if running a cosmetic ad that makes women feel unattractive until they buy their product works, unfortunately, a lot of people are going to run that ad. The way to get people to stop running that ad is to have it stop working. The way it’s going to stop working is when “women like us” don’t buy things from ads like that. We need folks like you to stand up and say, “We are the voice of people like us, and as the voice of people like us, I’m reminding you, in your own words, that people like us do this, we don’t do that.”
You just need to know what you want to say and who you want to change. People are unwilling to do the hard work of figuring that part out before they start writing.
SD: What is the thing that you find most exhilarating about being a thought leader?
SG: No one has ever asked me that before, so give me a second. [pause] They gave everyone a microphone about 20 years ago, and a lot of people don’t remember what life was like before that. But everyone with a laptop, everyone with a smartphone, has exactly the same platform as everybody else. But as big media dies, this idea that we all have a microphone is truly changing everything. I just feel super privileged that my microphone is hooked up to speakers that a lot of people are listening to. I don’t think that’s going to last forever, but while it’s lasting, I’m trying to do work I’m proud of, and that I find exhilarating.
SD: What’s the hardest part about having a microphone?
SG: The hardest part is opportunity cost. Every time you do something, it means you didn’t do something else. But I’m really, daily, aware of the experience I had in the short time I was at Yahoo. At Yahoo there was an email just called “email@example.com,” and if you sent an email to that address, everyone at Yahoo got it. So, regularly, there would be an email in your inbox like, “I have two extra tickets to the San Jose Sharks game, who wants to buy them?” So, someone had just used a platform and the attention of 3,000 hardworking people so they could unload $80 worth of hockey tickets. They wasted it. I don’t want to waste it.
SD: In your opinion, what’s the primary character trait that every leader should possess?
SG: Oh, I think it has to be trust. Both trusting your judgment, but also trusting the people who are going to help you get to the place you want to go to.
SD: Last one. Is there anything ahead in your life that you’re afraid of?
SG: If not every single day, I’m really afraid of wasting the privilege that I just mentioned. It is a fairly consuming thought. I don’t want to waste that. I don’t think I’m particularly afraid of dying. I’m not afraid of being 100 years old. I am thrilled at the impact I’ve been able to make personally and professionally, and I’d love to keep doing that, but I don’t want to waste it.