Art and Business

Jessica Lessin wrote an interesting bit in The Information‘s newsletter last Saturday.  I couldn’t find a link to the piece online, so I am including the whole excerpt below.  Jessica’s riff is the kind of piece that I love, because it is a universal struggle told through the tech lens of Silicon Valley.

In the past few weeks, as some of the Valley’s most mature internet companies have faced crisis after crisis, there’s been a theme circulating that these companies, and Facebook in particular, has lost their product way.

This chatter peaked when journalists and others suggested that Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom should run Facebook, in part, because he’s a fabulous product leader.

It’s an oh-so-familiar theme in the Valley where every VC and entrepreneur you meet will tell you “product wins” and that the quickest way to a $1 billion—or $1 trillion—business is to have your finger on the product pulse. It’s the core tenant of the myth that anyone with the right ah-ha moment in the shower can change the world and become rich in Silicon Valley. All you need is product mojo, and when it’s gone, you’re toast.

There is some truth to this. No one can build a successful company without a product that people want to use. But that product isn’t ultimately why they win—why they become Facebooks or Googles or Microsofts. It’s the systems they build to scale those products and the relentless way they fine-tune those products to maximize their business that ultimately crowns them.

It’s some luck—but mostly execution.

Google didn’t become Google because it built the perfect search experience. It became a $775 billion company because it figured out how to distribute and tune a superior search algorithm and use the cash that spewed off of it to acquire businesses like YouTube, DoubleClick, startups that formed the basis of Google Maps, and Android. Then it used the same system of great engineering and hyper-data-driven refinements to turn those products into global hits too.

Facebook’s detractors like to say that despite its success, it has only created one product: newsfeed, based on the once-novel idea that people wanted to be entertained with a stream of updates from people, businesses and publishers. I see it differently. Facebook’s leaders had excellent instincts in creating newsfeed but their talents were in scaling it and refining it endlessly so that people spend hours a day on it.

Criticizing Facebook as a “one-trick pony” fundamentally misses why it is Facebook. Also, if these companies were special because of their magic touch, why would they have long laundry lists of failures from Paper to Google+?

The product spark myth has been deeply entrenched through companies’ founding stories. Why? Because it makes their leaders seem superhuman. And who wants to work for a mere human?

Remember when you couldn’t read a story about Uber that didn’t mention that one fated Paris evening when the soon-to-be founders realized: “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could get a limo with the press of a button?” But Uber isn’t Uber because of that evening. Plenty of other entrepreneurs had the same idea. Uber just hustled its way to a bigger network of drivers, faster.

I am sure I am going to hear from many subscribers this morning telling me how wrong I am and that I just don’t “get it” because I am not a product person. (I am not, by the way, by either definition of the term. But I do work with some wonderful ones.)

But I hope that I can convince at least some people to change their minds about what makes great technology companies great.

The product-as-genius myth creates false hope for companies that seem just one good product idea away from a turnaround. (Snap comes to mind at the moment.)

More importantly, it perpetuates Silicon Valley exceptionalism—the idea that tech companies aren’t like other companies. This mentality has created the blind spots around privacy, safety, and content responsibility that are coming back to haunt Facebook, Google, Twitter and many more.

So now would be a great time to abandon the notion and admit that Silicon Valley is great because of the people whose ideas and efforts scale and grow great products. In other words, tech companies are just like every other company.

Please dear authors, Jessica is right. Always remember – you need a good idea AND you need to be able to build on that idea. Daily effort, insight and some luck give us the opportunity to be next to good ideas as they arise. Daily effort, building an audience, and scaling your work creates traction. You need both to create bestsellers.

The Two Objectives

Beowulf Sheehan oftens takes photographs of writers. He wrote an article for Literary Hub about what he learned from taking pictures of that cadre.

Sheehan mentions advice he got from fellow photographer Nigel Parry:

 “With each shoot, make the picture the client needs and, if you can, the picture you want.”

That is wise advice in many circumstances.

In particular, authors should do the same with the books they write.

Figure out what the reader needs and, if you can, write the book you want.

Michael Schrage – Author of Innovator’s Hypothesis (Better Books Podcast – Episode Three)

Better Books Podcast Tile EP3

In this episode, I talk with Michael Schrage about designing customers and running experiments in the world of book publishing.

Michael Schrage is a visiting fellow at MIT and the author of several books including Who do you want your customers to become? and The Innovator’s Hypothesis.

In the first half of the interview, we talk about an better way to think about customers and why cheap experiments are than good ideas. In the latter half, we apply these ideas to readers, authors and the world of book publishing.

Enjoy!

Books By Michael Schrage:

Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?

The Innovator’s Hypothesis: How Cheap Experiments Are Worth More than Good Ideas

10 Networking Questions That Work Every Time

You will find this list and lots of other amazing advice in Endless Referrals by Bob Burg.
  1. How did you get your start in the widget business?
  2. What do you enjoy most about your profession?
  3. What separates you and your company from the competition? (permission to brag)
  4. What advice would you give someone just starting in the widget business? (the mentor question)
  5. What one thing would you do with your business if you knew you could not fail?
  6. What significant changes have you seen take place in your profession through the years?
  7. What do you see as the coming trends in the widget business?
  8. Describe the strangest or funniest incident you have experienced in your business.
  9. What ways have you found to be the most effective for promoting your business?
  10. What one sentence would you like people to use in describing the way you do business?
AND…
How can I know if someone I am speaking to is a good prospect for you?

Tips for Better Titles

  1. The title needs to clearly describe what the book is about – I know this sounds obvious. And It is! Yet, too many books fail this most basic test. Clarity is the most important quality for a book title. Most books never get picked up because the reader doesn’t know what the book is about. So, avoid jargon and made up words. And yes, Freakonomics is a made up word but we immediately know what the authors mean.
  2. Great book titles signal the change – Good To Great. Getting Things Done. Daring Greatly. Lean In. There is no question what is going to be different after you are done reading the book. These are very direct routes to the change.
  3. Great book titles signal positive change – Books are paper devices filled with hope.
  4. Subtitles deliver the promise – If titles are about being clear, then subtitles are about making promises. What is the reader going to get? This is the _So What?_ of the pitch.
  5. Never repeat words in both the title and the subtitle – Use different words to create variety and add more meaning.
  6. The best titles use three word or less– We are all lazy and don’t like to remember long titles. And if there is a long title, the public will shortened it anyway. And this rule is primarily for non-fiction; other genres follow different conventions
  7. Use an odd number of syllables – Titles sound better ending on a downbeat. Try it. 90% of your favorite titles will have 3, 5 or 7 syllables.

Books Can Change Form

They can become:

  • Recorded as An Audiobook
  • Rejacketed with a New Cover for a Special Audience
  • Shortened into A Book Summary
  • Lengthened into A Trilogy
  • Translated into other languages
  • Composed as an FAQ
  • Adapted as A Graphic Novel
  • Shot as A Video
  •  Laid out as A Magazine
  • Published as A Newspaper
  • Divided out onto A Deck of Cards
  • Released as An App
  • Extended into A Workbook
  • Constructed as An Assessment
  • Illustrated as A Poster
  • Printed as A T-Shirt
  • Die-cast as A Pin
  • Converted into A Training Class
  • Presented As A Slidedeck
  • Delivered as A Speech
  • Scripted into A Movie
  • Staged as A Musical [it sounds crazy until you say Hamilton]
  • Coded as Software
  • Made Into Other Art
  • Molded as Vinyl Dolls
  • Shipped In A Milk Carton [also sound crazy until you read Seth Godin’s story]

Eyes and Ears

Colbert-Gladwell

I was watching a segment from The Stephen Colbert Show, where Malcolm Gladwell visits to promote the launch of his podcast Revisionist History. Colbert asks him why he wanted to create a podcast and Gladwell replies:

This is what my friend Charles always says, ‘You think with your eyes and you feel with your ears.’

After a quick Colbert joke he continues:

If you write a book, you can communicate very complicated ideas and people will grasp them, but you can’t move people emotionally…it is very hard.

The whole segment is great, but it kicked off me thinking a bunch of things.

  • How true is that? Memoir is a pretty effective at generating emotion and connection in readers.
  • This American Life, The Moth, RadioLab, WTF and Revisionist History all generate emotion with their amazing auditory storytelling.
  • Aren’t photographs good at conveying emotion visually?
  • Does this push even further towards the power of having the author narrate their audiobooks?
  • Should books and audiobooks have the same content?

I am convinced that good books draw us in using both thinking and feeling, but now I am thinking about what makes one form working better than another for certain kind of material.

Lucky Number Seven

In the final weeks of being seventeen, I moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to start college as a mechanical engineering undergrad.

In the final weeks of being twenty-seven, I was working on the last details of my wedding in Columbus, Ohio.

By thirty-seven, we were living outside Milwaukee, had three kids and I was turning in the manuscript for The 100 Best Business Books of All Time.

Today, I turned forty-seven. This last decade has been defined by our move to Portland, Oregon. Amy went back to school, graduated and started her energy medicine practice. Our kids grew up here. I started a publishing practice. I started a zen practice.

Been wondering today what I’ll be writing when I turn fifty-seven.

Noticing What You Read

A few months ago, I noticed the songs I listen to give a view into how I am seeing the world. For a long time, I loved a good song about self-doubt. Lately the mix has been around positivity and growth. It’s interesting seeing myself drawn unconsciously to music ahead of the work I need to do in my life.

That insight about my listening habits lead me to look around at other parts of my life and what clues might be hiding in plain sight.

With my reading lately, I didn’t notice how much I was reading female authors. There was no plan for this curation, but it is again interesting to see.

Among recent reads are:

  • Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin – A recent NYT article pointed me to the book and its update this year.  The book does a fine job of talking about managing your money and managing the emotions that arise. Both matter.
  • Powerful by Patty McCord – As the former Head of People at Netflix, Patty had a front row seat for the growth and amazing change at the entertainment giant. I believe this is the first book from an executive at Netflix and you get a view into the company.
  • Advice for Future Corpses by Sallie Tisdale – You may not want to read a book about death, but you should. Sallie is a great writer.
  • Business of Being A Writer by Jane Friedman – So much has changed about being a writer and how to pursue it as a profession. Jane’s book is dense with wonderful advice.
  • Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski – This is the best book I have ever read about sex. It’s not scintillating or racy. It covers the biology, the physiology, and the psychology in a positive, clear way.
  •  Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat – A wonderfully different approach to cooking and the book is beautiful.
  • Pencil Me In by Christina Wodtke – I have never met a sketch note / visual thinking book I didn’t like.  This book is a wonderful compilation of original and complied material from other experts.

Have you noticed anything in what you have been reading lately?

The Mary Roach Approach

Mary Roach writes books about the science of being human.

The titles are one word and each offers a hint of humor.

Early in her career, she was a copywriter and then worked in PR for the San Francisco Zoo. As a freelance writer, Mary found the stories about science were always interesting.  For the books she writes, she looks for a combination of science, history and humor. She also says she had no idea she’d have a career writing about science.

What can we learn?

  • The titles are crystal clear and memorable.
  • Each topic of each book is universally human and a little surprising.
  • The utility the reader gets is entertainment for the curious mind.
  • The books she writes are uniquely her. Do same in your books.

Bonus: Mary visits with AV Club and talks about one syllable book titles.

 

Book Review – Five Star Billionaire

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I have this long-term desire to find good fiction that takes place in a business setting. When you find the workplace in a story, the boss is mean or the characters are depressed or someone has cheated another out of something they deserve. Business and greed are a good pairing, but I would like to see stories with less suffering.

I just got done reading Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw. I got this book after seeing a review describing it as a good portrait of modern life in China. White Tiger by Aravind Adiga did a good job of that for modern-day India.

One of the main characters uses personal development books to learn the rules of the go-go world of 21st century China. The chapter titles read like self-help tomes: “Move To Where The Money Is”, “Choose The Right Moment To Launch Yourself”, “How To Achieve Greatness.” I’ll admit this pulled me in.  Aw’s observations describing Shanghai and rural Malaysia also drew me into the book.

The narrative is an intertwining story of five loosely connected characters who all want more, are at different stages of getting it, and the circumstances that intervenes. Those circumstances are slow to develop across more than 400 pages and the book loses momentum early in the book. I stayed with it though, because I wanted to see how it turned out.

For me, Five Star Billionaire is sad book about the tragedy of growth, greed and everything we’ll do to get what we want. Others will disagree and see instead the power of motivation to change your circumstances. Both exist in this book.

In the meantime, I’ll keep looking.

Seven Weeks Ago…

I started a daily writing practice seven weeks ago.

You are reading the 35th post in the series.

If you have been following, I have been talking about books and publishing for the most part.

On Fridays, I opened it up a little more to things like tower defense games, World Cup and Sense8.

Writing every day is a good exercise in both becoming a better writer and seeing what has your attention.

Expect more posts 🙂

Act One of Your Business Book

A common problem in the manuscripts I look at is the author moving too fast through the opening section. Like screenplays for movies, business books should have three distinct acts.

Authors too often want to go running through the opening of the book. They assume the reader is with them based on the fact they opened the cover. Authors forget that no one will be there is explain why this book is important. The reader only has what is written on the page.

I like how Michael Arndt, the screenwriter behind Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, describes what the beginning of a film needs to do. He says writers should:

  • Show the main character
  • Show them in their environment
  • Show them doing what they love
  • Then show them their biggest flaw based on their love

If we translate Arndt’s ideas to business books, the author needs to throughly describe the world the reader lives in. What sort of problems are they working with? What is the reader afraid of? What do they want more than anything? And finally, what does the author believe is keeping the reader from their goal?

Readers are coming to your book already with the sense that they have a problem and are not sure how to solve it.

Make sure you are clear about the problem and they will trust you to lead them to a solution.

Triggers

kitkat break

Today is Independence Day in the United States. Flags and fireworks fill stores ahead of the holiday.

For Valentine’s Day, we buy cards and roses.

For Halloween, we purchase costumes and candy.

My family baked me a chocolate cake for Father’s Day (the perfect gift this year).

All of those holidays were triggers for something else.

Jonah Berger talks about the power of triggers in his book Contagious. He says triggers work best when they are frequent and there is a strong link between trigger and the desired action.

The folks at Kit Kat found that people eat the candy bar during a break and with a hot beverage. They built an ad campaign called “a break’s best friend” that connected coffee and Kit Kats. The campaign was a hit and took the brand from $300 million to $500 million a year in sales.

Book publishing uses triggers too. In January, you will see publishers release titles that fit a “New Year, New You” themes like diet and personal empowerment. “Summer Reads” start to appear in May as readers make book picks for mid year vacations to the beach. And in September and October, the “big” books are released as everyone heads into the holiday gift giving season.

Is there something you can tie your book to?

 

 

How Much Time Does It Take To Read a Book?

More and more, I am convinced that books need time stamps.

You can’t look at a book to see you it fits into your life. And that matters more as we measure our lives in smaller and smaller slices of time.

I found this image on Alexis Ohanian’s book Without Their Permission:

IMG_0721

I liked that the image marks how much time it would take to read and when it might fit into the reader’s life. Youtube videos, Audible audiobook tracks, and Netflix movies each tell us total time for that piece of content.

With digital content, we also know how far we are with the elapsed time marker. As we approach a point in time when we need to move to something else, we can easily decide if we should pause or continue.

Books are bad at both of these concepts because books vary so much. It is easy for publishers to shrink or expand the number of words on a page through line spacing or font size. The size of the page can vary too with big implications across hundreds of pages. The language the author uses can affect the speed of reading. Let’s not even talk about how pictures and photos have no real standardization. The bottom line is the physical appearance of a book is not a good way to judge how long it will take to read.

Medium estimates the time it will take to read their articles. This function also available as a plug-in for blogs and others forms of online publishing. Maybe our devices should tell us how much time is left in a chapter based on the data it has collected, based on our reading rate and the reading rate of others for our current book, other books in the genre and all books collectively. This would be a welcome replacement to our old method of paging ahead to find the chapter’s end.

I have been wondering if we should display the time length of the audiobook alongside the page count of print books or maybe even next to the price of the title. This information is more easily gotten as audiobooks are becoming more common. This could be another useful marker for a reader to determine if they want to buy that particular book.

Smart book publishers might even help readers get over the attention anxiety by providing time estimates for each chapter:

“You can read this book in ten easy installments of 17 minutes each!”

Books definitely fit into our lives. Let’s just do a better job of showing customers how.