Books & Literature Interviews Feature

Author Seth Godin Invites You to Dance With Fear and Bad Ideas

By Scott S. Smith Friday, November 6, 2020

Seth Godin, the most creative thinker in marketing for over two decades, has a new book out, “The Practice: Shipping Creative Work.” Like the previous 19 (including “All Marketers Are Liars,” “Purple Cow,” “Free Prize Inside,” “The Dip,” “This is Marketing,” and “Linchpin”), it will no doubt be a bestseller, sharing lessons about how to be successful that have universal applicability (his work has been translated into 36 languages).

The question remains, though: is he an alien, or does he have a twin who makes him seem to be Superman, flying in to save businesses everywhere? Forget "out of the box" as an adequate description of his thinking. It would seem that no human being could have such a constant gusher of out-of-this-world ideas. Nor the time and energy to implement them in his own career, and such resilience after so many rejections. Writing one of the world's most popular blogs, he recently posted "Thirty-five+ years of projects," a nine-page list of his nearly innumerable successes and setbacks ("bad ideas often generate good ideas").

Godin graduated with a degree in computer science and in philosophy, receiving an MBA from Stanford University two years later. He became a brand manager at Spinnaker Software, developing multimedia products, some in collaboration with science fiction writers Michael Crichton and Arthur C. Clarke.

His first book, “Business Rules of Thumb,” was published in 1986, but it was followed by 900 turndowns of every kind of project. He didn't wait for permission to proceed: he published an ad-supported directory of law firms, launched dozens of online and video games, produced Kaplan test prep study guides, and co-founded Yoyodyne, which developed online sweepstakes and other creative promotions for corporations. In 1998, they sold it to Yahoo! for a reported $30 million, and he became its vice president of direct marketing.

The next year, “Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers” became his first bestseller. He pointed out that "interruption marketing” — ads, phone calls, unsolicited emails, and mailers — were no longer very effective.

"The key to getting permission from customers to send offers is to give them something free — a video, a coupon, a chapter, information, a chance to enter a sweepstakes, even just to express their opinion," Godin said in an interview for Startup Savant. "It's much more cost-effective to market to your current customers than to find new ones, yet most companies concentrate on trying to recruit new ones because they haven't calculated the lifetime value of those they already have. Once you have permission to send customized offers, you have a relationship of trust you can build on."

Godin Goes Viral

In 2000, Godin self-published “Unleashing the Ideavirus,” which, despite the lack of distribution, did go viral. He would become a global superstar in the new decade of the post-industrial marketing revolution.

His “Free Prize Inside” in 2004 came appropriately in a cereal box, but baffled bookstores, though it nevertheless became one of Forbes's Business Books of the Year. It described how to create a "purple cow," a product or service that was remarkable and memorable (that would be the title of his 2007 bestseller).

"Innovation is cheaper than marketing and the marketing department ought to be involved in product development at the start or their campaigns are likely to fail," Godin said. "Consumers are overwhelmed with too much information about too many choices and tweaking product attributes is not going to penetrate that resistance. Most companies aim for the broad center of customers, which is jammed with noise. Their happy customers are their worst enemy because they aren't going to push the company to significantly improve their products. Instead, companies should be appealing more strongly to one segment or another, what I call edgecraft. Find out why customers are dissatisfied with not only your products, but their other options. Immerse yourself in customers' culture to understand what they might really want."

“All Marketers Are Liars” was launched in 2005, a title he wasn't fond of, but which caught everyone's attention, and it continues to sell well.

"Effective marketers tell stories that convince us that $225 sneakers feel better on our feet than the $25 ones," he wrote. "Bottled water sales have skyrocketed, yet that isn't because of an increase in thirst. In a world where there are infinite choices and little time to make them, believing the message makes it true."

Godin urges marketers to use a frame of reference that matches the worldview of the target customer, such as positive reviews by people they trust or admire. Then use images and sophisticated copywriting to appeal to every sense with the right combination of the "marketing P's": permission, pass-along, product, packaging, pricing, promotion, and publicity.

In 2006, Godin and partners launched Squidoo, a user-generated website for articles with ads that generated revenue split between the writers and the site. By 2008, it was one of the world’s top 500 sites and was sold to HubPages in 2014.

Strategic Quitting and Becoming a Linchpin

The second bestseller in 2007 was “The Dip,” which refers to the tough going between the excitement of the startup and when it achieves success (if it ever does). "It's my shortest book at 80 pages, but it has the most impact per page and treats a subject most entrepreneurs don't want to think about," said Godin.

"Value is created by scarcity and because so many quit in the middle of the Dip of adversity, extraordinary benefits accrue to those who push through,” Godin explained. "Strategic quitting is the secret of successful organizations, but reactive quitting and serial quitting are the bane of those who strive (and fail) to get what they want," he wrote. "They quit when it's painful and quit when they can't be bothered to quit."

A couple of his key questions to help you decide whether you're in a Dip that you can survive and then thrive or whether you're going in circles in a cul-de-sac:

  • Did you accurately assess your resources before you started? If not, you're engaged in wishful thinking. There is an opportunity cost to sticking with a losing proposition, so quit before your inevitable failure.
  • Did you expect great adversity but believed it would be worth rededicating yourself when it came? Successful people lean into the Dip, pushing harder and changing the rules. "In a competitive world, adversity is your ally. The harder it gets, the better chance you have of insulating yourself from the competition."

In 2010, “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?” was published, which he says may have had the biggest impact of any of his projects since it addressed the role of creative people in organizations. "The death of the factory means that the entire system we have built our lives around is now upside down," he wrote. "The opportunity is to bring your best self to the marketplace and be rewarded for it...Linchpins exert emotional labor and make a map."

They may provide a new way to connect members of the organization, deliver a creative solution, have a unique talent or deep domain knowledge, manage a situation of great complexity, inspire staff, or powerfully influence customers. They are brave, not compliant.

Practicing Success

Godin was just getting started. Over the next decade, he got really busy:

  • He showed how to use Kickstarter to aid bypassing gatekeepers or persuading reluctant partners to commit, launching four books simultaneously.
  • One of these was “The Icarus Deception,” which encouraged readers to fly higher, including a chapter with nearly 100 ideas "to think like an artist," and another with 14 true stories of successful artists (creatives who share their work in any field). Their habits include speaking in public, seeing the world as it is, failing often, and teaching others.
  • He developed the Skillshare course on entrepreneurship, the Marketing Seminar, and the Udemy courses, which have had nearly 60,000 students.
  • Had a number-one bestseller with “This is Marketing,” with chapters on finding the smallest viable market, telling stories, reaching the right people, and other matters that anyone in business should know, even if they don't have a formal position in marketing.
  • Launched the popular Akimbo podcast, now in its fifth season, and the Akimbo workshops (now an independently-owned B corporation), which have 20,000 graduates.
  • Created the altMBA, which has 5,000 alumni so far.

In October 2020, his newest book, “The Practice,” was published. Some key points:

  • Creativity is a choice, not a bolt of lightning: embrace the desire to find the truth, to solve an old problem, to serve someone else's needs.
  • Start where you are and move forward in a series of steps that become a process, with no guarantee of the results you hope to achieve.
  • Be inspired by the lives and careers of other creatives, such as Greta Thunberg, Jonas Salk, Frida Kahlo, John Wooden, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Rosanne Cash. Their paths often had counterintuitive twists and turns.
  • Don't wait for things to "flow," make it happen. Do the work, and it will become a passion
  • Build a diverse team with different backgrounds that will yield idiosyncratic approaches.
  • Being overwhelmed is temporary.

Seth Godin wants to share the path of achieving joy in any endeavor by dancing with fear.

About the Author


Headshot of Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.

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