Open Source Heroes: Seth Godin, Best-selling Author, Entrepreneur, Marketer

Books / Consumer Guide / Contributor / Culture / Interview / Open Source

Seth Godin has been described by TED as an entrepreneur and blogger who thinks about the marketing of ideas in the digital age.
The author of 17 books including bestsellers Unleashing the Ideavirus, Purple Cow, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? and The Icarus Deception, he talks clearly and always with humor, urging people to take initiative in their lives if they want to be successful.
I encourage everybody to use it as a starting point…

Paperhouses: I believe it was Brian Eno who said, “The first Velvet Underground record may have only sold 1,000 copies, but every person who bought it started a band.”
I found this quote in your blog and as a mournful fan of Lou Reed, I found it more than pertinent and wanted to explore it for our readers. Why is this quote important to you, and how does it explain your philosophy?

Seth Godin: If I talked about it terms of architecture, there are really only a few kinds of architects in the world. One, the kind that tends to be talked about by lay people, is the architect who is copied, the architect who is emulated, the architect who inspires other people to become architects, the architect whom, through her work, establishes a standard that makes everyone else want to do better work. Then there is the other kind of architect, who has given up, who says the client is stupid, who has to figure out a way to make a living because all they can do is whatever they can do to make a living. It is a relentless race to the bottom. The problem with the race to the bottom is that you might win, and I guess the point of my post was not that there will ever be another Velvet Underground, because I don’t think there will, the point of my post was that each of us has our own publishing company on the internet; each of us has the chance to publish work regardless of who the client is and regardless of what the record label says and do work that in fact inspires others to do even better work. 


PH: If we asked the question another way, did any source have that Velvet Underground effect on you? Did you have a source of inspiration in your entrepreneurial and creative life?

SG: Sure, countless ones. I grew up in a magical home. My dad has been an entrepreneur his whole life and is a leader in the community. He was a volunteer head of the United Way. My mom, who passed away, was the first woman on the Board of the Albright Knox Art Museum and was just one of the most generous and inspiring people in the community. I grew up thinking that was normal, that everyone had parents like that and I think that started me down in a path of seeking out such people; whether it’s writers, people like Steven Pressfield or Lewis Hyde who write in a way that isn’t designed to please the masses, but is designed to connect with us at a deeper level. Also, entrepreneurs who seek to do more than just beat the system. I have been very fortunate. Now it’s easier than ever to seek that hero out but you have to choose to go look for them.


PH: Open Source is a pertinent topic to us, to the internet, but what are your views on it? Do you think of it as an instigator of creativity? What do you think are the pitfalls?

SG: I think it is impossible to have a productive conversation about open source without agreeing in advance what open source is, because it is the most misused phrase of the internet today. Open source is not what happens when a brand says to people “go make us a commercial. We’re open sourcing our marketing!” There might be a name for that but I do not know what it is.
Open source has a particularly rigorous legal definition, and if we are going to work inside that framework, I think we can agree that at its heart it means doing work that creates intellectual output that is shared by the entire community, in a way that scales. If you make donuts and you give everyone a free donut, you are going to go bankrupt. If you make ideas and you give everyone your idea for free, you will thrive, because ideas that spread win. Open source has at its source a generosity of people who want to share, but also an economic engine that kicks in when people share these scalable ideas.


PH: That makes sense!
Having an impact when you are an entrepreneur or sharing an idea. Can you explain the connection between being an entrepreneur and having an impact?

SG: Entrepreneurship had a very specific meaning before the digital age. It meant taking a risk, usually with someone else’s money, to buy the means of production to create a business that revolved around scarcity, and then to make that business big enough to pay off the investors.
Entrepreneurship had a critical role in the birth of capitalism. Now it means so many other things. We talk about a social entrepreneur or we talk about someone like you who is building this open source movement. Well, you have no outside investors, you are not in it to make a profit, you don’t have the means of production–not more than anyone else does–and yet you are an entrepreneur. That is because you’re using ideas that might not work for the purposes of bringing those ideas to market in a way that changes the way we do things. By doing this, the benefits that accrue to you include the privilege of doing it again.


PH: Another aspect that has to do with entrepreneurship, which ties into your book The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly.  Everyone knows that Icarus’ father made him wings and told him not to fly too close to the sun because they would melt. The lesson: Play it safe. That is never your message. You say that if you fly too low, you risk ruining the wings too. Comfort is deceptive. You convey to people that they should find the courage to treat work as a form of art.
I find it very inspiring. But if you had to explain that, how would you do that?

SG: I think it is a two-part question. The first part of the question is: Should you? Does it matter? Is it important? The purpose of my book is to help people see that the answer is yes.
We should not diminish the importance of the first part of the question that once everyone understood that they should learn to read and write, they would make sure their kids learned to read and write. They don’t have to be told how to get their kids to do that. First, they have to be persuaded that it is important, and my point is that it is urgent that we decide to do this. The people who tell you, “that’s fine but how do I do it?” are mostly the people who have not been persuaded that it is urgent. Once you find it is urgent you will find a way to make connections, to do work that matters, to be missed when you are gone, to be the person who dares to have the hubris of flying too close. Those matters are all around us, but we fear them, so we put them aside and say they are a special case. My argument is that they are an urgent, important example.

PH: So it is essentially personal. It is about finding your focus and then the path unravels.

SG: Yes, and I am not playing games here, because if I could give you a map and a step-by-step tutorial I would. The example I like to give is the work of Marcel Duchamp. In 1917 in a Dada art exhibit, he installed a urinal upside down. That urinal on the wall almost caused a riot, and was an extremely important piece of art for its time. What is worth noting is that the second person to install a urinal in an art museum was a plumber.


So if you’re asking, “how do I copy the artist that came before me?” you sign up to become a plumber. My point is that making art is to do the work before the plumber does.


PH: That is a very good point. I would follow up with V Is for Vulnerable: Life Outside the Comfort Zone, where you wrote a sort of ABCs of success, with mottos in sequence, to encourage people. Do you have favorite letters or mottos?

SG: I was lucky in that there are only 26 letters in the alphabet…because I sure got carried away with writing that book. I spent a long time arguing with myself about the letters. The purpose of the book is to feel like a book your parents read to you when you were a kid. What I am trying to do is bring people back to that playful moment; bring them back to that time when they felt everything was possible, because if I can get under your skin with each one of these fabulous illustrations, then I have succeeded. I am not comfortable picking out just one because the point isn’t the words but the experience of reading the book out loud so it can get under your skin.


PH: You created an online startup in the 90s–Yoyodyne; the first Internet-based direct marketer. Would you like to talk about that experience and also about how you chose the name?

SG: The name is interesting to me but to few others. In the book, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, on page 11, he starts to talk about a toy company that starts to make nuclear weapons. The company is called Yoyodyne. I am not smart enough to have read Thomas Pynchon, and I never read that book, but I did see the movie Buckaroo Banzai. In the movie, which was inspired in some ways by Thomas Pynchon, the aliens from Planet 10 start a company called Yoyodyne and that is where my name came from. Some people thought I was actually Thomas Pynchon hiding out in an internet company.
To answer your other question, the goal of the company was simple: in a world where advertising is a choice, you do not have to read advertising you don’t want to read, you don’t have to watch an ad you don’t want to watch. Because there are so many choices, the only ads that will work are the ads that you want to get. We invented the idea of permission marketing, to vividly make the point that it was possible to deliver ads that people wanted to get.


PH: Expanding on the idea of the consumer at the center, one notorious book that you wrote was Unleashing of the ideavirus, shifting the focus from marketing to information that spreads from customer to customer. Today that is obvious for us–we have Facebook (founded 2004) and Twitter (founded 2006). However, back in 2001 this was not obvious at all. How did you come realize that? What made you realize that this was so important in the marketing of the future?

SG: I don’t know. I can tell you how I came to write some of my books. I had not written one in over a year, which is a long time for me, and I thought I was done writing books. Then I read The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, and my book was written, completely finished, two weeks later. It was not based on The Tipping Point, but I think what Malcolm did in his first book was to open the door for me to talk about something that I had obviously been thinking about for a long time but hadn’t had words to talk about.


PH: Unleashing the Ideavirus is one of the manifestos that you make available in “free stuff” online. Ideas you want to spread. So is The Bootstrapper's’ Bible.
I identify so I read it… I like this part: “I am a laser beam. Opportunities will try to cloud my focus, but I will not waver from my stated goal and plan—until I change it. And I know that plans were made to be changed.”
Is this good advice to get as you start?

SG: I wrote the book thirteen or fourteen years ago and the book was actually written for me. I was talking to myself, and what I was saying was, “Look. There are all these shiny objects everywhere you look, and you have a choice. You can be the person who is easily distracted by shiny objects–and that in fact is a form of fear, a form of hiding and a form of postponing to do the stuff you really care about–or you can remind yourself that the project you are working on is important enough for you to get on with it and ignore the shiny objects.”


PH: Finally, this will be my last question, do you consider yourself also a mentor?

SG: I wrote a blog post long ago about mentors and heroes and I think that mentors are a little overrated, because they don’t scale and they are really hard to find. I think that heroes are everywhere you choose to look, and a hero can act as a mentor without even knowing you are there. One of the things that has worked so beautifully in my career is seeking out the work of someone rather than the attention of someone, and say “what would they do in this situation?” Learning how to emulate and honor your heroes by changing the way you do your work. It is a tribute to them and it is also a really effective way to get yourself to the next level.


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