Inbound Now #15 - Poking the Box with Seth Godin

Seth Godin, my all time marketing hero, joins us to discuss his book “Poke the box”.

In the show we chat about:

  • How companies can transform the way they do business by poking the box
  • How companies can provide an environment that encourages innovation & doesn’t shun failure
  • And how companies can stand out and transcend traditional marketing tactics.


David: Hey, everybody. Welcome to Episode Number 15 of Inbound Now. I’m your host, David Wells, and today, I have a very, very special guest, someone who I highly admire and look up to, Mr. Seth Godin. Welcome to the show, Seth.

Seth: Happy April Fool’s Day.

David: Yeah, April Fool’s. It’s the fake Seth Godin. I hired an actor. No, I’m just kidding. Seth is a prolific writer and author of 13 books; some of my favorite including, “Purple Cow”, “All Marketers are Liars”, “Tribes”, and his latest book, “Poke the Box”.

So, I wanted to get you on the show today, Seth, to talk about some of those concepts from “Poke the Box” and how B2B companies and people inside those companies can transform the way they do business and apply some of those concepts. Sound good?

Seth: Let’s go.

David: Let’s do it. All right. So let’s jump right into it. The book is about doing, poking, prodding, and challenging the status quo. This is your message and mantra throughout the entire book. It ties in nicely with HubSpot’s marketing transformation week, which is happening right now. How can companies and individuals in those companies start poking the box and start transforming the way they do business?

Seth: I think that most big marketers, most companies that have enough money to hire a marketing person, get stuck in a relentless cycle of swirl to the bottom. What they try to do is smooth things out, perfect things, optimize things, figure out how to A/B test to get a tenth of a percentage difference in what they’re doing. The problem with this mindset is that, while in the short run, it can lead to increased cash flow and profit, in the long run, it makes you boring. In the long run, it makes you small. What I am trying to give people a permission slip to do, what I’m encouraging them to do, what I think the world is demanding them to do is, instead, race to the top.

Racing to the top is not about incrementally lowering your price or chiseling away. Racing to the top is about creating moments and movements and changes and innovations that people choose to talk about, that people want to engage with you about. That is the dark secret of marketing. Marketing is a lot easier when you have a product or service that’s worth buying, worth talking about.

David: Right. One of the other concepts in the book is that there’s this huge stigma against failure in our society and in business, especially. So how can people flip that on its head and be more accepting of failure and promote, not necessarily that we’re trying to fail, but be more accepting and open to that?

Seth: Well, why aren’t you trying to fail? Why isn’t trying to fail a worthwhile way to do your job? The fact is that if you do enough A/B tests and you fail often enough, you will succeed. If you try to invent a new product and you fail often enough, you will succeed. That success has a flipside and it’s called failure. Anytime your boss says to you, “We need to do something new and failure is not an option,” what she’s also said to you is a success is not an option, because if you’re not prepared to fail along the way, eagerly fail along the way, then you’re not going to succeed.

My bold statement is really simple; “I have failed more than you. I have failed more than almost everyone I know. And the person who fails the most wins.” Built into that statement is you have to fail successfully enough that they let you keep playing. If you put all your chips on one number and you fail and you’re out of the game, you only failed once. But the goal is to fail the most times. The way you fail the most times is by being relentless about failing and being smart about failing.

David: Okay, cool. Yeah. You say in the book, “If you never fail, then you’re either really, really lucky or you’ve never shifted anything.” Right?

Seth: Right.

David: Let’s talk about that a little bit. The concept of “always be shifting”, you stressed that in the book, so what do you mean by that?

Seth: Well, we were just talking about it this morning. There’s a difference in marketing between a dry test and a wet test. A dry test is a focus group, a test market, a test screening. It’s isolated. You can protect against word leaking out. In big marketing, there used to be only dry tests. You would never take the risk of launching a big product to the world on the Super Bowl. It would be insane.

What the Internet has shifted is the ability to do controlled wet tests. What the Internet has shifted is the idea that you can easily program your website so that five percent of the visitors see an alternative view of what you make. You can easily put something into the hands of 500 of your customers and see how they respond to it or react to it. This notion that you can wet test and that you can wet test frequently ought to shift the way you think.

If you watch what they do at, say, Amazon or Google, they change their home page every day. They change it regularly. They don’t change it for everyone. They change it for some people.

Let’s just say a simple example: Someone comes to you in your company and they say, “We’re thinking of launching a new position. How do you think we ought to write the help wanted ad for it?” Well, my answer is, “Invest $200 and run eight help wanted ads on Craigslist and totally vary what the ad says, totally vary what the job title is, totally vary the salary. Just put them on Craigslist and see what happens.”

If job number two gets you all these great responses, you just learned something about the market. You didn’t have to have a lot of meetings. You didn’t have to have a lot of well, we’ve got to polish this. You just do it. You put into the world. Seven of your ads failed, but one of them was huge, and the total cost was less than what it costs to have one person come to the meeting.

David: Right. So it’s about trying out new things and not being afraid to poke the box, as it were. Right?

Seth: Yeah. The only way you know the shape of the box, the only way you know what box you’re playing with, is to get near the edges and say, “When I get near this edge, what happens? When we make this free? When we make this expensive?” The book publishing company I launched with “Poke the Box” with is called The Domino Project. With every book we launch, we are trying lots of things; changing in pricing, changing in the way it’s rolled out, changing in the actual format of the product. Why not? The cost of learning is so much cheaper than the cost of not learning.

David: Absolutely. So you’ve been a professional marketer for a while and a professional speaker. What advice did you wish you had when you started out in your career? What advice would you give to someone that you wish you had?

Seth: Well, I’ve given 4,000 pieces of advice on my blog. They’re worth exactly what they cost. But if I have to pick for the marketer’s point of view, I guess the thing that Jimmy Wales understood at Wikipedia, and the thing that Chris Anderson understood when he wrote “The Long Tail”, and the thing that the Google guys did when they started is this:      The Internet rewards relentless generosity.

The more you worry about when you’re going to get paid, the less you’re going to get paid. And that the people who have plenty of clients and the people who have plenty of leverage are the ones who don’t worry so much about what is the come on today? What link am I going to put here? What ad am I going to run? How am I going to close this sale? The Internet permits us to walk through the world with a different posture. I think that you guys have done this over and over and over again. I would say 80 percent of the things your company does don’t have an obvious commercial benefit to you, except they make the world smarter and a smarter world helps your company.

David: Right, exactly. That leads me to one of my other questions here. Our CEO, Brian Halligan, wanted to give you a shout out and let you know that you’re a big influence on the way that we do things here at HubSpot and there’s definitely a piece of Godin in HubSpot. There’s actually a conference room named after you.

Seth: What is it called? Is the conference room called “The Loud, Bald Guy Conference Room”?

David: Exactly, “The Loud, Bald Guy Room.” It’s one of my favorite rooms. I’ve just got to put that out there. One of his questions to you is you have all of these great ideas, all these tidbits of information on your blog and in your books. Where do your ideas come from?

Seth: I’ve never met anyone who had talker’s block. Nobody wakes up in the morning and goes, “Mmm-mmm,” and that they’re unable to speak. Right? Why is it that there’s this sort of feeling that you need divine inspiration to write or to have an idea, but talking is easy? I don’t think that there’s a distinction there. So what I try to do is say things that scare me and notice things that are interesting, and between the noticing and the talking, every once in a while, I write one of them down. I think getting into that habit isn’t particularly difficult. When we were in kindergarten, we all knew how to finger paint, we all knew how to dance, we all knew how to sing. So what happened?

David: We grew up.

Seth: That beginner’s mind got boiled out of us. But you can get it back if it’s important to you, I think.

David: Right. That’s one of the things you talk about in “Poke the Box”.  All through life we’re taught to follow the instructions, follow the plays if you’re on the football team, follow the notes on the page. It kind of puts that stigma where innovation is not as valued, right?

Seth: Right.

David: So how can we change that?

Seth: Well, it depends on whether you’re changing it on yourself or the people you work with. What I did when I had 70 people working for me at Yoyodyne is one of my top three guys hadn’t made a mistake in a couple months. I took him aside and I said, “You’re great, but if you don’t have a big, loud public failure in the next month, you’re fired. I will fire you publicly and I will humiliate you and I will fire you for not making a mistake.”

Now, we hear that and we laugh, right? But why are you then surprised when people on your team don’t want to make a mistake? Because you’re not willing to do that. You’re not willing to step up and say, “This organization will fail unless we individually make mistakes.” You must create an environment for your employees where they are more afraid of not failing than they are of failing.

When it comes to you, as an individual doing it, it’s a little harder because you’re talking to yourself. But it’s more about making lists every night before you go to bed of all the things you did that day that didn’t work and what you learned from them. If you can get in that habit, not making a list of all the screw-ups and what a bad person you are, but a list of how you failed and survived, you know that every night you’re going to have to make that list. So you’re going to start paying attention to those things, and you’re more likely to try to fail and survive.

David: And the only way to do that is to try, right? You say that try is the opposite of hiding. The other option would be to do nothing and let your competition eat your lunch. You’ll go out of business, right?

Seth: Yeah. I think Yoda was wrong, and I quoted him in the book, where he said, “There is no try.” I think there’s lots of try. It’s okay to do your best and have it not work. In fact, every company that we say we admire, every brand that we say we aspire to has a long history of doing that. Right now, I’m reading “A History of Rap and Hip-Hop.” If you look at the steps that it took to create the dominant form of music in the world, it’s nothing but failure over and over and over again, with occasional hits that pay the bills.

David: Right. Okay, cool. In my personal opinion, and I know a lot of other marketers would agree with me out there, you’re one of the most influential marketing minds in the world. My question here for you is:  Who inspires you? Who gets you going?

Seth: Well, David, I would say you do. Knowing that you’re going to read my blog tomorrow, knowing that maybe someone’s going to do something with something I put in the world is more than enough to get me out of bed in the morning. I think that when we realize the asymmetrical nature of our work and realize that one person can have an influence, whether they’re running philanthropy or they’re a teacher or they’re a blogger, that’s quite an audience and an obligation that comes with it. That’s enough to get me going.

David: Cool. Awesome. Another thing that you’re a big fan of is letting your content spread freely throughout the Internet and not putting it behind pay walls or locking it down. What’s your thinking behind that? Why is it so important that content be open and spreadable?

Seth: My friend, Tim O’Reilly, says that the enemy for any creator is not piracy, the enemy is obscurity. There is no one in the world who says, “I’m really in trouble. Everyone has read my book. Everyone has heard my song. Everyone saw me on Oprah. I can’t figure out how to make money.” That’s not an issue. No one has that problem. There are tons of people who have the problem of, “I’m not interacting with the market enough. I’m not hearing from people enough. No one knows who I am or what I do.” 99 percent of the musicians on iTunes are basically unheard.

The challenge is to think of the Internet as radio for ideas. And just like the Beatles needed to be on radio to make the Beatles happen, you need to be on the Internet to make your ideas hits. Once your ideas are hits, once you have an impact on the world, the business part will definitely take care of itself.

David: Right. So what is some advice that you can give companies out there about creating remarkable content, being remarkable? That’s kind of the concept of “Purple Cow,” standing out and not just being another company that does X, Y, Z. Right?

Seth: Right. This is the schism of marketing, which is that until 1995, what marketing was is clever close for boring products, that you made an average product for average people. That’s another word for mass, right? Average product for average people and you use some of the money you made to hire the madmen to put an ad around it or put a package around it so it doesn’t look average anymore.

The shift is now that you can go anywhere where you want; 37signals, Threadless, Groupon. That’s just one city right there, those three. You can go anywhere you want for what’s growing. JetBlue, Amazon, Starbucks, all of these brands, these modern brands grow because they reject the notion of average stuff for average people. They say, “We have exceptional stuff for a few people. Talk about it if you want.” So the only thing that makes new marketing new marketing is that new marketing is about making great stuff. It is not about cool stories about average stuff.

David: Right. So what about companies that are maybe more in a more commoditized market? How do they differentiate? Should they always be innovating?

Seth: That’s their choice. Bethlehem Steel made average steel for average buildings. A company called Nucor came out of nowhere and they opened micro mills, making extraordinary steel to different specs for extraordinary buildings. Nucor demolished Bethlehem Steel because a whole series of niches is better than one boring average thing in the middle.

Well, if you can make a steel mill that’s not a commodity, you can make anything that’s not a commodity. You can make salt that costs $5 a container. Well, you can’t do that with regular salt. You have to get the salt from a different place or have the salt work a different way. It’s your choice. If you work for a boss who is relentless about being mediocre, you’re going to have a lousy career path and you should leave.

David: Right. And be looking for that new job. That’s one of the points you had in the book. If you can’t innovate and your boss says to keep quiet, you’re going to be unhappy and you’re not going to be fulfilling your destiny, as it were. Interesting.

Seth: That’s right.

David: One of the things you talk about in the book is, inside of a company, innovating and basically starting your own thing. In an interview you had with Mitch Joel, you talked about how, in one of your companies, there was a rolodex where you had to dig through it all every day and it was kind of hard to find stuff. So you were like, “Hey, I’m just going to put a paperclip on where I have to look every day and it will save me a minute.” It’s those tiny things, innovating processes and what have you. Do you have any other anecdotes or advice on how people can do that?

Seth: Well, the key to that story, it was a job. I didn’t run the company. I was the 30th employee. They set the carousel up while I was on a business trip. When I came back, it was filled with all these little slips and dozens of my co-workers had been using it. It never even dawned on me to not grab a paperclip and put it next to my name because that’s just who I am. Within three days, the carousel was festooned with pipe cleaners and red paperclips and blue paperclips. Once someone had said this is okay, then everyone felt comfortable copying it.

So the point of the story is:  What’s your posture? Is your posture, “Oh, what can I do to this? Oh, what’s going on over here? What is this about? What do I notice about this? Why does that work?” This posture of curiosity, of saying, “Well, I could try that. How does that work,” is a choice. Right?

David: Right.

Seth: I’m always amazed by people who aren’t interested, who aren’t interested in what’s TypePad’s business model, who aren’t interested in how does Google actually work. How can you be alive in 2011 and not know, at least at some level, how Google works? How could you not be interested in that? That’s a choice, and probably a bad one.

David: Right. So do you think it’s on the shoulders of leadership then? Some of those people may not be as self-starting as others, right? So do you think it’s on the leadership to build that culture of, “Hey, you’d better be trying new things and failing or you’re out of here,” instead of the old one, “If you fail, you’re fired,” right?

Seth: Well, let’s say you’re working at Vogue Magazine and you’re not getting promoted. Maybe the reason is because you’re just not as well-groomed as other people. You don’t shower very often and you’ve got hair coming out of your ears and stuff. Is it management’s job to take you Barney’s and get you cleaned up? Or do you just get to say, “I wasn’t born well-groomed”? No, of course not. We accept the fact that if you want to succeed at Vogue, you’d better figure out how to get well-groomed.

I don’t think people are born to be self-starters. I don’t think we’re born to be innovators. I think, back to the kindergarten thing, everyone used to know how to do that. So, if you’re not getting what you want, it’s either because you’re in the wrong place or because you’re bringing the wrong tools to work. I think my argument is, I know my argument is you can choose to do something about it. The doors are all open for the first time. I’ll tell you a quick story. This is an axe.

David: Whoa.

Seth: Whoa. It’s from the Best Made Axe Company. They started in Toronto and they’re now in New York. It’s got this beautiful hand-painted handle. You see, the thing about this axe is if you want something that’s just going to cut down a tree, you should go to Home Depot, because a decent Home Depot axe is $27. This axe is hand-made, it’s hand-painted. It’s $150. You can put it on your wall and things like that.

The cool thing is that if you wanted to start an axe company in 1985, you couldn’t. In 1995, you couldn’t. In 2010, it’s easy. It’s not even that you couldn’t, it’s easy. You can put this thing into the world in your spare time, on weekends, and maybe sell a million dollars worth of axes or maybe not. And if you don’t, you’re going to discover that it’s really hard to sell axes on the Internet. I don’t know. You’ll find out.

The point is this is a moment. This moment will not be here in ten years. This moment was not here ten years ago. So the question is if you’re lucky enough to work for an organization that’s doing cool stuff, why aren’t you poking and finding out what’s working and what’s not? Why are we amazed every time we turn around and something interesting happened?

David: Right. I think that’s the key point there. Why don’t you try new things and get out there and just see? If you’re a failure, it cannot paralyze you or your business. Otherwise, you’re dead in the water there.

Seth: Yeah.

David: So, Seth, one takeaway that you’d leave with the audience, would that be it? Try, try, try, get out there and seize the day?

Seth: Well, you can leave that one. I have to come up with a new one now. You’ve raised the bar for me. I guess the thing is this: A lot of people don’t have respect for marketers. The reason is because the old kind of marketer was a little bit of a scum bag who was trying to say one thing about a product that did something else. But the new breed of marketers is an impresario, a creator, an artist, a storyteller, someone who wants to make connections about things that matter. Not everyone gets to be the new breed of marketer. You have to choose to be this person and you can. So quit whining and go.

David: All right. Quit whining and go. Awesome. Seth, where can people find you online?

Seth: You can type “Poke the Box” into Google or you can type “Seth” and there are 4,000 free blog posts for you. We’re coming out with a new book every few weeks at The Domino Project. So if you type “Domino Project” in, you can find our blog and subscribe, and I hope you like what we’re up to.

David: Very cool. Well, I really appreciate your time coming on the show. I hope to get you back again and again because I think you’re a brilliant guy and you have a lot to share.

Seth: I appreciate it. Have a good one. Thank you.

David: Thank you. You too.