8 Startup Insights Inspired By The Mega Mind of Seth Godin

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8 Startup Insights Inspired By The Mega Mind of Seth Godin


I’ve had a really interesting and crazy week (crazy in a good way).  As many regular readers of OnStartups.com know, I’m a huge Seth Godin fan.  I’ve read most of Seth’s books over the years and keep up with his blog.  He’s even been kind enough to comment on one of my prior OnStartups articles (“Why Your Startup Shouldn’t Hire Seth Godin”).  But, until recently, I’ve never had the opportunity to actually hear him speak in person.  This past week, I got to hear Seth twice

Most recently, Seth was a keynote speaker at the recent Inbound Marketing Summit in Kendall Square, Cambridge (MIT central).  Not only did I get to hear Seth speak, live and in person, I had the thrill of getting to have lunch with Seth and “just chat about stuff” (like getting some advice about my startup).  This has got to be the most thrilling thing that’s happened to me all year.  Very exciting.  [Interesting trivia:  Early in Seth’s career he worked in Kendall Square for Spinnaker Software].

So, here are some of the ideas and insights I gleaned from Seth, that I thought might be useful to other startup fanatics.  Although the core insights were inspired by Seth, I put my own lens/spin on it from the perspective of a startup.  All the really brilliant stuff is Seth, the mediocre stuff is mine.

8 Startup Insights Inspired By Seth Godin

1.  Resist becoming “average”.

This is my favorite insight.  At my startup HubSpot, we use the geekier term “regression to the mean” to refer to this phenomenon.  Basically, the notion is that over time, the world pushes you towards becoming more average.  Often this means doing what is “tried and true” or “proven.    Or, as Seth says, “creating average products for average people”.  For businesses in general, but startups particularly, regressing to the mean is a dangerous thing.  Why?  Because the “average” startup is not successful.    The only way to succeed is to not be average.  You have to go to the edges and resist the pull to the middle.

2.  Communicate Directly With Your Customers

You’re the founder/CEO/president/whatever of the company.  You’re doing your best to work on the company, intead of in the company (just like all those business coaches said you should) .  You may think you’re really important to the business.  In fact, you may even be really important.  It doesn’t matter.  TALK TO YOUR CUSTOMERS.  Whether you’re in the backroom writing the next Facebook/YouTube/Google/whatever or you’re more of an operations/finance person, you need to be have direct conversations with your customers/users.  There is no substitute.  For startup people, this is not particularly hard advice to follow (because someone has to talk to the customers, and there’s only two of you in the company, so there’s nowhere to hide).  But, you’d still be surprised at how often people avoid direct contact with the customer.  No, not you of course, but your co-founder.  For a great example of a successful startup that talks to customers, look to Jason Fried from 37signals.  He actually reviews and responds to customer support emails.  He’s a awfully busy guy too.  And, he’s got over a million users.  What’s your excuse again?  [Note to self:  write an article with notes from meeting with Jason Fried last week].

3.  Let Your Users Talk To Each Other

Online communities are all the rage.  But, too many of them are started because companies want to “build a community to establish ourselves as a thought-leader and promote rich interaction amongst our team and our customers.”  Blah, blah, blah.  It’s fine that you want to be a thought-leader and at the center of your universe.  It’s great that you want to start a “rich dialog”.  But, provide some mechanism for those that inexplicably find your offering “interesting” (hopefully interesting enough to actually pay you) to connect with each other.  Give them easy, convenient ways to connect to each other and then get out of the way

4.  Start a Freakin’ Blog

Yes, I know.  You’ve been meaning to do it.  But amidst the writing of code, and raising of funds, and meeting of minds and all the hundred other things you have to do this week, there’s just no time to write.  Heck, it’s just you and your buddy Joe, right?  And besides, you kicked off that bobandjoeblog.wordpress.com a few months ago, wrote about some stuff, and only 4 people read it.  It just wasn’t worth it.  You have a business to grow!  But, you promise you’ll make the time.  Someday.  Once you get done with this product-release/funding-round/support-nightmare/pr-event/whatever you promise to try the whole blogging thing (again).  I’m here to tell you that you need to make the time.  But, don’t listen to me.  Here’s Seth Godin:  “You’re forgiven if you don’t get it…it’s easy to write the whole thing off…here’s what to do if you still don’t get it: Start a blog.”

5.  Stories Spread, Not Facts

Sure, I get that your shiny new startup with it’s shiny new software written in a shiny new programming language is going to change the world.  I get that.  But I, like most people, don’t want to hear about product.  I certainly don’t want to tell other people about your product.  But I love a good story, and I’m guessing others do too.  If you want your idea to spread, stop focusing on the facts, stop focusing on your offering and start focusing on your story.  Make it genuine.  Make it interesting, and as Seth would say, make it remarkable.

6.  Beware The Need for Critical Mass

I’m going to lead with a quote from Seth on this one:  “Failing for small audiences is a loud cue that you will fail even bigger with big audiences.”  Too often, startup founders talk about how they are pushing to get to “critical mass” and how “economies of scale” are going to kick in.  That’s all fine and dandy.  I get it.  I’ve been in the software industry for a long time.  But, is it absolutely, positively necessary to get to some “critical mass” before your business starts to make any sense at all?  Is that mass all that critical?  Does it have to be? 

Can’t you make some kind of business out of something that looks a bit like this:

Mass You Have < The Magical Mass That Is Critical

Why do so many startups have these mythical, magical numbers (“once we hit 1,000,000, users rainbows are going to spontaneously pop out of nowhere and magic fairy dust will fall out of the sky and make our financials look sooo much better”).

7.  They Didn’t Call It the Industrial Gentle Change

It was a revolution, and like all revolutions, it’s neither gentle nor comfortable.  If you’re building a startup that really is going to revolutionize something, you’re going to have take some chances and make some people uncomfortabale.

8.  You Have To Start

To do anything, you have to start.  You can’t wait for the perfect situation.  The perfect idea (which doesn’t exist), the perfect business plan, the perfect timing, the perfect market, the perfect investor, whatever.  You need to get going. 

I’ll close with this quote from Seth during lunch:  “I’m impatient and shamelessly unafraid of failing.”

I’ve got lots more Seth nuggets and pearls of wisdom, but that’s all we have time for right now.  I need to get back to working on the next alpha version of Twitter Grader

So, what do you think?  Did any of the above insights resonate with you?  Any you just don’t agree with?  I’m not qualified to defend them, but that’s never stopped me before. 

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Wed, Sep 10, 2008


Jez, I think Stories Spread, Not Facts is a *very* good point, as a technical blogger I would write all kind boring facts and report bugs and fixes, but I learnt that adding a voice and story is more import than straight forward reporting. It helps connect with your readers.

posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 3:29 PM by Arky

What came through strongly for me is an underlying passion. Whether it be through the real, remarkable story or a blog talking through your hurdles and challenges. Passion brings all of these things together.Great writeup as always :)

posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 3:34 PM by Adrian

Hi: is there any way to connect with you - email/phone #?

posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 4:53 PM by antony satyadas

Antony: You can email me at dshah {at} onstartups dot-com. However, please note that I'm not currently getting involved in any new projects and don't review specific startups/ideas. I'm doing well just to get a blog out every now and then.

posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 4:59 PM by Dharmesh Shah

Brilliant Brilliant Post! Every single point is awesome and they are all worth spreading around and encouraging people to use. When do we get the extra nuggets? :) 

posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 5:18 PM by Scott Purdie

re: #4...  
You're right - if I had started that blog when I first planned to, I could have linked back to it from here ;-) 
Thanks for the nudge!

posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 5:28 PM by Rick

Great post. Every point is very true

posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 5:39 PM by Jared

you make me sound a lot smarter than I am in real life.

posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 6:18 PM by seth godin

Seth: Thanks for stopping by. I'm honored. 
And, now that I've met you and spent time, I have direct evidence that you actually are indeed, brilliant.  

posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 6:48 PM by Dharmesh Shah

Great post. Great insights. Thanks for sharing.  
#5 - Stories Spread - Not Facts  
This is a great summary of why the Republicans keep getting elected. They are great at one-liners, talking-points, and snappy sound bites. They love to make things over-simple, and black and white. And a lot of average people eat it up. Too bad they suck at governing. 
Maverick, shmaverick. Obama is the real leader in this race. Let's hope he can avoid the pitfall of actually thinking people care about the details.

posted on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 8:16 PM by Daniel Endy

Hi.. Really good points. Now, am searching for other pages on Seth. 
And when do we know when the Viral Marketing Contest gets over?

posted on Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 4:51 AM by Aswin

At both of the startups that I co-founded (Symbolics and Object Design), the engineers really wanted to meet and talk to the customers. Everyone paid lip service to this idea, but when push came to shove, the programmers' time was needed to do software and nobody made the time for them to meet customers. The only exception were user group meetings, which we loved (Symbolics did several of these). Finally, a chance to find out what our product was used for, and to talk to someone other than an upset customer on the support line! I don't really know how much time the CEO spent talking to customers; probably not nearly enough. We had a direct sales force that did most of that kind of talking. 
A way for customers to communicate would have been great. I wish we had done that. Back then it was not as easy as it is now, but that's no excuse. Symbolics did have a user's group, but it mostly encompassed the most enthusiastic users only. Of course there were no blogs then (no WWW yet!). 
Yes, everything above is right. Both companies made products that were revolutionary and remarkable.

posted on Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 8:01 AM by Daniel Weinreb

All good points. Especially the one about building blogs and letting your customers talk to one another.  
Some of us however deal with clients, who despite funding tech companies and being interested in investments etc, are not really participant-observers. They prefer someone to provide them a parsed version of the issues.  
Tricky but a large chunk of the world's population is not yet there; and I think, therein lie the real opportunities. "What can we do to expand the pie, not just maximise the share of the existing one?" is the question to ask and strive to answer, in my view.

posted on Friday, September 12, 2008 at 4:22 AM by Shefaly

I never took the time to thank you for maintaining such a good blog. I started my company back in 2006. Right around that time, I was looking for people who have been there done that. And I stumbled on your onstartups.com. I as hooked. Over the last two years, I found tips and ideas to deal with things when days were long. Also you helped me keep my eyes on the ball when things felt great. I am also a great fan of Seth and follow his blogs and read his books. So, today I am finally reaching out to you guys and say thank you. I guess we are trying to do most of the points you mentioned. But we need to continue to be better at all those points. 
So, I, like many in the same boat, will continue to look to you guys to find timely advises and insights.  
Syed Rayhan 
product: ScrumPad 
blog: Code71 Blog

posted on Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 5:50 PM by Syed Rayhan

Thanks for sharing, Dharmesh. 
Hubspot with Seth can't go wrong. 

posted on Monday, September 15, 2008 at 5:23 AM by friarminor

Excellent and worthwhile for any and all start-ups!!!!!!!

posted on Wednesday, September 17, 2008 at 1:11 PM by Michael Downing

very nice analysis with seth's word. Really got inspired.

posted on Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 7:10 AM by Krishna

Interesting reading! Thanks!

posted on Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 3:53 PM by Tanel

Good list, Dharmesh. 
I like Seth Godin, particularly his book All Marketers Are Liars, but I wish he backed up his suggestions with more data. Yes, I know that data can sometimes be skewed into one's favor, but there is value in seeing the source. I'm concerned that his more recent writings are becoming rehashes of his older material, and becoming reduced to general pop-business principles. Would I see him speak in person if given the opportunity? No doubt. But would I come away with something that I couldn't get from spending 15 minutes at his blog? I'm not so sure. 

posted on Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 4:44 PM by Boston Bachelor

Thanks for this, and previous blogs. Your articles are on target, concise and I believe very hepful to anyone involved in a startup. 
Please keep up the good work!

posted on Friday, September 19, 2008 at 12:23 PM by Joe Straus

One of my goals is more stories and less 'facts' I see have to train myself to do this every time I write. 
Dr. Wright 
The Wright Place TV Show 

posted on Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 7:19 AM by Dr. WRight

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