One of the best things any movie, book, or music can do is permanently change you.
Tim Ferriss’ #1 bestselling book, The 4-Hour Workweek, changed my life.
Whether you are a musician, entrepreneur, employee, or all three, everyone has too much stuff you have to do, and not enough time for the stuff you want to do.
Tim hit a point with his own business that you probably recognize : working 16-hour days, 7 days a week.
Luckily for everyone, he decided reality is negotiable, and started challenging some basic assumptions:
- Do I have to please all my clients?
- Do I have to be available all the time?
- Do I have to have meetings?
- Do I have to do my to-do list, or can I just ignore it?
- Does it have to be me doing this?
Saying “no” to all of these...
- He ignored 80% of his clients, to concentrate on the most profitable 20%.
- He created shorter deadlines for everything, reducing 2 hour in-person meetings down to 5 minute phone calls.
- He made sure his basic business model didn’t require his involvement - so that outsourced help ran it all.
The result of all this destructive selfishness? His business did better than ever, and his time was now 1000 times more profitable if you count it in earnings-per-hour. This approach really works.
When I was the owner and president of CD Baby, it ran without me, and I hardly spent 4 hours on it in the last 6 months. It’s wonderful.
Though Tim took his newfound freedom to travel the world, everyone reading this has something they’d like to be doing if they didn’t have to do anything. For most of us, the fountain of creativity that would come from that would change your life.
So... open your mind, listen up, and let me introduce you to the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss.
Throughout your book, it’s obvious you constantly challenge basic assumptions in all aspects of life, and use yourself as the guinea pig for your experiments. This fearless approach comes naturally to you, but what do you recommend to help others get confident enough to adopt this mindset?
Fearlessness doesn’t actually come naturally, although it seems that way from the outside looking in. I was born six weeks premature and can’t use about three-quarters of my left lung, so there are physiological reasons why I had to examine the rules of the game with some of the things I’ve done.
There are ways that you can examine and really start to pare out the things that don’t work with the group think that is really pervasive. One of the questions that I would ask is if there is anything that’s on your 80/20 analysis list. Analyze your time consumption. Try RescueTime or MeeTimer. Identify your time spent online. Identify the 20% of activities that are consuming 80% of your time.
Once you have that list ask yourself what would happen if, say in a 48 hour period, you eliminated x or did the opposite of x? What happens if you completely stop managing and pursuing certain customers, and simply respond to questions or orders? What happens if you eliminate most of your customers, to focus on the few high profit, low maintenance customers? What if you did the opposite?
In most industries there will be two or three examples of people who do things entirely differently, and I think it’s very worthwhile to examine the methods that they use - try to interview those people. It’s much less difficult than most people realize.
To use an example from tango, the way that I was able to progress as quickly as I did is I recognized that due to my physique, I would really only be able to focus on let’s say one-tenth of the usual curriculum for a successful tango. So I began interviewing the most elegant dancers, the most successful teachers who had different methods, and identified that there were really two things that I had to focus on. The lead, the embrace, and then footwork. And basically if you took care of the two opposite poles of the body everything really fell into place organically.
So what would happen if you eliminated this? Let’s just say 48 hours, seven days, one month? What would happen if you did the opposite? Those are two very, very useful questions. Most people avoid certain actions because they view changes as permanent. If you make a change, can you go back to doing it like you did before? You can always reclaim your current state in most cases. If I quit my job in industry x to test my artistic abilities in a different industry, worst case scenario, can I go back to my previous industry? Yes. Recognize that you can test-drive and micro-test things over brief periods of time. You can usually reclaim the workaholism that you might currently experience if you so decide to go back to it.
My book “The 4-Hour Workweek” is actually based on two things. The first is that I’ve been guest lecturing at Princeton University since 2003 in high tech entrepreneurship When I hit my own personal crisis, where my long-term girlfriend broke up with me, giving me a plaque that said, “Work hours end at 5pm,” she said, “I think you should keep this on your desk as a reminder.” I recognized that my blind acceptance of the assumptions - work/life balance, career planning, retirement, etc - really were completely unsustainable and unscalable. That led me to about 18 months of traveling around the world, interviewing people, performing case studies for my own benefit, to see if I could either redesign my business or shut it down. I presented to the Princeton students via phone this concept of lifestyle design which would be an alternative or a supplement career plan to replace the deferred life plan: retirement, redemption plan, the pot of gold at the end of life. The feedback was extremely strong. A student said, “Wow, I don’t know what you’re doing presenting to a class of 60 students. You should just write a book and be done with it!” It was one of those ideas that - generally if it keeps you up for three nights in a row you should probably take a close look at it - and here we are.
Seth Godin, one of my favorite marketing authors, wrote this essay once about cheating, saying, “HBO is cheating because they’ve got bigger budgets and don’t need commercials. JetBlue is cheating because they don’t have union workers. Aren’t there things you can do in your business where you can cheat?” It doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s just finding an advantage. So - I just realized a common thread through many of your accomplishments are like various versions of cheating. Finding a shortcut.
Right! I’ll give you another example of cheating. Toyota is very well known for its manufacturing processes. And what they’ll do is they will take a given role, and they’ll have that person lay out the steps in their job in as many micro-steps as possible. Then they’ll cheat by eliminating any steps that are intermediary or unimportant. Then they’ll ask that person to streamline further - and basically create a manual for training other people. They do this repeatedly as the company grows, and they launch new projects. That’s what they refer to as kaizen - continual improvement. It’s a concept that applies to a lot of things
Being able to deconstruct your assumptions is very important. Most people tend to be quite logical but have faulty assumptions. There’s this logical fallacies test where, Winston Churchill blah blah blah in orange therefore Winston Churchill is a carrot. What I’m good at recognizing and deconstructing is - if I’m not getting the result I want, what are my assumptions? What are my “have-to-do”s? Do I have to pay my dues? Is that a have to? Am I suffering suddenly because I’m putting in my dues without really questioning is that necessary in the first place?
There are so many musicians that have this template that says, “This is what my favorite musicians did to make it, so therefore this is how you make it as a musician.” It’s like, well maybe a lot of these things aren’t true at all!
Right, exactly. I was talking to someone yesterday that works at a venture capital firm. She’s been there nine years, and the partners essentially indicated that unless she goes back to school and gets her MBA then she can’t be promoted. Ok. Well, should you stay at that venture capital firm and pay your dues or is it time to move to perhaps a different firm or a different industry that doesn’t bring that type of ridiculous baggage and nonsense along? So in the case of paying your dues for example, so some people will ask me “Oh, well did it take four hours a week to write your book?” Ha ha ha. “Oh, well if you launch a company do you launch it in four hours a week?” Ha ha ha. The goal of the book is not to work four hours a week.
Could you tell me more about your experiments with micro-testing?
Ok, so the original title of the book was “Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit”, a tongue in cheek reference to my lectures at Princeton. My guest lectures had that title because I started a pharmaceutical design company that ended up being a sports nutrition manufacturing company. I thought that was very clever and funny, but the publisher told me that Wal-Mart did not think it was so clever and funny. So I said, “Give me a week to do a few tests, so we can look at the data and really find a compromise that will work for everyone.”
Then I ran a Google Adwords campaign, where your ad appears based on keywords that people were searching for. I ran a dozen different ads with a dozen different potential titles as the advertising headline, with the potential subtitles as the ad text. The click-through page was nothing, but I wasn’t concerned with the conversion or cost per acquisition. I was only concerned with the click through rate - which of those dozen headlines was most popular. So for less than $150 in one week using keywords as a fixed variable, I was able to identify “The 4-Hour Workweek, Escape 9-to-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich” as the most successful title by far.
I love that there’s actually a tradition of this. Marketing guru Jay Abraham, in the pre-internet days, would run classified ads in newspapers and magazines. If he wanted to write a book about something, he’d run a classified ad, taking orders for the book, but he wouldn’t even write the book until he got a good response from the classified ad. If the world just didn’t seem to be responding to his book idea, he just refunded their deposit. But if an idea got a huge response, he’d say, “I better write that - fast!”
When I heard you were using Google ads for the same thing, I thought it was brilliant because it’s instant! Finding different aspects of your business, even perhaps for musicians, the name of their album or choice in album artwork. Throw the options out there and see which one gets the most clicks.
I love this idea so much, I’m wondering - have you seen this applied in other ways? Have you met people that have applied this in ways that you hadn’t thought of, or other ways that it might apply?
Well I think that there are many different options. There is actually one example from the music industry. A very good friend mine named Doug has been involved with the International Turntable Federation, involved with music sampling and spinning and so forth. He started a business that sells sound effects and samples to music and film producers. Using a very simple Yahoo store, Google Adwords and other tools he was able to actually test the most popular sounds and sound effects and classifications of the sounds before investing in long term relationships or trying to negotiate with large distributors.
Look at Trent Reznor or the other bands that are allowing fans to remix, let’s say, and let people vote on those remixes. There are a number of examples. Essentially what they’re doing is crowd sourcing - allowing the audience to help create - but on the other hand it’s just a form of voting - a popularity contest. There’s a very fine line between making artistic decisions based on commercial viability and what I’m suggesting. So you don’t need to sacrifice your artistic integrity to do this. All you’re doing is coming up with a number of options that you would be happy with as an artist, and then allowing the market to help you decide and choose among those options.
Speaking of Trent Reznor, I heard that before his fame with Nine Inch Nails, he actually had five different bands at once, that were really all just him in his home studio, doing five different genres under five different names. He was marketing all of them equally, then some record label loved the one called Nine Inch Nails, signed it to a record deal, so he let go of the other four names, and became Nine Inch Nails. Absolutely brilliant.
Exactly. There are many different tools that we can use to accomplish this. Google Adwords is an easy and simple tool for multivariate testing, if you view it that way. But you can also use something like Wordster or SiteSpect, if you have more money to spend. For your homepage or different variations on web pages, they’ll present them in a very easy fashion. I’m a big, big, big believer in testing. And you can maintain or even improve your artistic quality and integrity, using it.
A friend of mine is neighbors with Steve Jobs, and said that as much as Apple seems to mysteriously pop out with an invention, Steve Jobs is relentless about asking everybody he knows, “What do you think of this? What’s your opinion on that?” Because he wants to keep some secrecy instead of putting it out to the world, he just does this constant testing among his circle of friends, constantly getting feedback on everything he’s doing along the way.
If you have something that you would like to make and you just don’t know how to test it, make sure you’re scratching your own itch. Like Twitter: Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey created it in two weeks as a way to scratch their own itch. He said, “At least that way you know that one person is interested in having it.” It’s amazing how many otherwise smart, well-funded companies will use awful statistically-invalid focus groups, then say, “Well, no one in this room likes the idea, but our focus groups tell us that we should make it,” so of course the product comes out and it fails.
When friends talk about starting a business I say if you’ve got idea you want to do, don’t sit there for a whole year trying to raise funding or whatever before you can put it out in the world. Just give yourself a 10-day deadline. If there’s something you think the world wants, try it within 10 days. If you don’t have a programmer, do it with a piece of paper and a telephone. Start it even with only one customer, because then you can start the feedback loop, finding out what your customers want. Then you can incrementally improve it over the months. A year down the line you’ll be doing so much better than the guy who is still being secretive in his second round of VC funding. Just get it out there and start to get feedback.
Yeah, and run the numbers. To give a few examples from my experience publishing: Now that the book’s been out and has done very well, translated into 30 languages, it’s actually been through 32 printings. In each case I was able tweak and correct small things, along the way. Much in line with the Steve Jobs and Guy Kawasaki philosophy of “ready, fire, aim” or “ship, fix, ship, fix.”
A big part of The 4-Hour Workweek was learning to outsource. Whether I use somebody in Indiana or India, it’s not that hard to go to elance.com and describe any project I need somebody to help me with. If I need somebody to help me call venues to book gigs, or help me answer my emails, there are plenty of people around the world who would be glad to help. They’ll bid on my project so I can choose the lowest bid or most qualified bidder, whatever.
This was the most mind-blowing part of the book, to me. After I read it, I started experimenting with outsourcing almost everything. Things that I always thought I had to do myself, I’d instead go to elance.com, describe it as a project, and a few days later there would be 15 people offering to do it for as low as $6 per hour. It’s amazing.
But a few of my friends have said, for example, “I’m a recording engineer. I love what I do. And it’s hands-on. I can’t outsource it.” So how does this outsourcing idea apply to people who have found what they love to do in a hands-on business?
I get that question a lot because there are many people - whether editors, pastors, teachers, or musicians - who love what they do but do too much of it. So the first thing I would say is, “If you love what you do, are making the money you want to make, and have all the free time you want - then don’t read my book, you don’t need it.”
First of all, I don’t distinguish between business and personal time. I view time as a non-renewable resource. So let’s just say you’re a teacher. You’re a working mother with two children and you’re middle class. You don’t have that much disposable income to begin with. Then let’s say you often spend your entire weekend running errands. Now let’s say one of your sons is having a birthday party. He’s six years old and happens to want the new Tickle Me Elmo doll. You’re going to spend all day trying to find this damn toy, driving from place to place. So instead of doing that and spending half your weekend, you go to asksunday.com, which gives you a digital concierge with 24/7 access. You get something like 15 enquiries for $39 per month. Call them up and say, “This is the toy I want. Please call every store within a 20 mile radius until you find the toy. Have it reserved behind the desk with my name and call me back and tell me where it is.” That call cost you $2 and saved you hours.
When deciding where to allocate your time, determine your relative income versus your annual income. Annual income is a very accepted number because you could get a raise, which I call a phantom raise, from say $50,000 to $60,000, but have an increase in your responsibilities of 30%, 35%, 40%. You’re getting progressively demoted over time! Instead, determine what your hourly rate is. If you work 40 hours a week and you take two weeks off per year, then you can cut the last three zeros off your salary and divide it in half. If you make $50,000 you cut it off to 50, you cut that in half, 25. You make $25 an hour. Now you can determine your real cost of delegation. It doesn’t need to be someone in India. It could be a retiree, or college student. The designer I currently pay the most is a junior in college, and ten years ago he wouldn’t have had the option of selling his services to me, but now he uses elance.com so I’m able to find him.
Secondly, this is bringing up another concept, but let’s just say that you want to make more income with the same number of clients. In the same way that you can take advantage of geographical arbitrage by finding someone in Bangalore for $4 an hour who is both more competent and faster than someone in the US in many cases which you can find for any type of programming or research or data compilation, competitive analysis. You can also, let’s just say tracking the difference in dollar and pound sterling decide to use elance, the same exact tool, to sell to clients in the UK. Take advantage of that discrepancy.
So, in the recording engineer example, I would say, “If you’re not willing to address work hours, then start cutting back on minutia of time consuming activities of personal life.”
Then secondly, this is a very hard concept for most people to accept, a big part of having extra time to allocate - for either personally gratifying activities or high impact revenue generating activities - is getting over yourself. For years and years I thought I was the only person who could check my email. As if I had this unique capability of processing email. It’s like, all right, come on. At the end of the day I’m hitting send receive like a rat with a pellet dispenser. Self-validate, self-validate, I’m important, I’m important. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I get more than 1,000 emails a day, just to put things in perspective.
I put up a blog post recently called “The Holy Grail – How to Never Check Your Email Again”, where I talked about how I deconstructed my own process for checking email. So when you go through email generally it’s just a process of looking at the email, reading the subject line and the sender and asking yourself a series of questions. Based on those answers you can either respond, archive, delete, etc. Very, very discreet explicit questions that you ask and then based on a, b, c or d make decisions. So I simply went through email for a few hours one and put down all of these rules so to speak in a Word document. Then I gave those rules to a virtual assistant in Vancouver, and ended up delegating this to her, and she’s probably 95% as effective as I would be doing it myself, but instead of checking 1,000 emails a day, she and I have one call at 4:00 each day for about ten minutes where we decide on the few items that she needs my input on. I went from ten hours a day to ten minutes a day. I would consider that a very wise application of capital.
I read The 4-Hour Workweek after reading this other really great book called E-Myth Revisited. It’s about realizing that everything you do in your business is this kind of process. Even if you feel, “No, I am the only one who can do this. I have the master touch. I have the fingers.” It’s like, well, everything you do can be described in a system. You just have to get yourself used to thinking about it in that way. I took that experiment with my own company: taking the stuff that was still getting thrown at me as the owner, and asked, “Well - how am I making these decisions?” I had to analyze my own brain - my thought process. Writing down how I was deciding what business deals are worth doing, or who to say no to, or how to take care of somebody who’s upset - and just turned it into a system. That I then taught everybody else how to do this stuff, and pretty soon they didn’t need me for anything anymore.
Exactly! At one point I was managing between 200 and 300 contract employees. 60% of my email was not from customers, not from distributors, but was from my employees asking me questions for permission or guidance on various things. I realized, “Well this isn’t gonna scale. If I get twice the number of customers, I’m dead!” So as an experiment, I told the managers in charge of these various functions, “From this point forward, I’m not your customer. The customer is your customer. If you can fix anything for less than $100, make the decision yourself. Record it in an Excel spreadsheet along with the date, then I’ll just review the monthly numbers. If the numbers are going up, I’ll be happy. If they’re going down, then we need to look at something.” Ultimately that $100 threshold moved up all the way to about $500, but it immediately reduced my email burden from about 40 hours a week to 18 hours a week. With that initial time I was able to go and focus on high level revenue-generating activities.
That one simple request ended up doubling our wholesale revenue in about five weeks. And that’s a lot. I mean it was already a big number. Actually doubled our wholesale revenue. My cost of paying employees decreased about 30% because they no longer had to be handheld by me. Most people are actually pretty smart when you give them a few guidelines and responsibility, and they take it seriously. The customers were happier because there was a faster response time. So setting a financial threshold for independent decision making, if you have employees, is very important. Otherwise you suffer from what I call empowerment failure, where you work too much and your employees get frustrated.
With my own company, I just had to learn to let go. I realized I could be a total control freak, diving in to solve every problem, and maybe I’d do it a little better than they did. But I had to learn to say “good enough” - and just let it go.
I agree. Here are a few questions you’re gonna ask yourself whenever you feel overwhelmed:
- “If I were to never retire how do my decisions and priorities change?”
- “If I get what I want - if I win the game, whether that’s doubling the number of customers, tripling revenue, or whatever - is my work flow scalable? Is my lifestyle scalable?”
- “Is indefinite growth a good thing? Why are you in this business? Is it really just to grow indefinitely? Is it to sell it? If you sell it, what do you do? What are your alternative activities?”
People think that filling the void is easy, but it is one of the hardest things in the world to do. So if I remove the work in the office what are those alternative activities? If you have let your interests and passion atrophy to the point of near extinction, it’s very important to experiment with redistributing retirement throughout life, in the form of mini-retirements. So that you cultivate and maintain those passions, or at some point if you sell your company and you’re like, OK, now what?
I know that if my creative friends had more free time, they’d put it into creative pursuits, which would probably end up being better for them and their career than the stuff they do spend their time on.
Your book asked, “What would you do if you had $100 million?” I love that you picked a crazy amount, where even if you were to pay off every single debt for all your family and friends, and buy the home of your dreams, and every stupid luxury you’ve ever dreamed of, you’d still have $85 million left. Then it really makes you think about things differently. Then you ask, “What if you really never had to work again? What would you do?” Then, “Imagine you just went to the doctor and were told that you have a serious heart condition, where if you work more than two hours a week you will die. What would you do? What activities would be worth those two hours of your time?” Even as a musician, I think it’s a really interesting question to ask yourself. If you didn’t have to do anything what would you do? What if you couldn’t do anything? What would you do with the little bit of time you spent? Of course it makes you focus on what’s really really important.
I agree. We spoke about briefly the 80/20 principle. This concept was introduced by Vilfredo Pareto who was an economist and sociologist in Italy, where he realized that 20% of the population possessed 80% of the wealth. He also noticed that 20% of peapods provide 80% of the peas. This predictably huge discrepancy between inputs and outputs. So we talked about identifying the 20% of activities or people that consume 80% of your time. Also identify the 20% of actions, services, or customers that give you 80% of your profit.
Then there’s Parkinson’s Law which I think is very, very important to keep in mind. It says that a task will swell in complexity and perceived difficulty depending upon the amount of time that you allocate to it.
So with the 80/20 principle, you’re limiting your tasks to the critical few versus the trivial many to decrease the amount of time required. Then with Parkinson’s Law, you’re constraining the time allocated to force yourself to focus on the critical few. What’s amazing is when you use both in tandem.
The heart condition story you quoted is unfortunately from a real world example. There was a man, who worked for a very large company in acquisitions, and was very, very good at it. He had a heart attack, with triple bypass surgery, and the doctor said he had to stop - that his body could not withstand the amount of work he was doing - that he was risking death. He retired, but because his entire identity was based on the work that he had been doing, he had no alternative activities, no alternative interests. 48 hours after he retired, he put on a suit and tie, and tried to go back to work. His wife asked, “What on earth are you doing?” But he said, “I can’t do this. I need to either start a company, buy a company, or get a job. I just can’t do this.” Then died of a heart attack a few weeks later. Long life is not guaranteed, folks. It’s important to really question this deferred-life plan that saves all retirement for the end.
All the musicians I know have a to-do list of things that they know they should be doing to promote their music. They look at this list of things and take the low-hanging fruit first. “Oh that’s easy. I’ll do that one, now let me check my email again. I’ll post something to my blog, now let me check my email again.” Pretty soon they find they filled all their time doing the least important stuff.
I heard this beautiful bit of advice once that said, “If you’ve got a list of 20 things you should be doing, pick the most important one or two and then just let go of the rest. You will never upload your music to every one of these sites. You will never contact every person. You will never enter every contest. Just take the one or two things that would make the biggest difference in your career, do those one or two, then stop. Turn your attention to the next one or two most important.”
In your book you advise against multi-tasking, saying instead of trying to multi-task, give yourself a limit to do one or two important things per day that would make you feel that you had a day well spent. Right? Asking, “What are the one or two things that, if that’s all you did today, today would have been well-spent?”
The beginning of my trip in 2004 was four weeks in London. I wanted to remove myself from my routine to either redesign or shut down my business. The one rule that I set for myself was that I could not check email for more than one hour each Monday. By forcing that, it paved the way for making a lot of major business changes. But what I realized is that there’s a big difference between feeling productive and being productive. You learn how to distinguish between being busy and being productive. I recognized that I had been putting 50 things onto my to-do list each day. I’d get four of them done and then I’d copy the rest to the next day. It just compounded in this ridiculous way.
So now I got rid of the Palm Pilot, and instead I use a regular sheet of paper, folded it over a few times, which provides a spatial limit to the number of things that I can write down. I’ll make a to-do list. Then I’ll go through and I’ll simply ask, the day before, “If this were the only thing I achieved tomorrow, would I be satisfied with the outlook of the day?” If I can’t answer yes to that, it should not be the first thing I do. So don’t check email first thing in the day. It will put you in reactive mode. Check email at 10:00 or 11:00 and focus on those one or two important things instead.
Don’t use your email as a to do list. So often you’re checking email and you’re like, “Ah, OK. Mark as unread. I’ll just leave that there to remind me later.” That causes a problem because every time you’re in the inbox you’ll find some type of crisis or problem and it will pull you in. So there’s no such thing as checking one email. Instead, externalize that in some form of list as quickly as possible.
Focus on work-life separation, where you really set finite times beyond which you switch your focus away from whatever you decide is work. If work-time is done, but you think of some work-thing you need to do, don’t go into your email. Just leave a voicemail for yourself with a reminder, or use jott.com which turns your voicemail into an email. Also don’t BIF people, which stands for “Before I Forget”. If it’s 10:00 p.m. and you email someone, it creates two expectations: (1) you’re available during that time, and (2) the person on the receiving end is obligated to respond during that time.
Assume that income has no practical value without time, because income is renewable, while time is not. Time has no value without attention. If you have to choose between feeling bored or feeling productive, you’re going to choose to feel productive, whether you are really productive or not. If you have a void, meaningless busy-work will expand to fill that time, because it makes you feel better.
You wake up on Saturday and you haven’t planned your weekend because you’re too busy during the week. So you wake up Saturday and you’re like “Oh, what should I do, what should I do? Oh, I’ll just check email for a second.” If you do, you end up there for two hours! But let’s just say you have the self discipline to check email for only two minutes. But you see one email with a crisis or a problem that you can’t address until Monday morning. You’re going to be preoccupied for the rest of the weekend. On the spectrum between pure productivity and pure personal time, you end up in the middle where you achieve neither. So think of attention management as much as you think of time management.
David Allen who wrote the book “Getting Things Done” had a follow up book called “Ready for Anything” that was more philosophical. It said “The world throws opportunities your way every single week. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed already, you’re not going to be able to embrace them. Keep your mind clear of these feelings of obligations so you can be open to receiving new opportunities.” I thought that was such a beautiful way of putting it.
That’s a good point - recognizing you can’t fix an overwhelmed feeling with more work. Overwhelmed is not due to lack of time - it’s due to lack of priorities, right? Another flaw in most time management systems is they focus on filling your time - every minute of every day should be filled with a work vision of some kind. Or they don’t instruct you on how to minimize the work. Especially if you tend to wear overwork ethic as some kind of badge of honor, which I know many artists do. Laziness is not less action. Laziness can mean blurred priorities and indiscriminate action. You can be very busy running around with a cell phone to your head 24 hours a day and still be very lazy because you’re not taking the time to prioritize.
I used to admire people that would say things like, “I haven’t taken a day off in 17 years!” But your book made me look at that stuff in a new way. Now when somebody says that they work all the time, they never have a minute off, and they’re constantly checking their Blackberry, I think, “You’re really not in control of your life, are you?”
Let’s talk about another idea from your book, about going to role models and asking their advice. You said to yourself, “I would like to have a number one bestselling book with the biggest publisher in the world and I wonder how to do that.” You contacted best-selling authors and award-winning authors to ask their advice. In hindsight, what insight really came from that? Do you think there would be a benefit for up-and-coming artists to contact successful artists, to ask their advice?
Yeah. I do it for everything. To learn anything quickly, I approach people who did it correctly and say, “I have an idea, but I don’t know anything, so can I buy you a beer and pick your brain? I’m really ambitious but kind of ignorant.” Whether it’s language learning or tango or kickboxing. That’s how I did all of it. That’s how I identified the rules of engagements, so I could deconstruct them.
With my book, I wanted to do two things. I wanted to have a number one New York Times bestseller, and I wanted to have a legacy of book that I would be proud of. So I interviewed two groups of people: best-sellers and best-writers. They’re not that hard to find, if they’re not in the media spotlight. If they were bestsellers four or five years ago, generally they’re very willing to help. If you’re specific.
Humility goes a long way. Rather than saying, “I did this, this, this and this. Let’s meet and swap ideas,” be very humble about it and say, “I’ve done as much research and background work as I think I can. Here are just three questions I’d love to ask you.” Start with just two sentences on who you are, why you’re credible and not a stalker. Instead of, “Let’s spend ten minutes on the phone,” just ask your questions right there in the email, adding, “If it’s easier for you, please feel free to call me. Use *67 if you don’t want me to have your number.” Then they’ll either get back to you by email or they might just call you.
I contacted the best-writing authors (Pulizter prize winners) to talk about writing process, because the whole creative process of writing a 300 page book scared the living hell out of me. But in speaking with them, there was no consensus - the act of creation was very different from person to person. So I interviewed one of the top ghost writers out there who can kick out amazing books in six weeks. I don’t know how that’s humanly possible, but she just does it over and over again. So in the marketing side, the bestselling authors, there was a lot of consensus.
One of the questions I always ask, whether it’s in language or tango or publishing is, “What were the one or two biggest wastes of time?” Universally these authors said book signings and touring. So I did no book touring, I did no book signings. And opted instead to play my hand in the world of blogs.
If you go to South by Southwest and just ask questions, after a while people are like, “At least this guy’s honest about not knowing certain things.” Then eventually they’ll say, “Who are you again? What do you do?” And I’ll say, “Oh, I’m writing a book.” They say, “OK, what’s it about?” Da da da da da. Bump into them three times and they’ll say, “Hey if you want you can send me a copy of your book.” This absolutely works very, very well. Much better than doing the usual, “Hey, I’ve done this, I’ve done that. Let me send you a book. It would be awesome if you could review it on your blog. Yeah thanks.”
As for musicians contacting their role models, it’s important to get more granular than just successful musicians. Look at people and ask yourself, “Would I want to be where they are in life?” Overall happiness and success, not just Billboard charts and number of albums sold. I had a friend who was making a ton of money in day trading on Wall Street. He was raving about his boss that makes $500,000 a week. I asked, “What kind of guy is he?” And he said, “Oh, man he’s nuts. He carries his briefcase around with his divorce papers in it, just in case his wife pisses him off.” Is that really the guy you want to emulate? Maybe you should kind of telescope out a few years and ask yourself, “I that where I want to be?” Really be specific in what you’re trying to accomplish.
Ooooh. I think getting specific is one of the best bits of advice for almost everyone. When I hear musicians say, “I’m trying to find a booking agent,” I have to reply, “Which one? Who are you trying to find? What venue do you want to play? Just call the venue and ask which agents they use. Which artists do you want to emulate? Go online to find out who their agent is. Then you’re no longer looking. You’ve found the guy and you just pick up the phone and call him.” Getting specific can turn vague desire into concrete action.
When I was promoting my own music years ago, I decided I wanted to be in Rolling Stone magazine. So I bought a Rolling Stone and looked in the tiny fine print on page 6 where they publish their contact info. I knew that if I asked Rolling Stone which publicists they like, then I'd know which publicists could get me into Rolling Stone. But before calling the main number, I thought, “Hmm... I want to get through to the editorial department, so I don't want to sound like a novice. I'll bet if I sound like the people who do this all the time, they'll patch me right through.” So I called up and the receptionist said, “Rolling Stone,” and I said in my best weary impatient voice, “Editorial, please,” and she patched me right through. Once on with the guy in editorial, I just politely asked, “I'm not promoting anything today, just calling from a label that's looking for a new publicist. Wondering - which ones would you recommend?” The guy was quite nice and gave me a few names. I thanked him and now I had my specific road map for how to get in Rolling Stone!
Heheh... that’s great. Great story. The phone is awesome. Email sucks for getting a hold of people, because it’s the crowded channel. If you’re trying to contact a blogger, for example, if you send an email, you’re one of 15,000. Chances are you’re not going to get a response. That’s why I chose to contact people in person. If they’re in a bar in the corner guess what? You’ve kind of got them caught. And if you’re tactful about it then they’ll actually talk to you.
Even though your book is about outsourcing almost everything possible, you really decided to take on the promotion yourself. Wired Magazine called you the greatest self-promoter in the world. So I’m wondering, why did you decide to do the promotion yourself? Could you share a few of the most effective actions or philosophies that you developed while promoting the book?
The word promotion kind of has this dirty ring to it - a lot of negative connotations. The reason that I didn’t want to outsource the promotion is I wanted to promote my book by having interesting conversations in very public forums.
Whether music or books, in very few cases will the product just speak for itself. So you use marketing to acquire customers, and product to keep customers. You need to use those two in tandem. You need to learn how to sell around your product. This is particularly true with bloggers. It’s true with producers at Oprah. It’s true with people that get inundated with sales pitches. You need to learn how to sell around your product.
If your product is your music, how can you sell around it so that you avoid the aversion people have to hearing, “Buy my shit, buy my shit, buy my shit!”? The way you avoid that is to have an interesting story to tell.
Most people just want somebody at a giant press outlet to write an article about their music. Wouldn’t it be more effective for you to have five articles on the top of five sites where they say, “Here’s an interesting story about this guy, who by the way is the founder of this band,” with a link to iTunes, CD Baby, and Amazon?
What’s the objective here? I think that a two step approach where it’s not a featured article about your music but rather a link that takes them to that featured article that you probably wrote yourself about you and your music is much more effective. So the seller around the product would be you the person, any type of story that you might have.
For example, I launched my blog at the same time the book was just coming out, and put up a post called “From Geek to Freak, How I Gained 34 Pounds of Muscle in 28 Days” with before-and-after photographs. People went nuts. It was in Wired magazine and linked everywhere online, causing this huge shit-storm of comments saying both, “This is amazing, oh my God,” and “You’re a liar, you douche!” It set off this firestorm which is exactly what I wanted.
Thing is, I had actually done this transformation two years earlier, but didn’t blog about it until I had something to promote. On the surface it has nothing to do with my book. But what does it do? It brings people to my blog. Guess what’s on my blog? A nice little “Ding!” up in the corner about my book.
Polarizing is very important. Don’t try to make everyone your customer and don’t try to make everyone happy. Be very, very honest. Don’t be offensive for the sake of being offensive. Don’t start problems for the sake of starting problems. Be honest, like three glasses in with a group of friends. If most people presented their opinions as they do in that environment to the public they would be much more successful in everything they do, because they’ll polarize people. People will say, “Damn that guy’s a riot.” So few people are honest and direct.
Online, this can create a support group - one of the benefits of dominating a very small niche. I went after the audiences that read a handful of tech blogs in Silicon Valley. That was the niche I wanted because I know that even though they represent a small number of people geographically, they are the loudest and most prolific online. By winning a fan base of 100 technophiles that spend most of their time online, then if people attack me online, then I would have other people defending it. That’s why it’s important not to spend your time online defending yourself. Give other people a chance to join into the melee. For those of you who have the sort of emotional stamina to deal with attacks and death threats and so forth, I really encourage you to start a blog, then you can support that community.
I didn’t talk about my book in interviews. I didn’t talk about my book on blogs. I would talk about Best Buy shifting from presence to performance, Gen Y and how they’re willing to sacrifice income for greater flexibility, why people want to work at Google, even though they don’t always pay well. I’d discuss these larger trends, and the link would always say Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. I don’t care if they don’t write about it, I just want them to get the attribution right.
Most of the top sellers on CD Baby are artists who have a story. Instead of just saying, “My name’s Jane Smith. Check out my music. It’s really good.” - they have a unique noteworthy angle. One of our top sellers is this woman who’s a full time sailor and sails around the world, then once a year pulls home to Nova Scotia and records an album then goes back to sailing full time. Every sailing magazine writes great stories about her, because she has an interesting story besides just the music itself. You may have heard the quote, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” That’s why you’ve got to have something else besides just the music itself to talk about.
Yeah! It’s funny: My entire book cost $25,000 to launch, but subtract $18,000 of that because I was pressured to go with this PR firm at first, so I anted up $6000 a month for them to say, “We’re seeding the ground. We’re working on relationships. We’re just building up momentum.” After three months, they only got one print feature, so I cut it. The remaining money was spent going to conferences to meet bloggers in person.
I would necessarily go after the top five bloggers, because they get ten million emails a day. Instead, I would identify the influentials by asking conference organizers, “Who are the thought leaders in this space? Not the guys who have 20 million people reading their blogs, but the guys who the traffic leaders are reading?” Who are those thought leaders? They’re easier to reach.
Maybe the people who have popular commercial blogs also have personal blogs. Don’t contact engadget. Forget it, you’re never going to hear from them. Comment on their personal blog. By taking that indirect approach it makes it easy for the traffic leaders to link to you because you’re cited or covered or mentioned on this thought leader’s blog.
I always knew what they wrote about. I was always familiar with what they were doing. Whenever I sent an email or letter to someone, I would spend quite a bit of time crafting it. It would basically saying something like the following:
- A quick “This is who I am” up front, for credibility.
- “I’ve been reading your stuff for quite a while. I just read this particular post and thought the real story or part of what you might want to talk about or couldn’t talk about is this.”
- “You may not find it of any interest. I know you get a ton of emails, but pages 98 to 102 in my book address this specific topic. I think you’d really dig it and it would be awesome to know you have some of my writing since I enjoy your writing so much. I don’t expect you to write about it or anything. It would just be cool for me to send it off to you. I totally understand if you say no, I’m sure you get a lot of this but if would totally make my day. If you have time, let me know.”
And I got an incredible response rate from that. Because most people don’t write emails like that. It’s not “Hey this might improve your life,” or “Hey help me for nothing.” That doesn’t work.