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What I've learnt: Seth Godin

Marketing expert Seth Godin on failure, trust and canoeing
Leading marketer Seth Godin
Richard Cannon

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If you see a problem, you have an obligation to try to solve it

Seth Godin, 52, has been called "America's greatest marketer". A serial entrepreneur, he has founded dozens of companies, most of which, by his own admission, have failed. Of those that haven't, the most notable is probably Squidoo.com, a website that allows individuals to build a page about a topic that interests them. The site raises money for charity and also pays royalties to members. Godin's most successful product, however, has been himself. The author of more than a dozen books, including bestsellers such as Permission Marketing, All Marketers Are Liars and Purple Cow, and with a hugely popular personal blog, he has established himself as one of the world's best known business thinkers. His latest book is The Icarus Deception, in which he urges us to forsake obedience and conformity and be 'artists', taking risks and doing remarkable work.

The most important thing I've learnt is that it's all going to be OK. I've failed more times than almost every entrepreneur I've ever met and I'm proud of every one of the failures. When I was at college, I started 30 different businesses on campus — a ticket bureau, a travel agency, a temporary employment agency, you name it — and about half of them didn't work.

None of those businesses was about making money, they were about solving a problem. What's fascinated me in my career is how did we brainwash everybody else not to go solve the problem and not to raise their hand when they've got a question? I learnt from my parents that if you see a problem, you have an obligation to try to solve it. My dad was the volunteer head of the local theatre and the United Way. My mum was the first woman on the board of the museum in Buffalo. We weren't rich — my dad had a good job — but they did this because it was their job to do the right thing. They taught me that failure's not going to kill you, but not trying is worse than anything you can imagine.

When I was 17 I started teaching canoeing in northern Canada. A Canadian canoe is 16 feet long and made out of wood. When you paddle it with one person in it, you can tilt it all the way to the side and do tricks. I spent my summers teaching kids how to conquer their fear of being in this boat by themselves on a windy lake. For me the lesson was if you teach someone to overcome a fear of any kind, they will never forget what you did for them and it will change who they are. I've been trying to recapture that feeling ever since, of touching people at that level.

Society is full of people who will give you exactly what you ordered. They will put the chips in the bag or they will drive the car from point A to point B, and I'm glad we have people who do that. But we don't remember those people, they have no impact on us, they're just temporary robots for hire and over time more and more of them will be replaced by actual robots. Jobs will disappear because the computer can do them better. So the niche that will be left for us is the niche of work that matters: standing out, not fitting in, asking difficult questions and solving interesting problems. But we don't teach any of this in school.

School is the way it is because industrialists paid for it. It was invented 150 years ago in Manchester, England, and its function is to train people to sit still, take notes, regurgitate what they are told and become compliant factory workers. It worked really well for a really long time. But we don't need that any more. The race to the bottom for the cheapest factory workers is over and we didn't win it — which is probably a good thing.

With all the online services you are either the customer or the product that is being sold. So what's happening at Twitter and Facebook is they are selling you to someone else. You are not the customer, the customer is the person who is buying the ads. I think Twitter would become a significantly more effective tool if the top three million users were each billed ten dollars a month. The company would bring in at least $360m a year in profit, which would be pretty extraordinary. But instead they choose to sell people's attention. So don't be surprised when your attention gets sold in ways you don't like, because you don't have a lot of choice in the matter. It's the price we pay for getting all these services for free.

If people have heard about you from someone else, they're far more likely to want to do business with you. But we don't take the time to build that platform. If we did, it would pay dividends. I've never once met someone who said, "I'm too well known and too trusted, I can't figure out how to make a living!"

When the media landscape changes, the first thing existing companies say is, "How can I do what I'm doing now but get paid for it in the new format?" Which is the wrong question. People look at the iPad and say, "Wow, this magazine looks cool on the iPad, I'm in the magazine business, how do I get my magazine on the iPad?" That's the wrong question. The question is, "What do people want to use the iPad for? And how do I make something that makes them delighted?" Whether the thing that I make uses my journalists and my assets is irrelevant. Because no one cares about those things. People care about themselves. And if you give them something that's right for them, they will embrace it. Right now, newspapers and magazines have a very brief window where they are trusted by a group of people who will give them money. That's what they have to transfer. Transfer the trust, don't transfer the format.

We need more hubris. Not the hubris of greed and lying, but the hubris of saying, "I made this. I am responsible for it. What do you think?" And it's so hard to get someone to say that. We'll do anything rather than take responsibility.

Interview by Tim Hulse. The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin is published by Portfolio Penguin, £12.99.

Tim Hulse

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