02 February 2012

Seth Godin: Big in the IT Business

Seth Godin has transformed our understanding of marketing in IT. He invented the concept of 'permission marketing', sees the end of the "TV-Industrial complex" and the techniques of 'interruption-marketing' Instead he sees a sunny future, one where the consumer has the power to drive sales on merit

Even a decade ago, during the long forgotten days of high-waisted jeans, Seth Godin was lionised and spoken of as a minor deity among online marketing folk.

It was some years before advertising wizards would go virus mad, unleashing an epidemic of outright mediocrity on an undeserving public after misunderstanding his book ‘Unleashing the Ideavirus’ – it quickly became the most popular e-book ever published. The irony was lost on some.


Technology has played a big part in Seth’s life. He graduated from Tufts University near Boston with a degree in computer science and philosophy, then went on to lead a team at Spinnaker Software which created computer games for the 8-bit Commodore 64.

The games, Godin says, were so large that they needed four floppy disks apiece and the projects so complex that smoke more than once began coming out of the drives.

He remembers that in the 1980s product success with software was measured by an absence of fires and the ability to avoid a nervous breakdown.

Now the author of thirteen books, he has splashed through the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything. Each book has been an international bestseller, translated into more than 20 languages.

He’s responsible for debunking traditional ways of marketing, an industry which has had so often tendrilled itself with the bleeding obvious and given the English language some the most impenetrable meanings in the marketer’s handbook including permission marketing, ideaviruses, purple cow, the dip and sneezers.

For some his writing draws parallels with the nineteenth century – he possesses a Victorian work ethic, he is a 21st century Samuel Smiles whose own book Self Help, was published to advocate the benefits of “painstaking labour” and unremitting study”. Seth Godin could well have written that ‘every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish.’

As an entrepreneur Seth has had his share of failures and successes. His first business Yoyodyne pioneered the use of ethical direct mail online.

When Yoyodyne was bought by Yahoo! in 1998, he became VP of Direct Marketing for a year before leaving to become a full time speaker, writer and blogger.

He was one of the first to realise that the media world – the big, official one where reporters wear sensible shoes – was becoming less of a distinct entity and that this generation; more so than any before it, thrives on communication and the manic urgency of change and reform.

A regular at Business of Software conferences, his latest company Squidoo.com, is ranked among the top 125 sites in the US (by traffic) by Quantcast. It allows anyone to build a page about any subject.

He holds an MBA from Stanford (which he completed while holding down his job at Spinnaker Software) and was called “the Ultimate Entrepreneur for the Information Age” by Business Week. Seth lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York with his wife Helene and their two sons.

Seth, your first real job was leading a team at Spinnaker Software which created computer games for the Commodore 64, among other things. How and why did you get the job?
I got the job the way most people do… sort of as an accident. I had been offered a job as assistant to the President of Activision, at the time the fastest growing company in the history of the world. As a summer job from Stanford Business School, what could be better? My goal was fast, not software. While I had studied computer science (ht to George Meyfarth, wherever he is) I wasn’t very good at it.

Well, family intervened and I ended up in Boston with weeks to go before the summer and no job. Lucky for me, when I called the company (Spinnaker Software) late in the evening, the chairman of the company picked up the main number. He invited me in, hired me for the summer and then… on my first day, realized he hadn’t told anyone I was coming. Awkward.

It went uphill from there.

What were the things you had to learn about industrial software and programming?
It’s like architecture and contracting mixed together, except you can’t see the progress easily and more hands do not make things go faster. A lot of people think they know what they’re doing, few do. The biggest insight: devote all your resources to helping the people who do.
I was reading Poke the Box which explains why it is important to keep poking away and inventing new ways to work, coming up with new ideas and new products but most importantly to get the idea or product out there.

Talking specifically about technology the counter argument to more products is that the invention of new technology seems to be totally random. Some things get better, some worse. It’s like evolution but isn’t goal-directed.

I suppose the most obvious example is something really simple like the USB. The universal protocols it dictates require a huge amount of software to support. To develop such software requires reading thousands of pages of specs. Which are neither complete nor accurate. So then someone develops an interface chip that encapsulates the complexity, and then you must learn to use that chip, which is at least as complex.

Why is it so tempting to solve problems that we don’t really have?

What do you mean by “really”? Brown rice, a leakproof roof and some shoes and you have few problems left, right? All that other stuff, that detritus, is merely amusement. Our economy is built on want, not need.
There has a lot of focus on Code Year, which is to try and get more people to realize the importance of programming. A lot of people have signed up including the New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

There’s an argument which starts that programming teaches a way of thinking that’s important, it gives you order and structure in life.

Opponents to this, say programmers are misunderstanding the world in exactly the same way everybody else does and programming doesn’t make you intellectually superior. What camp are you in?

“Intellectually superior?” There’s a loaded term. I think it’s simple: any time you learn a way of thinking that is useful for a productive portion of the population, you’ve done something brilliant. There’s no one way, no right way, but this is sure a good way.

I taught intro computer science in college, the youngest person in the engineering school to do so. And I never got much better at it. But there’s no doubt that I learned a huge amount about how to think.

Now we need to get programmers to start writing and painting and reading poetry. Then we’ll be even.

Do you feel that academic computer science and industrial programming meet in the right place? Are there areas where academics are out in front of industry? Where industry is ignoring good stuff about how we ought to build software.
My limited experience with the state of the art of computer science feels a lot like the way business is taught in business school-don’t go there if you actually want to learn useful skills for everyday life.

There’s no doubt that some practical breakthroughs will occur, but my guess is that 100x as many breakthroughs come from programmers doing actual work.

For the real breakthroughs we should look to computer science for are ones that change the questions we’re asking, not ones that answer them.

When I was in high school, no one told me that people had written down algorithms. So I “invented” the bubble sort, from nothing. I still remember how it felt when I discovered that it worked…

Why do you think it is that people these days measure a computer scientists by standards of dollars or by applications beauty rather than measure the contributions to knowledge, even though contributions to knowledge are the necessary ingredient to make previously unthinkable applications possible?
Partly because the computer science guys asked to be measured that way. In many cases, they promise real world innovation right around the corner. But that’s an engineering concern, not an academic one.
Do you still think that computing needs a ‘grand challenge’ to inspire it much in the same way that the lunar challenge in the 1960s sparked a decade of collaborative innovation and development in engineering and space technology?
I actually don’t think the space challenge was the only cause of the explosion of innovation that occurred. A big part of it was that science and engineering were ready, that computers were coming online and that DARPA was very active.

These are the good old days. Right now. Ultra connected, highly leveraged.

You’re rightly known as a great marketer and as an author. Do you try to write books that will make a fortune for people or try to imagine which books are needed most, or which books would be the most fun to read?
None of these. I write to satisfy the voice in my head, to spread ideas I care about and to help people see an outcome or possibility they might not have considered before.
Has any philosopher influenced your work?
Many of them, some obscure and some not taught in philosophy class. Doug Hofstadter, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Steve Pressfield, Pema Chodron, and my buddy Zig Ziglar. And maybe Dr. Who and Mr. Spock…
Would you still publish books whether or not it had any huge commercial value?
Of course! They actually don’t have huge commercial value. I’ve created more shareholder value with my two internet companies than I will with the next 100 books I write. Authors and publishers get in trouble when they pretend that this is a business. It’s not. For every JK Rowling, there are literally 100,000 failed writers. Is there any real industry where this is true?
Do you have any long-range ambitions or regrets as a writer? Have you already written the greatest book of your life or is it still to come? Do you throw away a lot of ideas?
Yes, maybe and yes.
Which book do you think contains your best ideas?
Survival is Not Enough combines Darwin with rapid loops of change in today’s organizations. And Linchpin is the book that resonated with the most people, arguing that compliant cogs are facing a rough road ahead.
You mentioned to me prior to this interview that Don Knuth was someone you admire. What do you most admire about him? Have you read The Art of Computer Programming?

Some people I’ve interviewed have read it from cover to cover; some have it on a shelf for reference. And some people just have it on a shelf.

Academia often pretends it wants a singular voice to arise, a bold breakthrough and a gutsy artist to take a chance and lay it out for us. Too often, this just isn’t true. Too often, it’s about meetings and committees and fear, just like real life. I remember when I studied CS at Tufts and saw his work and said, “this guy isn’t afraid.”
When you look back at your career on all the things you have done is there one time or a period that stands out among all the others?
I am amazed at how formative the years were years ago. How lucky I was to escape the bad breaks I had. How persistent I had to be to get over the hump. And how much leverage there can be on the other side.

This is available to anyone who wants to sharpen a pencil and find an appropriately sized project. The magic of collaboration and worldwide instant publication is that yes, important ideas are going to spread, and I have no doubt your readers have more important ideas than I do.

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Richard Morris is a journalist, author and public relations/public affairs consultant. He has written for a number of UK and US newspapers and magazines and has offered strategic advice to numerous tech companies including Digital Island, Sony and several ISPs. He now specialises in social enterprise and is, among other things, a member of the Big Issue Invest advisory board. Big Issue Invest is the leading provider to high-performing social enterprises & has a strong brand name based on its parent company The Big Issue, described by McKinsey & Co as the most well known and trusted social brand in the UK.

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