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Anything You Want
Flyby Biographies Issue #2
Welcome to the 2nd Edition of Flyby Biographies. 🎉
This post is a crispy 12-minute read and contains lessons from one of my favorite entrepreneurship books.
I'm not kidding when I say I've read this book 5 times already. Just this year! The short page count definitely helps (you can read it in an hour or so), but it's really the solid lessons that always hook me in.
If I only had one book to take with me as I launched and scaled a business, this would be it.
The book is "Anything You Want" by Derek Sivers (3rd Edition), and I'd say it's an absolute MUST-read for all entrepreneurs of any kind. That means you!
This book shares the story of how Derek bootstrapped and scaled his tiny hobby CD Baby into a multi-million dollar business with 85 employees over 10 years despite his best efforts in trying to get it to not grow and stay small!
Since the book is quite short, I'll only focus on the initial, or startup phase of things to keep it on theme. But the book covers everything from startup ($500) to (accidental) growth (oops) to exit ($22 million). I suggest reading the whole thing when you get a chance.
But for now, Let's hit play. 📼
The premise of the book is to build your own personal utopia with the sole aim of doing what's best for your customers. This is how Derek sees business. I like this dichotomy. It's a very Zen-like approach to doing things and perfectly resonates with me.
The business itself is something you LOVE working on, and the process, day-to-day work itself is the purpose, rather than some end goal, needless growth or future payout. The target of the business is to be useful to the world and improve your customer's lives, immediately, right now, in the present. This is a win-win positive-sum game scenario where everybody wins. You’ll be happy because you’re working on something you enjoy. The customers will be happy because your product and service provide them with something that improves their lives. And in the end, you'll be rewarded as a side-effect, even though that wasn't the main aim.
It's bringing the goal from some hypothetical future state that may or may not materialize right here into the present moment, where everybody wins.
The way I see it, this is the balance, or "the Tao of business." The input brings you joy and makes you smile (work), and the output brings the world joy (product) and makes other people smile. The money (profit) is the side effect and can be used to improve both the business and your own life. Thus leading to more win-win for everybody.
Anytime either of these ends is off balance, the Tao gets disturbed —
You aren't happy working on your business? It'll show in the product, and customers will take notice, leading to a drop in sales.
Customers aren't happy with your business? This will hurt your brand, sales will drop, and It will affect how you feel and make you unhappy.
So it's about continuously balancing the yin and the yang of the equation so that both sides are operating smoothly, like a well-oiled machine.
Just selling my CD 💿
Derek describes how he came across founding CD Baby in the chapter "Just selling my CD." Feel free to read the story (and the whole book, for that matter). It's awesome. But the gist is clearly a case of "Scratch your own itch." Something I've written about many times here as the best way to come up with a business idea if you are still figuring out what to do.
Derek was a musician at the time and wanted to sell his CD on this shiny new thing called "the internet." Back then, there wasn't any PayPal or payment processors, so he did the next best thing— He invented one. He taught himself computer programming, web development, business skills, and after months of hard (and satisfying) work, managed to set up a "buy it now" button on his website that people could use to purchase his CD. Soon, his friends asked if he could host their CDs as well. He said yes. The word spread, and he found himself with the beginnings of a small little business on his hands.
"Since I couldn't afford a programmer, I went to the bookstore and got a $25 book on PHP and MySQL programming. Then I sat down and learned it, with no programming experience. Necessity is a great teacher."
(As a side note, now you can just have ChatGPT teach you how to code and also tell you what you need to learn for whatever it is you want to build. I'd still mix it with some good ol' books, though. 100%.)
A week after launch, a customer asked him if there were any new releases, thinking the website was a store. A store? That's interesting. This made him ask… Wait, why isn't this a store? He decided to shift direction into what the market wanted and turned his little payment processing website into a storefront to help independent musicians get noticed without having to sell away their rights to big record labels. This became what was known as CD Baby.
He started by scratching his own itch, and then once he hit the market, he went with the flow and decided to completely serve the market (at scale) and build a real business that would be a win-win for all.
💡Ideas vs Execution 🏎️
As we've seen many, many times in the book club so far, Derek mentions the concept of Ideas vs Execution. But his description is the best I've found so far.
Ideas are a multiplier of execution.
AWFUL IDEA = -1
WEAK IDEA = 1
SO-SO IDEA = 5
GOOD IDEA = 10
GREAT IDEA = 15
BRILLIANT IDEA = 20
NO EXECUTION = $1
WEAK EXECUTION = $1000
SO-SO EXECUTION = $10,000
GOOD EXECUTION = $100,000
GREAT EXECUTION = $1,000,000
BRILLIANT EXECUTION = $10,000,000
To make a business, you need to multiply the two.
Multiply the two, and you’ve got a rough back-of-the-napkin estimate of how much a business could be worth.
Brilliant Idea X No Execution = $20
Good Idea X Great Execution = $10,000,000
So, really, it isn't so much about the idea as it is about excellence in execution. Derek suggests this is where we should focus our efforts.
In the case of CD Baby, the original idea was for him to just sell his CD on the Internet. Not open a digital storefront for indie musicians. Ideas evolve, but it's really the execution that is more important.
As Derek Says:
"No plan survives first contact with the customer."
No funding needed. Start now. 👊
This book shows you firsthand that you don't need outside funding to start executing and can build a great sustainable business simply by helping other people. Bootstrapping and lack of large budgets make you resourceful, whereas others with large pockets would be wasteful and lack a sense of urgency.
We'll see this again next week in the book club review for the $100 startup, but CD Baby is a perfect example of this.
The business was self-funded and didn't take any outside investment, even though it launched during the Dot Com era when VC money was free-flowing like a water jet cranked up to max (and then the jet fizzled out). It was built entirely on the back of being
useful to other people and providing exceptional customer service. It used its own profits to grow. According to Derek, the initial investment was only $500.
"I spent only $500 to start CD Baby. The first month, I earned back $300. But the second month, I made $700, and it was profitable every month after. "
And as Derek says, this can be scaled down all the way to one. Just start by helping one person, even if it's just a friend, then two, then ten, and finally scaling that into a product that is useful to many people at scale. Chances are, if a few people like it, then many more will as well.
You don't really need a big budget to start helping your friends.
"Starting small puts 100% of your energy on actually solving real problems for real people. It gives you a stronger foundation to grow from. It eliminates the friction of having big infrastructure and gets right to the point. And it will let you change your plan in an instant, as you're working closely with those first customers telling you what they really need."
This is the same concept as what we saw in the Lean Startup a couple months back. Check out the book club review here.
"So no, your idea doesn't need funding to start. You also don't need an MBA, a particular big client, a certain person's endorsement, a lucky break, or any other common excuse not to start."
Customer Service 👩🍳
Speaking of helping people, throughout the book, Derek underscores the importance of customer service. I would say he was really in the business of making people smile. This reminded me 100% of Jeff Johnson from the Nike story (Shoe Dog). If you remember, Jeff went over the top to delight customers, build relationships with them, get to know their preferences, and make them feel valued. Both books have a story of a conference where customers straight-up told them they prefer their business over competitors simply because of the over-the-top customer service.
It's this commitment to going all out on customer service that generates word of mouth and turns customers into raving fans. You can think of this as— customer service IS the marketing. You want to focus on existing customers and make them happy rather than looking to bring in MORE new ones. If they are thrilled, they'll end up spreading the word for you and generating word-of-mouth growth. Then, like Derek, you might be in a position where you find yourself growing TOO FAST and wanting it to slow down. But that's a good problem to have, I'd say.
"If you're ever unsure what to prioritize, just ask your customers the open-ended question, "How can I best help you now?" Then, focus on satisfying those requests.
None of your customers will ask you to turn your attention to expanding. They want you to keep your attention focused on them.
It's counterintuitive, but the way to grow your business is to focus entirely on your existing customers. Just thrill them, and they'll tell everyone. "
It's really about the Tiny details of how the entire business is run. The attention to detail in the product, going the extra mile when appropriate, making people laugh and smile. Bringing out your personality and the personality of your brand and making it shine. As I wrote once before— write your own story by helping others write theirs.
In short, whatever business you are in, transform it into the business of delivering smiles! Speaking of Jeff's, this happens to be the motto of Amazon as well (Ever notice how all their logos have a giant smile in them?). We might just learn more about this in a future edition of Flyby Biographies. *wink*
"Imagine what you'd do if your favorite rock star called. You'd drop everything and give them all the time in the world. So that's how you should treat everyone that contacts your company. Why not? You don't have time? Make time. It's how everyone deserves to be treated. It makes life better. It makes work more fun. And it's the right thing to do."
Scarcity vs Abundance 🌸
This is further reflected in the chapter in the book on Scarcity and Abundance. Really, all this comes down to running the business (and your life) from a mindset of abundance.
Abundance is rooted in a sense of gratitude and generosity, like you always have enough! Scarcity is rooted in a sense of lack and selfishness, like you always need more.
You can see this in businesses of all sizes. The best service is provided by the ones with a sense of abundance versus the ones with a scarcity mindset tend to be a big turnoff and have bad attitudes.
Scarcity tends to repel people and makes you closed up. Abundance attracts people and makes you warm and welcoming.
Scarcity is short-term thinking, with a focus on the bottom line, but ironically leading to less sales.
Abundance is long-term thinking, with a focus on delivering smiles, but ironically leading to more sales.
In the end, it all comes circling back.
Think: How can I bring more of an abundance mindset to my life and business?
Being, Not Having. 🧑🎤
This brings us to one of my favorite concepts in the book and exactly my approach to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is about
being, not having. One of the reasons I got into it is to learn about everything it takes to scale a business from the ground up (product to execution) and become a skilled entrepreneur. Not to outsource everything and sit around on a beach all day. That might work for some, but for me, it just beats the purpose. It's not about the future. It's about living with purpose right NOW!
Same with this newsletter, one of the reasons I started it was to learn how to write like a pro. It wouldn't make much sense to outsource the writing part, now would it? The goal is to become a writer, not have a successful publication that runs itself.
So, with any business, you have to decide— do you want to be the person doing the work that is meaningful to you, be the operator, or just be the owner. If your goal is learning and growing, then it might just be all three. Unless it grows too big and gets out of hand, of course (see the book for details).
As Derek mentions, this comes at the cost of speed, and you will grow at a slower rate. But again, do you care more about growth or enjoying the process and making something useful?
“When you want to learn how to do something yourself, most people won't understand. They'll assume the only reason we do anything is to get it done, and doing it yourself is not the most efficient way.
But that's forgetting about the joy of learning and doing.
Yes, it may take longer. Yes, it may be inefficient. Yes, it may even cost you millions of dollars in lost opportunities because your business is growing slower because you're insisting on doing something yourself.
But the whole point of doing anything is because it makes you happy! That's it!
You might get bigger faster and make millions if you outsourced everything to the experts. But what's the point of getting bigger and making millions? To be happy, right?
In the end, it's about what you want to be, not what you want to have.”
Don't discount the joy of learning and doing for some arbitrary pot at the end. For me, fulfillment lies 100% in the process, and that's exactly what Derek is saying here as well. Find the work that you are super excited to do, then delegate the rest as you grow. If the work you enjoy happens to be being a skilled operator and scaling big, then go for that, but you have to ask yourself, what is it that's meaningful to you and what you want to become, and not someone else's idea of what you should be doing, or as Derek says, "trying to impress an invisible jury."
If you don't really know what you like, then it might be best to learn to do everything yourself at first and delegate whatever doesn't gel or you aren't super interested in. Note: your preferences can change over the years, so keep your identity flexible, like water, but vision firm, like a mountain.
"When you sign up to run a marathon, you don't want a taxi to take you to the finish line."
You can say that again.
The book has some great lessons on delegation, hiring, firing, and knowing when it might be time to sell a business. So check it out if you are interested.
Anything you want 🏰
In the end, the message is right there in the title: you can make your business “Anything You Want” — big, small, local, global, online, offline, cool, casual, goofy, fun, hip, whatever you want! As long as everyone is happy and you are profitable, of course.
You need to figure out your compass, or how you grade yourself, what's important and meaningful to you, whatever that might be, and go for it.
“Business is as creative as the fine arts. You can be as unconventional, unique, and quirky as you want. A business is a reflection of the creator.
Some people want to be billionaires with thousands of employees. Some people want to work alone.
Some want to be famous in Silicon Valley. Some want to be anonymous.
No matter which goal you choose, there will be lots of people telling you you’re wrong.
Just pay close attention to what excites you and what drains you. Pay close attention to when you’re being the real you and when you’re trying to impress an invisible jury.”
As Derek says, it might as well be something that makes you go, "Hell Yeah!"
“Whatever you make, it’s your creation, so make it your personal dream come true.”
Otherwise, say "No".
That's it for now. Definitely give this book a read, or five, or ten.
Read it, dig it, dunk it, dwell in it, relive it.
If you liked this post, then check out the other biographies here. This is #2, but there are more on the way. 🚀
Happy building, and don't forget —
"No plan survives first contact with the customer."
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