Brains Brains Brains

Yesterday I really enjoyed attending the Jackpot Speakers club meeting. This Toastmasters club runs itself very differently than my club, focusing heavily on critique and discussion and less on following the formalized structure of a typical Toastmasters meeting. Linda Bowns and Jeff Lowe, respectively the first and third place winners in the contest mentioned in the previous post, both attended, so all three of us top finishers were there. We discussed each others’ speeches as well as the contest itself. We spent about an hour picking apart Linda’s speech to help her improve it, since she’ll be representing our entire division (about 25 clubs total) in the district contest on November 6th. Linda’s speech was already incredibly good, but we all contributed many ideas for ways she could make it even stronger. I hung out for an extra 30 minutes after the 2-hour meeting and performed some surgical brain-picking, getting loads of outstanding advice and ideas. It’s wonderful to be able to hang out with people who have more than 10x my level of experience in this area. Learning from such people is a major short-cut to success in any endeavor.

I used this same approach when aiming to make a full-time living from shareware games back in 1999. At the time I was making only about $300/month from shareware sales, but I wanted to be making a minimum of 10x that amount to at least sustain myself. So I popped into the Association of Shareware Professionals’ members-only newsgroups (I’ve been a member since 1996 but never really took advantage of it until 1999), and I identified people who seemed to be making at least $50-100K per year from selling shareware. Then I proceeded to pick their brains as much as possible, mostly by engaging in email dialogs. But if nobody knows who you are, then you’re not going to get too much good advice from successful people. So I ran for the ASP board of directors. I lost by a mere 4 votes, but I still succeeded because just by running, I let people know who I was. And a month later, I ended up being appointed Vice-President anyway, so that gave me more influence. Additionally, I started writing lots of free articles for the ASP newsletter, so I built a reputation as a contributor, not a leech. You can’t just pick people’s brains if you don’t give them a piece of yours in return. But the net result was that I could very easily solicit advice from people whose shareware sales were 10x higher than mine.

This approach worked really well — it took me only about six months and one product to multiple my shareware income by a factor of 10. And then I just kept going from there, soon hitting six figures a year, always identifying people who were already making my target level of income.

A big mistake people make when trying to increase their success in some area is that they’ll ask advice from people who aren’t getting the right results. For example, let’s say you’re making $60K per year right now, and you want to be earning twice that amount. Most people will seek advice from all their friends who are making $50-90K per year. And they’ll get lots of advice. But it will be essentially worthless. It’s far better to talk for 15 minutes to a person who’s making $150K per year than it is to spend a full day seeking advice from people who aren’t at that level yet. This might sound like an exaggeration, but I honestly don’t believe it is. I’d rather get answers to just one or two questions from someone who’s far more successful than me in some area than to chat all day with people who are roughly at my own level.

One strange paradox is that advice from people who are at your level often sounds very good and sensible. But it’s often bad advice in that it may be a far more difficult path to success, and often it just won’t work at all. On the other hand, advice from people who are far ahead of you will often initially sound bad or reckless, but if you actually apply it with a bit of faith, it often works wonderfully.

Here’s a simple example:

When I released Dweep in mid-1999, I wanted to build its sales up fast. So I asked advice from a number of people on how to do this. People who were making $1000 or less per month from shareware (like I was at the time) almost invariably gave me ideas about ways I could improve the game itself. So they focused on the product and on doing more programming work. But one person I asked who was earning around $10K per month told me to stop programming and spend 80% of my work time just marketing the product for the next several months. He said to market it every single day — get other sites to link to mine, try to get higher search engine positioning, send out lots of review copies, etc. I took his advice because he was already getting the results I wanted, and I knew he was being sincere. So for the next six months I did little else but learn marketing and do marketing for the game. And it worked. It didn’t feel right at first to spend so little time programming, but I couldn’t complain about the monthly increases in cash and customers. If I had followed the advice of my peers, I understand now that I would have only gotten minimal results, even though their advice sounded good to me at the time. Focusing on the product would have been the wrong strategy — I would have invested a lot of time and energy and gotten very little out of it. Focusing on marketing was harder for me, and it wasn’t initially the kind of answer I wanted to hear because I wasn’t yet too skilled in that area, but it was the thing for me to focus on in order to achieve the level of sales I wanted.

When many people start a new business, they’re likely to miss the importance of marketing. It’s not at all obvious just how important marketing is, especially if you’re in love with developing new products or services. The product is important, but without enough time and energy spent on marketing, hardly anyone will know about your product. Jay Abraham says that marketing is the single greatest way to gain leverage when you want to increase your sales. I think he’s probably right. Unless your product or service has serious flaws, you can often get much greater leverage from a full day, week, or month invested in marketing than you can in tweaking and improving the product/service itself. The fact that this is fairly unintuitive may help to explain why so many new businesses fail or plateau.

But going a little deeper, I think there are other reasons people fail to seek advice from those that are doing much better than they are in some area. For one, there may be a degree of intimidation. The only thing I can suggest there is to go ahead and feel intimidated and ask anyway. But a deeper issue may be that people don’t want to hear the kind of advice that will make them face their own weaknesses. For example, if you aren’t good at marketing or don’t like marketing, then hearing someone say that this is the key to greater success may not be what you want to hear. So it’s easier to listen to people who tell you to tweak your product or service, especially if that’s already your strength. But if you take that easier approach, you’ll always be denied greater results. After a few years of that, you’ll feel like you’re stuck on a treadmill, doing all this work that just doesn’t get you anywhere. You’ll have gotten a lot done, but it just won’t produce very strong bottom-line results. And the reason this happens is often that you’re unconsciously modeling people who are stagnating too.

Seeking and applying advice from those who are already getting the results you want sounds like common sense. Yet actually doing this consistently is anything but common. So feel free to be uncommon in this case.