The indifferents

There’s a group of people out there who love you.  Your passionate fans who talk about you to anyone who will ask, who spread the word and your message and carry your brand with you.  Cherish and nurture them.

There are others who have actively decided that you’re not for them.

And then there are the indifferents. The ones who have known about you for a while, who have heard your story for months or even years, who you’ve cultivated tirelessly.  And they’re still not acting, not buying, not convinced.

What do you do about them?

Here’s a hint: which is more likely, that the person who has heard your message 15 or even 50 times will suddenly be convinced if you have just one more go at it? Or that you’ll find someone brand new and get them excited?  That’s right, go for the new guy.

By the way, there’s a difference between indifferent and unconvinced, but it’s going to take a whole lot of work for you to figure out who’s who, work that may never pay off.

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You don’t need it when people are cheering you on, when sales are piling up, when the press is pounding down your door, when you’re getting praise and are in the limelight.

You do if you ever want to get there.

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Optically delighted

Former Acumen Fund Fellow Karthik Janakiraman shared these thoughts with me, and he was gracious enough to allow me to post his note in its entirety.  It’s a perfect follow-on to my Magic post about Zappos.

I read your blog and often have noticed that you talk about being “delighted”. I had an experience from a relatively obscure company and wanted to share it with you.

I had to purchase a few optical filters from a company called and I decided to go with them because they were the cheapest.

I was on the website at 4.35ET and was desperate for these filters.  I had to get the order in by 5pm in order to make the overnight shipment cutoff. I did get the order in but was skeptical about having the filters ship out because I had a vision of some guy sitting in a warehouse, thinking about bailing for the day, who may or may not hustle to get my order in.

To my delight, at 5.01pm , I get an email with a FedEx tracking number on it.

The next day, I open up the box to see the filters and a bunch of snacks (trail mix, cereal bars and cookies) encased in a box called “Lab Food”.  I was absolutely delighted!

The net cost of the goodies was probably 4 or 5 bucks when the snacks are bought in bulk. I spent roughly 600 bucks, so for about 1% of sales this company has converted me into an evangelist and definitely a repeat customer. Great execution as well and I did not even have a human interaction.

Karthik’s story takes the idea in the Zappos post – that you can create magic anywhere – a step further.  To delight, you must surprise, which means you must surpass expectations.  You can do this in any customer interaction – it doesn’t matter if you’re selling shoes or optical filters or an idea.

Ideally, your create delight in a completely customized way.  But this isn’t always possible.  In which case you can, like Zappos (and, according to Karthik, like Thorlabs) build processes that are so above the bar that you can consistently delight nearly everyone.

Put another way, being exceptional and being systematic are in no way mutually exclusive.

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Of the time I spend blogging, 99% is spent on writing, and 1% (if that) on the site itself and its functionality.

However I discovered a small glitch which I’ll correct going forward: those little icons on the bottom of every post often have broken links, something I just discovered this morning.  It’s a WordPress glitch I just discovered.

It’s fixed on this post and will be going forward.  So now you can click away when you read posts that you like and want to share.  So please click away.

(And if anyone out there has been dying to improve the look of this blog, its functionality, or anything else about it, please email me.  Offers of help are always welcome.  For example a good non-manual “Tweet this” for each post…?   Feedback of all sorts is always welcome).

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What Matters Now

What if you could peek into the brains of 70 of the smartest, most accomplished, groundbreaking authors and bloggers and thinkers around?

And what if you could ask them, “What word matters most to you of all?  Can you explain what and why?”  People like Arianna Huffington and Elizabeth Gilbert and Chris Anderson and Karen Armstrong and Tom Peters.

That would be worth your time, wouldn’t it?  …if you could only get to all of those people.

Voilà, enter Seth Godin and his new free PDF,  What Matters Now.  It just came out today, and you can download it here, for free, or here on Scribd.  Because Seth knows more than anyone that what matters most is spreading powerful ideas.

So go ahead, download it, read it, share it.

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I owe you

A good friend was recently working on a freelance job on a very short deadline. She did a bang-up job, made her client look great, and sent in her bill for the hours she worked. The client responded: “I don’t think you billed us enough for this job.”


Most business relationships have an adversarial undertone: we’re going to be collaborators and co-creators, but let’s duke it out over the contract first, and then let’s make sure it’s under budget because that will make me look good. I win when the project makes me look like a star, and you’ll get what we agreed upon in the first place. That was our deal.

It’s so easy to go back to the contract, to explain to yourself that your hands are tied and that you’re being fair. But there are times when you know you owe someone, when you know you got a great deal.

Go ahead, step up and say, “We made a mistake. You didn’t charge me enough for what you delivered. I owe you.”

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Generosity experiment

On the subway today, a man was asking for donations so he could buy food, sandwiches, deodorant, even hand sanitizer to give for free to homeless people.  He had lived on the street two decades ago, he said, and now does this part time to give back, in addition to a part time job he holds.

I have absolutely no idea if this is true, but I was skeptical. I, along with everyone else in my car, got off the train without giving him any money.  Right after I got off the train I knew I had done the wrong thing.  It just didn’t feel right.

Most of the time I don’t give to people on the street. It seems to make sense, rationally, not to give most of of the time — and instead to give to great organizations that are doing things for the homeless. Perhaps, but it’s easy to take this too far. 

Giving is an act of self-expression, and generosity is a practice. Each time I decide not to give, I’m reinforcing a way of acting – one that’s critical and analytical and judgmental.

You may not be like this at all.  You may consistently act from the heart first and not the head.  Good for you.  More often than not, I don’t, though it’s something I’m working to change.

So I’ve been thinking that I need to try a generosity experiment: for a period of time, when I’m asked to give, to say yes.  To everything.  To emails and people on the street and friends raising money.  Everyone.  I think it will be good practice.

What do people think?  Does this make sense? [sic]

P.S. More on this topic from the Freakonomics blog, where Barbara Ehrenreich is very clear that you always give to someone on the street who directly asks you. 

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Burying a blunt instrument

The other day a very thoughtful friend told me he’d like to pull together a list of recommended nonprofits for his co-workers as a way of raising visibility and funds, and he wanted my suggestions.  We were talking about what the list should look like in terms of geographic focus, issue area, etc., and he said, almost as a throwaway line, “…and we should make sure none of them spends more than 10% on fundraising.”

He didn’t mean it this way, but it could have sounded like, “Let’s make sure none of them spend too much money doing what you do.”

So let’s dig a little deeper.  What he’s essentially saying is, “let’s make sure the organizations aren’t wasting money,” and unfortunately “overhead spend” is the unbelievably blunt approximation we have of wasting money.

A great comment on my blog last week, in another post where I riffed on the overhead ratio test, put this point very well, concluding:

There are horror stories of huge sums burned by inefficient organisations. It isn’t bad guys, frauds or scammers. It’s just organisations that don’t do as good a job…In some cases almost all of the money donated goes into running the bureaucracy of the organization itself. In some cases, fundraising itself costs more then the activities it funds.

…How do you avoid donating to companies like this? Well, you might find that most great organizations have a 20/80 overhead/programs ratio…The problem with this is that it is incredibly crude. If all else is equal, a lower overhead is certainly good but all else is never equal…

I understand what you are saying. I agree. You’re right.

But what is the alternative?

It turns out that a number of “rating agencies” in the nonprofit space have banded together to answer this question, with the goal of creating a quick and easy way to rate the effectiveness of nonprofits.  Tim Ogden, Editor-in-Chief of Philanthropy Action, recently issued a press release titled “The Worst (and Best) Way to Pick a Charity,” and the release was signed by the CEO’s of Guidestar and Charity Navigator, the two organizations that have arguably done the most to create the “10% overhead” rule of thumb in the nonprofit sector.  Hats off to Tim for kicking this off, and to Bob Ottenhoff (CEO of Guidestar) and Ken Berger (CEO of Charity Navigator) for signing on to the release and for helping push this conversation forward.

Some thoughts on how this might play out:

1. Changing perceptions about this will be hard. Convincing someone that your new idea (product, story) is better than the one they currently believe in (purchased) is harder than selling them on a brand new idea (this is part of the reason the iPhone still beats the pants off of the Palm Pre – iPhone created the category, and the Pre is trying to be improvement on the iPhone).  So getting people to let go of the overhead ratio myth will actually be harder than it was to convince them of the myth in the first place.  For any real traction, this thing needs a breakthrough idea, message, and advocate.  In fact, I bet you most people don’t even know where they first heard the overhead ratio number.

2. Effectiveness is the right goal, but will we ever get there? The push to replace the overhead rule of thumb with an effectiveness rating feels right, though I worry that executing on that promise will be elusive.  There are lots of players pushing this forward, but I’d feel a lot more comfortable if the push were towards “here are the questions we want to ask” rather than “here are the answers.”  I know the world wants a star rating for everything (including the food we buy at the supermarket), but can’t we do better?

3. The endgame is creating better stakeholders. Let’s learn from the field of socially responsible investing.  A lot has gone into ratings of public companies, and the track record is decidedly mixed: attempts to make ratings more sophisticated have generally resulted in less transparency and objectivity.

The real power of these ratings comes not from the ratings themselves (with retail shareholders and consumers somehow knowing if companies are good or bad), it comes from shareholder activism – as information becomes more available, passionate followers create a dialogue with companies that can turn the dial on accountability.  If ratings can create real dialogue (hopefully with much less acrimony than exists with public companies) we’ll make more real progress (and for this to happen, the raters have to be held accountable too…)

4. If you must talk about overhead ratios, ask about efficiency. Since I doubt that the myth of overhead spend is dying any time soon, why not in the meantime promote a marginally better measure: measure fundraising efficiency (how much does it cost to raise $1) rather than how much fundraising is done (fundraising as a % of total spend).  I’m not sure I care if a nonprofit with a great mission spends 8% or 18% of its budget on raising funds – assuming they can spend the funds they raise wisely.  But I do care if a nonprofit spends 4 cents to raise a dollar or 40 cents.  While neither of these numbers tells me anything about the effectiveness of the nonprofit as a whole, all in all I’d rather make a bet on the one that’s more efficient.

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Yesterday night, for the first time, my wife ordered me a pair of shoes on Zappos.  This morning, she called me to say, “This is amazing.  They just arrived!  I don’t know how they do it.”

I know.

It’s magic.

Think about how incredible this is: with all the technology in the world, with all the jaded consumerism, with all the hype, Zappos did something so cool that it was worth picking up the phone and telling someone about.  And they’re delivering shoes.  Shoes!!!

If they can create magic with shoes, anything is possible.  Anything.

With magic, you’ve got traction, momentum, joy, surprise.  Without it, you’re just pushing a boulder up a hill.

So go on, take whatever you’re working on and insert some magic, create an ideavirus that will spread.

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Share, share, share

Here it is, Acumen Fund in 90 seconds.

You can make a HUGE difference by sharing this far and wide.

Blog, tweet, digg, stumbleupon, call a co-worker over to your computer, send a carrier pigeon…do whatever works for you, but be a megaphone.

Easy sharing options here

And thank you for all that you do.

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