A buddy of mine from college got married last weekend. We went to Chicago to celebrate him and his new bride, and to toast good times. We told all of our favorite stories for the thousandth time, and we laughed until the wee hours.
And one phrase of ours from college kept coming up again and again:
“Do it for the story.”
Do it for the story was something we said when we needed a push to try something we knew was going to be hard.
Do it for the story was the motivation to be courageous, even when the odds were long.
Do it for the story was a reason to go for it, just because.
We were a pretty grounded group of guys back in college. 95 percent of the time, we did the reasonable thing.
But there was the 5 percent of us that was a little bit crazy, that was willing to try something maybe that shouldn’t be tried. It was the wild card in each of us, and you never knew when it might come out and make one of us try something unexpected. That 5 percent is the reason I ended up in China covering the Olympics, and the reason I ended up in Biloxi in 2012. It’s the 5 percent that — to quote the immortal words of “Risky Business” — made you say, “What the fuck.”
It’s good to be unreasonable. It’s good to push yourself to do crazy things. When you grow up, you learn that it’s so easy to get caught behind walls of your own design. Sometimes, you need to force yourself outside of your day-to-day and do something big, even if you’re not quite sure why you’re doing it in the first place.
So try something crazy. Do something you’re not supposed to do.
This is a little outside my normal sphere of expertise. OK, a LOT outside that sphere of expertise. But still: I was inspired on a trip to the store to write about a way an entire business could do better work. Here’s what I think.
A few weeks ago, I did something I hadn’t done in years:
I went shopping at Best Buy.
I’m guessing that a lot of readers of this blog haven’t been to Best Buy in years, either. I used to go often. It’s where I bought my first laptop, and where my family used to go to buy music(1) and cables to connect TVs and other electronics. But now I buy my laptops at the Apple Store, my music is all digital, and those cables can be bought cheaply on Amazon(2).
So what’s left to buy at Best Buy?
The one I went to was — to be perfectly blunt — a gigantic, sad husk of the store I remember. This Best Buy sold everything: Computers, phones, DVDs, music, stereo systems, couches, TVs, and even washing machines and dryers. It was as if the Best Buy staff had realized that they weren’t sure what to sell, so they decided to sell it all.
Last week, I wrote about a question we should be asking more often in our work: What’s the problem? What I saw at Best Buy were a series of solutions in search of a problem. Back in the ‘90s, there used to be a huge problem: It was hard to find trustworthy places that sold expensive or complicated electronics. And Best Buy filled that need well! In any city, you knew Best Buy was a good place to buy a big screen TV or the sound system to go with it.
In 2016, that’s not a problem. Anything you used to buy at Best Buy, you probably buy at a higher end store (like an Apple Store) or online.
So what’s the problem in 2016?
Here was my problem, the thing that brought me to that Best Buy a few weeks ago: My car has an ancient sound system, and it was time to install a new stereo that allowed me to plug in an iPod and connect a phone via Bluetooth. Best Buy, it turns out, is still a trustworthy place to handle such a complicated installation.
Here was my Dad’s problem, the thing that brought him to Best Buy last year: He needed a new, cheap laptop, and he trusted Best Buy to sell him one and give him the customer support to install the software he needs on it.
In both cases, Best Buy has a team devoted to helping customers install and use their new electronics: Geek Squad. And for an older generation that uses electronics every day but doesn’t always understand it, Geek Squad — much like their Apple counterparts at the Genius Bar — can actually solve a problem for consumers. They’re a trusted source of knowledge when it comes to professional installation and help on complicated electronics.
Here’s my fix: Rebuild the entire business based on Geek Squad, and the help they can give customers when making an expensive purchase.
At the Best Buy I stepped into, the Geek Squad was hidden in a corner of a huge store. I couldn’t understand why. The Geek Squad is why you’d step into a Best Buy in the first place! Their desk should be front and center in the store, and everything sold at Best Buy should come with the option for Geek Squad help. They should be holding computer classes on programs like Excel or TurboTax in their stores. You should be able to go to BestBuy.com, buy a product, and have it waiting for you 36 hours in store for pickup, with a Geek Squad employee ready to help you set it up. Or you should be able to have a Geek Squad employee personally deliver it to your house for installation.
There’s an opportunity there for Best Buy in 2016. They’d just have to be willing to recognize the problem their customers actually face, and change their business in service of their problem.
Major League Baseball’s draft is tonight, which has me thinking about “Moneyball,” the best book ever about the way baseball teams are built. I love this one scene from the movie adaptation of “Moneyball,” where the scouts are sitting around the room, trying to figure out how to replace three key stars from the previous year’s team, and the team’s GM — played by Brad Pitt — has his mind on something entirely different:
Grady: We’re trying to solve the problem here, Billy.
Billy Beane: Not like this you’re not. You’re not even looking at the problem.
Grady: We’re very aware of the problem. I mean…
Billy Beane: Okay, good. What’s the problem?
Grady: Look, Billy. We all understand what the problem is. We have to replace…
Billy Beane: Okay, good. What’s the problem?
Grady: The problem is we have to replace three key players in our lineup.
Billy Beane: No. What’s the problem?
Pittaro: Same as it’s ever been. We’ve gotta replace these guys with what we have existing.
Billy Beane: No. What’s the problem, Barry?
Barry: We need 38 home runs, 120 RBI’s and 47 doubles to replace.
Billy Beane: [Billy groans, loudly] The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty layers of crap, and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game.
Let me bring this around to email for a second. Every time I get to talk with other email marketers about their programs, I keep coming back to that quote: What’s the problem? When you’re on the inside, it’s hard to see what the problem is. You think the issue is that your open rates are too low, or you’re not growing your list fast enough, or your click throughs aren’t where they need to be, or you’re not getting the results you wanted on that A/B test, or whatever. Doesn’t matter.
You’re lost in the weeds. You’re solving the wrong problem.
And what I usually end up asking is: Are your emails any good? Are you delivering something of real value to your subscribers?
Don’t worry about the rest of the metrics. First you’ve got solve a simple problem: The work you’re producing probably isn’t good enough, and until you make it really, REALLY good, fixing it is the only problem that matters.
It’s not the wake-up call people want to hear, but sometimes it’s the one you need.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: I completely agree with Simon Cowell on something.
You remember Simon, of course. He was the loud, controversial judge from “American Idol”, and the reason even I tuned in to see that show’s finales.(1)
Anyway, he said something in an interview with the New York Times last weekend that got me thinking about the way we define failure. He was asked about one of his other shows, “X Factor”, and he said:
“I read a book once about Coke and Pepsi and it was called ‘The Other Guy Blinked.’ And we blinked. We thought 12 million [viewers] was bad. Now, I’m thinking, ‘Christ, if I could launch a show with 12 million today, I’d be a hero.’ But we beat ourselves up so much about it and we changed so many things. The show became unrecognizable. I blame myself, but we made crazy decisions. We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million and I thought 12 million feels terrible.”
That last sentence is the big one. What must it be like to launch a huge TV hit and still feel like a failure?
It makes sense if you think about where he’s coming from. Simon’s first U.S. hit, “American Idol” once drew 38 million viewers for a finale. But then the numbers dropped, and never fully recovered. Here’s what it looked like, according to Billboard:
Even into it’s thirteenth season, the show was still drawing big numbers for finales. But it wasn’t what it had been a decade earlier.
That’s a chart that Upworthy, one of the fastest-growing publishers of the decade, showed off publicly in 2014 as they grew from zero to nearly 70 million unique visitors.(2)
Now let’s zoom out for a second:
That’s what it looks like when you rely entirely on another entity for success — in this case, Facebook — and then that business changes they way they do business. Facebook changed their algorithm, and Upworthy went from 70 million uniques to 50 million uniques, and kept dropping. Afraid that they could go from 70 million to nothing just as fast as they’d gone from 0 to 70, Upworthy changed their publishing strategy, and then changed it again. Now they’re doing what a lot of media companies — including BuzzFeed, where I work — are doing: Following the lead of distribution channels and hoping that the Facebooks and Snapchats of the world take us all to profitability. We’ll see how that strategy plays out over the next 3-5 years.
But what I’m most interested in is what happens to the people on the inside when a rocket ship like Upworthy starts to level off. That’s where Simon’s quote comes to mind. Read it again:
“We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million and I thought 12 million feels terrible.”
“American Idol” was a rocket ship, too. It grew from nothing into a national phenomenon. But it didn’t last forever. The numbers dropped, and “Idol” merely became a big and hugely profitable TV show — merely a big and hugely profitable TV show! — not a supernova.
It’s all about perspective, though. What “Idol” built — and “X Factor” did, too — was a huge success, but from the inside, it clearly didn’t feel like that. And when you’re on a rocket ship like “Idol” or Upworthy, or the one I’m still on at BuzzFeed, it’s all about perspective. They’re about understanding that the ride up doesn’t last forever, that leveling off can be a normal course correction, that from where you stand — 12 million viewers, 50 million unique visitors, whatever — you’ve still built something impressive. You might feel like you’re losing ground because you’re not meeting your own expectations, and then you look around and realize where you actually are.
Maybe it’s not the up-up-up ride you thought, but you’ve still reached rarified air.
One last anecdote, from one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Todd Snider. I saw him tell a story once about Hootie and the Blowfish, a band he opened for back in the ‘90s. He talked about how their first album sold 16 million copies. Their second sold 3 million. Their third sold a million. They were a rocket ship that burned out. People called them a failure.
And it’s at this point in the story that Snider said, “Their third album still sold a MILLION copies! Sign me up for that kind of failure!”
It’s worth saying again: After “Idol” started to fail as a show, it still ended up running for 15 years. Simon Cowell launched two more hit shows. Upworthy is one of the biggest publishers in the world. Hootie sold several million albums. Darius Rucker went on to win a Grammy.
…their 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals came with an air of the surreal. This was Sisyphus getting the boulder up the hill. This was Wile E. Coyote catching The Road Runner.
Two guys on the Sharks — Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau — had played a combined 2,767 games, but never made a Finals. And the narrative around them had always been about one thing: Baggage. Any discussion of their playoff success required talking about their many previous playoff failures. This was their fourth trip to the conference finals since ’04 — but they’d never been able to get over the hump.
Then this year, they did.
And suddenly, the narrative’s changed. For a player like Thornton, the media’s now talking about his 150 career playoff games as a sign of experience, not futility. Suddenly, he’s a veteran player who’s made it! The failures that came before were a test of his mettle, not proof that he couldn’t get it done in the clutch!
We’ve been through this before with so many great athletes. LeBron was the superstar who couldn’t win the big one, until he did. (Twice!) Phil Mickelson was the golfer who couldn’t win the big one, until he did. (He’s since won five majors!) The Red Sox couldn’t do it, until they did. (Twice!) The San Francisco Giants didn’t have what it took, until they did. (Three titles in five years!) Alex Ovechkin couldn’t win it all, until… OK, I guess I’m still waiting on that one.(1)
Point is: We’re all crafting these narratives, and every bit of work we put in is a chance to flip the script. You can always keep going, and always keep working to rewrite your story. It’s never too late — not even for a 19-year veteran like Joe Thornton — to breakthrough and change the narrative forever.
I don’t get worked up much when musicians die. But Guy Clark — a wonderful country singer/songwriter — died today, and I went digging for a great song of his, “The Cape.” Specifically, this lyric:
Well, he’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith /
Spread your arms and hold your breath /
And always trust your cape
I love that so much — it’s so full of hope, isn’t it? I remember hearing that song for the first time years ago, driving somewhere in Texas, and absolutely hanging on to the idea. I wasn’t sure that what I wanted to do was the right thing, but I needed to hear from someone else that it was OK to take the leap anyway. And then that song came on the radio, and I clung to that fortune cookie of a chorus.
I’m obsessed with learning about the habits of people I respect.(1) It’s no surprise, but: Great people often have awesome habits.
Take my favorite sports announcer, a guy named Bill Raftery. If you’re a college basketball fan, you know his catchphrases: “Onions!” “With a kiss!” “Send it in, big fella!” Watching a game with him is like watching a game with an old mentor: He knows everything and sees everything, but there’s never a moment where’s he not trying to make you feel comfortable.
Produced while he watches a half-dozen tapes of each team he’s assigned to cover, Mr. Raftery’s one-page, double-sided reports are written in capital letters and a tiny, crowded scrawl. But his 60-odd team reports are also meticulously structured and filled with countless diagrams, notes on player tendencies, strategic predictions and statistics that could only be the work of a person whose life is set to the rhythm of balls bouncing on wood.
The reports “are like the random etchings of John Nash from ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ ” said Ian Eagle, the CBS play-by-play announcer who has worked alongside Mr. Raftery for years. But, Mr. Eagle added, “because his personality is so strong and effervescent, his basketball preparation often gets overlooked.”
This spring, CBS aired a documentary on Raftery, and they showed off his game notes. I couldn’t believe the detail in them.
If anything, the Journal article understated how in-depth he goes with his game prep. His print is tiny, and he squeezes notes into every square inch of those yellow pages. If you watch a Raftery-called game, he won’t bring up 95% of the stuff in his notes.
So why does he do it?
“I think it takes a lot to know a little,” he said in the documentary. “You try and know everything that they do, not to be a know-it-all, but just to be aware.”
It takes a lot to know a little. How great a motto is that? You study and prep for any situation. Most of the prep work will go unnoticed, but that’s OK. Whatever happens, you’ll be ready.
Here’s something I’ve noticed about people who read a lot of business books that promise big ideas about the future of our industries:(1)(2)
Those people tend to put a lot of faith in systems. On a Sunday, they’ll finish a book about the latest trend coming out of Silicon Valley, and on Monday, it’ll be the future of everything. Those books often promise the secrets to unlock great work. They’ll say: “They do it this way at Company X, so we need to switch everything to do it that way, too! This is the future!”
But to me, they’re not gospel.
I like business books, don’t get me wrong! And I’m a fan of great routines that can help teams work faster/better/smarter, and of big ideas that can crystalize a team’s mission.
But systems or big ideas aren’t everything.
I believe that great people, working together with the right tools and a clear mission, are unstoppable. Ask me about my team sometime — I’ll gush about them. I think they have the potential to do great work that can have impact on millions of lives. (In fact, they’re doing that already!) I believe in them, and I believe they are smart, hard-working, and flexible enough to take on ambitious work.
If I had to start with only one thing — the right systems, the right ideas, or the right people — I’d always choose people. A good system or idea is only as good as the people working to make it happen.
I was thinking of that today while reading an oral history of Prince’s famous guitar solo at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2004. Says Tom Petty (bolding mine):
It’s funny because just a few days ago, he was in mind all afternoon, I was thinking about him. And I had just been talking with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles — he wrote their “Manic Monday” song. She was telling me the story of that, of how she came to have that song and meet Prince. And I was thinking about him a lot that day, and I almost told myself I was going to call him and just see how he was. I’m starting to think you should just act on those things all the time.
I don’t post a lot of personal stories anymore on the blog, but I put this one up on Facebook this week, and it got such a response that I wanted to re-post it here. TL;DR — I’m an idiot.
It’s Game 2, Caps-Flyers. The Flyers are on a power play. Sally goes to the kitchen to get some water. She walks back and looks at me.
“Do you smell something burning?”
I don’t, and besides, THE GAME IS ON. I don’t think much of it.
Five minutes later, the period ends, and Sally goes to the bathroom and screams, “The sink is on fire!”
We’ve left a candle burning in the bathroom. OK, correction — I’VE left a candle burning in the bathroom. It melted the plastic candle holder, and it caught fire in the sink. The flames are a foot high. Smoke is pouring out of the bathroom.
Here’s the good news: My in-laws bought a fire extinguisher for Sally when she first moved in to this apartment. (And if this story is any indication, you should probably buy one, too! This is the one we own.) I grab it and put out the fire. We clean up the sink.
But the point is: I nearly set fire to our entire apartment, but didn’t notice because I was too busy watching playoff hockey. I may need to adjust my priorities.
I’m Dan Oshinsky, and I’m the Director of Newsletters at BuzzFeed. I lead a team that’s trying to build great stuff for the internet and your inbox. On this blog, I'm here to share what I know about creating amazing products and building great teams.