A Conversation With Michael Dearing

I typically don’t go around trumpeting the arrival my latest pod episode to friends and family. Everyone is busy with their own thing, and I figure that if they’re going to listen to it, they’re going to find their own way to it. Human nature being what it is, they’re not likely to establish a listening habit just because I’m reminding them that HEY, I JUST POURED MY SOUL INTO MAKING THIS LATEST RECORDING.

That’s overstating it a bit, but for me, compared to writing words on a screen/page, speaking into a microphone represents a markedly higher level of personal commitment, involvement, and vulnerability. You can edit an audio track, but your voice is your voice, and it’s challenging to read pre-written stuff on the air — it only sounds right when it’s done wholly or partially off-the-cuff. If writing is close to the iterative, drawn-out process of designing something, then podding is akin to the real-time dynamic of playing jazz saxophone

Having said all of that, here’s my latest pod episode, one I think you will like:

Michael is the founder of Harrison Metal. As you’ll hear in the podcast, he did a ton of remarkable things before launching Harrison Metal, too. Michael and I met over ten years ago when he helped out as an “Industry Coach” for the Creating Infectious Action class which Bob Sutton and I used to teach at the Stanford d.school. He subsequently became a Consulting Associate Professor at the d.school, and it was fun to be on the faculty there together.

I am a big fan of Michael’s character and intellect, from which it follows that I am also a big fan of his feed on the Twitter. For this pod, we use that as a launchpad to talk about venture mechanics, gross margin, the clocks in Greenwich, modern capitalism, organizational life, why Harrison Metal is called Harrison Metal, and how a certain type of aquatic mammal will inherit the earth.

With the release of each new pod over the past year (save for one), I’ve consistently felt like the latest one is my favorite one ever. Ferry Porsche once said something similar, that his favorite Porsche was the one yet to be designed. My favorite pod is actually the next one to be recorded: I learn so much making these, I listen to other people’s work and learn from it, and I try to roll whatever insights I’ve had into our next recording. So it’s safe to say that this episode is by far my favorite one until we record another one.

But who knows? — perhaps this is the high water mark. Let’s ask the dolphins.


Lessons on Innovating from OK Go

I’m more than a little obsessed with OK Go’s new video, I Won’t Let You Down. I love the tune, the choreography is impressive, and I can’t get over the chutzpah it takes to film a single-take video using an octocopter drone:


But what’s kept me coming back to watch it over and over are the lessons we can take from OK Go and their seemingly limitless appetite for innovating. Here are my top three:

1. Innovating happens when you embrace serendipity

You can’t think your way to an innovative outcome. Breakthroughs come from giving yourself the time to fool around with a bunch of random elements. By getting out of the office and doing stuff, you learn where to find the awesomeness you seek.

Here is how OK Go’s Damian Kulash describes the process of serendipity that fed this video:

What we try to do is get the best idea we can at that desk and then get out into the place where we’re going to be making whatever we’re going to be making and play with it a lot. We have a lot of trial and error, a lot of figuring out what does and doesn’t work. Usually, by the time we’re done with that process, the idea is pretty dramatically different from what we started with… And it means that we waste a lot of money and our production value is… we don’t shoot the world’s most clean and beautiful stuff, but we have videos that no one else could have.

This isn’t about waiting for inspiration from a muse, it’s about intentional serendipity, making your own luck via the hard work of experimentation and iteration. OK Go’s videos are so memorable because of the countless iterations they go through to get to the finished product. Because they’re careful to set the stage for serendipity to flourish, each cycle of experimentation increases the odds of them bumping into a piece of magic.

2. Business model innovations ripple through everything else

OK Go’s business model innovation was to choose a different metric: instead of tracking the number of albums sold—the usual measurement of success in the music industry—they focus instead on the passion of their followers.

OK Go made a decision early on to bypass radio and MTV and go directly to YouTube with its unique style of low-budget, single-take music videos. The resulting channel conflict (“You’re letting people listen for free? What about our sales?”) flew in the face of conventional wisdom about how to stay in business as a rock musician.

This unexpected choice is key to understanding the band’s ensuing success: when your goal is making your fans happy, you focus on the music and the videos and the quality of your tours, thereby setting up a virtuous cycle. Each time they create a video like I Won’t Let You Down, they affirm their relationship with existing fans, and win new ones. When it comes time to create their next video, their priorities will be in order, and mustering the courage and resources to do something even more spectacular will be relatively straightforward.

On the other hand, focusing on album sales means listening to a lot of people who may or may not care about the art—the marketing guys or the huge distributors. And that distracts you from doing the one thing you need to do as a rocker: create great, unique music. So here’s a question to ask yourself: is your business model helping you actually win at the thing you’re in business to do?

As it happens, those Honda UNI-CUBs piloted by OK Go are also the result of a business model innovation. In 1960 Takeo Fujisawa (an organizational design genius, and Soichiro Honda’s business partner) created Honda R&D as an entity independent of—but funded by—its parent Honda Motor Company. This structure was all about embracing serendipity. It gave Honda’s R&D scientists and engineers the permission to tinker and generally fool around with technologies that had no obvious short-term relationship to cars or even Honda itself. Over the years, Honda R&D has created many innovations that have eventually become mainstream hits.

3. Vision + Guts + Perseverance = Innovative Outcomes

The magic of many of OK Go’s videos is that they’re hugely creative performances done in just one massive, risky, glorious take. They couple a big vision with big guts. It’s the film equivalent of tightrope walking—one errant UNI-CUB and it’s back to frame one.

Pulling it off in grand style requires a ton of perseverance. The risks involved could lead to a diminished vision (“Why don’t we make this easier on ourselves?”) and a less vibrant performance (“I keep screwing up the choreography—I’ll dial back my grooviness”). But OK Go always has the guts to dream big, and the dogged perseverance to pull it off.

This specific video required around 2,300 people collaborating on about 60 practice runs and 44 filmed takes, 11 of which were done to completion. Of those, only three were of acceptable quality. Just imagine the emotional and logistical fortitude it takes to restart the filming process after a minor flub.

It’s the same with Honda. UNI-CUB isn’t even on the market yet, but Honda gave OK Go a second-generation iteration to use for this video. UNI-CUB literally stands on years of patient research that went into the company’s humanoid robot ASIMO and untold other projects that would seem to be unrelated on first glace.

It took 68 years to get here; back in 1946 Soichiro Honda wouldn’t have been able to imagine that his creation of Honda R&D would eventually lead to four men in black suits riding his company’s vehicles around on something called the “internet,” while thousands of women with bright umbrellas danced in psychedelic patterns. But that’s the nature of innovation—you don’t always know what the flower garden will look like, but that doesn’t stop you from planting the seeds.

So dream big, let it all get messy, and put in the hard work to make it happen.

And keep those umbrellas twirling.

Bob Sutton: creating infectious action

During the formative years of the Stanford d.school, I taught a class with Bob Sutton and some other colleagues called Creating Infectious Action.  The class revolved around a basic question: could ideas be designed to spread?

The answer, delivered by successive student design teams working to spread ideas as diverse as downloading Firefox to creating a pedestrian-only zone in Palo Alto, was an unqualified yes.  Yes, you can design ideas to spread, so long as you pay attention to something roughly approxmating these three key principles:

  1. create something remarkable – an idea, product, or service
  2. weave sticky stories around the offering
  3. identify communities receptive to points 1 & 2, then light some small fires, and then spend time pouring gas on those fires

This week, Bob has created some hugely infectious action around the pathetic treatment by United Airlines of the daughter of our mutual friend and colleague Perry Klebahn.  You can read about it here.

I just did a Google News search on the topic, and over 160 news items have been written about this sad episode.  All of this from a blog post.  And there's more to come, for sure.

United's woeful performance is remarkable in a negative way that hits principle one above: a girl, stranded by an airline, kept from getting in touch with her parents, meanwhile surrounded by supposedly responsible adults who can only take action when they go off duty from their job at United.  And Bob has written some very sticky stories around this, all backed up by the authority which comes from an extremely well-regarded, tenured Stanford professor.  And to the third principle above, it's easy to dismiss this as some thing which just happens naturally on the web, but Bob has put a lot of hard work over the years into building an online audience for his blog.  It's an audience highly engaged with the hard issues of organizations and culture, primed and ready to spread an idea like this — which reflects the very worst aspects of bureaucratic, disconnected, corporate cultures.

As a formerly loyal United customer who now goes out of my way to fly on JetBlue and Virgin America, I really hope that this sad story is a tipping point for United's management and culture, and gets converted into concrete, positive action.  It's rippling across the web, and it's going to be around for a long time, because it's designed to be infectious.


Innovation principles by Markkula


The genesis of these thoughts on marketing from Mike Markkula are detailed on page 78 of Walter Isaacson's intriguing biography of Steve Jobs.  In their clarity, simplicity, and actionability, they are stunning.  As a marketer, I take three lessons from them.

First, they are about people.  Markets are made up of individuals.  When striving to bring something new and cool to life, we're much better off imagining the life of a single customer than we are trying to disaggregate and disambiguate mountains of anonymized market data.  A holistic understanding of the customer experience you wish to enable is a great way to start creating mind-blowing products.  As a way of being, empathy is to product developers what The Force is to Jedi Knights.

Second, they are focused on the market.  Surely great marketing is always about the market?  Not always, and not so often: in my experience, many marketers worry more about communicating with each other internally than they do with real people in the marketplace.  They spend more time reading reports created by others than they do learning from the market directly.  They don't use products created by competitors, nor do they try to experience their channels in the way that an end user would.  They may or may not love their product segment — I mean, can you imagine Steve Jobs hawking anything other than stuff he believed in? Significantly, none of Markkula's dictums explicitly mention the internal functions or structure of the enterprise.  Granted, it could be argued that "Focus" is about both the internal choices an organization makes about what not to do, as well as on all the market-facing features, line extensions, and complementary offerings it chooses not to invest in.

Third, they focus on the big picture and on the smallest details.  Yes, you need to understand where the market is going and how culture, politics, and macro economic trends may influence your future state in three to five years.  But you also must appreciate the nuances of texture, smell, form, sound, proportions, and color.  The realm of the visceral is always there, our minds and hearts want things to feel good and true.  Everything matters, and marketers (or designers, or businesspeople, or engineers — it's all the same to me) ignore this truth at their peril.


Back on planet metacool, I believe the following innovation principles are at work in Markkula's document:

Principle 1: Experience the world instead of talking about experiencing the world

Principle 3: Always ask: "How do we want people to feel after they experience this?"

Principle 9: Killing good ideas is a good idea

Principle 20: Be remarkable


Great marketing is a mouthpiece for the truth

I'm a big fan of Porsche and of Jeff Zwart, individually and together.  I admire Porsche because their cars are still racing machines at heart, so their story about being about performance experiences is based on a core of truthiness. I deeply respect Jeff Zwart because his passion as a race driver informs his craft as as the one of the most sought-after creators of stories about automobiles and movement.  Both are purveyors of truth, and when they play together, things get really interesting.

For those not steeped in the world of modern motorsport, sometime in the early 60's came a point where race cars became so specialized that they ceased to be streetable machines, to be trailered henceforth to their places of competition mounted in the backs of lorries.  So sad.  Racing cars had shifted from something you'd park on the streets of Manhattan during the week and drive up to Lime Rock for a weekend race, to the mechanical equivalent of those ancient mandarin rulers who for the sake of status and fashion allowed their fingernails to grow so long that they were unable to feed themselves.  Ever faster cars and longer nails are interesting and make for some dramatic tradeoffs, but do not necessarily yield a better overall experience (especially for the person assigned feed the mandarin), and are certainly not particularly truthy.  So for a brand focused on communicating a story about race-bred performance usable on the road, what could ring more true than a story about a Porsche driven to the race course by its driver, who happens to be a consummate teller of stories?  It's a bold shift from the old marketing myth of Win on Sunday, sell on Monday to a true, honest statement of Sell on Monday, win on Sunday, drive home on Monday

As marketers we need to stop making myths and start finding ways to talk about the truth.  We each need to take an oath to the effect that, should we ever find ourselves locked in a conference room trying to whip up a value proposition statement to justify why consumers will buy the crap we're so desperate to sell, we will each reach over and slap the person on our left in the face (gently) and then all exclaim in unison "let's stop mythologizing and go out in the world to hear the truth it wants to tell us".  It's out there.  Go find it.  Porsche and Zwart have.  Great marketing is a mouthpiece for the truth.

By the way, Jeff Zwart will race this red beauty up Pikes Peak tomorrow.  You can see his amazing run from last year here:


Great marketing is about amplifying meaning

Check these out and see if they don't shift your feelings for Priuseses:

This series is brilliant.  The Prius is the new protest car of the intelligentsia, haven taken over that mantle from the Volvo 240 station wagon.  One sees more bumper stickers per square inch on the back of Priums than on any other brand of car, I'd wager.  As such, having James Lipton play in public with the branding of the car will tickle the fancy of many existing Prius owners.  For others, like me, it softens the character of the brand, making it fun in an Ivy League kind of way, a little more accessible. 

The series works because it does not engage in spinning up a fake, sugary myth.  Rather, it is amplifying meaning which already exists out in the world.  The Prius is a car for people who think about cars in a different way, or more precisely, for people who don't think about cars as cars.  But it is a car for thinkers who are likely to take delight in these twisted cultural references, and so we have thinkers here being thinkers.  James Lipton is James Lipton.  Shakespeare loves the letter W.  And so forth.

It's also a great example of art imitating life imitating art.  The choice of "MC Flossary" and Shakespeare for two of these videos is an inspired one, referencing a much deeper satire created several years ago by Sacha Baron Cohen, with Mr. Lipton as his unwitting victim and dance partner.  The Flossary Prius clip works that much better because of this cultural backstory.  The fun here starts at the 1:18 mark:

As Grant McCracken argues, we need more "chief culture officers" operating in our midst.  Not "culture officers" in the sense of folks who look in and steward our internal organizational cultures, but folks who like to wallow around in all the cultural currents which exist out in the world.  Who can parse meaning in a generative way.  I have to believe that this Pria campaign was forged by a group which included at least one cultural officer.  To be able to amplify meaning, you need first to be aware of it.

Our brand can’t go there…

BMW Koons art car top metacool

Your brand can't go there?  Really?  Or is it that you can't imagine a way to get there yourself?

Brands with a fixed identity are not only boring, but are likely to lose relevance over time.  While a brand needs to stand for something, to have a firm point of view, it also needs to be able to evolve, to learn, to grow.  Brands need not be static entities. Imagine a person who achieved greatness and then decided to remain fixed in place… yes, I don't want to party with them, either.

I admire the marketers at BMW because they seem to be able to conceive of their hallowed brand as a dynamic, living thing.  Instead of saying "our brand can't go there", they think "our brand is designed to go places", which I'd wager is why the brand is still so strong after so many year in the market.  The dynamic totality of their vision, which encompasses everything from manufacturing to sculpture to R&D to messaging, is centered on the principles of movement and getting to new places, with the risks that come with leaving the safe harbor called What We Know That Works Today. 

As a result, they're able to ask an artist like Jeff Koons to mix a little 2010-flavor joy with their current ultimate driving machine to come up with the brand vision above.  This beauty, an M3 GT2, will be gracing the streets of Le Mans, France in just a few weeks, taking the brand to new places.

You can go there, it just takes guts.  It's a bigger risk not to try.

BMW Koons Art Car