Seth Godin on Stepping Up and Making it Happen

Seth Godin is the author of 17 bestselling books. He’s the founder of email marketing pioneer Yoyodyne, and the charity-driven publishing platform Squidoo. And he’s the selfless dispenser of daily wisdom via the most popular marketing blog on the planet.

But if you had to sum Seth up in one word, it might well be impresario.

The classical definition of that word refers to a promoter, manager, or conductor of an opera or concert company.

The modern definition, set forth by Seth himself when he’s teaching others about the prime entrepreneurial role of the connection economy, is as follows:

One who gathers others together for creating art–the art of making a ruckus; the art of inventing the future; the art of important work.

Whether bootstrapping a startup by building an audience first, curating content to create something vibrant and new, or assembling a tribe that changes the world, it’s the modern impresarios who best take advantage of the power of the Internet to turn intangible ideas into real things that really matter. Things that change lives.

In this 30-minute episode Seth Godin and I discuss:

  • How he sold 40,000 copies of his self-published book (so far)
  • Seth’s early failure, and what he learned from it
  • His training for the post-industrial “connection economy”
  • The kind of business that we’re all in now
  • Why it’s worthwhile to embrace the impresario concept
  • How to waste your life, one simple step at a time
  • If Seth’s decision to stop publishing traditionally was worth it
  • Why every bestseller is a surprise bestseller
  • The biggest challenge in producing his latest book
  • The future direction of education

The Show Notes

Seth Godin on Stepping Up and Making it Happen

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Brian Clark: Seth Godin, we meet again. How are you sir?

Seth Godin: I’m fabulous. It’s so great to talk to you.

Brian Clark: Yes, it’s great to have you back and it’s wonderful to see the work that you are doing, which of course we are going to explore a little bit today.

Who Is Seth Godin?

Brian Clark: Now Seth Godin probably doesn’t need much of an introduction to most of you, but just in case, he’s the author of 17 bestselling books. One of those books, Permission Marketing, was the first marketing book I ever read, thank goodness. I had nothing to unlearn and that basically set me on the path I am today.

I think by far, he runs the most popular marketing blog in the world. He’s founded and sold several companies but mainly I think he thinks of himself as a teacher and he’s certainly been one to me. As a reminder, I’m Brian Clark, founder and CEO of Copyblogger Media and this is Rainmaker.FM.

Today we are going to dig down a little bit with Seth. He’s got a new book out but I think we have got an even bigger scope of things to talk about and how it all ties together with the work that Seth is doing right now. So that’s what I hope to accomplish today.

How Seth Got His Start

Brian Clark: Seth let me start here. I don’t think this is something that we’ve ever specifically discussed, but you spent 15 years as a book packager. And number one, I’m not sure everyone knows what that means, so let’s start there. But talk a little bit about that period of your life.

Seth Godin: It’s fair to say, no one knows what it means. It’s a little bit like being a movie producer, except for books.

It turned out that until recently there was a shortage of books. The world needed more books, particularly complicated books, than there were people to make them. So folks like me would come up with an idea, write down a proposal for the idea and send it. Amazingly all the publishers would let you send it to them at the same time.

So I would send it to 30 publishers that I worked with the most often and if someone liked it, they would mail me money and I would make the book. Some of the books had my name on it, other books were bigger than that or had famous people’s names on them.

I did the Information Please Business Almanac, which was basically the Internet in a hardcover book. I did books on gardening, investment and a whole range of stuff. I brought Stanley Kaplan into the book world. It took 3 years to get them to say that I could make books with their name on it and I had to build the whole thing.

I loved that industry and I learned a lot about work from that industry. There were two things particularly that resonated. One, almost everyone with very few exceptions was extraordinarily honest, kind, easy to work with and kept their word. That was really cool.

And number two is, it’s one of the only industries where you could get paid basically for ideas. You certainly had to implement them but you would send an idea to somebody and they would send you money back. And once you get hooked on that cycle of creating for a market place and being able to do it professionally, it’s pretty compelling.

Brian Clark: Yeah, it’s fascinating because it’s such an entrepreneurial activity. You’re literally making something out of nothing, other than an idea. You are taking disparate resources and putting them together, often without a net, and yet when you talk about the post industrial connection economy, was there a better training than this job?

Seth Godin: Well you see I also learned a whole bunch of things that are dangerous and aren’t true anymore.

The first one was, the first year I was doing it I was a complete failure. I sold nothing. And that’s because I was trying to write for readers, I then learned that you have to write for editors. That the way you get a book published is making the intermediary happy, not by making the media happy.

That explains why you will see a lot of books in the bookstore that someone thought was a good idea but the readers don’t. So in order to survive, that’s what I did but in a disintermediated connection economy, that doesn’t work nearly as well. There isn’t a middle man you have to please. There’s an end user you have to delight.

But the second thing that’s really important, that I learned and tried to teach the book industry but they are resisting is, that in the book industry the bookstore is their customer. That is who they focus all of their energy on and my proof is that if you work in a bookstore, you have a phone number that you can call that will be instantly answered by someone at a publisher, who will help you with your problem. But there is no phone number to call if you’re the reader.

They don’t want to hear from readers. They want to hear from the middle man. And once you can embrace the idea that your customer in the connection economy is the conversation, that you don’t succeed unless person A tells person B, then you can start becoming focused on being in the connection business and it’s the connection business that we are all in now.

Brian Clark: Excellent. So I wanted you to talk about that a little bit, number one because without what you did and what you learned in that role, I’m not sure the Seth Godin we have would be the same Seth Godin, which is true of anything of course but in this case I think you really see the evolution of that sort of role.

Something we have been kicking around on this show in relation to a lot of things, but specifically to this broad concept of curation, everything from maybe putting together a newsletter that draws from different sources and becomes its own original commentary, to something like TED, which is a curated conference experience.

The concept, the word which I love, is impresario and back in 2012 you wrote about impresario and becoming that person. You did a really interesting workshop, which I believe was with some college students that was pretty amazing because you cranked out a book I believe with a group of kids.

So the classical definition of impresario from the Italian I guess, is a promoter of operas or concerts and broadly I guess the dictionary definition is someone who puts on an event. Someone who puts it all together. Much like a movie producer or a book packager. But you have a broader definition of impresario and let me read that for people.

“One who gathers other’s together for creating art. The art of making a ruckus, the art of inventing the future, the art of important work.”

Now I have not received my copies of your new book yet.

Seth Godin: Oh no.

The Impresario Concept

Brian Clark: They are on route. It’s close. But from what I can tell, there’s a direct line between this concept you kicked around in 2012 and the new book. Talk a little bit about what an impresario means to you.

Seth Godin: Okay. So let me take it into two pieces. First I think it is totally worth while for the Rainmaker audience to talk about what it is to be an impresario today, just from a technical business point of view. If you go to your favorite search engine and type skillshare impresario godin, you can get the course that I actually did and it’s free on SkillShare. You may have to sign up for SkillShare to see it but it’s a three hour lecture and there is no upside for me other than sharing the insight. I hope people will try it.

What I argued there was, there are really only two ways to go forward as a player in this economy. One is you can be a cog in the system, hoping to get picked. A freelance writer that gets hired by Microsoft to write an article or the person on the chocolate assembly line who puts the bonbons in the box or the investor who waits for the stock to go up. These are players in a system bigger than any of us.

The other thing that’s relatively interesting too is the ability to put on a show. To say, “I’m going to assemble this information, these people, these resources, these assets, put this into the world and hope that people will embrace it.”

And impresarios range from the guy who started COMDEX, which became the biggest trade show in the world, to somebody who is running a meetup in their little town, or to somebody like a book packager, who puts together maybe brand names, editors, whatever and makes a thing. And that spirit of being an impresario has to happen before you can do that work. You have to say, “My role is to put on a show and I have enough confidence in myself and I care enough about the people who will interact with it, that I am willing to put myself on the line emotionally to do that.

That leads to my second thing which is why is this hard? And it’s hard, not because we don’t know how to do it, because we do, it’s hard because we have been raised to need permission. And the impresario refuses to wait for permission. That’s what makes them an impresario.

So in fact you are correct, it’s a straight line from that to the new book which is called What To Do When It’s Your Turn. And again, trying not to be a hypocrite, I took my own advice so I wrote it, I edited it, I laid it out myself and I published it myself. It’s being printed in Vancouver and shipped from Seattle. You can’t buy it on Amazon. It’s at and what I tried to do in the book is argue as cogently and passionately as I could that in the post industrial world, there’s a moment, I don’t know how long it will last, when people can stand up, choose themselves and say, “Here. I made this.”

Brian Clark: So getting back to the book packaging, to the fact that you just assembled, and I love the word assembled, this book from beginning to end, even in distribution. Do you view yourself as an impresario? Is that who Seth is?

Seth Godin: On a good day there’s no question about it. That is what I seek to do.

Brian Clark: And on a bad day?

Seth Godin: On a bad day I have been known to answer 1400 emails and do nothing of obvious productive value.

Brian Clark: I think that’s everyone though. You can’t really get too down on yourself for that, as long as you have more good days than bad, I would suspect.

Seth Godin: I mean it’s very hard. We have optimized our culture for the quick hit, the quick click, that burst of endorphin that one gets from seeing one mentioned by someone on Twitter or answering an email successfully or zinging someone like a troll. Those things when we do them feel pleasing but if we do them long enough in a row, we create nothing. And so that hard work, at least for me, is to put all of those toys away and to sit with nothing until I am lonely enough as Neil Gaiman has talked about, to actually do the hard work starting something.

Brian Clark: Remember when you announced that you would no longer be working within the context of traditional publishing, any regrets?

Seth Godin: The biggest regret is, I said it in a broad way that made some people think that I meant that I wasn’t going to be putting things on paper or sharing ideas, which wasn’t what I was saying. I was talking to myself and basically saying, “I worked super hard for a long time, to earn the privilege of writing a book a year for trusted, esteemed colleagues in the book publishing industry.” Which used to be so perfect because they would pay you a check, you would do the work, you would have a whole year to create this environment and then hand in this thing and they would do all the heavy lifting of spreading it.

So I did that many years in a row and I loved every minute but what became clear to me was that cycle that seduced me into insulating myself from certain parts of the market and working to please my editors, who were amazing but weren’t necessarily my readers. That making the bookstore happy is really different than making a reader happy. So I wanted to put that stake in the ground so that I wouldn’t then in the next lonely moment I had turn around and go back to where I was because I loved doing that, but this was scarier and I felt it was important to do it.

Brian Clark: It’s interesting that you say that because it seems to me, relating back to what you learned from being a packager, that you knew not to focus on pleasing the intermediary and yet it’s so easy to do. These are your friends, your colleagues, these are people you respect and yet you recognized the disparity between perhaps their sense of taste and what the audience really needs. Is that a right way to say that?

Seth Godin: I’m not even sure it’s taste. Every bestseller is a surprise bestseller. Every bestselling app is a surprise. Every bestselling book or movie is a surprise and that’s because the conventionalism wants to do what it did yesterday because it feels safer. So there are endless rules of thumb about price points and formats, and what a thing is supposed to look like and what it’s supposed to deliver. And if you want to change conversations, you have to break those expectations.

I’ve been lucky enough to have super brave publishers and editors who have encouraged me to do that sort of thing but I end up feeling badly. So if I put a book in a cereal box and Barnes and Noble opens every cereal box and throws it out, I feel bad that I made my publisher waste all that money. So yes, you have to at some level take enough of a leap in who you choose to work with, that if you really want to do this work on the edge, you are going to make the very people you trust the most, uncomfortable.

I saw you do this with your conference, your amazing conference because it couldn’t have been a unanimous vote of a claim from your team, when you said, “Let’s go from this virtual electronic thing that involves serving no refreshments to strangers, to building this thing that might not work.” That’s hard and in order to do it you need to look in the mirror and say, “Yeah, I want to do that because it’s worth it.”

Brian Clark: Yeah, you pretty much know that one, although they were very supportive but my inner lizard brain was working overtime, going “What if no one comes? What if no one buys anything?” And I feel a little blessed in this sense that when I am truly afraid of something, I have to do it. But I’m afraid that’s no everyone’s reaction. As you know too well, the natural response is to do nothing.

Seth Godin: Right. Exactly.

The Biggest Challenge with Seth’s New Book

Brian Clark: Kind of along those lines. Now Icarus was a novel project but it’s still was really kind of pre-funding, engaging, interest. It was proving a case that you still took to a publisher. This time it’s just you. What has been the biggest challenge?

Seth Godin: The biggest challenge when I was working on the book was, “Is this enough?” You know I’m going way out on a limb, both financially and organizationally to do this. “Have I put enough tears into this book because I am not going to get a chance to do it again?” And I will confess that when I wrote the last essay in the book I was in tears and as I hold the book in my hand, I’m super pleased with it. There is very little other than the seven typos that I want to fix. But once it was done, it’s been extraordinary to see how a decade of permission marketing creates an asset of value.

You know, if Walmart comes out with a new line of walkie talkies and puts them at the cash register two weeks before Christmas, no one is surprised when they sell a million walkie talkies because Walmart has been spending 30 years building the value of the cash register before Christmas. So of course, they are going to sell a million walkie talkies. And it’s 30 years to be an overnight success.

In this case, I said to my readers, “I made this thing. Here’s what it is. I’m not even going to tell you everything that is in it, which is the opposite of what Hollywood does and the opposite of what most things online are about. I hope you trust me enough to buy a few.” I sold 28,000 copies before we went to press. That’s thrilling.

Brian Clark: Wow.

Seth Godin: Really thrilling because to me it was a validation of showing up every day for 10 years and saying, “Here, what do you think of this?” So that raised the stakes for me because I don’t want to disappoint these people who get the 28,000 copies.

So now the book is out and after 10 days we are up to 40,000 copies. And that’s even more thrilling because it means that the book is being spread and it’s proving that maybe other people can do this too. That’s part of what I am doing here. There are no secrets. There’s no magic sauce. I sell no consulting. I’m basically saying to people, “Here’s how I did this, you can do it too because if we can get more worthwhile ideas in the world, it would be a project that I’m glad I did.”

Brian Clark: It’s kind of amazing considering that on a good day, depending on how the New York Times Bestseller List works, you could get on that list with what, 5,000 copies sold?

Seth Godin: Yep.

Brian Clark: Yeah. It’s ridiculous, as you know but 40,000 copies, that’s amazing.

I purchased 3 copies. One for myself, and one for each of my two children, who are 9 and 12.

Seth Godin: Yay!

Who Seth Wrote This Book For

Brian Clark: And I can’t think of a better way than to hand my daughter a book about it being her turn. I know your kid just went to college, so you’ve been through this, but they don’t listen to their parents necessarily but if they see something, maybe it’s a beautiful book such as this, or it’s their basketball coach who tells them the exact same thing their Dad just told them but all of a sudden it makes sense to them. It’s just very refreshing to have this resource.

I know you have purposefully not said, “On page 32 you’ll find this nugget of wisdom.” You know, the typical book marketing type thing but if I want to presell this book to my children, it should arrive any day, what would I tell them? From the mouth of Seth, should I say, “Here’s what this is. I want you to look forward to it and take a look when it gets here.”

Seth Godin: “On page 32, there’s this story about the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.” Made famous by Ghostbusters.

Brian Clark: That’s right.

Seth Godin: In fact, there is that story but you don’t have to presell the book because the book is pretty enough that it better sell itself. The real challenge, and I wrote it for your kids, without even knowing you were going to get it for them but that’s who it is really for, is for the parents who have been seduced and brainwashed by the industrial economy, to have the guts to consistently honor the kind of stuff that you and I are talking about.

That when you raise free range kids and you talk to them about being the best in the world at something and you talk to them about being an impresario and failing and making a connection, when they come home with a C in biology, you are not allowed to say “You need to get an A, even if it means doing less of that thing that you are great at.”

Brian Clark: Right.

Seth Godin: I worked so hard when I was raising my two sons with my wife, to create that environment where we meant it. That it was more important to us that you successfully edit a Wikipedia article, than it was that you do well in algebra in 8th grade. Because one is about compliance and the other is about generously contributing. And what we need to figure out how to do during this inter-regnant period, is how to raise kids who don’t measure their worth in the famousness of the college they get into or the number of digits in their SAT score but in fact can point to a trail they leave behind. A trail of projects, a trail of connections, a trail of overwhelming expectations with the big promises that they make and deliver on. That cycle can’t start when they are 24. It has to start when they are 9.

Brian Clark: Yes. I love the term “free range kids” and it’s more of an intellectual thing, than necessarily roaming the way kids don’t seem to get to do anymore, but I did as a kid.

Will College Serve Any Purpose in the Future?

Brian Clark: The interesting thing to me is with the rate of change and we hear a lot about this, you’ve just sent your children off to college and I even wonder even in 5 or 8 years with my two, does college serve the purpose we think it does anymore? Do you think about that?

Seth Godin: Oh for sure. And different colleges are approaching this problem in different ways. There’s no doubt that there is a higher education bubble going on. There’s no doubt that we have confused certification with accreditation, with competence, with desire and there’s also no doubt that the combination of sort of tribal behavior, binge drinking, organized sports in certain institutions, is really belying the whole reason that we invented higher education in the first place.

So with all of that wrapped up together, the question is what are we hoping these kids will be doing in 20 years. And the chances that they will be a middle manager moving paper around in a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan for $200,000 a year, are very, very low. And I get that was the ticket out for our grandparents, and that was the home run for our parents but if that’s what we are training our kids to do now, to have no real obvious, best in the world, scary skills, that they are not trained in, “I can take an idea and make it real” but they are trained in, “I can go to a meeting. Tell me where the meeting is being held and I will take good notes and I will say back to you what you just told me.” I think we have wasted years of their lives and a quarter of a million dollars in tuition.

Brian Clark: Yeah, from my perspective of course, I just like to teach them to be entrepreneurs so they never have to rely on anyone else. They never have to be picked by anyone else. On the other hand, I’d like them to get a good liberal arts education like I had. I have a law degree that I no longer use technically but I’ll tell you what, the way that I was trained to think in law school has served me everyday since.

So I really struggle with 4-7 years of binge drinking, which let’s face it, unfortunately that’s a big part of the college experience. Then not only that, but taking them out effectively of what’s happening in the world.

Seth Godin: Yeah. I totally agree and we need liberal artists. But famous colleges are not training liberal artists. Famous colleges are training pre-law students.

Brian Clark: Yeah.

Seth Godin: And there is something different. That if I walked into a second year philosophy course in almost any famous college and said to any individual in the room, “What would you do about Terri Schiavo?” Would they be capable of having a cogent conversation with me? Or would they say, “Well that wasn’t on our last test.”

Brian Clark: Yes.

Seth Godin: And that’s the problem. In the last couple of days, I’ve been confronted with not one but two examples of marketing courses that are being run at institutions you would have heard of. And I have to tell you, I am stunned at, and marketing is obviously not liberal arts, but it’s being taught like a liberal arts class in these two cases. Being stunned at a) the age of the textbook that is being used, b) the things that they are being asked to memorize, c) the vocabulary that their teacher is saying is important but most of all, the way the interactions go.

In one class each student is expected to give a PowerPoint presentation. They are marked off if there aren’t four bullet points on each one of the slides describing in detail something that came from the notes. And it’s an industrialized, memorized processing which no one has been taught to think about anything and this is an area I have some expertise in and I am just looking at this mouth agog saying, “These people are going to be leaving this institution thinking they learned something, when in fact they have learned nothing.

Brian Clark: Yeah, that really worries me. And I like to almost brag about how objectively clueless I was when I came to the Internet about marketing and how permission marketing was “Oh, this is how you do it. OK. Great.” But that’s not entirely intellectually honest because I majored in psychology, with minors in sociology and philosophy. I got the ground work like you wouldn’t believe of what marketing, certainly modern marketing, really is and yet my mother of course thought I was wasting my time. Turned out fine though.

What’s Next for Seth Godin?

Brian Clark: Is it too soon to ask what’s next for Seth Godin?

Seth Godin: You can ask all you want. I have made it my full time job to figure out the answer. I’m sitting here with Winnie Kao who is working with me full time on that very process. I have made it into a process. There’s a wall covered with cards, notes and plans and we are having a sprint for a few invited guests next week, where we are going to talk about one of them in detail. And I am not going to rush it. I’ve got to figure out how to use this platform in a way that matters and if I don’t do it the first time, I’ll do it the second time or the third time but it’s tempting to hide and I’m trying very hard to not do so.

Brian Clark: It’s a lesson right there though about how the next thing evolves. Process, not necessarily concrete plans.

Seth, thank you so much for your time. Please tell everyone where they can find out more about the book and more importantly, get their own copies.

Seth Godin: If it’s interesting to you, I hope you go to You can not buy one copy but you can buy more than one because the whole point is to share it. I will finish by saying, you sir are the poster child for that. You have been sharing from the first day I met you and I hope your listeners and readers understand just how extraordinary the consistent generosity is. It’s not easy to do and you keep pulling it off.

Brian Clark: Thank you so much for that. Thank you again for your time and Happy Holidays sir.

Seth Godin: Alright. We will see you soon.