Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur – by Derek Sivers

How strongly I recommend it: 9/10
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Go to the Amazon page for details.
This book is quite short but it will make you rethink how you do business. Derek shares how he follow his ethical way and try to do the right thing, which led him to sell his company for a few millions (donating everything afterwards.) I highly recommend this book.

Highlights

When you make a business, you get to make a little universe where you control all the laws. This is your utopia. When you make it a dream come true for yourself, it’ll be a dream come true for someone else, too.
If you think revolution needs to feel like war, you’ll overlook the importance of simply serving people better.
When you’re onto something great, it won’t feel like revolution. It’ll feel like uncommon sense.
Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not from persistently doing what’s not working.
We all have lots of ideas, creations, and projects. When you present one to the world and it’s not a hit, don’t keep pushing it as is. Instead, get back to improving and inventing. Present each new idea or improvement to the world. If multiple people are saying, “Wow! Yes! I need this! I’d be happy to pay you to do this!” then you should probably do it. But if the response is anything less, don’t pursue it. Don’t waste years fighting uphill battles against locked doors. Improve or invent until you get that huge response.
Anytime you think you know what your new business will be doing, remember this quote from serial entrepreneur Steve Blank: “No business plan survives first contact with customers.”
By not having any money to waste, you never waste money. Since I couldn’t afford a programmer, I went to the bookstore and got a $25 book on PHP and MySQL programming. Then I sat down and learned it, with no programming experience. Necessity is a great teacher.
Never forget that absolutely everything you do is for your customers. Make every decision—even decisions about whether to expand the business, raise money, or promote someone—according to what’s best for your customers. If you’re ever unsure what to prioritize, just ask your customers the open-ended question, “How can I best help you now?” Then focus on satisfying those requests. None of your customers will ask you to turn your attention to expanding. They want you to keep your attention focused on them. It’s counterintuitive, but the way to grow your business is to focus entirely on your existing customers. Just thrill them, and they’ll tell everyone.
For an idea to get big-big-big, it has to be useful. And being useful doesn’t need funding. If you want to be useful, you can always start now, with only 1 percent of what you have in your grand vision. It’ll be a humble prototype version of your grand vision, but you’ll be in the game. You’ll be ahead of the rest, because you actually started, while others are waiting for the finish line to magically appear at the starting line.
Instead, imagine that you have designed your business to have no big clients, just lots of little clients. You don’t need to change what you do to please one client; you need to please only the majority (or yourself). If one client needs to leave, it’s OK; you can sincerely wish her well. Because no one client can demand that you do what he says, you are your own boss (as long as you keep your clients happy in general). You hear hundreds of people’s opinions and stay in touch with what the majority of your clients want.
Proudly exclude people
You know you can’t please everyone, right? But notice that most businesses are trying to be everything to everybody. And they wonder why they can’t get people’s attention! You need to confidently exclude people, and proudly say what you’re not. By doing so, you will win the hearts of the people you want.
I’d say, “You can sell anywhere else. This is a place for independents only: musicians who chose not to sign their rights over to a corporation. To make sure these musicians get the maximum exposure they deserve, no major-label acts are allowed.” It’s a big world. You can loudly leave out 99 percent of it. Have the confidence to know that when your target 1 percent hears you excluding the other 99 percent, the people in that 1 percent will come to you because you’ve shown how much you value them.
Why no advertising?
I got a call from an advertising salesman saying he’d like to run banner ads at the top and bottom of cdbaby.com. I said, “No way. Out of the question. That would be like putting a Coke machine in a monastery. I’m not doing this to make money.” He said, “But you’re a business. What do you mean you’re not trying to make money?” I said, “I’m just trying to help musicians. CD Baby has to charge money to sustain itself, but the money’s not the point. I don’t do anything for the money.” This goes back to the utopian perfect-world ideal of why we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place. In a perfect world, would your website be covered with advertising? When you’ve asked your customers what would improve your service, has anyone said, “Please fill your website with more advertising”? Nope. So don’t do it.
You can’t pretend there’s only one way to do it. Your first idea is just one of many options. No business goes as planned, so make ten radically different plans. Same thing with your current path in life: Now you’re living in New York City, obsessed with success. Go! Now you’re a free spirit, backpacking around Thailand. Go! Now you’re a confident extrovert and everyone loves you. Go! Now you’re married and your kids are your life. Go! Now you spend a few years in relative seclusion, reading and walking. Go!
For me, it’s how many useful things I create, whether songs, companies, articles, websites, or anything else. If I create something that’s not useful to others, it doesn’t count. But I’m also not interested in doing something useful unless it needs my creative input. How do you grade yourself? It’s important to know in advance, to make sure you’re staying focused on what’s honestly important to you, instead of doing what others think you should.
Act like you don’t need the money
Banks love to lend money to those who don’t need it. Record labels love to sign musicians who don’t need their help. People fall in love with people who won’t give them the time of day. It’s a strange law of human behavior. It’s pretty universal. If you set up your business like you don’t need the money, people are happier to pay you. When someone’s doing something for the money, people can sense it, like they sense a desperate lover. It’s a turnoff. When someone’s doing something for love, being generous instead of stingy, trusting instead of fearful, it triggers this law: We want to give to those who give. It’s another Tao of business: Set up your business like you don’t need the money, and it’ll likely come your way.
As a business owner, when you get screwed over by someone, you might be tempted to make a big grand policy that you think will prevent your ever getting screwed over again: One employee can’t focus and spends his time surfing the Web. Instead of just firing or reassigning that person to more challenging work, the company installs an expensive content-approving firewall so that nobody can go to unapproved sites ever again. It’s important to resist that simplistic, angry, reactionary urge to punish everyone, and step back to look at the big picture. In the moment, you’re angry, focusing only on that one awful person who did you wrong. Your thinking is clouded. You start believing everyone is awful and the whole world is against you. This is a horrible time to make a new policy. When one customer wrongs you, remember the hundred thousand who did not. You’re lucky to own your own business. Life is good. You can’t prevent bad things from happening. Learn to shrug. Resist the urge to punish everyone for one person’s mistake.
You should feel pain when you’re unclear
E-mail blasts are the best training for being clear. CD Baby had about two million customers. When writing an e-mail to everyone, if I wasn’t perfectly clear, I’d get twenty thousand confused replies, which would take my staff all week to reply to, costing me at least $5,000 plus lost morale. Even if I was very clear but took more than a few sentences to explain something, I’d get thousands of replies from people who never read past the first few sentences. Writing that e-mail to customers—carefully eliminating every unnecessary word, and reshaping every sentence to make sure it could not be misunderstood—would take me all day. One unclear sentence? Immediate $5,000 penalty. Ouch. Unfortunately, people writing websites don’t get this kind of feedback. Instead, if they’re not clear, they just get silence—lots of hits but no action. I see new websites trying to look impressive, filled with hundreds of puffy, unnecessary sentences. I feel bad that the people behind those sites haven’t felt the pain of trying to e-mail that text to thousands of people, to directly see how misunderstood or ignored it is.
The most successful e-mail I ever wrote
When you make a business, you’re making a little world where you control the laws. It doesn’t matter how things are done everywhere else. In your little world, you can make it like it should be. When I first built CD Baby, every order resulted in an automated e-mail that let the customer know when the CD was actually shipped. At first this note was just the normal “Your order has shipped today. Please let us know if it doesn’t arrive. Thank you for your business.” After a few months, that felt really incongruent with my mission to make people smile. I knew I could do better. So I took twenty minutes and wrote this goofy little thing:

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing. Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy. We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved “Bon Voyage!” to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Friday, June 6th. I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as “Customer of the Year.” We’re all exhausted but can’t wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

That one silly e-mail, sent out with every order, has been so loved that if you search Google for “private CD Baby jet,” you’ll get almost twenty thousand results. Each one is somebody who got the e-mail and loved it enough to post it on his website and tell all his friends. That one goofy e-mail created thousands of new customers. When you’re thinking of how to make your business bigger, it’s tempting to try to think all the big thoughts and come up with world-changing massive-action plans. But please know that it’s often the tiny details that really thrill people enough to make them tell all their friends about you.
Little things make all the difference
If you find even the smallest way to make people smile, they’ll remember you more for that smile than for all your other fancy business-model stuff.
Every outgoing e-mail has a “From:” name, right? Why not use that to make people smile, too? With one line of code, I made it so that every outgoing e-mail customized the “From:” field to be “CD Baby loves [first name].” So if the customer’s name was Susan, every e-mail she got from us would say it was from “CD Baby loves Susan.” Customers loved this!
Sometimes, after we had done the forty-five minutes of work to add a new album to the store, the musician would change his mind and ask us to do it over again with a different album cover or different audio clips. I wanted to say yes but let him know that this was really hard to do, so I made a policy that made us both smile: “We’ll do anything for a pizza.” If you needed a big special favor, we’d give you the number of our local pizza delivery place. If you bought us a pizza, we’d do any favor you wanted. When we’d tell people about this on the phone, they’d often laugh, not believing we were serious. But we’d get a pizza every few weeks. I’d often hear from musicians later that this was the moment they fell in love with us. At the end of each order, the last page of the website would ask, “Where did you hear of this artist? We’ll pass them any message you write here.” Customers would often take the time to write things like, “Heard your song on WBEZ radio last night.” “Searched Yahoo!” “Found it here.” “I’d love to have you play at our school!” The musicians absolutely loved getting this information, and it always led to the customer and musician getting in touch directly. This is something that big stores like Amazon would never do. Also at the end of each order, there was a box that would ask, “Any special requests?” One time, someone said, “I’d love some cinnamon gum.” Since one of the guys in the warehouse was going to the store anyway, he picked up some cinnamon gum and included it in the package. One time, someone said, “If you could include a small, rubber squid, I would appreciate it. If this is unobtainable, a real squid would do.” Just by chance, a customer from Korea had sent us a packaged filet of squid. So the shipping guys included it in the box with the other customer’s CDs. See the customer tell the story himself in this great video: http://sivers.org/squid. Even if you want to be big someday, remember that you never need to act like a big boring company. Over ten years, it seemed like every time someone raved about how much he loved CD Baby, it was because of one of these little fun human touches.
But no matter what business you’re in, it’s good to prepare for what would happen if business doubled. Have ten clients now? How would it look if you had twenty at once? Serving eighty customers for lunch each day? What would happen if 160 showed up? Notice that “more of the same” is never the answer. You’d have to do things in a new way to handle twice as much business. Processes would have to be streamlined. Never be the typical tragic small business that gets frazzled and freaked out when business is doing well. It sends a repulsive “I can’t handle this!” message to everyone. Instead, if your internal processes are always designed to handle twice your existing load, it sends an attractive “come on in, we’ve got plenty of room”
Being, not having: When you want to learn how to do something yourself, most people won’t understand. They’ll assume the only reason we do anything is to get it done, and doing it yourself is not the most efficient way. But that’s forgetting about the joy of learning and doing. Yes, it may take longer. Yes, it may be inefficient. Yes, it may even cost you millions of dollars in lost opportunities because your business is growing slower because you’re insisting on doing something yourself. But the whole point of doing anything is because it makes you happy! That’s it! You might get bigger faster and make millions if you outsource everything to the experts. But what’s the point of getting bigger and making millions? To be happy, right? In the end, it’s about what you want to be, not what you want to have. To have something (a finished recording, a business, or millions of dollars) is the means, not the end. To be something (a good singer, a skilled entrepreneur, or just plain happy) is the real point. When you sign up to run a marathon, you don’t want a taxi to take you to the finish line.
But I never again promised a customer that I could do something that was beyond my full control.
There’s a big difference between being self-employed and being a business owner. Being self-employed feels like freedom until you realize that if you take time off, your business crumbles. To be a true business owner, make it so that you could leave for a year, and when you came back, your business would be doing better than when you left.
Trust, but verify
In 2005, CD Baby’s main business was doing digital delivery of music to all the digital music retailers: iTunes, Amazon, Napster, Rhapsody, MSN, Yahoo!, and fifty more. This role was life-or-death important to the company because it was the main reason most of our new clients signed up. And there were lots of competitors in this field, so it was crucial that we did everything well. I built a system that did most of the work, but it still required someone to run the outputs, connect hard drives, and ship them to the retailers. I hired a guy who seemed good. I sat side by side with him for a week, showing him the system, running it myself, and explaining how it all worked. He got it. The key point was that we had to get every album delivered to every company, every week, no matter what. The guy I hired signed a contract with me that said, in huge letters, EVERY ALBUM, TO EVERY COMPANY, EVERY WEEK, NO MATTER WHAT. We talked a lot about how absolutely crucial that was—that it was really his only job requirement because it was that important. He signed and agreed. His first few weeks, I watched closely to make sure everything was going well. It was. So I turned my attention back to other things. A few months later, I started hearing a lot of complaints from musicians, saying that their music hadn’t been sent to these companies. I logged in to the system to see what was wrong. It turns out that we hadn’t sent any music to Napster, Amazon, and some other companies in months. Months! I called the guy in charge of it and asked what was going on. He said, “Yeah, I’ve been really backed up. It’s been really busy.” I said, “What’s rule number one? The sole mission of your job?“ He said, “I know. Every album to every company every week no matter what. But I’ve been swamped. I just couldn’t.” I flew up to Portland and let him go. I’ve never fired anyone so fast, but this was extreme. Our company’s reputation was permanently damaged. This job was so crucial to the company’s survival that I decided to do it myself for a while—not just do it, but build a system that wouldn’t let mistakes go unnoticed again. So for the next six months, I lived at the warehouse in Portland, and my sole job was digital deliveries. It took fifteen-hour days to catch up on months of backlog, but eventually we had a smooth system again. I learned a hard lesson in hindsight: Trust, but verify. Remember it when delegating. You have to do both.
Just pay close attention to what excites you and what drains you. Pay close attention to when you’re being the real you and when you’re trying to impress an invisible jury. Even if what you’re doing is slowing the growth of your business—if it makes you happy, that’s OK. It’s your choice to remain small. You’ll notice that as my company got bigger, my stories about it were less happy. That was my lesson learned. I’m happier with five employees than with eighty-five, and happiest working alone. Whatever you make, it’s your creation, so make it your personal dream come true.