Capture attention you can turn into profitable demand.
I’ve fundamentally changed how I think about startups, product management, and marketing campaigns over the last few years. It’s given me a new lens through which to look when helping founders, preparing talks, promoting ideas, and more.
Basically, it’s this: Because we live in an attention economy, we need to worry less about what we build and more about how we get people to pay attention to the idea. The great business successes of our time found a way to capture attention more efficiently than others—what I’m going to call a zero-day growth exploit.
But just learning from the winners is dangerous (it’s known as Survivorship Bias); the losers have more to teach us. And when we study them, we realize that the real risk isn’t whether you can make something—it’s whether anyone will care. Most startups, product managers, and marketers ignore this at their peril.
Here’s a bit more detail.
Behind every great fortune
“Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”
- Honoré de Balzac, quoted in The Godfather.
Honoré de Balzac, seeing crimes everywhere he looked.
What de Balzac actually said was, “Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.” In English, this roughly translates as, “when you find a great fortune you can’t explain, there’s a crime behind it; but because the crime was properly executed, you can’t identify it.”
On the one hand, de Balzac was dead wrong. From the barons of the Gilded Age to the tech titans of today, capitalism has created vast fortunes. Each of these fortunes is explainable. We know why these companies thrived: Hard work, great timing, new technology, emerging markets, favorable laws. We’ve studied their history in detail, written case studies, read the biographies.
On the other hand, Balzac was right on the money. What isn’t easily explained is why these particular companies captured those fortunes. Plenty of people were competing in a market; a winner emerged. What did the winner do differently?
And more importantly, what did the losers fail to do?
The winners write the histories
There’s a reason we need to look beyond the oral histories of startup giants to understand how to win, and it’s called Survivorship Bias.
In World War II, allied bombers were returning from the front riddled with bullets. The Allies convened a team of statisticians, asking them to analyze the aircraft and figure out where to put additional armor. After a detailed analysis, the scientists suggested where to place reinforcements.
Bomber bullet hole data — by McGeddon — Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53081927
But one statistician named Abraham Wald contradicted them. “Put the armor where there are no holes,” he argued. “Those planes don’t make it home.”
Update: If you want to read more about how stats was used to fight the war, here’s an excellent piece on Wald and the Statistical Research Group. It offers another great example: “If you go to the recovery room at the hospital, you’ll see a lot more people with bullet holes in their legs than people with bullet holes in their chests. But that’s not because people don’t get shot in the chest; it’s because the people who get shot in the chest don’t recover.”
We only look at the survivors
It’s tempting to look at the career of an actor like Brad Pitt (for example) and extrapolate from what he did to what makes someone successful in Hollywood. But it’s more informative to look at the thousands of actors who don’t make it, and see what they failed to do. There are more losers than winners, and we have better data to analyze. We learn more.
David McRaney of You Are Not So Smart fame shared some of these ideas, and insights on luck , in a talk entitled “Missing what is missing” at Startupfest in 2017. It’s worth a watch.
It’s easy to fall victim to survivorship bias when talking about business success. Why a company like Flickr or Tupperware—or an inventor like James Watt—succeeded is certainly instructive, but it misses the real story. After all, the winners write the history.
The story is often covered up
Hubris often means the winners don’t want to admit how they got where they are. In my experience, every winning company has a dirty secret in its past. Some secrets only emerge after a few beers, or through the rantings of disgruntled employees. But they’re all there.
The losers have the lessons
To mitigate survivorship bias, talk to the people who didn’t succeed, and see what they have in common. You’ll start to see patterns emerge. You’ll figure out what was missing. I’ve been lucky enough to have spoken with hundreds — maybe thousands — of startups in the past decade or so. As a startup mentor, board member, author, lecturer, pitch judge, and founder in my own right, I’ve pressed each them for how they plan to win.
And I think I’ve figured out what it is that dooms them from the outset.
Just evil enough
Every one of these companies is proud of what it makes. But almost none of them has any idea how it will capture the attention of a fickle market. Go-to-market strategy is an afterthought, when it should be intrinsic. Perhaps over-emphasizing Minimum Viable Product has made us ignore how we generate attention.
This is the really dirty secret: The risk isn’t whether you can build a thing, it’s whether anyone will care. Most founders, marcom professionals, and product managers ignore this at their peril. They bury their heads in the sand. They’d rather keep building their products, or writing their white papers, or attending their launch meetings, than deal with the gigantic elephant in the room.
After hundreds of conversations, there’s a clear answer to why some organizations reach escape velocity while others crash back to earth.
Return on Attention Investment
The winners find a way to get a better return on their attention investment. To do this, they subvert a platform, making it behave in an unintended way that gives them advantage. They find the marketing equivalent of a Zero-Day exploit, and ride it to growth and profit.
This thinking has made me change my definition of marketing in the modern age at a fundamental level. Companies need to capture attention they can turn into profitable demand. They need to stop writing press releases and start hacking markets. They need to find zero-day growth exploits. And they need to be just evil enough to pull them off.
Balzac would be proud.
Want more of this?
Spoiler alert: This is what my next book’s going to be about. You should sign up for updates and to find out when it’s out.
How evil is evil enough?