This is not the kind of blog post where we look at two things and conclude that one is better than the other.
Instead, let’s check out one side of a coin, then flip it over and look at the other side.
The coin is success. While there are many ways to define success, for now let’s think about success as more sales, more attention, more attendees, more customers, more wins, etc. Not success in life, but rather success of a thing, a product/service/event/team, etc.
When we work very hard on something and then present it to the world, we’re hoping for success. More often than not, we get a flop, or a break-even-ish kind of semi-success. This is true even of the most talented, experienced people with every resource at their fingertips. Here’s a great post about a group of extremely talented, well-paid songwriters, producers, and marketers creating a flop for Rihanna.
Why is it so hard?
Here’s the reason: the world is full of talented, experienced people, playing various zero-sum games, and they can’t all win at once. There is only one league champion per season. There is only one #1 spot at the top of any given chart.
If you’re clever and innovative, you may gravitate towards non-zero sum games. In the marketplace this could mean getting people who don’t buy cook books to buy your cook book, or getting people who don’t like electronic music to buy your electronic music. This is in some ways easier, because you’re creating new customers instead of competing in the same limited (zero-sum) pool. But it’s also harder, because you actually have to create something that is both totally novel and shockingly good. You have to create a new space. This is a difficult thing to do.
So we’ve established that success is something we want, and it’s hard to get. So how to do we get it?
When we work from the heart, creating something that we really believe in and that resonates with our sense of purpose, sometimes we manage to create something that resonates with other people. Those people get behind whatever we’re doing and propel us to success.
I call this attracting success.
Attracting success is easier than engineering success, if we’re in tune with our purpose and working from the heart.
If we can achieve this state, we’re filled with energy, our minds are overflowing with ideas, and our friends, family, and associates are bending over backwards to help us. We’re so excited about the project that sometimes we work on it at night, instead of watching TV or hanging out with friend. Giant obstacles feel like minor speed bumps as we cruise over them. Everything comes together. We’re inspired, we’re on fire, we’re on a roll.
The hard part of attracting success is finding a project that resonates deeply enough to generate this energy, and carry us through the rough patches (and there will always be rough patches).
In the early 90’s my business partner Spesh had an idea for an after-work dance music event, which eventually became Qoöl. We hosted this “electronic music happy hour” event every week for a small group of friends and fans, and had a great time doing it.
After a couple years, the party suddenly exploded in popularity. For the next five years or so, we had lines around the block every week. The venue was packed to the gills — we had more success than we could handle.
We didn’t engineer this success — it occurred as a type of black swan event due to luck, and also because we attracted it by doing something we believed in. We created a new kind of space, and kept the quality high and the vibe good.
It wasn’t that we didn’t actively promote the event. We did all kinds of crazy stuff.
We hired a guy known only as “the poster guy,” who could only be reached by pager and accepted only cash payments, to put our posters up on various poles around San Francisco (probably tearing down the competition’s posters as he went).
With the help of our art designer, we created and printed thousands of innovative flyers that looked nothing like other club flyers. One series of flyers was in an “urban camouflage” theme, and had no information about the party on the front of the flyer. One looked like a piece sidewalk, strewn with life-size pieces of urban detritus. Another looked like the inside of a purse.
We hired local fine artists to create designs or paintings featuring every DJ name playing in a particular quarter, and then created high quality prints which we gave away for people to frame and hang on their walls.
We organized parades of “Qoölios” to invade our event and march through the dance crowd with picket signs. Once, an actual live marching band invaded our party in a similar fashion, resulting in a chaotic cacophony of dance music plus marching band music.
We created and published a newspaper, the Qoöl Quarterly.
These promotional efforts were fun, the result of two guys with too much time and money on their hands, but not necessarily all that effective. The club kids we hired to hand out our flyers weren’t always reliable, and sometimes tall stacks of our lovingly designed flyers moldered in car trunks, or dumpsters. Most of the people we handed the fine art prints to immediately threw them away. Our quarterly newspaper was just too much work to continue producing — there were only four or five issues.
Qoöl thrived not because of our haphazard promoting efforts, but because people talked about the event, wrote about it, and generally wanted to be there. Because Qoöl was a fun place to be, we had fun doing it, and we believed in what we were doing, we were able to attract success.
Because of the enormous success of Qoöl, Spesh and I got a reputation for being successful promoters. While we weren’t terrible promoters, we knew nothing about engineering success.
At one point, because of our sterling (though not necessarily well-deserved) reputations, we were asked to help promote a monthly party at DNA Lounge. In a kind of “Game of Thrones” situation among San Francisco promoters, the promoters who asked us for help could not be seen promoting a party at a different venue, because the owner of the other venue they threw parties at would get jealous. So Spesh and I found ourselves operating as undercover “front-man” promoters.
The manager of the DNA Lounge at that time was a tall, serious guy named Alexis. He was warm-hearted, but rarely smiled. He seemed to find his job very stressful. His nickname, which nobody called him to his face, was “Perplexis.”
One thing that Alexis understood very well was how to get people to come to a party. This was new territory for me and Spesh, and we sat there, mute and somewhat dumbfounded, as Alexis methodically explained to us how to engineer success for a new dance music event. As we listened, and our anticipated to-do list grew in length, Alexis enumerated the various things we should be doing to promote our upcoming event. Street team, radio promotion, drink specials, free passes, and like twelve other things. I can’t even remember them all.
That’s the first time I remember thinking “I don’t actually want to be a party promoter.” Alexis’s list was too long, and none of it sounded fun.
Alexis understood that if you want something to succeed, your best course of action is to leave nothing to chance. You can tilt the odds in your favor by considering every angle, calculating every possible tactical advantage, and taking massive preparatory action.
It is possible to engineer success.
The downside of this course of action is that it requires enormous work, and that work needs to be approached in a methodical, persistent, highly organized manner. Honestly, not everyone is cut out for it. I’m not really cut out for it. But it is possible, if you’re hungry and/or persistent enough to take this approach.
It’s still possible, even probable, that you’ll fail, like Rihanna’s song-writing and promotion team failed. People that have learned to engineer success have usually done so via massive iterative failure. Even then, if you “learn” how to do it, your method may not work the next time you try it. Every environment is constantly changing. Tastes change, your competition adapts, and your old strategies no longer work.
When Spesh and I started Qoöl in the mid-nineties, DJ’s playing electronic music at an art gallery starting at 5pm on a weeknight was a new thing, and the novelty of it generated tremendous creative energy (both in us and in our fans). Now, as the Portlandia clip below illustrates, there’s nothing new about hosting a DJ night. The biggest club nights and electronic music events are now carefully engineered, with well-coordinated promotional strategies, billboard advertising, radio promotion, and everything else. Alexis’s vision, fully implemented.
So should we bother trying to engineer success? Why not just focus all our efforts on creating quality and attracting success? Attracting success is more fun, less hassle, and less risky.
The truth is, we usually need to do both if we to have any reasonable chance of success. Working from the heart isn’t enough — we need to give our beloved project a well-organized, cost-effective push into the world if we want our work to have any kind of significant impact.
Chance will always play a role in success, most likely helping and hindering our efforts, simultaneously.
So what “leave nothing to chance” actually means is leave nothing entirely to chance.
Too many times I’ve found myself in a situation where I’m hoping for a good result, instead of expecting a good result. There’s nothing wrong with hope — it’s an emotion that’s vital for the health of the human spirit — but it can also be a sign that we have left too many things entirely to chance. Are we hoping for good weather instead of checking the forecast and/or looking at historical weather patterns? Are we hoping people will respond well to an advertisement instead of testing various permutations and picking the best one? Are we hoping the mastering engineer did a good job instead of listening carefully on various sound systems? Are we hoping the characters of our novel are compelling and believable, instead of getting honest feedback from some trusted readers? Are we hoping that we’ll lose weight, or will find ourselves with lower blood pressure?
To some extent, success is a side effect of massive preparedness, research, testing, and careful logistical implementation. Huge swaths of life that we would like to attribute entirely to chance, or fate, are in fact well within our sphere of influence. Not control, but influence. We can shape our world. It takes work, vision, rational thought, and intestinal fortitude, but it’s possible.
While we’ll always be limited by our resources (time, money, energy, enthusiasm, collaborators, gear, infrastructure, credit, etc.), this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take 100% responsibility for the results of our efforts.
If we’re frustrated with the results we’re getting (not enough success), here’s a list of questions we can ask ourselves, in the spirit of taking radical responsibility for our endeavors.
- Does the project resonate with your core values? Are you excited about it?
- Have you made the project as good as we can possibly make it? Have your trusted advisers (those you can trust to give you honest feedback) given it the thumbs up?
- Have you recruited assistance from kindred spirits, those who are likely to “get it” and support your efforts?
- Do you know who your target audience is?
- Have you tested your project with some members of your target audience to see how they respond to it? Do they want what you’ve got?
- Have you considered how your target audience is going to find out about your project?
- Have you tested your messages to your target audience to see if they are effective?
- Have you explored the most resource-efficient ways to let your target audience know about your project?
There’s no definitive line between attracting and engineering success, but for me it’s a helpful distinction.
In my own efforts, I’ve managed to fail on both fronts at times. I’ve written and released music that I later realized could have been much better, or wasn’t really directed at any particular audience (hindsight is 20/20). I’ve made terrible mistakes trying to promote various music releases and events, wasting money on ineffective, high-ticket items (publicists, giant list email blasts), and overlooking or under-utilizing more resource-effective promotional strategies.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a few crazy successes as well. While luck always played a role, those successes also corresponded to projects I was highly enthusiastic about, where I believed in what I was doing, and where the project got a well-coordinated, effective push into the world. In other words, both attracting and engineering success.
If I had to choose, I would say attracting success is more important. If we have very limited resources, we should invest those resources into creating something really good and exciting.
But if the project is something we believe in, why not go the extra mile and do everything in our power to maximize the chance of success and positive impact? Put some time, money, and energy into engineering success, as well.