“This Might Not Work”
The phrase above is one of Seth Godin’s trademarks. I love it because, like all of Seth’s stuff, it crams a ton of wisdom into very few words.
What does Seth mean by “This might not work”?
Here’s what I think:
There’s a concept in marketing called “the Avatar.” Are you familiar with this? An avatar is the archetype of Your Customer.
The idea, if you’re a marketer, is to keep this avatar in the front of your mind, particularly when you’re developing a new product, writing a new book, organizing a new enterprise. You want to ask yourself questions like, “Am I serving my avatar properly? Am I giving her what she needs? Is there something more I can do for her?”
Apple, for example, knows its avatars down to the minutest detail. You can bet that BMW does too, as do McDonald’s, the NRA, and the Democratic and Republican parties.
Focus groups and customer surveys are tools used by marketers to communicate with their avatars and to learn from them. Questions can be asked. “Do you want cup holders in the backseat? Which is more important to you in a baby stroller—comfort for your child or ease of packing and unpacking? Should Catwoman return in The Dark Knight Takes a Vacation?”
The avatar concept makes a lot of sense. I see how it works. I would even implement it myself in certain cases.
But a writer can’t work like this. An artist can’t. If you do, you’re a hack.
Did Picasso ask his buyers if they were ready for Cubism? Did Quention Tarantino focus-group Reservoir Dogs? Did Springsteen workshop Darkness at the Edge of Town?
Sometimes you gotta lead.
You gotta get out front.
George Lucas was working on Star Wars for five years before it hit the big screen. How long did Herman Melville toil over Moby Dick before the book was published in 1851? Did either of them have a clue, during those long lonely years, whether their babies would fly or crash?
The audience doesn’t know what it wants. It’s the artist’s job to tell them. Or more accurately show them.
The audience will know it when they see it.
Even in the world of tech/marketing, I don’t think the avatar concept works. How did Steve Jobs evolve the Macintosh or the iPhone or the iPad? He did them for himself. Because he thought they were cool.
Apple customers don’t know what the next cool Apple product will be. If you ask them, they can’t tell you.
They’re waiting to be surprised.
They’re waiting to be thrilled.
I don’t know what Steve Jobs was thinking throughout his years of great product development, but I’ll wager it was no more complicated than this:
“I’m betting that what I myself love, my customers will love too. So let me ask myself only, ‘What do I love?'”
Then there’s the Muse factor.
Our Muse is always ahead of us.
The audience is always behind.
I’ve said before, of my own projects that have been hits, that at the time I started them I thought I was out of my mind. I thought no one would be interested but me. But I was seized. I had to do them. I had no choice.
(Again, I’m not knocking the avatar concept in totality. In the proper context, it’s absolutely appropriate. Nothing works better. I have used it myself and I would use it again.)
But not for any enterprise that aspires to or touches upon art.
Which brings us back to Seth’s phrase, “This might not work.”
These four words are what every artist and entrepreneur should be saying as he or she launches their new novel/zombie flick/videogame/Andalusian restaurant.
It might not work. Really. It might bomb big-time.
That’s the chance you and I have to take, if we want to get ahead of the curve. Ahead of the curve is where hits happen.
Ahead of the curve is where the Muse lives.
If we call ourselves artists or entrepreneurs, that’s where you and I have to live too.