June 16, 2011
Many creative people I know (myself included) find it difficult to market themselves. By “creative”, I’m including a pretty large group of people - but I am also thinking specifically of all the people I know who create interesting products, works of art, or even businesses but don’t spend a lot of time trying to expose these things to a wider audience.
In a previous job I had, I worked for a smart and very competent CEO; let’s call him John. I had the privilege of attending some of the board meetings of this organization, and John would constantly report stellar progress toward the organization’s goals.
However, there came a point where the board challenged John to do more marketing. The organization, they said, should be out pushing for media exposure and name recognition. There was no specific deficit that brought these suggestions about - John had never failed to attain the organization’s financial and customer goals. But I couldn’t help but find myself sympathetic to this goal.
John’s response was that high quality customer service, and achieving business goals, was all that really mattered. But while this organization still does amazing work, you haven’t heard of it. Instead, you’ve heard of much less effective organizations that do similar things. And a popular movement hasn’t really materialized around this organization, even though one easily could. This seems like a missed opportunity to me.
Let me give another, more specific example. In the home 3D printing world, the 800-pound gorilla is Makerbot. They make a very interesting, and innovative, product. The CEO, Bre Prettis, has been on Colbert, in the New York Times, and lots of other places. You may have heard of Makerbot even if you don’t know what 3D printing is.
But what’s funny is that Makerbot’s product isn’t yet that good compared to some of its lesser-known competition. It’s more expensive and less reliable than other, very similar designs, including the one on which it’s based (RepRap). I won’t dwell on this point since overall I think Makerbot is a great company and I’m confident the product will improve rapidly. But what actually differentiates them right now is that their CEO has been willing to get out in front of large audiences and talk enthusiastically about how great the product is. He’s a great promoter. He puts his own style into everything he does; the company is an extension of him.
And he’s willing to bend the truth a bit - calling the Makerbot a usable consumer-level 3D printer is a little bit of an exaggeration, or at least it was at the time I wrote this. I don’t condone this in particular, but it speaks to the degree to which he’s willing to put his personality behind the product.
Fear of marketing
I’m starting to make creative products myself, and I’ve been devoting the summer to learning about producing and marketing them. But it’s not that easy to actually get out and talk about what you’re doing, especially if you have an emotional connection to it.
It’s also difficult because what you really want to do is the work itself. And perhaps you think that if a product is good, it will find its own market. This is sort of what school trains us to do - I don’t have to argue for a good grade, I just have to produce to a high level. Many jobs are like this too, at least at the junior levels. But I’m not sure if this is a useful model for an aspiring entrepreneur, or anybody who wants to produce work that is not just excellent, but also influential.
For some people there may be a missing ambition element, also, as in Cory Doctorow’s book, Makers. The 2 protagonist geniuses - Lester and Perry - essentially create a brand-new economy around cheap computing power, technical creativity, and worldwide connectedness. And yet they spend the entire novel battling with themselves and the other characters about how big they want their projects and ideas to get, and how much influence they want to have. Why? Perhaps because if customers reject your product, they’re also rejecting you? Perhaps it is simply too much responsibility?
I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe the heart of effective marketing is that marketers want responsibility or influence - whatever the result of that is. They may also realize that you really only need to succeed once. All your failures may then look in retrospect like the initial unfoldings of some genius plan.
I wonder if they are also able to overcome the uncomfortable merging of identities - your self with what you produce - that comes with this territory. This is a lot easier if you build financial models for a living!