Dumb Things Small Businesses Do
#7: Following the Herd

Human beings are wired funny.

We were given these giant brains so we could be creative, could think of new ways to do things, could come up with incredible new inventions. We even have opposable thumbs, with which we can make all kinds of nifty tools like the wheel, the printing press, and Twitter.

But we also have a big scary alarm that goes off when we’re doing something different from the tribe. We’re wired to “think different,” but not too different.

We can respond to adversity with tremendous creativity, but too often we need adversity before we’ll buck the crowds.

Most people, in most endeavors, are clueless

Remember when we used to use the expression “rocket scientist” to mean someone who was incredibly on the ball? Then NASA showed us that, although they hire lots of amazingly smart and educated people, rocket scientists aren’t immune to following one another off a cliff.

Brain surgeons, nuclear physicists and assembly language programmers* are smart, but they’re not so smart that they wouldn’t do something incredibly dumb because someone else did it.

Despite what our moms tried to teach us, if our friends jumped off a bridge, we absolutely would too. Don’t assume that you’re smarter than the 909 people who drank poisoned Kool-Aid at Jonestown. You’re just in a better environment.

(Yes, if you’re a young’un, that’s where the expression “drink the Kool-Aid” comes from. Pretty horrific, actually. If you can stand to think about it–and mostly, I can’t–Jonestown offers one of the most striking and stark sets of lessons on mass psychology you’ll find anywhere. Robert Cialdini’s essential book Influence spells the lessons out so you don’t have to wreck your entire night reading about Jonestown on Wikipedia.)

Nearly everyone looks to the left and the right to see what to do

Human beings learn by imitation. We have such incredible richness of cultural diversity because each of us, when we’re little, learns how to be a human being by watching the big ones. We can learn all kinds of complicated and illogical behaviors that way. And in fact, each of us does.

Monkey see, monkey do. But humans are a lot better at that game than monkeys are.

A few people in a thousand manage to be contrary-minded enough to escape. By nature, they’re wired to zig when everyone else zags. In dark ages, they burn these folks as heretics. Today, they’re Warren Buffett and Richard Branson.

Remember that when you think the world is going to hell. Heretics are billionaires now.

You don’t have to be born a contrarian.

You can learn it. And you should, if you want economic and personal freedom.

Just opening your eyes and seeing that “most people do what most people do” allows you to at least question whether the herd knows where the hell it’s going.

Which puts you into that category of one or two in a thousand. Incredibly simple, actually.

Assumptions worth questioning

Dan Kennedy likes to yell at entrepreneurs who immediately assume that interesting business tactics won’t work in my business.

I won’t yell at you, but I will encourage you to always question that assumption. The weirder an idea looks to you, the better payoff you might get. Spectacular successes have been created by coming up with creative ways to implement ideas that first seemed irrelevant or off the wall.

  • If you do everything online, question the assumption that direct mail is too expensive.
  • If you do everything offline, question the assumption that the online world is too confusing for you to figure out, or that your customers don’t use a computer.
  • If you’ve got a great way to get leads, question the assumption that it’s always going to work the same way it does now.
  • If you’ve built an orderly, comfortable business, question the assumption that you can’t handle a good dose of creative chaos.
  • Always question the assumption that you have to compete on price.
  • Always question the assumption that you, personally, can do it better than anyone else.
  • Always question the assumption that the middle of the road is the safest place to be. If you don’t believe that’s a damaging assumption, ask a squirrel.

How about you? Are you willing to become a creative contrarian? Willing to find a few juicy opportunities by zigging when everyone else is zagging right off a cliff (and bitching about it the entire time)? Let us know about it in the comments.

7 Dumb Things Small Businesses Do

* P.S. Thanks to my Twitter buds, in particular Coyote Squirrel, for giving me some good plausible alternatives to “rocket scientist.” What a bunch of sweeties.

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Why This is the Best Time to Finally Break Free

I’ve been thinking about Moscow again.

I was there in the late spring of 1997. I can still remember gripping the arm rest on the plane as we circled the dachas outside the city.

I was terrified. I thought of Moscow as the “Wild, Wild East” (It turns out it had calmed down considerably since, say, 1994, when the mafiya is reputed to have used subway cars for target practice–while the commuters were still in them.)

But I was researching a novel and somehow I was more curious than afraid.

I fell in love with the city immediately. I loved the energy, the half-intelligible murky soup of Russian, the Caucasian grubbiness of the “things market” and even the black-and-gray crows. It wasn’t anything like the Orwellian clichés of anti-Soviet propaganda. It helps that the city was celebrating its 850th anniversary, so the mayor had ordered that the whole city be given a good paint job.

But it wasn’t really the Byzantine golden domes or the breathtaking scale of Red Square that got me. It was the people.

Every person I met was reinventing himself

Russia had completely overturned its economic system. Everyone needed to find a new way to make a living. The old rules had been thrown out the window, and no one knew what the new rules were going to be.

I remember spending an afternoon with a cynical hipster named Yuri. Before glasnost, he’d been a third-generation propaganda artist. His family had the official license to reproduce Lenin’s signature for political posters. (And before glasnost, political posters were the only kind of posters there were.)

When Yuri was 20, he figured he’d copy Lenin’s signature for the rest of his working life, as his father had done. When overnight that turned out not to be viable, he became a Photoshop wiz and started hitting up the new breed of entrepreneurs. He started teaching them about this whole advertising thing, even while he was learning it himself.

On the side, he was a rock star. Rock stars still needed day jobs in 1997.

That was Moscow.

The illusion of privilege

Yuri was also a documentary filmmaker. He showed us some video he’d just shot in Paris, of three sullen French boys in black leather complaining about unemployment.

We watched it and laughed until tears ran down our faces. Even me, who had only been in Moscow a few days.

It was preposterous to watch these overgrown children sit on their Versace-clad backsides and bitch. These were not the lean, angry boys from outside the city, who truly are locked out of opportunity. They were privileged kids with superb educations whose parents had tony apartments in fashionable neighborhoods.

It was shocking to listen to them whine about the fact that not everything was being handed to them any more. To watch them smoke cigarette after cigarette and wish things would get more comfortable, so they could go back to sleep.

Watching them from Moscow, a cauldron of hustle and reinvention and drive, was ludicrous. But if I’d first encountered them through friends in Paris, I probably would have felt badly for them.

I’m not calling you a crybaby

Believe me, you’re nothing like these three pouty boys were. I have no patience with people who say that the recession has been “manufactured by the media,” or that the sickening economic crisis is “just in your head.”

If you’ve just been laid off, that’s not in your head. If your mortgage is due and you don’t know how to pay it, that’s not manufactured by anyone. It’s hard and it’s real and you have my empathy.

We’ve all been shaken up hard. You have every right to be scared.

Maybe this shake-up isn’t quite glasnost, but it’s getting there. Maybe we aren’t in Moscow yet, but we can see it from here.

So rather than freefalling, leap.

Obsessively study something new. Take massive action. Throw away your TV. Find the partner who will put the last piece into place. (Yes, Partnering Profits is closed now, but it will open up again.)

Start a side business or a second job or a third, something that can break you out to a completely new place.

Feel like you’ve been spinning your wheels?

Have you been trying to create a business online, or to build a content net that can support you? Trying to make something happen, but not seeing any movement?

Maybe you haven’t been spinning your wheels after all. Maybe you’ve been getting ready for take-off.

In 10 years, look back at this as the time you faced disaster by reinventing yourself and creating something truly new.

The winds are shifting. We’re rewriting all the rules. This is the time to be more curious than afraid.