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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  1. Tzaddi says:

    So THAT’s where the koolaid expression came from. Who knew!

    I like the notion that “heretics are billionaires now”. I don’t aspire to be a billionaire, but there’s more than one way to be rich from your ways of doing things. As in, rich with the type of life you want to live. Zigging/zagging is good for that!

    Tzaddis last blog post..Artists stay for free in Gothenburg, Sweden

  2. Ari Herzog says:

    I wouldn’t call myself a contrarian, but I’ve likened myself since college as a rebel. A deviant, even. Asking questions because they must be asked regardless how silly or inane they are perceived.

    As for the squirrel in the middle of the road, be thankful cars have raised bottoms so the critters are not squished.

    Ari Herzogs last blog post..Share Inspiration

  3. J.D. Meier says:

    It’s that funny tension of wanting to fit in yet wanting to stand out.

    It’s tough to be outstanding if monkey see, monkey do.

    J.D. Meiers last blog post..My Favorite Personal Development Books

  4. I just HAD to click this headline. You know how I feel about sheep and people in a herd baahing around, following one guru or the next. This post is a brilliant reminder that questions are the key.

    “The grass is nice here. Eat.”

    “What’s wrong with the grass over there?”

    “Dunno. Shepherd said to eat this grass. Who am I to question him? He’s the expert.”

    “He’s just some guy with a stick bossing us around, dude.”


    James Chartrand – Men with Penss last blog post..Losing Your Sense of Self Because of Your Business

  5. Okay. Holy ****. Jonestown is one creepy story. I’m reading the whole thing as we speak. Creepy. Holy ****

    James Chartrand – Men with Penss last blog post..Losing Your Sense of Self Because of Your Business

  6. Sonia Simone says:

    Yeah, I was 12 when the suicides happened, and they made a huge impression on me. Their headquarters were in San Francisco, where I grew up, so it was a local story. Still one of the saddest and most disturbing events I can think of.

    @Tzaddi, or in your case, tzigging and tzagging. ;)

    Sonia Simones last blog post..Dumb Things Small Businesses Do #7: Following the Herd

  7. JoVE says:

    Okay, now I feel old. How come these people haven’t heard of Jonestown? And how come I’ve never heard anyone use “drink the Kool-Aid” as an expression. Oh well.

    Thanks for this. I like questions. Questions are good. Maybe that’s more appropriate than contrarian — questioning. And I’ve been working on your second bullet for a bit now. It is rather invigorating to start thinking differently about what I’m doing.

    JoVEs last blog post..Update on goings on around here

  8. Sonia Simone says:

    Well James has no excuse, he’s old too. :)

  9. I do have an excuse! I’m Canadian!

    James Chartrand – Men with Penss last blog post..Losing Your Sense of Self Because of Your Business

  10. Sonia Simone says:

    Yeah, but you people are supposed to be more informed than we are. ;)

  11. JoVE says:

    James still has no excuse. I’m Canadian, too. :-)

    JoVEs last blog post..Update on goings on around here

  12. We are more informed. We’re just colder and slower, kind of like molasses in January.

    @ JoVe – Who’s side are you on, anyways?!

    James Chartrand – Men with Penss last blog post..Losing Your Sense of Self Because of Your Business

  13. Marte Cliff says:

    I write an ezine for Realtors – and I harp ALL THE TIME about leaving the herd if you want success.

    Thanks for a great article!

  14. James says:

    The hardest thing to do when investing is not buying stock it’s selling stock. Knowing when to get out, knowing when you’ve made enough, knowing that there’s always another deal around the corner, is tough but it’s an essential part of business success.

    “Question the assumption” shhould be attached to every computer screen and office wall in America.

    Great post.

    The Other James

    Jamess last blog post..A Chance to do Something Special this Holiday Season

  15. chris zydel says:

    Hi Sonia,

    Yes, I certainly remember Jonestown and I was way older than 12 when it happened! It is by far the one of the most horrific examples of how people can be influenced by a guru and a group to do things that are completely self destructive. Although, if I remember correctly, some of those folks didn’t want to go along with the program and were forced to drink the Kool Aid anyhow.

    Thanks for the reminder to follow your own path ( you hippie, you) and to be willing to take risks to strike out and try new things. Whenever I have gone off the beaten path in my business it has always paid off in a big way. Partly I think it’s because doing something new energizes me and that new energy gets communicated to my clients!

    Another great post!


  16. Evan says:

    I think my problem might be being too contrarian.

    For instance there is a huge need for evangelical Christianity to embrace our physicality (the faith is based on god taking on a body!).

    I wrote a book about his a while ago – a series of reflections and exercises, it was overwhelmingly ignored. It wasn’t regarded as wrong, just weird. It was too far off the map. Too contrarian I think.

    I’m very much in favour of questioning. When it comes to selling though, in my experience a little contrarianism goes a long way. Most people want what other people want.

    Evans last blog post..What Do The Whitehall Studies Mean to You?

  17. Sonia Simone says:

    Evan, that’s an interesting distinction. There’s contrary thinking when it comes to business processes, and then contrary thinking when it comes to the product you actually deliver to your customers.

    One useful thing about the Web is that you can often make a good market out of the 1% of weirdos who are weird the same way you are. But not always. Totally agree that you have to approach it more carefully when you’re talking about what customers see.

    Also, if you’ve got a product that has an unusual customer, you really have to think about how you’ll reach that customer. Often the usual channels just won’t work if you’ve got a genuinely unusual offering.

  18. Sonia Simone says:

    @James, I don’t think of you as the other James, I think of you as “Equally Fine James.”


  19. Sonia Simone says:

    @Chris, it’s right that there were a few who did not go willingly. A couple of those did escape. A few more were killed trying. Personally, I’d rather be shot down running than subserviently take the poison.

    I can’t even believe I blogged about this, as I do find it almost unbearable to think about. So many children.

  20. Judy Dunn says:

    Interesting discussion here. I think, having been an educator (and an elementary school principal) in one of my former lives, that we all start out thinking on our own. Just put yourself in a class of 30 kindergarteners. You’ll hear some wild, off-the-wall ideas coming from 5-year-olds. Unplugged and uncensored, as they say.

    Later, when I taught intellectually gifted 4th and 5th graders, I saw kids enter the program all quiet and complacent and once they were given permission (and even rewarded) to think differently, that creativity surfaced again.

    But somehow, somewhere along the way, we are told that there are right and wrong answers. Have you ever sat in a staff meeting with “wayward thoughts” of a different way to tackle an issue but lacking the courage to voice it? And just about that time, some brave soul will give words to your thoughts and the boss will say, “That’s a great idea!” So I think it has something to do with having the courage to “think differently.”

    Hope I didn’t go off topic here, Sonia. And, yes, I remember Jonestown very well. It was frightening that one man could have that much power over so many people.

    Judy Dunns last blog post..Blog Action Day 2008: Abadou’s Birthday

  21. Nice post Sonia. I would steal some of the ideas in it but I’m too busy printing out and putting into envelopes these stupid newsletters. ;)

    We are sending them out for next week so I will keep you in the know.

  22. Mark Silver says:

    I’m late to the party, but I thought I’d chime in with a slight distinction. It’s not about being contrarian or not contrarian- it’s about being awake.

    There are still heretics that are burned at the stake. Warren Buffet is a great example of someone who wasn’t, but Jim Jones himself was a contrarian who led a great many people to a horrible fate.

    Contrary doesn’t equal wise. I know you didn’t say it did.

    Sometimes following the herd is smart. For instance, all foundational effective marketing is the same and has been the same for thousands of years, because there are basics about how human beings relate. Look at 1,000,000 different marketing educators, and they all say the same thing, but with different flavors. I wouldn’t buck the trends on that one.

    However, in terms of strategies, or the flavors themselves- how you implement them- definitely go for it. Think. Be awake. Center and ground yourself in your heart or in a higher power or however you orient to a “True North.”

    But contrary for contrary sake has another word for it: “reactionary.” Which is just another word for following the herd. :)


    Mark Silvers last blog post..The Confidence Game

  23. Sonia Simone says:

    Love it, I love that distinction about being awake. Blindly following the herd is just one of many ways to not see what’s in front of you.

    Everyone, Mark did a really cool response post to this at http://www.heartofbusiness.com/contrary-versus-herd/. I encourage you to go check it out! (And leave some comments, cause my really long one is getting lonely.)

  24. Sonia,
    Thought provoking post. Here’s 5 assumptions I questioned in 2008:
    1. A man with an Afro-American absentee father and caucasion mother, married to an outspoken, confident Afro-American woman will never defeat a front running white woman for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the U.S.A, and go on to win the general election.
    2. It can’t hurt to give sub prime borrowers a piece of the “American Dream”
    3. Social networks are only for college kids
    4. Cat’s can’t bark
    5. A 60 year old man can’t design, write all the copy, and launch a web site
    See you in 2009. Amazing.

  25. Hey Sonia,

    First time reading a post here and I have to say “Daddy Like.”

    At Dan Kennedy’s last Renegade Millionaire Seminar he came at this subject from a different angle. The 80/20 rule.

    You know, the universal law that plays out where 80% of society in any area of life are average or below at what they’re doing. 15% are excellent. And 5% are outstanding.

    If anyone here hasn’t heard or seen this seminar you’re missing out. He was on fire here. This was one of his two day events where he does most of the talking instead of a bunch of people telling you what to do but not how to do it.

    It’s awesome.

    In this talk he goes through example after example of how 80/20 shows up in every area of our lives. Schools, sports, offices, volunteer organizations, on and on and on.

    And the point he emphasizes is… why, if we wish to be extraordinary, would we behave like the 80% er’s in our chosen endeavors?

    Doing what they do guarantees us a mediocre to disastrous outcome.

    I like what I see here Sonia. I look forward to talking with you again here.

    Note Taking Nerd #2

    Note Taking Nerd #2s last blog post..Long Haired Mexican Pot Head Shocks This Marketer With His Common Sense Sales Persuasion Tactics

  26. Sonia Simone says:

    Nice, Lawrence.

    NTN, nice to see you over here. I find Dan Kennedy extremely interesting. I like about 80% of his stuff and hate 20% of it. ;)

  27. Tim says:

    Nothing thought-provoking to add. Just a great post. Thanks for writing it.

    Tims last blog post..Teecycle Turns 200!

  28. Precise Edit says:

    Contrarians unite! (Or is that an oxymoron?)

    This resonates strongly with my beliefs. First figure out what you want to do, and how, and then look for lessons in the industry. For example, when we first conceptualized our Writing Tips for a Year service, we brainstormed what it would do and how, and then we looked at what others were doing–not to mimic them, but to learn how else we might enhance the service and what pitfalls we might encounter.

  29. I’m pretty sure I know people who sip “dumb” kool-aide and try my patience!

    I love that term Contrarian. Passed the gene to my kids and they wouldn’t always mind me; now they boss me and are so often right!

  30. Dennis Yu says:


    Great post. If you do exactly what everyone else is doing, why would you expect different results?

    Dennis Yus last blog post..This is what happens when you don’t take care of your customers

  31. Marte Cliff says:

    Likewise if you do what you’ve always done.

  32. LoneWolf says:

    Great post. Now I have another 6 to catch up on before I catch up on the rest of this site!

    I’ve always resisted tradition for tradition’s sake, but I also see that there are traditions that are there for a reason. A good tradition will withstand the test of questioning and these ones are worth following the herd on.

  33. Just read this post – now I am going to go back and read the other ones. These ideas are good for small and large business alike – especially these days.

    Andy Ann Arbor Real Estates last blog post..Wellesley Gardens Condominiums Deal Alert!

  34. Rory says:

    Re: Sonia’s Article “Are content thieves stealing your revenue?” Great content, great band, great music, great business plan, plenty of free music: The Grateful Dead.


  35. Adam says:

    Wow.. powerful article here… makes me wonder and think for a moment there about how our mindsets are triggered at times… very nice I like your article very much…


  1. [...] Sonia Simone, someone I like and respect tremendously, wrote a fair and cautionary post “Dumb Things Small Businesses Do #7: Follow the Herd.” [...]

  2. [...] About the Author: Sonia Simone is Senior Editor of Copyblogger and the founder of Remarkable Communication. [...]