The following is a guest article by Jason Cohen, founder of Smart
Bear Software. He blogs about startups and
marketing at http://blog.ASmartBear.com.
I don't know about you, but I'm tired of getting lectured about how my
business should be more like
Toyota, and like Zappos, how my blog should be more like Joel Spolsky and like
Copyblogger, and how my software should be more like 37signals and like Apple.
not "lectured." It's my own fault for reading too many blogs about how to run
my company and how to blog and how to write software. But still!
Just because someone has success with a product or strategy doesn't mean you
should copy it.
Will my blog be unsuccessful because I don't follow the Copyblogger rules
that I should write like a third-grader with titles that look like they came from the
cover of Cosmo?
I don't think so.
My discouragement begins with incompatible advice. For
example, we're regaled with how Zappos uses Twitter as part of their phenomenal customer
service which they cite as the reason for their success. Their embrace of Twitter is so complete, Zappos CEO
Tony Hsieh even wrote his own Twitter beginner's tutorial.
All hail Twitter. But wait! Seth Godin, the 12th most popular blogger in the galaxy, says
that social networking sites like Twitter are saturated with garbage to the point of uselessness. In fact,
Seth doesn't use Twitter at all. Huh.
So which is it? Transformative or useless? Key business strategy or waste of time?
Same with blogging. The top 10 most popular blogs post more than once per day; some
have used this as evidence that frequent posting is how to get popular. But when I look at my
own list of favorite bloggers, most post once or twice a week at most, and some
successful bloggers insist popularity increases when you post less often.
I've gone link-crazy here to illustrate a point -- that this
isn't just a few people chatting about pros and cons, these are armies of
bloggers, writers, and CEOs vehemently blasting away at each other. What's a
little startup owner to do with all this? Who has the free time to study and
research all this?
Surely the conclusion is that Twitter won't make or break your
business and posting
frequency won't make or break your blog.
The root problem is that the so-called "examples" we're supposed to
learn from are outliers. An "outlier" is a data point well outside the
normal range -- a statistical anomaly.
Malcolm Gladwell, winner of my award for Smartest Carrot-Top Lookalike, just
wrote a book about outliers.
Like his other works, it's well-written, entertaining, and often
Still, he presents evidence that at very high levels of achievement, no
factor can be used to predict the success. For example, Nobel laureates are just
as likely to come from unknown schools as from the Ivy Leagues.
I've noticed this in professional sports too. Kids learn the "right way" to
throw a baseball, but watch major league pitchers and you'll notice they all do
it differently. On a bicycle there's a correct seat height and
top tube length to maximize power and prevent injury, but Jan Ulrich won the
Tour de France with a short seat.
Because outliers are so far outside the norm, standard rules don't
This "outlier principle" -- that extreme success is not due to simple,
controllable factors -- explains the contradictions above. Zappos made over a
billion dollars last year because of fantastic customer service while Amazon is
the largest online retailer and doesn't even publish a phone number.
Both work because even something as fundamental as how you deal with customer
service doesn't explain runaway success.
In fact, if I could pick something that all these companies have in common
it's that they aren't afraid to buck conventional wisdom if
they think it would be contradictory to their culture.
These companies have redefined "conventional wisdom." Is it your turn to buck
How much can we learn from outliers? Surely they have something to teach
us, but when should we blaze our own trail? Leave a comment and join the