Brain Pickings

Anything You Want: Derek Sivers on the Secrets of Entrepreneurship

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Why not to trust futurists, or what the entrepreneurial power of empathy has to do with the art of letting go.

Derek Sivers may be best-known as the founder of CD Baby, commonly considered the first true empowerment platform for independent musicians, but he also happens to be one the smartest, most interesting and most curious people I know. His first book, Anything You Want, is out today and makes the entrepreneurial heart sing with inspiration and insight into the business of following your dreams.

The book is the latest release by The Domino Project, one of 7 platforms changing the future of publishing.

Today, I sit down with Derek to talk about the essentials of entrepreneurship, selflessness, and forming a healthy relationship with the prospect of failure.

q1

You’re extraordinarily good at synthesizing complex insights into digestible, bite-sized nuggets. If you had to do that with your top three learnings from your CD Baby experience, what would those be?

#1 : Delegate, but don’t abdicate.

Founders have a problem delegating, so I learned that one well, and my business took off huge because of it. But then I tried to delegate even more, even delegating major decisions inside the company that completely changed its culture. And that’s when it all went downhill. I had over-delegated. That’s when I learned the word “abdicate” : to give away authority or power. I learned it too late. The damage was irreparable. That’s why I sold the company.

#2 : If it’s not a hit, quit.

Many times before and after CD Baby, I launched projects that I thought were brilliant. But people weren’t into it. I used to persist, to try to push my idea into the world, against all resistance. But now I’ve learned from experience: starting a business is like writing a song. You can’t know which one people will like. If the world isn’t into it, don’t keep pushing it. Change the song or just write another song.

#3 : Know what makes you happy.

Too many people start business by emulating others. Thinking they need to be like the people profiled in magazines, or the last business author they read. But what you want out of life is different than them. If you prefer privacy, or are happier when your company is small, you need to know this and make a plan that accommodates it, instead of pursuing someone else’s path.

q2

What’s the number-one quality one needs to have or choice one needs to make in translating a brilliant idea into successful entrepreneurship?

Be selfless. Do not think of yourself, your needs, your protection, your security. Think only of what would be a dream-come-true for your customers, and find a way to make that happen. Only after you design a perfect business from their perspective, should you adjust the numbers to make sure it’s sustainable. But focus entirely 100% on them, not yourself.

q3

Other thought-leaders have previously spoken about the fear of failure and it — or, more precisely, your seeming resistance to it — seems to be a running undercurrent in much of your work. What’s been the role of failure in your career and what would you say is the key to having a healthy relationship with it as an entrepreneur?

Like the “#2: If it’s not a hit, quit” thing: You need to learn to let go, shrug it off, and try something else. Think of the life of a songwriter. They write 100-500 songs in their life. One is a hit. Who knows why? Some random combination of ingredients or timing makes it really click with people.

It’s the same with anything we do. Even if you had a big dream, pushed for it, and it didn’t happen. Learn to let it go and do something else. There are so many different things worth doing. You’ve got plenty of ideas.

q4

Much has been said about the tectonic shifts in the music business today. Where do you see it all going in 10 years, both as an industry model and a sociocultural paradigm?

Nobody knows the future. Anyone who claims to know the future is full of shit, and not to be trusted.

Seriously. We have this strange obsession with wanting to know the future. But if you can learn to let that go, and admit you don’t know, you can stay focused on the very valuable skill of helping people here-and-now, instead of guessing what might be some day.

I don’t think about the future for one minute. Not at all. I can have some personal intentions, like, “I would like to move to Brazil in a few years.” But guessing what might happen in the world? No need.

q5

Back in the day, you and I became friends largely through the overlap of our reading lists and our shared belief that what we choose to read plays an important role in the life of the mind and the entrepreneurial self. What books have excited you the most over the past year?

The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine

Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin

Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Ed.: Anything You Want is out today and an absolute gem. It’s available in hardcover, mp3 audiobook, CD audiobook, shareable 5-copy and 52-copy mulitpacks, ultra-limited-edition collectible signed by Derek, and, of course, on Kindle.

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