m-pulse / a cooltown magazine
March, 2002
Seth Godin

do you zoom?

According to Seth Godin, author of Survival is Not Enough: Zooming, Evolution and the Future of Your Company, companies that cause and respond to change as a successful winning strategy, 'zoom.' But it's as challenging as it is rewarding:

  • many CEOs reject evolution and do whatever they can to stop it - resulting in most change coming from an individual or division exploring new 'memes,' or ideas acting as the business equivalent of genes
  • companies that are too reliant on a current winning strategy usually fail to evolve quickly
  • fast feedback loops - tiny experiments with results that can easily be measured - encourage organizations to make frequent small adjustments, making it more likely that they will evolve their winning strategy
  • low-cost, low-risk, real-world tests are the most likely to have high returns on investment
  • a company that zooms will attract zoomers, allowing it to dramatically increase its advantage over its competitors in a changing environment.

mobilize or fossilize: seth godin on "zooming," evolution and the future of your company on the wireless web

Bestselling author of Survival is Not Enough applies Darwin's theory of evolution to doing business in the mobile age.

By Rick Mathieson

"Meme pools." "Zooming." "mDNA."

One glance at his new book and it's easy to wonder: Has Seth Godin gone bananas?

The one-time Yahoo marketing VP, self-proclaimed "change agent," and author of previous bestsellers Permission Marketing and Unleashing the Idea Virus, is trading germs for genes - and contagions for Cro-Magnons - as his new metaphors of choice for describing survival of the fittest in today's business world.

In his latest work, Survival Is Not Enough: Zooming, Evolution, and the Future of Your Company, Godin draws on the works of Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins, and Jared Diamond to build a compelling case for 'evolving' your company the way nature evolves a species.

"meme" warfare

According to Godin, success requires companies to stifle the "anti-change reflex" and start "zooming" - a term he uses for embracing change and mining "memes," or ideas operating as the business equivalent of genes.

The main difference between your company and say, a penguin, Godin argues, is that while both have evolved to a point where they can succeed, the penguin continues to evolve - while your company tries not to. That's because most companies are built on the idea that that the world is stable, and that you have some control over where your market goes next.

To avoid extinction, companies must capitalize on their "mDNA," the total sum of their memes, people and assets, to engage in various low-cost, real-world tests of new technologies and business models. By proactively executing small variations in business strategies - evolution instead of revolution - companies can quickly adapt to market changes and realize huge returns on investment relative to risk.

Of course, harnessing change takes on new prescience in an era when mobile technologies promise to extend the enterprise as never before possible. So mpulse got with Godin to find out what permission marketing, idea viruses, and "zooming" mean to the mobile web.

By invoking Darwin, you say that the companies that are best able to adapt to change will thrive. But you simultaneously argue that it's the low cost, low risk tests - evolutionary steps versus revolutionary steps - that will result in the largest ROI. What does that mean to companies that might be thinking about using mobile technologies to competitive advantage?

I don't think there is such a thing as revolution in nature. I think nature just does evolution and it's revolution that gets all the good publicity. But it's pretty rare. Today, business is about irrevocable, irresistible, accelerating change that every company is wrestling with. It's about how innovation - mobile Internet technology or anything else - can change the ground rules of an entire industry.

What I'm telling companies is, don't sit around waiting until you have the perfect solution because perfect is the enemy of good. In the enterprise space, I can easily imagine a sales force with 50 people, where you give 10 people the sort of mobile toolkit that dramatically increases their efficiency and gives them unformed tools, things that aren't necessarily working just right yet, but give them the freedom to test and to try things and to keep evolving. Pretty soon the other 40 people will be yelling and clamoring and saying they want that stuff too. That's how change happens. And the companies that experiment like that will be able to identify what works, what doesn't, and what could lead to fundamental new ways to do business.

What does this mean for consumer goods companies - the Pepsi Colas of the world - who might be exploring ways to use the wireless web?

The bad news about package goods companies is they built their business model around something that was true a hundred years ago. Just because they were really successful and really profitable selling sugar water, doesn't mean that that's a guarantee it's going to be true in the future. Proctor and Gamble is sucking wind and will probably do so for the foreseeable future, because the mantra of supermarkets and television aren't what's driving our economy anymore, but that's what drives their companies. So when I look at, "can I use my cell phone to buy something from a coke machine," I think that's sort of a cool innovation and it's probably going to happen. But it's not going to change the dynamic of their business in a big way, in my humble opinion. If I were one of those packaged goods companies, I'd be scrambling as hard as I can to say, "How can we be in a completely different business five years from now?" If we're going to be in a completely different business five years from now, we better start now trying lots of little things so that we know what the big thing's going to be when we need it.

But, in fact, you say successful brands tend to be the most resistant to change. What opportunities in the mobile world does experimentation hold for companies that want to take on an AT&T Wireless, or a Sprint PCS, or even an AOL, who have already moved into the mobile space?

Great point. The fact is that when you're starting a company, you've got nothing to lose, so no one says when you come up with an idea, 'Well, that'll wipe us out,' because you've got nothing to lose. In a big company, all anyone asks you is, 'How dare you threaten the heritage of our company. Big brands want to be defended and nobody at a big company gets promoted for challenging the status quo and taking risks in new areas.

I believe that every major innovation in wireless is going to completely displace the last round of winners. We've seen that happen two or three generations in a row and it's going to happen again. I think the opportunities are countless for people who can build things that don't require a billion dollars of infrastructure to find out if they're going to work.

For instance, this guy sent me a thing just the other day about Wi-Fi LANs that work at Starbucks restaurants. I thought, what a cool idea. Because the fact is, there are only a few thousand Starbucks restaurants. You don't need a billion dollars to wire them up. But for an itinerant traveler who's walking around with a laptop, they would love to access the Net. Wire up a few stores and try it out. If it works, you'll be able to raise enough money to take it anywhere you want. What a great way to get the test out there in the real world and find out whether it's going to work.

How do mobile technologies help with your notion of embracing and propagating idea viruses?

An idea virus is an idea that spreads from person to person as opposed to being spread from the marketer to the person. Pepsi wins because they buy Super Bowl commercials, whereas, a site like Amazon wins because 250,000 affiliate sites tell each one of their friends or customers, or whatever. My favorite wireless example is Vindigo.

Vindigo used wireless technologies in the Palm and started with 50 people in a beta test of their free application and ended up with 300,000 users in one city in 90 days because people beamed the free application from person to person. Vindigo created an incredibly valuable asset, which is space-based knowledge of where somebody is, and delivering content on where he or she can eat, or shop, or whatever.

Of course, they're making a huge mistake in their business model because they trained everyone that it should be free - and now they're in big trouble.

In fact, you once said wireless content is 'a zero billion-dollar business.'

That's right. I think that free content was an aberration. It lasted our whole lifetime, but that doesn't mean it's going to last forever. The mantra of free content was based on the FCC, which is artificially limiting the number of channels on television and radio. If there had been an infinite number of TV channels, no TV station could have made a living either. There are an infinite number of web channels. There are an infinite number of wireless channels. As a result, you're not going to be able to get enough critical mass to get enough advertisers to be able to offer content for free. So we're left with content you're going to pay for, and I think people will pay for content, but it's going to take an entire generation of people who think they're entitled to it being free to die off.

Unfortunately for Vindigo, they based their whole model on advertising to pay for this thing, and local advertising is extraordinarily difficult to sell. Except for the phone company selling yellow pages ads, there aren't very many good examples of consistent profitable selling of local ads, especially the restaurant. But that says nothing about the efficacy of spreading ideas from person to person.

So my idea was to enlist those same 300,000 people to go sell the ads. If you have 300,000 Vindigo users, and every time they eat lunch or dinner, they say to the owner of the restaurant, 'why don't you guys offer a coupon on Vindigo,' and by doing that the customer gets a kickback every time a fellow Vindigo user uses one of those coupons. You break down all resistance and all barriers with a free sales force, and soon you'd create an entirely different medium that could grow organically without having people going into the field and doing accounts payable and all that other stuff.

And what about those coupons. What does the wireless web mean to your ideas about permission marketing - especially now that we're able to send offers and promotions directly to prospects based on their geographic location?

This is going to be the killer app for wireless, I believe. I think that the model of advertising that said 'we're going to interrupt the largest number of demographically appropriate people' is broken and it's never going to recover. Instead, the model is, A, "we're going to generate the maximum amount of revenue by talking to both the geographically and psycho-graphically correct people," meaning the people who, through their actions, demonstrate they are the right people. And B, we're going to increase the value of our relationship with those people every time we talk to them.

So we're not going to just send an ad to your cell phone because you're walking by a Gap store. We're only going to do that if doing so makes you glad you have that thing in your pocket, and once that happens and people realize that permission is an asset that increases in value, as opposed to a wasting asset or a decreasing asset that you use up, then we end up with a whole different dynamic. What ends up happening is that the media company doesn't go out to sell advertising. What the media company does is it goes out to find offers on behalf of its users.

So in your Gap example, what might be an example of transactional information that would make you glad I talked to you?

Well I can tell you what I want. I call it My Own Private Idaho. I want a device, maybe using Bluetooth, that I keep in my pocket. And I want it to tell every merchant, when I walk into their store, where I've been - sort of like a cookie for the real world.

So now, if I'm in the mall and I just spent a fortune at Abercrombie and Fitch, and I walk in to the Gap store, all those guys with the headsets instantly get word that I'm a big important customer and they drop everything and run over and fawn over me like in "Pretty Woman." And then when I'm done browsing, I just throw the merchandize I want in the bag and I leave - because the system knows who I am and it knows how to charge me, the way Amazon remembers my one-click preferences, and I'm on to the next store.

I want to subscribe to that, and I will gladly permit the businesses my mobile carrier

signs up with to know everything about me. I insist they know everything about me.

So it's about apps, not content.

In the future, the stuff that used to work isn't going to. That's nature. The early adopters in mobile are the ones who pay all the bills because after you get to critical mass, it's all gravy. What do early adopters want? They want to save time and they want to save money. If you can't figure out how to do that, wireless technologies aren't going to help. The secret is trying small pilots, new experiments, to see where things might go so you can ride the next wave of innovation. Because as long as change is the only constant, evolving businesses will always win.

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