Sivers describes himself as a “musician, programmer, writer, entrepreneur and student – though not in that order.” Interestingly enough, he also calls himself an introvert who thrives on solitude.
Margie Warrell: You are an entrepreneur, having sold CD Baby in 2008 for a small fortune. In Anything You Want, you talk about the hardships and mistakes you made and how provide several tips and tricks to being successful. What’s been the most important lesson you’ve learned in business?
Derek Sivers: Well, the most important lesson is probably to spend less than you earn. But that’s not the most interesting one. The most interesting one is probably this:
Because of public companies with shareholders and a board of directors, we assume that all companies’ main purpose is to profit. But for you, you’re free to do anything you want with your company. It’s more like art. You don’t have to follow any norms. It’s an expression of how you feel the world should be. When you make a company, that’s your little place to make your own little utopia.
Warrell: You make a point of telling the world about what your priorities are and then sticking to them. This seems like an obvious way to get things done, but how do you actually start working this way? Is it ever difficult for you to turn down opportunities that come your way?
Sivers: Oh I learned this the hard way! For years, I’d say yes to almost everything, trying to be nice and generous. Feeling obliged to be of service to the world. Maybe also a fear of being forgotten if I don’t.
But I paid the ultimate price in doing that, because for all those years, I got almost no work done! Some famous authors have written about this: that if they said yes to every request, then they’d never have time to write another book again.
So these days I’ve just decided to turn the opposite way and focus on my work. I say no to everything. Actually this interview is the first I’ve done in probably 9 months.
It’s only a little difficult to say no. I just wrote a nice form letter once, then copy and paste it as needed. You’ve got to believe that the work you’re doing is ultimately more useful to the world.
Warrell: In your famed TED talk about starting a movement, you make the point that it’s not just about having the courage to do something new and lead; movements really start when someone has the courage to follow. In business, people often want to be leaders on projects so what do you think is the best approach to acquire “followers” in that sense?
Sivers: Ideally, you don’t try. First you make it easy to follow you, some easy means for people to get involved and contribute. Then you do all your work in public, sharing the whole process, sharing what’s so cool about it. Then you just keep focusing on the work itself, not on getting followers. If the work is worthy, you’re doing it in a very visible way, and it’s easy to get involved, then it’ll happen.
Warrell: We all have roadblocks and hardships in life , whether it be in our relationships, getting ahead at work or speaking our minds and being understood by our peers. How do you respond to naysayers and people looking to put you down? What’s your advice on staying strong and working through the bad times?
Sivers: For naysayers, trolls, and adversaries, it’s important to remember two things:
No. 1 is realizing we tend to notice the one bad comment out of a hundred. You could get a hundred compliments, then one insult, and all you can think about is the insult. Realize that about yourself, and decide to counteract it. Specifically very deliberately ignore the insults, to counteract this tendency.
No. 2 is realizing that the public you is not the real you. When people insult (or praise!) you, they’re just commenting on a little tiny public avatar of you. It’s not the real you. Ideally, we should all have stage names. When people insult U2 singer Bono, the real Paul Hewson (his real name) is not fooled into taking it personally. The real Paul is only known to his close friends and family, as it should be. Set up a public figure and let the public throw eggs or flowers at it. Don’t take either one personally. It’s disconnected from the real you. It’s just useful feedback on your work.
As for bad times, nothing to do with naysayers, I’m a quitter. Instead of staying strong and working through when times are really tough, I usually quit this recipe for failure and start a whole new recipe.
You can tell when you’re on to something that the world wants. So if something is too challenging, I tend to chalk it up as not a good fit, and move on to something else.
Warrell: What would you say to people who want to make a change or take a chance on something in business or life but are afraid of the risk of failing or messing up?
Sivers: Go find very early versions of things: The first TV pilot of a later-successful TV show; early audition tapes by famous actors; early demos by famous musicians. Or even early versions of companies, like the way that Lonely Planet was a tiny 3-page newsletter sent to friends, or Virgin Airlines was Richard Branson renting one plane.
Focus on these early examples, not what they became over the next 20 years. Remember that what you’re doing will constantly improve.
Warrell: What’s inspired you to be courageous?
Sivers: I don’t think I’m courageous. I’m just playing.