Seth Godin's Summer Seminar

A fellow intern at Ashoka encouraged me to apply to a seminar that Seth Godin, an entrepreneur / marketer / author / philanthropist, was putting on. I decided to apply and got a seat at the table.

Overall Impressions
The seminar was the applied version of his free ebook, "Stop Stealing Dreams," which I reviewed in my July 2007 verbose letter. The book critiques the education system for not turning people into independent-thinking connectors, makers, and doers. The seminar turned people into independent-thinking connectors, makers, and doers.

As I mention in my review of that book, I think that my education has been better than the education system Godin critiques, so I already had learned (to an extent, of course) some of the lessons that he was teaching. Nonetheless, I learned a lot.

The seminar was astounding. Many of the students who attended had amazing ideas to change the world but just weren't going forward with them. After the end of three days, I saw over half of the students go from people who were thinking about being "normal" students and pursuing "normal" jobs become energetic about self publishing a book or starting a nonprofit. In other words, it seemed like Godin did in three days what happened to me over the course of a term in spring of my junior year in Urban Studies 133, when I decided that I would go forward with Code the Change. Seth Godin inspired.

He spent the first day convincing us that school wasn't teaching us how to be good people or teaching us attitudes and skills that are relevant for the 21st century but that these things, like curiosity, ethics, motivation, and creativity, are teachable and learnable. He also gave some of the history of the education system. On the second day, we each gave rough presentations on our ideas, and he gave us some advice on how to present, how to market, and how to make an idea actionable. For the third day, he asked us to refine our ideas and come up with an actionable plan for how we will implement these ideas by the end of the year, and that was when I saw everyone full of energy and great ideas to change the world.

He was also very direct, while being incredibly friendly, and he gave us lots of delicious vegan food.

Some advice and insight:
- We rationalize our fear. Not having an actionable plan is a manifestation of fear. Another manifestation is waiting to get picked by someone else (a college, an employer, a sports team, a movie studio, a nonprofit, a prestigious fellowship, a political office...) rather than picking yourself. The solution is to do stuff. Done is better than perfect.
- Living intentionally and being the person that you want to be are important.
- Planning is essential.
- Leadership is also essential. Godin had us get together and write a book over a day and no one took charge (or, perhaps, everyone was trying to take charge), which led to a lot of discussion of process and not enough work getting done. Since that's something that I have dealt with (a lot), I decided to take charge and got folks working.
- When presenting a project, you need to make people care about the project, make people believe you, make people believe that you're the right person to do the project, and have an explicit ask of them.
- Don't start telling a story at the beginning. Start before the beginning and create mystery, or start in the middle.
- Something is considered worthwhile in our society if it's scarce and difficult.
- When selling something, more sure that it's something that people want to buy.
- Use existing tools when possible. Don't always try to build some new technological solution. As someone running a computer science organization, I couldn't agree more!
- Godin argued that, because people pigeonhole you, you have to be unique and can't always just be yourself. I disagree.
- It's harder to replace someone's idea of something than it is to make a new idea. That is, people thought of Yahoo! as the internet, not a search engine, so Google could come in and become people's idea of a search engine. Now that Google is people's idea of a search engine, it's very difficult for Bing to step in.
- Make something remarkable -- something that people will remark about.
- The audience will decide on their own whether or not an idea is great. You can tell a quick (<1 minute) story to demonstrate that the idea is great, or you can just assert that it's great. That frees up more time to discuss your go-to-market strategy.
- There is a diffusion of innovations. Don't try to target everyone -- know your audience and target your niche!
- When there's a low marginal cost to produce something, you should give it away for free to spread the word.
- Businesses always try to use differentiated pricing to extract more value.
- It is strategic to incentivize the customer paying up front for the sake of cash flow (ie, give them a discount if they pay early or with cash).
- To get something viral, you should have an initial push of everyone sharing it at the same time. Synchronization makes it so that each person hears about it from multiple places, so they're more likely to check it out themselves. Also, make the content easy to share, make it look valuable, and make it something that people want to share (ie, so that they can talk about it with others).
- A business is an asset plus a bridge. An asset can be permission (ie, permission to speak to a group), retail space, capital, technology, etc. A bridge is a connection between a need and a solution.
- The founder of a company probably values their equity higher than others, so it might be better to pay other employees in cash rather than equity. You shouldn't spend your equity all at once. You shouldn't let equity get in the way of your project. Also, there are alternatives to equity like giving all profits from a single project. And if you have a cofounder, a shotgun clause might be a good way to make a falling out less ugly.
- You should have different landing pages for different demographics on your web site. You know something about why people came to your site and who they are, so you should use that information to tell a different story.
- Your significant other should support what you do. If both of you travel for weeks without seeing other, then you should each support that busyness in the other person.
- There's more baggage when money is in an equation.
- Cultural change can start small. A while back, a student posted fliers across their campus saying, "Wednesday is 'Wear Blue Jeans if You're Gay day.'" As a result, the whole campus engaged in a conversation about gay rights.
- Structure your site so that each group of people that uses it brings their constituents to the site. In other words, if I have a Google Plus account, I'll get my friends to get Google Plus accounts. Or, I might encourage nonprofits to tell their constituents about a Code Jam that the nonprofit is participating in; then, the constituents learn about us and get involved, too.

For me specifically:
- I should sell Code the Change as a project that is imminent and possible and as something that will happen regardless of whether or not a particular individual wants to start a Code the Change chapter. That way, they're more likely to care because they don't want to miss the boat. One way to do this is to have a Code the Change National Day of Service where we put on a bunch of Code Jams around the nation.
- I should try giving out an award. Code the Change could ask professors to nominate students at other schools for the Code the Change CS Service award, and we could send them a plaque and encourage them to get involved with us.
- He also encouraged me to brainstorm more ideas for scaling Code the Change, which was helpful.
- When I asked him some general work/life questions (like about feeling pressured in entrepreneurial communities to go full time with Code the Change), he mostly encouraged me to follow my instincts (which was pretty much the answer I was looking for). When I asked him specifically about scaling Code the Change, he told me that I'm on the right track, that there's no one easy solution, to be ready for rejection, and to blaze on ahead!

Some other students' reflections on the experience:,,