Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Receivers

I started listening to the audio book The Giver, a book I read in fourth grade and haven't touched since.  It has already started pulling me in; it may be an easy read, but the concepts it deals with can be very adult.  The idea of assigning children, at 12, what their roles in the community will be, and producing hundreds or maybe thousands of happily complying citizens is astounding in a way, especially in contrast with today's young people being told they can be whatever they want to be, and that it's okay to change your mind about what you want to do, and today's adults being told its never too late to change your career.  Imagine even if you got to choose, but whatever the decision was, at 12, you were stuck with it for the rest of your productive years?  That's hard to swallow.  

I chose my career early on, and knew even before it began that it wouldn't fulfill me, and that I would need to keep my creative passions at my side.  I benefited from my Dad's career advice, and my sisters' early work experiences.  I knew what I wanted, I pursued it diligently, and got it.  End of story, right?  I wish.  Like I said, I knew I would need to keep my creative passions at my side, and I have, although they've shifted, from music to writing to painting to interior design to product design.  That's not to say that I ever stopped writing, obviously, or ever stopped thinking about music or painting or interior design.  I just focus less on making money with those areas.  And while all of this has happened primarily in the background of my career, the backburner, the appendix, I've developed a business career that could be quite envied.  I've had a number of entrepreneurial ambitions that have come and gone, but never quite scratched the itch and never hit it out of the ballpark.  Freelance writing was fun, but it became a lot of work for so little pay.  Commissioned art wasn't any more profitable for me, after I paid for the materials and paid with my time.  It was hard to imagine a traditional career in interior design without a traditional interior design background, so I tried going about in an untraditional way, and gave up after the first rejection by HGTV's Design Star.  Software is an area that I think can have a huge return, but I'm not a programmer, have resisted being one, and don't have much to offer programmer partners.  Product design also has a giant pool of talented designers, and I don't know how I could ever compete.  

So I've tried to focus more recently on what my strengths are.  Clearly, I'm not the most talented artist, or the most talented designer, not by a long shot, not even good enough to compete, really.  One strength, I think, is my ability to impart my technical skills to adults in a classroom setting.  Recently, I've also been very much wanting to get involved with 3D printing.  But it turns out, its really hard, and there are a lot of people doing amazing things and I don't feel like I have the technical or design abilities to keep up, or the energy to try.  So putting these two ideas together, what little technical skills I have developed in 3D printing, and my ability to impart those skills to others, I decided I should focus on teaching 3D printing design classes.  My 3D printing dinners idea I thought was a winner, but I didn't throw myself whole-heartedly into the Kickstarter and it thus resulted in a cancellation of the project.  The problem with Kickstarter is that it's not really a way to kickstart anything, its a way to get over the finish line, which means I have to start something.  So taking my own advice on this one, I decided I would just start offering these classes.  

Of course, I focused first on the easy stuff: setting up a location and time and place.  Great!  But the hard work is the marketing, and ultimately, the getting-people-to-hand-over-money-for-what-you're-offering part.  It's so daunting, I don't even want to start.  But why should it be?  I got to thinking about this, and here's the marketing challenge boiled down to its roots: even with targeted ads, I'm not able to reach just the right audience.  I can reach broadly, to every adult living in the Phoenix area, and what percentage of them are going to be (a) on board with continuous learning, (b) interested in 3D printing, (c) able and willing to pay for such education from an apparent nobody, and (d) do not have the warewithall to figure out what they want to learn about 3D printing on their own?  In fact, I was planning on hosting the class at TechShop, which offers training and coaching on the exact same topic, so I would literally be introducing my customers to my competitor.  Now, granted, I could compete on cost and compete on the targeted content approach instead of TechShop's generic training, but still, they are my #1 competitor in the area, to my knowledge.  Interestingly enough, TechShop offered to partner with me, and I like the idea of partnering with a giant like TechShop, especially because they have the resources.  But I don't like their teaching structures, and I don't want to be roped into that arrangement, not if this is going to be my breakthrough source of secondary or substantial income.  

Targeted ads probably work well for certain situations, like if someone writes a lot about coffee or checks in to Starbucks, targeting coffee products towards them might be successful, at least enough to justify spending the dollars on the ads.  But if I'm targeting someone who talks about 3D printing, then there's a good chance they know more than me about 3D printing, and would thus not find my classes useful.  I mean, even if I'm teaching an Excel course, which I probably would be the expert in, if someone talks a lot about Excel, then they probably don't need the course.  The people who need my Excel course are the people who don't talk about Excel, but use it in their work.  The people who need my 3D printing courses are people who are remotely interested in 3D printing, but don't have a clue how to get started.  How do we find these people?  

So this got me to perhaps a brilliant marketing tool, if only we can find a way to incentivize people to use it:  tell us what ads you want to see.  What are you interested in?  What do you want to learn about?  What would help you in your home, travel, work, family, exercise routine, diet struggles, etc.  If we could select which ads we want to see, we could actually find products and services that we would be willing to pay for.  We need a marketplace for life.  Is that too broad?  I mean, there's marketplaces for techy gadgets, geek ware, culinary tools, movies, music, apps, clothes, and even education (although maybe these are the least developed).  What if we could truly have a one-stop-shop, a hybrid of Amazon,, Craig's List and Angie's List?  Is it feasible?  Or is our world too divided into niches to ever go back to a virtual General Store?  Maybe I should focus on pushing educational marketplaces to a higher level.  But it just feels like the way we go about marketing, and the way consumers go about being marketed to, is ripe for change.  

It's a tough sell all around.  Consumers generally don't like ads; they have developed a distaste for them because they take away time from the cable TV or Hulu shows they are watching, and the ads are rarely introducing something new and exciting that the consumers want or realize they need.  Some smart people have come up with ad-blocking add-ins for internet browsers to shield us from unwanted ads as we surf the web.  But if all ads went away, we consumers would potentially never know about new products or services that we would, in face, enjoy, that would enhance our lives, that would make us happy.  If ads were banned or systemically blocked, would word of mouth be allowed?  Would we still be able to see banners while driving by local businesses?  As much as we hate ads, a world without ads seems a little scary, too.  It's a world of stagnation, no new experiences, no technological advancement, and that is scary.  

On the other end of the argument, consumers can't necessarily be trusted to define what it is that they want.  I learned this the hard way when I surveyed friends and family one time about a really big, bold idea where any imaginable product could be made, and I got responses that consisted of no imagination and even, no interest, in such a possibility.  I was disheartened, and came to grips with a famous quote from Henry Ford about how he knew the automobile would take off:  “If I’d listened to the masses, I would have built a faster horse.”  It made me realize that sometimes vision comes before adoption, understanding and acceptance.  It's the exact opposite of the lean methodology for startups, which preaches that you need to ask the customers what they want.  But the mass market didn't know they wanted cars, or personal computers, or the internet, not at first.  Customers might be able to tell you what features they like and don't like about an existing product, and that market research can be digested to build a better mousetrap, but it won't be a revolutionary industry disruptor, creating whole new industries around it.  It takes vision, so asking consumers to select what topics they'd like to see ads on is like asking them to predict at what age their great grand-children will live towards, there's just no way to know until you see it, hear about it, or experience it, for truly new and different products.  Sure they could say that they want to travel to Australia, build a treehouse, find recipes and ingredients to use on the grill, and hear about new restaurants serving locally crafted beer, and you could target ads at those very ideas.  But for new and different ideas, there's no way to have the consumers predict that they want to see them.  In fact, a recent experience reminds me that broad, generic ads still have value in this world, because if I had only targeted ads, or only ads of my choosing, I would have never seen an ad for McDonald's new jalapeno double, but shortly after I heard about it, I went to try it, and I think it was probably the best $2 burger I've ever had.  I suppose maybe if the ad targeting was clever enough, it would know that I like jalapenos, but if I had any say in the matter, I probably would have excluded McDonald's from my preferences.  

I may be to the point of rambling now, and perhaps there's more to come on this topic.  I'm just imagining that, with big data and such advanced technology, there's got to be a way to give consumers a menu for life, and help them find the products and services they want that they didn't know existed.  What if we could all be Receivers and get exactly and only what we wanted?

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