People First, Work Second

Your job will not take care of you when you get sick. Work will not bail you out of jail. Friends and family will. Put them first in your life. When embarking on your career, building companies or engaging in a hobby, make people a priority as a general rule. Culture and the success of your work stem entirely from the health, attitude and relationships of people surrounding the job. Treat them very well, take care of them – and perhaps they will do the same for you. The risk of taking care of others without the guarantee of a returned favor far outshines the risk of working eighty hour weeks alone.

A Job Without A Boss

Valve, the company famous for the Half Life, Portal and Left for Dead game series, is a rare gem indeed. From top to bottom, Valve prides itself on not having managers. Financed personally, the founders never had anyone else to answer to (except, of course, their customers). Within the organization, employees live and breathe a “flat” mantra – everyone is equal and autonomous. Teams form organically without assignments, no one serves anyone else, peers measure performance and everyone ranks each other for salary bumps. While somewhat anarchistic and inefficient, this chaotic and creative environment continues to birth instant classics. Valve releases nothing until it’s perfect. While this may sound idyllic and utopian, it’s actually working for them. I encourage you to read Valve’s Handbook for New Employees to learn more. Can this model apply to other organizations and industries?

You Have A Voice. Use It.

Two or three decades ago, it was not easy to speak your mind – and nearly impossible to be heard. That’s not the case anymore. With the internet, we have an opportunity to share our thoughts, opinions and work on a global scale. We can express ourselves publicly, anonymously or under a pseudonym. While it’s not always easy to be heard online, it’s easier than ever to express yourself. I will never encourage you to add to the noise just for the sake of adding to the noise. But I do encourage you to use the web as a platform to let your mind and heart run free.

I know far too many closet writers, actors, film directors and artists who have great voices that need to be heard. Many of them are too lazy, shy or proud to share directly with the world. I know ten times more people who want to hone their voices and fear an audience. Keeping your mouth shut will not help you advertise. If you don’t put yourself out there, no one will know that you exist. Ever.

If you are concerned about operating online under your real name, simply make up another. Nine times out of ten, quality content online takes precedence over name or brand power anyway. If you can engage audiences with your voice through genuine content, you will win.

Say what you need to say. Don’t be afraid. What’s the worst that could happen?

Education Is Not Gospel

I took a class in college on motion picture distribution. I learned a lot and revered my teacher. Over the last 6 months, developments in the industry continue to undermine almost everything I learned.

Times change. Popular opinion changes. Our understanding of the world and universe changes. New replaces the old. Technology can flip everything upside down. The game changes all the time.

While education is instrumental in shaping your understanding of the world around you, be wary of taking everything taught as fact. By all means – take to heart advice from teachers who have lived through their industries and subjects. But I encourage you to heed their teachings as advice, not gospel. Fact can become fiction overnight. With the future so uncertain, it’s fair to take everything with a grain of salt.

To make a difference and truly change things, you must be prepared to do things differently than those before you – not listen to your teachers all the time. Let your education provide you with the tools and creative constraints to propel your vision forward. Follow your passion and embrace your rebellious instincts to break the rules and undo what has already been done.

Culture Is More Important Than Product

People want to be a part of something and have a good time. That’s why fancy restaurants make the big bucks. Product is important and the focal point of a solid business foundation. But the atmosphere around a product is the key differentiator. If you can build culture around a product, it’s like having an open front door to a raging house party. Something people want to be a part of. The most successful restaurants on a block are packed with people having a good time. Music helps. Alcohol helps. Great service helps. But without those things, great food means very little next to the fun house party. The aura you build around your brand makes a huge difference. Spend as much time developing your cultural recipes as you spend on your product recipes.

Culture of Experimentation

Every company claims they are open to new ideas. But ego and fear of change tend to deflect outside forces. There is a major difference between accepting feedback and acting on it. A feedback culture can only get you so far. After all, actions speak louder than words; what you do is more valuable than what you say. An organization truly interested in keeping an open mind must open its doors – not only to ideas, but also to active change. Companies must encourage every employee to tinker in genuine “ask forgiveness, not permission” fashion. Harsh punishment should not land on failure, but instead on apathy or closed minds. Any person or obstacle stifling healthy ideation must move out of the way.

Let your people play. Design and enforce a true culture of experimentation.

The Stakes of Live Performance

In a world showered with readily accessible recorded content, the cost and inconvenience of a live show leave many audiences at home. We often forget that live shows open a far greater threshold for surprise and magnetic energy than the recorded medium. Why? Because something might go wrong. The risk of failure is much greater on stage than in a recording. You cannot edit a live performance. If something breaks, thousands of people will be there to see it. As a live audience participant, you share in an exclusive opportunity to witness this single autonomous performance – never to be experienced the same way again. The pride in exclusivity, tension behind the stakes at hand, and energy through sharing it all with others make live performance more engaging, valuable, and expensive. More often than not, it’s worth it. And it may be the only thing that can keep the arts lucrative. But that’s another story.

Predictably Unpredictable

You can always count on true artists to surprise you. With a sense of regularity, the greats always deliver the same quality with a different twist. The same gets old, so it’s important to keep things fresh. We put less stock in sequels that merely re-deliver the original and our hearts into sequels that reinvent the wheel. We come to trust creators that, in any other forum, would not be trusted. And we always look forward to the next trick.

Want to be great? Learn to surprise audiences on a regular schedule.

Regular Programming [Film Friday]

I’ve learned from blogging and observed the same results from others: releasing content daily dramatically increases your chances of attracting new and returning audience members. How do you think television and radio built so much traction in the first place? When audiences can expect to find you at a certain time or place, it lubricates the exhibition of your content and dramatically reduces marketing costs. You build a relationship with your audience over time, and keep them coming back for more.

By committing to releasing content regularly, you also dramatically increase your chances of producing a hit. 5 Second Films have produced so many short films and told so many jokes that the handful of hits they’ve had propelled the group into web virility.

If you cannot produce enough content to release daily, then commit to releasing content “regularly” – and publicly define the recurring time frame through which they should expect new content (weekly, monthly, every third Tuesday, etc.). At least some level of audience expectation makes a huge difference for audience retention.

Random splashes are risky and expensive to promote. Arbitrary releases rarely build traction. Do not bet on it. Consider curating an audience and regular programming instead.

Passive Aggressive

Confront the issue directly. Blow steam to someone else first if you need to, but don’t wait to deal with the tension at hand. It will only blow up in your face later. Like water boiling on a stove, you may get burned if you wait too long. Definitely do not ignore the situation and let the water to boil out entirely because you will be left with a charred and unusable pan.