Publishing lessons from fishing on the beach

I was on vacation last week down at the beach. While I was watching the sun rise over the Atlantic, putting the same bait on the same hook, casting it into the same ocean in roughly the same place, I thought about that saying you hear from time to time that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

People who say that need to go fishing.

Was I, in fact, doing the same thing over and over? Each piece of shrimp was slightly different than the last. Each time I cast my line the sun was a little higher in the sky, the tide had come a little higher up the beach and the current had moved everything a little farther south. The fish had moved around too. And sometimes, mysteriously, they just start biting for their own reasons.

It’s virtually impossible to do the same thing twice when you’re fishing.

Heraclitus was one of those old Greek philosophers. He said change is the fundamental nature of the universe, and one of his famous sayings is that you can never step into the same river twice.

He appears to have been somewhat of a grump and said some other strange things, but … his basic point is valid. The landscape is always changing.

This is just as true with your market as it is for the fish on the shore. Tastes and preferences are changing all the time. What worked last year might not work this year. You have to stay creative and try new things. But at the same time, something that didn’t work last year might work now.

You have to be willing to fail, and to not take your failures too seriously.

I can recall many promising new project proposals that were killed because they reminded the boss of something that had failed a decade ago.

“Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results,” the boss might say.

Okay, obviously there’s some wisdom in that saying, but as with all proverbs the hard part is understanding how and when to apply it. Your new effort might not actually be the same thing, and it’s not going to the same market in the same world. People are different now.

Many years ago I was involved in developing an online tax service that failed because it was too early. People were scared to death of putting their financial information on this new and weird thing called the internet. Now everybody does it without thinking twice.

So if everything’s changing, and the things you learned last year might not apply this year, what do you do?

Two things.

First, you need to be testing things all the time. The tests need to get results quickly, and you need to give less weight to tests you did a while ago. Fashions and opinions and tastes are always changing.

Second, you need to have a sense for the changing landscape. Or you need to hire someone who does.

You know those people who are always in style, always know the latest lingo and how to use the latest slang? Some people just have a knack for understanding the popular mind. The will of the people. What the cool kids are up to.

Those people are very valuable — if you’re marketing to the cool kids. Of course you have to be careful with that. Your plugged in millennial might have exactly the wrong sense if you’re marketing to 60 year olds.

The real point is, know your market. Know the words and fears and hopes that resonate. And they might not be the same today as they were last month.

And don’t let anybody kill a project because of something that didn’t work ten years ago. Let go of your failures. The world is a different place now.

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