In “Eating Your Own Dog Food and Scratching Your Own Itch,” I referenced how it’s essential that entrepreneurs and artists create output that they themselves use (scratching their own itch), as well as those with whom they work (eating their own dog food). I provided several examples of companies — Twitter and Slack — who had breakthrough success only after realizing that their employees were not using their initial offerings but were utilizing byproducts of these offerings. And so they “pivoted.” They abandoned the products they thought people would use (a podcasting app for Twitter and a video game for Slack), and went all-in on what everyone now knows to be Twitter and Slack.
This type of pivot actually leading to success is exceedingly rare. More often than not, these “pivots” are admissions of failure and last-ditch attempts to make something....anything....work. Usually, it’s a disaster, and the company goes out of business.
These Hail Mary’s are typically only the last of a series of these “pivots,” and are byproducts of a culture that lacks discipline throughout. I call it the “Bright, Shiny Object Syndrome.”
There is no scenario in which you as an artist or entrepreneur will not feel like you are struggling — often, desperately — to find product/market fit. As I explained, there is a purgatorial lag between when a customer begins to interact with your offering and you seeing this due to the asymmetry of customers creeping along the customer journey — from awareness to consideration — without the artist or entrepreneur having any visibility of this process until the customer reaches the trial and/or purchase stage. Oftentimes, there is nothing wrong with the offering, and product/market fit is approaching; it’s just not happening at the velocity you, as the creator, want. At other times, product/market fit isn’t happening because an artist or entrepreneur is still not (yet) adhering to the golden rules of growth: 1. Do something remarkable; 2. Put it in front of people predisposed to care.
Whether it’s a simple matter of asymmetric lag or a more serious issue of lack of remarkable-ity / putting the offering in front of the wrong market, this period of time is agony for the artist and entrepreneur. You simply can not imagine why — after all the time and thought and effort and money that you have put into bringing your offering to market — that no one cares....crickets.
In short: shit gets hard. Really hard. You and you alone (and your team, if you’re lucky enough to have one) feel like you are literally insane: how....HOW....can people not like/want what it is that we believe so strongly in.
And then....you start to doubt yourself. Maybe, I’m wrong. Maybe I suck. I am wrong. I do suck.
Self-preservation kicks in. We are animals, of course. As animals, when we encounter this type of existential failure the fight, flight or paralysis part of our brain kicks in.
For entrepreneurs and artists, we constantly must battle these urges, and recalibrate around our purpose; knowing that so long as we clearly and explicitly broadcast that purpose, and put it in front of those who will recognize a similar purpose within themselves because of our offering, we will — eventually — succeed.
Too often, however, when we feel that our work is not connecting in the way or on the timeframe that we need, and so we start looking for something....anything....to ease the pain. We seek that dopamine hit that we felt when we came up with the original idea that got us excited in the first place; the one that is now causing us pain. We want both the pain to stop and the feeling of excitement to return, and we know exactly what the answer is: abandon the original idea and “pivot” to something new.
What “new” thing should be pivoted towards? The artist and entrepreneur at this moment are like a cat who catches a glimpse of something bright and shiny in the corner of their feline eyes. They abandon whatever it is they are doing and — with utter conviction, unbridled instinct, and laser-focus — pounce upon that bright, shiny object as if their life depends on it. And, as is so often the case for the poor cat, the entrepreneur and artist end up pawing at something illusory: a flicker of refracted light through the window that disappears almost as quickly as it emerged.
I see this all the time with the artists and entrepreneurs with whom I have the good fortune to work with. Some of the very smartest people I know are not immune to the bright, shiny object syndrome. People who have had success — at the moment when whatever they are working on becomes painfully challenging — allow their animal brain to take over and, instead of remembering that these moments of severe frustration are endemic to the artistic and entrepreneurial process, begin flailing and grasping — pawing like a cat — at some bright, shiny object that they perceive will ease their pain.
It doesn’t. It makes it worse. It’s a habit, and a cycle....a doom loop that will keep both the entrepreneur and artist from ever breaking through.
How do you avoid this as an artist or entrepreneur? First, recognize it. Recognize that the feeling of hopelessness is illusory; you can and will survive so long as you view the pain as an instructive to embrace and not as something to rid yourself of. This pain — like all pain — is a symptom of something else that ails you. When you find yourself seduced by — to mix a metaphor — the siren’s song of the bright shiny object, ask yourself why you’re feeling that way. Is it because something has actually changed that would alter your core thesis? Do you really believe that your song or business idea really does suck? Or, is it that you haven’t given it enough time(customer journey lag) or you haven’t found that most passionate percentile and need to re-evaluate your target market from a “Mirror”/psychographic approach. Or, perhaps, you need to tune your product or marketing. Whatever the case, one thing is for sure: the bright shiny object that appears to be a cure for your pain, is really only a momentary dopamine hit that will soon leave you in an even worse place than you are now. You will soon have a pile of bright shiny objects that signify nothing and you will go from one to the other....never actually grabbing a hold of anything.
George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc, the world’s largest independent record label, and cofounder of TuneCore, the world’s largest independent digital music distributor. He is also the cofounder of Music Audience Exchange, which comprises a team of digital marketers, engineers, and music lovers, using technology to redefine the fundamental structure of brand-artist relationships.
Mr. Howard is a professor of music business/management at Berklee College of Music, and the founder of GHS, a strategic consulting firm that advises a wide range of clients on how to integrate technology with strategy in order to increase brand awareness and revenue through innovation, social media, digital platforms, and strategic partnerships. A partial list of clients includes: Intel, National Public Radio, CVS Pharmacy, Alticor/Amway, Brown University, Paste Magazine, SpokenLayer, SingFit, The Landmark School, BigchainDB, Wolfgang’s Vault, and the Townsend Group. Howard is a sought-after expert witness who has drafted reports for and testified in many high-profile cases. He also is a columnist for Forbes, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and many other publications.