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Want breakthrough success for your business? 7 keys to making “Black Swans” happen.

Yesterday, Seth Godin blogged about my book. As you can imagine, this had a positive effect on sales.

This was what I call a “Black Swan” marketing event. It reminds me of the time my email list grew from 5,000 subscribers to 30,000 subscribers within two weeks.

Or the time my book debuted on the top 20 on all of Amazon.

It also reminded me of the time I got my book deal in the first place, the time I collaborated with behavioral scientist Dan Ariely on an app that Google bought, or the time a Silicon Valley startup discovered me in Nebraska.

These “Black Swan” marketing events have three characteristics:

  • Unpredictable. I didn’t know any of these events were going to happen.
  • High-impact. Each of these events completely changed my business. Once a Black Swan event happens, it becomes a milestone. I then refer to everything as “pre-x” and “post-x.” (It still remains to be seen whether the Seth Godin endorsement will have this effect. Some events that seem to be “Black Swans”, such as having my podcast featured on the Apple Podcast’s home page, turn out to not be high-impact in the long term.)
  • Hard to replicate. You can’t know exactly how these events happen. You can rationalize after the fact, but you can’t simply follow the same steps, and get the same result. You can merely create the conditions, which we’ll get to.

The term Black Swan comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book called…The Black Swan.

The best way to illustrate what a Black Swan is like, is to think about a turkey. The turkey gets fed every day. Each day the turkey gets fed, it confirms the turkey’s belief that humans are nice, and that humans are looking out for its best interests. Then…

…Thanksgiving happens. The turkey made the mistake of forming beliefs about tomorrow based upon data from yesterday. The turkey’s beliefs were increasingly wrong, because the turkey misinterpreted that data. (The turkey thought being fed was a good sign, when in fact it was a bad sign.)

Taleb often talks about Black Swans in terms of bad events. For example, the financial crisis of 2008 was a Black Swan. 9/11 was a Black Swan. Both were hard to precisely predict, and we refer to both of these events as “pre-x”, or “pre-9/11” and “post-x”, or “post-9/11.”

But Black Swan events can also be good events, as is the case with the many Black Swan marketing events I’ve experienced in more than ten years in business.

One of Taleb’s defining factors of a Black Swan event is that it’s rationalized after the fact. We employ our biases trying to explain how the event happened, or we find data that matches up with our theory of how it happened.

This is where popular marketing methodologies such as a/b testing can become dangerous. If we aren’t careful to use solid methodologies, we can be led astray. I illustrated this by showing up to a 300% “increase in conversions” in a/a tests—meaning the “increase” I saw was merely statistical variation. As one of Taleb’s other books would explain, I was Fooled by Randomness.

You could use poor data methodologies to come up with false reasons. You could even use “good” data methodologies to also come up with false reasons. I tend to call this “data blindness,” or being “irrationally rational.” The focus on what can be measured can actually make you blind to the—often unknowable—truth.

In Antifragile, Taleb calls post-hoc rationalization “lecturing birds how to fly.” Imagine a physics professor showing a bird a bunch of equations to explain to that bird how it should fly.

We have the illusion that the world functions thanks to programmed design, university research, and bureaucratic funding, but there is compelling — very compelling — evidence to show that this is an illusion, the illusion I call lecturing birds how to fly. Technology is the result of antifragility, exploited by risk-takers in the form of tinkering and trial and error. —Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile

Randomness, and tinkering and trial and error, play a big part in making Black Swan marketing events happen. You can’t know exactly how they happen. But, you can create the conditions for these events.

So, how do you create the conditions for Black Swan marketing events? Here’s what has helped me:

  1. Believe in Black Swans. The concept of the Black Swan comes from living in a world full of white swans. If you have never seen a Black Swan, you might decide they don’t exist. You’d be using “absence of evidence as evidence of absence.” Simply knowing that these Black Swan events exist will open you up to making these events happen.
  2. Avoid doing things that won’t lead to Black Swans. If we don’t keep in our minds that Black Swan events exist, we get drawn into activities that have little chance of leading to Black Swans. For example, you’re unlikely to make a Black Swan happen by a/b testing the button color on your landing page. (In Zero to One, Peter Thiel calls this kind of thinking “incrementalism.” Taleb calls it living in “mediocristan”—in contrast to the world of “extremistan”, where Black Swans exist.) So, use your knowledge that Black Swans exist to divert your attention away from activities that won’t lead to Black Swans.
  3. Think in the long-term. Everyone wants overnight results. This makes us even more biased toward mediocristan-activities like tweaking an ad campaign. When I look at my own Black Swan events, they all involve assets that I had previously built up over the course of years. Before sending my book to Seth Godin, I had built up over 100 Amazon reviews, over the course of six months. I also had Seth on my podcast more than a year earlier, after spending a patient two and a half years trying to get him on the show, and after being a fan for nearly fifteen years. I doubt he would have endorsed my book if I had merely demanded it of him in a cold email.
  4. Avoid big projects full of unknowns. It’s impossible to win the lottery without buying one ticket, but your chances of winning don’t improve much by buying more tickets. Even though you should think in the long-term, don’t invest months and years in a huge project with no clear signs that it will pay off.
  5. Make small bets with big potential upsides. Instead of investing months or years in a huge project, instead, spend weeks or days—or even minutes—on small projects. Small things can lead to huge things, and they can also give you signals that make it worth investing more—yes, the old Lean Startup approach. I got my first book deal because I wrote a blog post. I teamed up with Dan Ariely because I wrote a blog post. My endorsement from Seth Godin came from a series of emails.
  6. Make the unreal real. To make Black Swans happen, you have to avoid tweaking what sits in front of you. Instead, you have to make exist something that doesn’t yet exist. This includes mere changes in definitions of things that already do exist. I existed, yet I wasn’t a best-selling author—in fact, I was a twenty-five-year-old in a gray cubicle in Nebraska with no connections. After making the unreal real several times, I eventually became a best-selling author. This seems obvious, but it makes a world of difference in your confidence. After you make the unreal real enough times, it starts to get easier.
  7. Do the crazy idea. We spend too much time in mediocristan because we’re scared. Meanwhile, we have plenty of crazy ideas that we dismiss without even thinking about it. (In The Heart to Start, I call this “The Voice.”) Crazy ideas by definition don’t have past data to back them up, so it takes courage to pursue them. But, crazy ideas have a higher chance of leading to Black Swan events than do “normal” ideas.

As you get more successful, pursuing Black Swan events gets harder. If you’re successful, you have lots of opportunities. You commonly hear advice about the importance of saying “no” to opportunities that aren’t going to pay off.

But if you say “no” to every opportunity that doesn’t have a clear payoff, you’ll get stuck in mediocristan—yes, your business will grow incrementally, but you have little chance of stratospheric success.

Dan Ariely mentioned in a recent podcast conversation, with Shane Parrish, his strategy to counter the pressure to say “no” to nearly everything. He’s sure to practice saying “no,” but he also says “yes” to some small percentage of opportunities that don’t make sense for him to pursue. He’s opening himself up to more Black Swan events.

We’re naturally attracted to the sure bet. We can measure our efforts and results, and assure ourselves that we did the right thing. But to truly have breakthrough successes, we need to ignore sure bets, so we can invest in the crazy idea. It will lead us through uncertainty, but it eventually pays off—you just don’t know how, or when.

The book that Seth Godin calls “solid advice” is The Heart to Start. Download a free Kindle sample on Amazon »



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