By Matt Glynn The Buffalo News, N.Y.
If there is a point that Seth Godin drives home time and again about the world of startup companies, it's that nothing is predictable.
What passes for conventional wisdom today is erased by the next breakthrough company. And the most successful startups are usually the ones no one saw coming.
"The startups that change everybody's mind, the startups that are worth a billion dollars, are always a surprise," he said Monday to an invited audience of 90 mostly young entrepreneurs.
So instead of copying ideas that have come before them, the Buffalo-born entrepreneur, marketing blogger and author urged his audience to embrace innovation in their quest for success.
Godin in 1998 sold direct marketer Yoyodyne to Yahoo for $30 million in stock, and he has written 17 business-themed books. He had a lively, wide-ranging discussion with venture capitalist Jordan Levy, a co-founder of the Z80 Labs high-tech incubator. Godin tailored his message to budding entrepreneurs, encouraging them to take risks while warning them of perils, the kind often rooted in misconceptions.
For instance, there was this lesson about selling a company to a publicly traded company: Be mindful that the personal promises you made to your employees might not hold up under new ownership. "Too many times, the boss' boss' boss changes the rules," he said.
And Godin contends that while people in Silicon Valley are more likely to quickly grasp an idea you're pitching, compared with a place like Buffalo, Silicon Valley is dominated by "groupthink," which he attributed to "people who are defending their point of view because they're already successful."
His conclusion: it's much easier to be a "maverick" -- a term he applies to himself -- in Buffalo than in Silicon Valley. "I think you should embrace that as opposed to waiting for all the Buffalo Bills fans on your block to say you have a good idea."
An audience member asked Godin about the most effective habit he has developed that serves him in business. Godin offered two: blogging every day and teaching himself not to panic.
"I don't understand why everyone doesn't blog every day," he said. "I think that if you blog every day, you will become more honest with yourself, and you will think more clearly about what you do and why you do it, even if no one reads it."
On the point of not panicking, he said he gained perspective about the industry he feels privileged to work in: "It will all work out. And if this doesn't work out, the next thing will work out. That habit took me a long time to learn."
Levy asked Godin for quick takes on a bunch of tech companies. Among his answers:
-- YouTube: "It's being way underutilized."
-- Facebook: "Here's the choice: Either your customers are your product, or your customers are your customers. And in the case of Facebook, they're the product, meaning Facebook collects all this attention and sells it to advertisers. That's tension; Twitter has it worse. So there's tension there. The more money Facebook makes, the more they annoy their users."
-- Twitter: "My idea about Twitter that I posted about a year ago was, I don't understand why Twitter didn't say to its million power users, you pay us $10 a month and this is going to be the best platform you've ever used, because that would be enough to build a company for the ages, where they could do things just for their power users, then grow that number, and they'd be fine."
-- Yahoo: "I think given the hand that she was dealt, (CEO) Marissa Mayer is on her way to building something way more interesting than what she got."
-- LinkedIn: "I think they're not on the cultural radar as much as they will be." Godin later met with businesses at Z80 Labs to offer them input on their respective projects. He said an incubator like Z80 meets a compelling need that startups have: "One of the things entrepreneurs benefit from is realizing they are not insane. What the whole idea of an institution that's endorsing this does is, it helps you realize you're not alone. And then the second level is you learn from each other's mistakes. Those two elements are critical, particularly in a place where everybody is not starting their own business."