Monday, December 8, 2008

Re: Seth Godin - Building an albatross

Building an albatross

I spent hours watching the albatross in the Galapagos hang out. The first thing you notice is that they have a terribly difficult time taking off. In the water, an albatross will have to spend hours waiting for the right wind to come along. On land, they're ungainly, but when they find the right conditions... they take off. And fly and fly and fly. An albatross can fly for days or weeks, with a heart rate similar to its resting heart rate. Possibly the best bird ever invented.

3years2 Albatross businesses are great to have but not easy to launch. Rather that the excitement of the big time launch and then the constant promotion and high expense of a typical business, an albatross business mucks around for a while, but since it's designed for effortless long flight, it gains steam and then keeps going.

Today is the third anniversary of the launch of Squidoo into alpha. We certainly had a slow take off, then a bump in the wind 18 months ago with spammers and the search engines, but we've reached a glide path. Note two things about this chart:

1. It takes three years to be an overnight success, sometimes more.

That means you need to either raise enough money from patient investors to stick it out... or, as in our case, be so lean and efficient that the cost of lasting long enough to make it profitable is one you can handle.

2. It's possible to organize a company around the idea that success breeds success.

Traditional businesses don't do that... if you're a wedding photographer or a restaurant, you're not going to have an albatross business. These businesses need ongoing promotion which leads to ongoing business, and around and around. There's clearly a benefit to reputation and word of mouth, but you're rarely going to see the hockey stick that is the goal of most internet businesses.

The two secrets, I think, are:

1. Plan for the long slow ramp up. That means super low overhead and patience and not trying to launch with a huge splash because you're impatient.

2. Architecture matters. If you intend to build an albatross, you'll want to design a business where each customer brings you new customers, where the more it gets used, the better it works.

We have a l o n g way to go before Squidoo hits the stride we're seeking, but on our third anniversary, it seemed like a worthwhile time to take a look of how close we are getting to our flight path. An albatross can achieve a 22:1 glide path--22 meters out for every meter down or up. That's the goal, leverage.

PS if you've never seen the albatross mating ritual, you really should. Time consuming, a lot of noise, very little action.