How to be Unstoppable

Posted: 6/10/2009 10:54:25 AM
The dancing guy is an internet sensation, because he embodies our hidden passions. Here's how you can be unstoppable.
If you haven't seen the dancing guy, yet, watch it. You can also read Derek Sivers analysis of the dancing guy. Seth Godin even took a stab at it.

If you are really curious, watch a longer version of the dancing guy and listen to the comments from the camera drivers. His revolution was a long time in the making. I think it may have had a lot to do with the song itself, which is Santigold's Unstoppable. I had never heard the song before, but I love it and have listened to it at least 30 times since seeing Derek Sivers's post a few days ago at Hacker News.

It's a great and inspiring story, even just the unfolding of this sensation itself, but that's not my focus here. Unstoppable doesn't mean you create a huge following, that's a consequence. The Dancing Guy wasn't thinking, "I want to get a huge dance party going." He was thinking, "I want to dance!" With that in mind, here's...

How to be unstoppable

That's what I want to talk about. I brainstormed it on the white board this morning. I figured if it's good for designing situational applications, perhaps it's good for blogs as well. Here's what I put up on the white board before I started this post, click for the high res version:

What's your problem

The first thing you have to figure out is what's your problem. What burdens you? What slows you down? What costs you money? In my earlier career as a consultant a year out of college, they taught us to identify the pain. Pain is debilitating. Pain killers are valuable to medicine. The day pain died was a very big day for medicine.

Some questions you may want to ask to identify your pain are:

  • What is expensive?
  • What is time consuming?
  • Are solutions cost prohibitive?
  • Can you implement a better solution? (I'll talk about what better means later on)
  • Would you be more powerful if you solve this problem?
  • Would you have greater freedom?

These are things you should ask yourself -- about your own life. If you have this pain, someone else may have this pain as well. Eventually, you are going to want to build a product you can sell, or develop a skill to get a job. You want to be motivated to succeed.

If you aren't making your own life better then you will constantly be seeking approval from others. Forget approval from others, make your life better in a way that may also make other people's lives better. Then, no matter what happens -- your life is better! The constant pursuit of a better life will keep you going through the trough of sorrow.

At some point, the trough of sorrow is going to slow you down. It will make you want to give up. Remember! It has also made others want to give up. Others have given up because they didn't get enough of whatever it is they were seeking outside themselves. You are looking for your pain, because internal motivation is widely regarded as a huge indicator of success in life. Stanford University has a deep analysis of reasons for action.

Simply put, internal motivation is necessary if you want to be unstoppable. External motivation is fleeting. It's tenuous. It's acute. It goes away. It dies. Internal motivation never goes away as long as you live. Internal motivation will help you live healthier, build strong organizations, excel at martial arts, learn better. It isn't just anecdotal, there's actual research.

So, find your pain, or better yet, make a list and then come back and I'll help you filter them to find the best pain to focus on.

Do others share your pain?

The best kind of pains to solve are the kinds of pains other people have. One of the reasons television is so successful, is because lots and lots of people are really, really, bored. Boredom is painful. Bored people will do anything to end their boredom. That's why entertainment companies are so big. If you have a talent for entertaining, watch videos of yourself. Record your voice and listen to your songs.

My personal pain was the amount of time it took to build information systems. You know your pains better than I do. Which of them are shared by many?

Who shares your pain? Where are those people? How are those people going to find you? When you kill your pain, you're going to have to share your analgesic with others and enable them to find it. This is often the hard part. You may have to market the product, buy advertisements. You are definitely going to have to show it to people and interact with them. Maybe you can build a website and SEO it and be done. Maybe not. The easier all this is, the more unstoppable you'll be.

Let go of social interference

This is really hard. It plays a lot into the internal vs. external motivation. There will be a lot of external motivators pushing you away from the solution to your pain. Maybe people don't understand your pain.

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

- Gandhi
Most of the people watching the dancing guy were laughing at him. They teased him. Gandhi knew this happens to great successes ages ago. You have to realize this and not let them stop you. If you don't drive a fancy car or you don't wear nice clothes, they'll think you don't fit in. They won't understand. Every penny you spend on those things is a penny you can't put toward being unstoppable.

I moved to a new city many months ago to be closer to friends, business partners, and opportunities. I didn't know how long I would be there, so I didn't bring a bed. I actually haven't had a bed in several years. Beds cost money. Beds are difficult to move. But I do have a 9 foot conference table in my living room. I'm typing on it now. It's good for meetings, collaboration, poker games. These are things I love. Beds stop me. They slow me down. I also have desk chairs and a white board. I get a solid 8 hours of sleep on the floor.

From the outside, not having these creature comforts makes people skeptical of your seriousness. Behavior that deviates from the norm is "weird". People don't understand it. Ignorance hurts. Maybe you can solve that pain. People understand the status quo, but the status quo is the enemy. More on that later.

Do you have the skills to solve your problem?

This is important. If you can't solve your pain, then either learn to live with the pain, or buy a solution. It's best to learn to live with it -- the mind is very powerful. If you can't live with it, then you're on the right track to finding a good problem to solve. Learn to solve it. Don't buy a solution, unless it's cheap, learn how to solve it. How long will that take?

Lots of companies have very large research and development budgets. Companies like Microsoft, Intel, Google, ... The United States military funds lots of research through DARPA.

Sometimes you might not know how to solve the problem. Sometimes you can ask for help. Sometimes you can read books. Go to the library. Research your problem. Figure out what people are doing now to solve it. Find the problems with their solutions.

What you need to decide is, can you afford to eat, shelter, and clothe yourself long enough to find a valuable solution to the world? If you don't know how long it is going to take, keep your day job until you figure it out. Learn skills at night. Live with your folks. Live in another country! You don't necessarily need to be around a lot of people while you are discovering your solution.

It's called, "Going into the cave." You may need to go into a cave to let go of social interference. How long can you be in there? What sort of provisions do you have? What tools do you need to take with you? If you do go into the cave, don't go crazy. Some people go crazy. Social interaction is important, find people who know, love, and support your unstoppableness -- or maybe they already recognize it.

Forget the competition

Once you have found our pain and are beginning to solve your pain, nothing else matters. Competition doesn't matter. Remember, you are solving a pain many people may not even know they have. It took you a lot of soul searching to find it. Most people don't go that far. You have to go deeper and you have to go farther than anyone else. Let your competition advertise for you. Competition is a distraction. Think of your competition like collaborators.

Your competition will go out of business before you. Think smart. Be tough. Keep going. Run fast! Tony Hsieh, who is himself unstoppable, said in his opening remarks at South-by-Southwest that by yourself, you can go really fast, but with a group you can go far. In the beginning you will be small and nimble. Your competition is big and bulky. They can't go as fast as you can. They have customers they have to listen to. They have employees they have to manage. They have advertising to create and distribute. Your competition has a lot of pains you don't have yet.

You don't even know who your competitors are. If you focus on your competition, you forget about all the competition out there you've never heard of. Those are the ones you need to really fear. They're like you. They're unstoppable. Google is stoppable. Microsoft is stoppable. You are unstoppable.

Your new competitor is the status quo. You are trying to solve your pain. The status quo causes that pain. When you change the status quo, you create a Blue Ocean. Competitors big enough for you to know about could be swimming in lots of red oceans. You want to destroy the status quo and create a new market for your solution. You are solving a pain that the world out there is trying to solve the hard way, because they don't know about your solution.

Fear nothing

You're venturing into uncharted waters. You do not know what is out there. You may not know how to solve your problem. You may not know a solution is even possible. Lots of people have told me, "That's impossible." Those words are a big motivator for me, but doing the impossible is scary. Maybe you'll discover it really is impossible. Maybe you'll hurt yourself. Maybe you'll runout of money. Maybe no one else wants your solution. Maybe you'll just waste a whole bunch of time, so enjoy solving your pain.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

- FDR listen
There are fears to be had you don't even know exist. Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech in 1932 is especially poignant now. He was talking about the fear that was paralyzing the United States during the great depression. The problems the nation faced in those days are the same fears the world is facing this very day:
Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.

Don't let that fear paralyze you. Especially do not fear failure. Failure is your friend. It helps you figure out how to improve and become better. If you do not stop when you fail, like your competitors will, then you will be left with the win. Sometimes winning means surviving a war of attrition.

That means never give up. Live on the street if you have to -- be a park nomad! Lots of other people are going to give up. Lots of other companies are going to give up. Lots of our competitors have already given up and how much of the world doesn't even know we exist? If you commit to never giving up, then you don't even need a particular solution. Jim Collins, in his book, Good to Great says:
In contrast, Motorola, HP, Sony and GM -- four of the world's best ticking clocks -- all had their first products fail in the marketplace. Sony's first product, for example, was a cooker, which failed. Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing began life as a failed corundum mine, thus leaving 3Mers to ask, "OK, that failed, what else can we do?" Hewlett-Packard had a number of product failures, ranging from electronic bowling alley sensors to automatic urinal flusher, before it hit upon the audio oscilloscope. These failures taught humility and focused attention not on the products, but on developing the organizational ability to come up with excellent products, to take those products to market, to service customers, and so on.

Embrace failure.

Making a better solution

Okay, so you may not be able to find something there is no solution for, but remember, your competition is the status quo. You want to do it better. What does that mean? Better means: Faster, Cheaper, Higher Quality. It's the trilemma. Typically, you'll hear it like this, "You can have it cheap, fast, or high quality. Pick two." I once thought it was just something computer people say about software, but it is all over the place. Hollywood says it about their movies and television shows. Doctors say it.

So faster means you get your solution in less time. Cheaper means it costs less. Sometimes those two go hand-in-hand, because labor is expensive. Time is money, right? But what about Quality? How can you tell if something is higher quality?

Here are some of the things I think about when I say something is higher quality: Flexibility, Adaptability, Integration, Longer Lasting, Aestetics, Performance, Standards, Warm & Fuzzy, Zero Margin. When you are building your solution to your pain, think about those things.


The Swiss Army Knife is unstoppable, because it is more flexible. It has lots of blades, scissors, even a toothpick. It's the only knife you need. The Swiss Army Knife will be around forever. As a concept, it has lots of competitors. Maybe Victornox won't be around forever, but the swiss army knife sure will.


You want your solution to mesh well with the current world. Imagine if you make the most efficient lightbulb ever, but it doesn't fit in standard light bulb sockets. Or your lamp won't plug into the wall. People aren't going to buy it. Now imagine if your lightbulb could fit in a lamp or a car or a flashlight! Integration is important, because "no man is an island." Things have to work together. That's why Legos are so popular. Every Lego set works with every other Lego set. It's why there are API's and formats and XML.

Last Longer

You don't want to make cheap junk. Garbage is bad. It pollutes the world. It has to be replaced all the time. If your product is more durable than the competition, there will be a market for it. There is also a market for disposable items as well, but that's just gross. Look what disposable plastic has done to the world. Remember, unstoppable lasts forever -- by definition.


You are probably going to want to build something people like to look at. We aren't all rational beasts. Good design has merits. Don't focus too much on what your product looks like right away. It can always be redesigned, but be conscious of it. If your solution can be easily re-designed, that will go along way to unstoppable, because you can make it look lots of different ways. Cars change their look all the time. Websites change their look all the time. Even remotes and televisions. Bridges don't. Buildings don't. Think about that.


You want your solution to move faster. You want it to solve more problems in a shorter amount of time. Google learned early on that speed matters.


Build your product to meet the standards. Standards are there for a reason. There are standard building codes. When I was an intern one summer, I had the pleasure of a window office overlooking the construction of a brand new high rise condo building. They'd spend hours digging huge holes to be filled with cement. Lots of cement trucks came in to fill those holes and every single time, a little man would come out of his prefab building, grab a sample of the concrete and test it to make sure it met the standards. If he hadn't, the building might have crumbled. Do you want to crumble or do you want to be unstoppable?

Warm & Fuzzy

Your customers want to feel good. You want to feel good. Isn't that why you are solving your pain? If you feel bad about the solution to your pain, then ... I mean, what's the point? I will pay extra for a warm and fuzzy feeling. People will search out eco-friendly products, fair trade coffee, and bamboo t-shirts because it feels good to buy them. When you make decisions for yourself, and for your product, and for your company, be good. People love shopping at Zappos because it feels good. The shoes aren't cheaper. They aren't higher quality -- they are the same shoe. But people seek them out and buy them for the warm & fuzzy. You can't stop warm and fuzzy.

Zero Margin

This one is about low cost of production and distribution. Wal-Mart touts some of the lowest margins in the business. Software companies are so successful because it costs almost zero to replicate bits. MP3's are destroying the record industry because MP3's have zero margin. You may think of this as "production cost." The production costs of music go into the pockets of the big labels. You don't like that do you?

Think about it like your carbon footprint. You want to reduce your impact on bringing the solution to the problem as much as possible. The less you waste, the better. The less you consume, the better. The more efficient you are the better. It's about scalability.

Of course margins are a percentage, so it could cost you millions of dollars to create and distribute your pain killer, but if you sell hundreds of billions of dollars worth of pain killers, then that's pretty good.

A lot of people, when they talk about Profit Margin they think "high profit margins are great! That's an awesome business!" Microsoft has high profit margins. Software in general has high profit margins after it's created. The problem with high margins is that customers start to feel gouged. They think things like, "Why am I paying $20 for this CD, when I can get it free on the internet!"

My grandmother loves to tell a story of an insurance salesman in her town decades ago. He drove a beat up old car. He sold lots of insurance and saved up lots of cash and went out and bought a brand new shiny car. After that, he didn't sell any insurance anymore, so he ditched the shiny car and went back to the beater.

Really, don't worry so much about the money. If you solve a lot of problems you'll make a lot of money. In such a situation, you have to use your money for good things, like Philantropists do.

Who wants to stop Philantropy?