Anything You Want

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What If You Can Have It All?

This past week, Montreal hosted the first-ever International Startup Festival (from July 13th – 15th, 2011). It was attended by close to one thousand participants from all over the world – all of which were hopeful of leaving the drudgery of nine-to-five work to start their own entrepreneurial venture and let go of a traditional working environment. Moving towards being a Founder of a Startup is the 2011 version of “take this job and shove it,” but the journey can be long, hard and confusing. This is one of the reasons why so many people attend events like this. It’s also the main reason why the majority of startups never succeed. In fact, listening to the opening keynote speaker at International Startup Festival, Dave McClure (a venture capitalist who has worked with companies like PayPal, Mint, Facebook and LinkedIn) the sentiment was downright negative. McClure dropped more f-bombs than Lewis Black and provoked the audience to never contemplate doing a startup if they like the notion of free time and a family life. This framework was only amplified by Sarah Prevette (founder of who said during her presentation that if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, the work ethic is pretty simple: “if you’re awake… work.” This sort of talk is sobering for those who are contemplating the old middle finger to the job their currently living through.

It’s also goes well beyond how great of a business idea that you think you have.

Along with the stress and sleepless nights of starting your own business in the hopes that you have the next Facebook, you also have to get used to rejection. Pandora – another darling of the new Internet revolution – is a music recommendation engine that was rejected for funding over 300 times. Think about that the next time you ask someone out on a date. How much rejection can one person bare? About one month ago, Pandora (which is only available in the US) went IPO with a market cap worth close to three billion dollars (that is not a typo). It proves two points:

  1. Being persistent helps.
  2. Having a product that people care about trumps what one (or 300) venture capitalists think.

Then, there are people like Derek Sivers.

I first met Sivers in-person while attending a TED conference several years back. We were introduced by best-selling business book author and marketing guru, Seth Godin, in a Westin hotel lobby. I knew Sivers by reputation only. A passionate musician, Sivers realized in 1997 that there was no place online for independent musicians to sell their CDs, so he put down his guitar and bought a computer-programming book to do it himself. He literally sat down and started figuring out how to program a website out of a book. In 1998, he launched CD Baby to sell his own CDs. Friends then asked him if he could sell their music too, so while iTunes and some of the other big online music sellers were tussling with the major record labels, “CD Baby went on to become the largest seller of independent music on the Web, with over $100 million in sales for over 150,000 musicians,” according to the Wikipedia entry for CD Baby. In 2008, Sivers sold CD Baby for $22 million.

Anything you want.

Most recently, Sivers released his first business book, Anything You Want, via Seth Godin’s new book publishing imprint, The Domino Project (powered by Amazon). The book is only 88 pages and reads more like a confessional about what it means to be a true entrepreneur, founder and startup than the usual standard fare. There are moments that are downright heartbreaking and honest as Sivers writes candidly about what it took to move CD Baby from his living room to one of the most innovative businesses in the world – much to his own chagrin.

It also happens to be one of the best business books I’ve read all year (and in the Top 10 for the last decade).

“In my ten years of doing CD Baby, I did some stuff right and a lot of things wrong and I’m intentionally rubbing my nose in my own mistakes,” said Sivers via Skype from his current home in Singapore last week. “I want to make sure that I really do learn from my mistakes, so I’m sharing them publicly and it’s actually kind of embarrassing. So, while it’s a way to ensure that I learn from my own mistakes, it’s also a warning to others so that they can avoid some of the situations I found myself in.”

But the biggest lesson anyone contemplating starting their business needs to understand is why they would start their own business in the first place? From Facebook to Google and LinkedIn to Twitter, almost every startup had the same genesis, and CD Baby was no different…

“I had to scratch my own itch. I wanted to sell my music online and there was no place that would sell it for me. I figured, ‘how hard could it be to set up my own stupid credit card merchant account and do this myself?’ It wasn’t this feeling that I had uncovered some huge business opportunity; I was just doing it for me,” reveals Sivers. No grand scheme… just something he would like to see/use out in the market. “I thought it was stupid that the big online record stores wouldn’t take my account because I was not distributed by a major record label. It was just a little hack I pulled off because nobody would do it for me. Then friends started asking me to do the same thing for them… and then strangers. It still wasn’t a business at that point. My actual business was being a musician. I was living my dream. I didn’t want anything to get in between me and my music. I didn’t want to start a business.”

If you study some of the great entrepreneurs or if you take an hour to read Derek Sivers’ amazing book, Anything You Want, you’ll begin to realize that the best businesses were rarely created for massive profits, exit strategies or to be flipped. They were built because one individual wanted something, and it turns out that it was something that others wanted as well.

It makes business feel just a little bit more human and personal during these unwieldy times.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. This article made my morning. I am living this right now and every word rings true to me.
    The one aspect that is rarely discussed (and probably for good reason) is the role that “luck†plays into success or failure.
    Luck is such a nebulous word and an utterly abstract notion to think about, that it’s almost impossible to manage, but it’s there.
    I completely get that one has to do everything they can to minimize it, but when you’re stuck in the thick of it, it’s amazing how many times you say to yourself “with a little luck we can…â€.
    The absolute truth: solve a problem in your own life, create a solution, make it simple, design it beautifully and throw every ounce of passion you have at it.
    Thanks, this article loaded me up for a challenging day.

  2. I will be picking up “Anything You Want”. When you give an endorsement it’s usually dead on.
    Starting one’s own business can be daunting to say the least. Anyone who’s ever tried realizes the countless struggles… and time, as you’ve stated, time is for your business and usually little else.
    Though if you are doing something you truly love while making a difference, it can be extremely rewarding, and worth the risk.

  3. Mitch
    I too read Derek’s book and was blown away by it. I also bought the audible recording so that I can keep reminding myself how good it is. One thing on start ups (I am in that doing it, doint it, doing it phase): the best resource is Michael E Gerber’s book The E-Myth Revisted (which I have on CD and play in the car all the time). It uses the business franchise model to help people build a winning business and I would highly recommend that everyone reads it. It doesn’t just apply to the franchise market.

  4. I’m thinking there’s this glamorous perception of what entrepreneurship is; the freedom, the traveling, the parties, the people. From the outside looking in, it may appear like an ideal and fun lifestyle. BUT, it is HARD WORK, IT IS VERY HARD WORK. And at the end of the day, IT’S MORE HARD WORK!
    The ones that launch a startup as a revolt to their 9to5, will most like fail.

  5. Again Joel – excellent post and mini review. I’d like to add that as much as there is hard work in a start-up, and that people start something (like CD Baby) for a reason. In the end it’s whether or not the product or service catches heat from the public. That of course comes from a great idea, but it also has to be timed correctly with technology – think Newton.

  6. It feels it’s like to have babies isn’t it ?
    As I love my kids, I found joy and reward even during the time I cannot sleep, I have lost my social life, and my house smells vomit and shit since so long that I cant remember how it was before.
    but there is LIFE. I found attachement, I found laughing and crying,I found who are my babies as much as who I am.
    A business is different of course, but it can be a human adventure, not just work.

  7. Yep,
    There’s a lot ot scratches to itch in the independent music market – especially your local independent music market.
    Thanks, Mitch (and Sivers).

  8. And on the 8th day we created business. Every idea has to start small and grow. I often ask those in the start-up world “are you building a company or working toward being acquired” and it’s sad how often the latter is the response. Working for yourself is frickin’ hard and often the obstacles are self-inflicted.
    Get out of your own way. Work your ass off. Don’t waste a second on naysayers. Stop worrying about who will buy you. No, we don’t owe you a living.
    Oh sorry, was that out loud?

  9. Great take on derek’s book! And I love your comment on how it makes business seem more ‘human’. If we would each just do that ‘one thing’ -fill that one need we see in the world- it would be amazing, don’t you think?

  10. Excellent post this morning Mr. Joel,
    At first I was wondering where you were going as your opening was a bit off-putting (in a good way) Then, you transitioned to a book that I complete agree is one of the best I’ve read (actually listened to) this year.
    It is a fascinating perspective on how, although starting your own thing is going to be extremely challenging, it can be extremely rewarding as long as you keep the reason for starting your business in mind – like you said, extremely few business are started with the goal to be flipped or make millions, they are often started to “scratch” at something.
    And I agree with Karen friend smith, the last comment was gold.
    Stay Connected

  11. Very well constructed post. I love the ideas you are sharing Joel… O hope to read more great stuff from you soon… Thanks…

  12. As a former Olympic coach and entrepreneur, people often ask me: “How can I make it to the top?” I would always refered them to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, OUTLIERS. It takes a context (luck being included), thousands and thousands of hours of work and average talent.
    I have seen so many people in sport saying: ” I want to make it to the Olympics”.
    Only 0.02% make it. Why? Again:
    It takes a context (luck being included), thousands and thousands of hours of work and average talent.
    Do you have what it takes?

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