Stan Lee (1922-2018) – What If?

The exact cover of the Marvel What If that Dave’s brother kept in a plastic folder


Stan Lee was brilliant and prolific.

We know him for Spiderman, the X-men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther… for being the driving force behind Marvel Comics, now a multi-billion dollar, multi-media juggernaut.

It’s less well known that he started in the comics industry in 1939, aged seventeen, as a general dogsbody, lunch-fetcher and inkwell filler at Timely Comics (which would eventually become Marvel).

Lee must have had something about him – he became editor at 19 – but here’s the thing: he slogged it out writing comics – westerns, crime stories, horror and superhero work – for twenty two years without really hitting the big time. They say he chose Stan Lee as a pen name because he was worried he’d be embarrassed by his work in comics if he ever wrote the Great American Novel.

By the early 60s Lee was fed up, and ready to quit. The Fantastic Four was a last throw of the dice on his wife’s suggestion that he try writing the comics he wanted to write. There was nothing to lose.

He was forty-one years old.

The rest is history.

What if Stan Lee had never written the fantastic four?

Some takeaways:

Starting line

Where’s the starting line?

Sometimes we’re a few steps further down the track than the people we want to take with us:  we’ve given it more thought, we’ve done it before. We want it more.

We’re so keen to get people over the finish-line that we don’t notice that they’re still milling around at the start – or even that they’ve chosen to stay in bed.

How far away are you? How many steps backward will you need to take if you want to take them with you?

What do you need to communicate? What are the thousand other important things that you don’t?

When are you going to stop talking about techniques for crossing the finishing line and help them to put on their shoes?

 

*see also: Clarity. Simplicity. Focus.

 

Stay on target

stay on target

*Disclaimer: This post, originally lost in the Crocapocalypse, was only recently discovered sealed in an earthern jar in a cave near the Dead Sea. The post is intact, but some formatting (especially spaces) may have gone missing in action.

I sat down to write a post.

Saw the viewing stats for driverlesscroc looking interesting and inviting.

Hovered over.

Paused.

There!

Catch yourself in the pause – in the gap between stimulus in response.

Mind the gap.

Mind in the gapwhy did you come? What is this for?

Divert.

Stay on target.

Look!

The gap just got bigger.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 8 (part 1)

This is the eighth post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 8: Create Boundaries for Yourself

Create boundaries for yourself.

What do you do?

What don’t you do?

This is a variation on “It’s not for you.”

Any work we do is in tension with boundaries.

There are boundaries we don’t want. Limits to:

  • The number of clients we an reach and serve
  • The number of clients who want to engage deeply with us
  • Funding
  • The number of people we can manage well
  • The number of the right sort of people to manage
  • Our time, and the time of our team
  • How hard we can work
  • Our skills
  • The speed at which we can learn
  • Our ability to spot problems
  • Our ability to fix the problems we do spot
  • How much other people care
  • How much we care
  • Attention
  • What we can get permission to do
  • Add another ten of your own

And then there are boundaries that we choose for ourselves:

  • Given that we can serve a limited number of people, who will we try to serve first?
  • That is to say, who will we serve now, and who won’t we serve now?
  • Given that there aren’t enough of the right people, will we hire any people? Who won’t we hire?
  • How hard won’t we work ourselves and our team?
  • What values won’t we compromise (integrity, quality of product, quality of relationship, health of our team, the environment)?
  • The same logic applies to all of the above

It all comes down to decisions – I like the understanding of ‘decision’ as a ‘cutting off’ of possibilities. We need to acknowledge what we can’t do and identify what we won’t do so that we can focus on what we can do and will do – and do those things.

Identifying boundaries and limits is a really helpful flipside in the process of thinking through your what’s important to you (values), the change you wish to see in the world (vision), and what’s possible now.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 7 (part 3)

This is the seventh-and-a-third post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 7: Charge a lot (but be worth more than you charge)

How does this rule apply to what a charity charges its clients? Is it ethical to charge your clients a lot?

Shakespeare’s Prospero said it best:

This swift business

I must uneasy make lest too light winning

Make the prize light.

The Tempest, Act 1 Scene 2

I’m not a subscriber to the argument that free things are always un- or underappreciated, but there’s truth in the sorcerer’s words: we value what is dear.

Or perhaps we should say, we value things that cost a lot as long as long as they’re worth more than we paid.

Think about the times you’ve felt frustrated by a cheap purchase that wasn’t worth it. Or the more costly, high-quality item that brought you satisfaction each and every time you used it. Rule 7 follows this logic – just as it’s possible to be cheap and still rip people off, it’s possible to charge a lot and still be generous.

In fact, charging a lot might be what gives you the space to be generous. It’s hard to give people the time and attention they require if you’re cutting corners and pinching pennies. Rule 7 asserts that it’s fine for a charity to charge its clients for its services – even to charge ‘a lot’ – as long as the client makes the most profit from the transaction.

And the fact is, even if the service that you provide to your clients costs them nothing in financial terms, they always pay something – time, attention, the effort of showing up.

When your clients pay a bit more of those things for what you provide, they think more about whether they really want it, and take it a bit more seriously. And just as if you’d charged more money for something, when people have bought in to what you’re doing, there’s a lot more that you can do, so you open up a lot of extra ways to create value for and with them.

As another poet put it,

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 2: Do it Now

This is the second in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 2: Do it Now


Do it now. Not later, not next week, NOW. It’s better than later.

In the non-profit world:

Still do it now

Not much to add on this one. A bias to action is critical, and all things being equal, now is far better than later.

This blog is a great illustration – a month and a half ago I committed to shipping a blog post every day for 100 days. I would set the bar low if I had to, as long as I got something done. Every day.  I’m at 60 posts as I write this, and it dawned on me that it would have taken me an entire year to get this far if I’d committed do a post a week.

In Lean Startup terms, doing it now is a key way of increasing your cycle speed. They might be small steps, but you get something done, you can review it, you can do it better next time as you build-measure-learn. See the next post for more on this.

I guess a caveat for the non-profit world is that you need to tread carefully if we’re dealing with vulnerable people.

But do it now doesn’t mean ‘be a bull in a China shop’ – it just means being commited to taking action, to doing the next thing now.

If you know what you need to do next, then it’s easy – do that, or at least do the smallest next part of that that you can.

If you don’t have clarity about what to do next, the next thing to do is to find out. Do some research. Find the name of three papers. Get hold of them. Make notes on one. Email the person who wrote it to thank them. Each one is a tiny push of the boat (or flywheel, if you’re a Jim Collins fan), giving you a little bit more momentum and making it easier tomorrow.

Rule 2 says “I will not go to bed tonight until I have done X.”

Rule 2 of bootstrapping the non-profit

Do it now.

Thanks, Seth.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 1: Real Work for Clients First

This is the first in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 1: Ship Real Work

“Planning and coordination are fine, but not if they don’t lead to real work. Don’t spend time trying to please [middleman-funder-etc] – the real work is figuring out how to engage with and serve your customer.

In the non-profit world:

The real work

Vision and mission statements, organisational structure, a shiny website, gala dinners are fine – but they are not your purpose, and they are not your real work.

The real work is getting in front of the people you are aiming to serve – first your clients (or ‘beneficiaries’) and secondarily potential donors. If you’re not getting to know and making a difference for your clients, you’re wasting your time. Your project is almost certainly a waste of money, and quite possibly the worst kind of vanity exercise.

In my experience this kind of work is often messy and quite often slightly unsatisfactory – because you’re working with real people, who quite often have those traits…

Two types of customer

In a non-profit, it’s quite possible that your services are paid for people people other than your clients – most charities are working in two-sided markets – donor pays, client receives benefit (incidentally, most news and magazine companies, and Google and Facebook, among others, operate this model).

The question is… what are your ‘donors’ buying? It might be:

  • The knowledge that they’ve done some good in the world
  • The ability to show off to their friends that they’ve done something good in the world
  • A fulfilled CSR requirement, and a pleased boss
  • The confidence that their money has been used responsibly and effectively

It’s really easy to exaggerate the work that you do. It’s easy to make grand claims, tell only the best stories, and play to every donor’s particular foibles, telling them what they want to hear so that they’ll give you money, and keep on giving you money.

Don’t.

At the end of the day, the product that your donors and supporters are buying (or should be buying) is the work that you do for your clients. Everything else is (relatively speaking), fluff.

And at all costs resist the temptation to let the ‘needs’ of your donors shape what you do for your clients. Don’t lose sight of the reason you’re doing this in the first place. Listen to your supporters, but always be clear that you seek to serve your clients first, to focus on their needs and make a real difference to them in a way that they value.

Be accountable to your clients and their needs first of all, and everything else will be (relatively) easy.

Rule 1 of bootstrapping the non-profit

Ship real work for your clients [beneficiaries] first. Be real with your supporters.

* More on being real with your supporters in Rule 3

The meat is on the street

John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement of churches, wasn’t renowned as a systematic religious teacher.

Apparently people would ask him “John, when are you going to teach us the deep and crucial stuff – where’s the meat?”

And he’d answer: “The meat is on the street.”

That is, “Go out into the world. You will learn the deep truths of faith by doing it.”

Books, podcasts, blogs are very useful in learning to make positive change in the world. Ideas are wonderful tools.

But we learn our most important lessons by doing – by taking action.

The meat is on the street.

Go!

Intelligences

Imagine you are in charge of developing an artificial intelligence.

Your AI has the ability to move into the world and mingle with human beings, all the while augmenting both its physical capability and its intelligence.

In time, your AI will certainly be able to perform many tasks that would help the people around it. It will be smarter, stronger, and faster than most of them.

In time, it will certainly also have the capability to kill people – tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people. It will be well equipped to cause environmental destruction on a huge scale.

Would you create such an AI? What would you teach it? What would you want it to know about people and about being in the world?

Now imagine a network of such AIs, interacting, learning, gaining new abilities and changing the world.

Now look at our children.

A crappy bridge

I didn’t manage to photograph the bridge, but I’ll post one of a similar bridge next time I see one.

It was a pretty sorry affair over a murky stream, just wide enough for a motorbike. Bamboo slats, no siderails, a strangely drooping curve.

Crappy infrastructure.

But here’s the thing: that bridge is an act of will. It’s there because someone wanted to cross the river, and they made a bridge.

It’s easy to criticise crappy infrastructure in developing countries and not ask this question: who built it, for whose needs?

It’s easy to talk about cultutes of dependency, and there is often reason to. But ask yourself this question:

When was the last time you built a bridge?