If you visit Sacré-Cœur in Paris, prepare to be assaulted by hucksters selling trinkets.
As my sister and I were waving off salespeople, a question hit me that has to have occurred to countless other visitors:
Why is everyone selling the same thing?
Despite there being 30+ people selling on the steps, you could only buy Heineken, selfie sticks, fake bags, miniature models of the Eiffel tower, or electronic accessories. There was nothing else being sold.
As you’d expect, that led to ridiculous competition. There were half a dozen men you could buy the exact same selfie stick from. Every blanket had the exact same trinkets. You could buy only Heineken, no other beers, despite there being five guys selling beer.
Anyone who’s stubbed their toe on an economics book knows this is a bad idea. If you want to sell something, the worst place to do so is where everyone else is selling the exact same thing.
When you take a step back, it’s obvious that any of them could make more money by offering something different. So why don’t they?
The Competitive Spiral
It starts with “ethnic industry clustering,” a term for how people of similar ethnicities, when migrating to a new country, will frequently end up doing similar work. This explains why, in the U.S., there’s a concentration of Koreans running dry cleaners, Chinese people selling orange chicken, and Mexicans doing yard work.
As Gillian White explains, It’s not that Koreans have some genetic disposition towards freshly pressed shirts, but when you arrive in a new country and need to make money but have no social ties, following the footsteps of your peers is an attractive model.
Imagine you’re living in Seoul and your friend who left for the U.S. two years ago tells you about their new life in the States. He explains that he arrived in Pittsburgh, opened a dry cleaner, and now he’s earning a comfortable living. If you can make it to the States, he’ll explain how to get the business up and running. Better yet, there are many other Korean families doing the same thing, so you’ll arrive with a network of people who speak your language, understand your culture, and who want to help you get your business going. You’d be stupid not to start a dry cleaner!
Now, imagine you’re an African immigrant who has just arrived in Paris and you’re trying to make a living. Your peers are all patrolling Montmartre selling selfie sticks, so why not try that? You only need to sell a dozen a day to be comfortable, and you’ll have friends to hang out with while you do it.
That’s all fine and reasonable, but then the problems start to set in. With everyone selling the same thing, the competition becomes stiffer. It’s no longer sufficient to stand on the side of the road displaying your impressive collection of selfie tools. There are too many people doing that, and a passing tourist could go to any of them.
So how do you get them to buy your selfie sticks? Be more aggressive. Get out in the street and walk up to people saying “SELFIE?! SELFIE?!” Get a flashlight and shine it on the ground in front of tourists at night to get their attention. Put your tarp right in the middle of the walking path so that people have to come past you.
Do these tactics work? To a point, but they highlight a major problem: the huckster is stuck at a local maximum, completely missing a world of potential. If they took a step back and assessed the situation without blinders on, they could do much better, but they’re trapped in the “huckster mindset” which drives them to focus on aggressive sales instead of offering a better product.
This behavior, we’ll find, is hardly limited to the streets of Paris.
The Internet Huckster
Three years ago I started a site about improving your habits and productivity.
The logic felt straightforward: I was reading tons of books about habits and productivity, and I wanted to put that knowledge back out in the world. Also, many other people had productivity blogs, so that kind of blog must be popular.
My site built up to 200 readers a day after a few months, but then I hit a common problem. I was doing everything that popular blogging advice said: making catchy titles, guest posting, building a social media following, but most of it returned meager results if any.
I felt like I was floundering around, trying one thing after another hoping that it would bring about the magic flood of traffic everyone was promising. But the flood never came, so I would go on to the next piece of advice hoping that one would be the magic bullet.
What I didn’t realize then was that I wasn’t providing anything new or valuable. I had fallen into the huckster mindset: I saw something my peers were doing that worked, I copied it, then when I got frustrated I started to get more aggressive about promoting it.
This isn’t uncommon, and many bloggers and Internet entrepreneurs getting started fall into the same trap. They see popular sites, think “I can do that,” then copy their content and tactics and are surprised when they aren’t suddenly rich and famous. Out of frustration, they start installing tons of email capture, they get aggressive on social media, they try to “game” sites like Reddit, and they look for whatever other silver bullet tactics they can find.
But these are huckster tactics. Frustrated that their products aren’t selling as well as the next guy, they get in everyone’s face demanding their attention, hoping that the customer won’t notice that their productivity / marketing / lifestyle design / entrepreneurship / finance / poodle breeding site has the exact same information as every single other one.
In each of these cases, someone tried to get started in a scary new world not being sure what to do and defaulted to mimicry. When that didn’t work, they started on the aggressive sales and marketing. They became an Internet huckster.
The unfortunate thing is that being an Internet huckster doesn’t always fail. In fact, it’s frequently rewarded. People are so desperate for freedom from the 9-to-5 and being more productive and getting laid that there’s almost no market limit for information on these topics. People love to read instead of act, and it’s easy to take advantage of that.
But If you don’t want to do that, and you want your writing, product, marketing, whatever to be better than the masses, I encourage you to work on not being a huckster.
How To Not Be a Huckster
Maybe you’ve reached this point and thought “shit, that’s me he’s describing. I’m doing that huckster stuff.”
I do it all the time, too, and I’m trying to be better about it. Half of the reason I’m even writing this is to create public accountability to not do it. It’s tempting to see a tactic working for someone else and immediately want to copy it. I think I have that impulse every day.
But if you want to create something great, you can’t be chasing everyone else’s tail. The best way to avoid that is to recognize what makes us want to do it in the first place, and then create behaviors that combat those urges.
One of the reasons that being a huckster is so attractive is that it’s fast. You can set up shop in the street in a few days, write an “ebook” in a few weeks, build a sketchy lifestyle business in a few months.
The problem with anything that gives fast results, though, is that it’s easy to replace. A quick and cobbled together product will be destroyed by the next quick and cobbled together product. If you look around at the technology, ideas, companies, books, and everything else that has lasted, none of it was built quickly.
Everyone selling on the steps of Sacré-Cœur will be dead long before people stop caring about the Basilica itself. Building something like Sacré-Cœur took a lifetime of skill development and construction. Paul Abadie couldn’t throw down a blanket, put together some stones, and expect people to care in a few years (let alone a few minutes).
Be suspicious of anything that’s fast to do, or the temptation to prioritize speed. Blog posts that take 30 minutes are not going to last, an app that you rush through with a $5/hour developer in India will probably not sell, and the Udemy course you threw together over the weekend isn’t going to have students in a few months.
To not be caught in the huckster mindset, lean towards creating something excellent slowly.
Find a Niche
Imitation is a useful step in the learning process, but you need to break out on your own as soon as possible.
Too many people get caught in the imitation stage and never leave. Wanting their site to be popular, they copy topics that other people are writing. They copy strategies, designs, headlines, and everything else they can in the hopes that it will result in the same success as the person they’re trying to emulate.
I briefly considered writing articles for the site Elite Daily. When you become a writer for them, they let you know that “trending topics,” the topics that are popular on other sites, will be given editorial priority. They are encouraging you to find something popular on BuzzFeed, rework it a bit, then submit it (marked as urgent, of course) to Elite Daily.
Is that how you build a great, lasting, publication? No, but that’s what many people end up doing in one way or another, reading a popular blog post then recreating their own (usually much worse) version of it.
Bias towards finding your own niche and in tackling that niche in a new way. Instead of copying, figure out how to be the one that the others are copying. A simple guiding question for carving out that niche is “what if I did it differently?” What if you ignored the experts and made your own rules?
Two great examples of the “think differently” strategies are Wait but Why and Seth Godin. WBW articles can be as long as 20,000 words, but people read them because they’re so detailed and interesting. Seth does the opposite, writing one article a day that’s as short at 300 words (shorter than this section). People come back daily for little nuggets of wisdom to mull over because few people offer such consistent food for thought.
Both writers are succeeding partially because they’re offering something you can’t find anywhere else. The work of a huckster is easily replaced, an artisan, not so much.
Study the Non-Hucksters
Look at what the top non-hucksters in your field are doing. What “common advice” aren’t they following, that’s just getting shouted by the people in the middle?
You have to be careful who you study, though. It’s tempting to study the people in your field who are the most public about what they’re doing, but many of these people aren’t ones you should be taking advice from. If you go to Google looking for writing advice, you won’t find Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Michael Lewis, you’ll find no-name authors who happen to be good at SEO.
It’s the same with marketing blogs. The people who grew companies like Uber, Slack, and Facebook, aren’t blogging about how to do marketing, it’s mostly the people in the middle.
The easier you get a piece of advice, the less you should listen to it. The people most eager to mentor and give advice are frequently the worst ones to listen to. The people worth listening to are very, very hard to get a hold of.
That rule of thumb extends to your research, too. A fun and easy blog post on psychology will not give you the whole story. Books will be better, academic research papers best. A 300 word tactical article will not help you, but a 5,000 word one might be worth working through.
Have a bias towards information you can’t get easily. Let the easier information feed the hucksters.
Prioritize Craft, Avoid the Huckster Formula
A common piece of advice in the content marketing (professional blogging) world says that you should spend “20% of your time on creation, 80% of your time on promotion.”
This perfectly sums up the huckster mindset in one formula. Why put more time into making your material excellent when you could spend that time bombarding people with demands for their attention instead?
It also creates a good excuse: it’s not that your product or writing sucks, it’s that you just haven’t promoted it enough!
Building on the theory that whatever you want to do well will take a long time, you should put significantly less time into marketing than into creation. That doesn’t mean don’t market at all, but don’t think that sales or marketing will save you if you haven’t made something good enough to warrant people’s attention.
It’s not just for writing, too. Some companies and products will prefer to bombard their users with constant incentives to upgrade when that time and energy could have been put into improving the product. Don’t fall for the huckster formula.
Assess Your Whys
We all fall into the huckster mindset, not realizing we’re even doing it. I’ll occasionally start tweaking my site, trying some marketing strategy, making some plan, and “wake up” part way through and go “wait, why am I doing this?”
A simple exercise to avoid this is to periodically question why you do everything that you do. Why do you write articles a certain way? Why do you market a certain way? Why do you spend your time a certain way?
Are you doing it because you tried a number of things and know this works? Or are you doing it because someone said “that’s what you do” and you went with it? Or are you scared of some possible negative outcome that you don’t have your own justification for?
You’ll find that when you dig in on why you do things, many come down to habit and convention. Maybe you thought you made up this beautiful tactic on your own, but you really followed someone else’s recipe that you’d consciously forgotten about. Maybe you thought you were a chef, but you’re a cook.
By unearthing these reasons, we can experiment with more of our behaviors and figure out what makes the most sense for us, without simply following along on the advice of our peers. And, better, by challenging our mind in new ways instead of following the tactics of others, we end up learning more in the process.
Take out a piece of paper, write down everything you do regularly, and then ask “why” for it. If it’s not something you’ve personally tested, or that you want to do, then odds are you’re following someone else’s best practices and could do with some experimentation.
The rules are rarely rules, merely conventions. Asking why helps us to make our own rules.
A Continuing Goal
When you recognize this kind of work as no different from the street vendors you don’t make eye contact with, you’ll approach your consumption differently, too.
Recognizing that most health, productivity, financial, marketing, lifestyle design, etc. sites are just spewing the same information over and over, you’ll be more selective in the ones you read. The same with apps, products, freelancers, and any other domain.
And as you become more sensitive to it, you’ll incorporate it into your own work as well. Now that I’m thinking about it more I’m trying to make sure I don’t do it, but I won’t be perfect, and you shouldn’t expect to be perfect either.
But with a little work, we can both be better about it, and focus on building the Basilica instead of selling Heineken.