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The real secret to a successful blog/book/business...

For the last three years, Bert and I have tried to explain the "secret" to the success of the Head First books. We've tried to explain the "secret" to how a little non-news, non-scandal blog could land in the Technorati Top 100. We've tried to explain the "secret" to why Javaranch is one of the largest, most active, and well-loved developer communities on the internet. One big clue: we're not that talented. There is a secret, yet, but it's mostly a if-WE-can-do-it-ANYONE-can-do-it thing.

I've revealed the Big Secret before, but perhaps the bigger secret is that almost nobody takes it seriously. It seems too simple. Business books make it complicated. Consultants make it complicated. Those who don't want to try make it complicated. But it's not. Hard work? Yes. But the hardest part is simply taking it seriously. After that, it's implementation details. The details matter, but it's what drives the implementation that matters most.

So, on this Valentine's Day, I thought it was time for a reminder to myself and my co-authors:

Success no longer has to be a meritocracy (or advertocracy), today it's just as much a loveocracy.

The secret is simply this: you have a much better chance for success when your business model makes what's good for the users match what's good for the business, and vice-versa. Our books are best-sellers not because we're better authors or teachers (a meritocracy), but because they were literally labors of love. We wrote them with one very clear goal:

* The only way the books will be successful is if people actually learn from them.
* The only people will actually learn from them is if they actually read them.
* We must do everything we can to get people to read more than most people read in a tech book, and in such a way that they learn--and realize how much they've actually learned.

What's good for the readers is what's good for the books. Where I think so many potentially better books go wrong is that they're really good books (meritocracy), but they're written with a focus on Being A Really Good Book. (Which is often completely at odds with a book that's good for the reader.)

And why do you read this blog? I always ask myself, "how can I help my readers in some way?" Whether it's a tip or trick, a post you can use to help make your case to your boss, a new way of looking at something, a potential source for an idea, a pointer to something useful...I try to make 90% of the posts here for you. And you in turn respond with the most amazing, insightful, inspirational, and often entertaining comments.

What's good for you is what's good for the blog. And for me.

This is not to say you still can't succeed with a business model where what's good for the business is bad for the user and vice-versa, but next time you're in a product design meeting or a business development meeting or you're planning a book or a blog or... ask the question we keep bringing up here, "What will this help the user do?" Not, "How can we make a great product?" Nobody cares about your company, and nobody cares about your product. Not really. They care about themselves in relation to your product. What it means to them. What it does for them. What it says about them that they use your product or believe in your company. You're still just the delivery guy, and your package helps the user kick ass at something. However, when you DO have a product that truly helps the user, they might just love you for it. : )

Happy Valentine's Day.
I heart my readers : )

Posted by Kathy on February 14, 2007 | Permalink


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» Key to success: do whats good for your user from zaid360.com
Creating Passionate Users explains why they think their book is a best-seller(hint: its not because theyre pro writers.) The answer is simpler than you think, they write: The secret is simply this: you have a much better chance for succe... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 15, 2007 7:49:57 AM

» Loveocracy from Get Shouty
Thanks to the brilliant minds over at Creating Passionate Users for the diagram above which I found following a link from Hughs Gaping Void. The insight: Its not about how much your product engages with the customer. Its about... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 1, 2007 1:29:33 AM

» Whats Good For Your Target Audience IS Whats Good For Your Business from Healthy WebDesign
Recently, Kathy Sierra of Creating Passionate Users wrote an interesting post on what she calls the secret of Loveocracy. You should read it, if you havent. Its a great post that highlights whats good for your target audience is wh... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 8, 2007 4:52:19 AM


Heh. The company I work for has just realised this in the last couple of months (if not in the same words). This came only after weeks of complaints from (paying) clients that there weren't enough (non-paying) members on the site to make it worth their while.

Fortunately, this has prompted the management to shift focus onto the majority of our users, rather than the minority with the money.

Posted by: Lucas | Feb 14, 2007 8:44:35 PM

So true. And such a hard sell to so many decision makers in business. It's something about that quarterly results mindset that has a hard time grasping the bigger picture of developing a business (or a product or a blog) over time.

Hopefully, you'll post the answer here some day... :-)

Posted by: John Windsor | Feb 14, 2007 8:56:38 PM

Thanks for this post. I truly enjoy hearing your perspectives on how blurry the lines are between business, education, and technology. The three points you include as part of the book-writing process are easily transferable to my writing new curriculum for schools. When we design lessons, we can make our lessons satisfy those three questions in a meaningful way:

-The only way curriculum will be successful is if students actually learn from it.
-The only way they actually learn from the curriculum is if they "participate" in it.
-we have to do everything we can to get them to move towards higher-level thinking, rather than just the minimal.

Posted by: Patrick | Feb 14, 2007 9:01:16 PM

You've inspired me too much.

Okay, I have done it. I've started a new blog, just now. I want to help my family be good at math and I know it is vitally important to the world that more people become good at math. My wife and I over our Valentine's Day lunch date decided some things about teaching our daughter, we are sharing that.

Our competition is not going to be any curriculum, website or lesson plan, only Ignorance itself is our competition. Be literate and numerate and your life will never be the same again.

Posted by: Stephan Fassmann | Feb 14, 2007 9:09:39 PM

I wish more businesses would understand this - that whats good for the customer/consumer is good for business.

It's not rocket science, is it.

Posted by: Adrian L | Feb 14, 2007 9:15:30 PM

You have captured the essence of competing values - Do I focus internally or on the customer? Do I focus on control and discipline or on flexibility and responsiveness? The answer is not one versus the other - it's both! A collaborative approach starts with clearly stated values and a spirit of connection. That does not mean you don't move quickly, eliminate unproductive activities or measure performance. Figure out what people love so much that they are happy to pay for it - and tell others, too!

Posted by: Greg Krauska | Feb 14, 2007 9:32:54 PM

"Hopefully, you'll post the answer here some day... :-)" --John

Well, John, I think she's already shown you the likely path: she couldn't do great things like the Head First books or this blog at Sun because they labeled her an antagonistic and invasive organism and set the corporate antibodies on her (ensuring the death of innovation and creativity and her self-preserving flight). So she took the leap and did it on her own steam: her vision, her passion. And we can see the great results.

Perhaps you can find a way hacking your path through an over-grown jungle of an organization built on someone else's passion and vison rather than your own--but the odds are against you. Odds are you'd just be building their dream and perverting and subverting your own. And lost in the deepest darkest jungle in the process.

Like she said--it's simple--but it has to be done cleanly and zealously. And that is very difficult in someone else's kingdom where they control the resources and make the rules to protect their position in the status quo.

The prescrption is simple--but its a scary medicine to swallow. You have to feel sick enough to abandon your fear and just close your eyes and swallow. And that is a very, very tough thing to do. Which is why so few do it.

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 14, 2007 11:17:07 PM

We heart you too ;)

Posted by: Peter | Feb 15, 2007 1:30:40 AM

we heart Kathy Sierra :-)

Posted by: your readers | Feb 15, 2007 3:17:50 AM

I think there might be more to this than you realise, Kathy! You may well be doing something you don't even know you're doing, just because it comes so naturally to you. The X Factor if you like.

Many of us, like you, write from the heart. Many of us, like you, write about things we care about. Like yours, many of our blogs contain no scandal and precious little of what could be called "news". Yet your readership is in the thousands, while mine (for example) is barely in double figures (don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining, and I heart my double figure audience).

There must be something that brings readers in their droves to your door. I think some of the factor X has to do with you as a person. You reveal yourself in your blog and people like what they see - they heart you right back!

Whatever it is - you have it and others don't. That's life. Like pretty eyes, or a nice nose - you either got it or you don't, maybe...?

Posted by: Karyn Romeis | Feb 15, 2007 6:14:22 AM

Daniel - I don't think the point of the post is about developing your own vision and pursuing it but rather clearly and honestly defining the true goal of your work (which often times in technology is empowering users to do something) and pursuing to accomplish it. If corporate gets in the way or not is another issue.

Karyn - Personally I'm a firm believer that you can become an expert at anything you want. Some people can travel certain paths easier than others but if you are determined enough you can reach whatever goal you set for yourself.

Posted by: Mike Farinha | Feb 15, 2007 8:12:50 AM

You're completely right about 'being the best' not necessarily being the most user friendly. This is something to think about when writing a blog post or in any business. It seems strange to think your very best, most complete work, might not be the most successful.

Posted by: John Wesley | Feb 15, 2007 9:22:41 AM

This all sounds great, but the truth is, there are an awful lot of businesses that make tons of money and are very successful, but obviously don't give a rats ass about their customers or what they think.

I truly LOVE your blog, but compared to my industry (not just my employer), it exists in a bit of a fairy-tale world where everyone hates us (the vendors) but we still make money hand over fist, so nobody cares.

Posted by: Greg | Feb 15, 2007 9:31:56 AM

Hey, Daniel, that "Hopefully you'll post the answer here some day" line was a joke.

I know Kathy has awesome insights that can change each of us, and (potentially) the organizations we interact with. But every day I work with people in companies who DO battle that narrow mindset of "Results first, passionate users later". It's just the way lots of businesses are.

Even telling the truth in large organizations is not always prized, if it means threatening the big-ass quarterly projections. My wife once got slammed for making a sales projection she felt was attainable, while the sales directors who gave rosy predictions were praised. At the end of the year, all those with rosy predictions had failed to even meet the standard my wife set (who exceeded her original estimate). So who wins in that game? The one who gets slammed for being honest? The CEO who makes lofty predictions and then has to make excuses for why they didn't deliver (and slams everyone who didn't make their absurd goals)? The shareholders? The customers?

This comment could go on and on, and the discussion could go back and forth endlessly. Change happens incrementally, one person at a time, and typically at a lower level than is likely to foster substantial corporate change. 'Tis the way of the world, but we should still try to change what we can.

Posted by: John Windsor | Feb 15, 2007 9:58:20 AM

Great pithy statement here: "Nobody cares about your company, and nobody cares about your product. Not really. They care about themselves in relation to your product...."

For some tech/software products, though, you can find people that do care about the product as is-- well actually, not really about the product, but by an idea behind it or a vision of what it could become in the future.

So the question then is, how best to use those people to actually develop a product that really will help a customer kick ass at something else?

Posted by: Reed Hedges | Feb 15, 2007 10:00:43 AM

YES YES YES: "The secret is simply this: you have a much better chance for success when your business model makes what's good for the users match what's good for the business, and vice-versa." and with Patrick's "participate" component, we have more engaged, more connected, more satisfied consumers (users got exactly what they wanted, right?) and removed friction from the process (business owners got exactly what they wanted, right?).

Speaking of what consumers want, how about a CPU top 100 blogs book? in a casual, spiral bound notebook format? just to scan and enjoy? drawings and everything. too many nuggets just too far away for serendipitous discovery and this consumer needs all the help he can get CPU.

Posted by: Tom | Feb 15, 2007 2:30:05 PM

A great read. Thanks! I think that this really helps hammer home what the term "community" is. A relationship has to be reciprocal for it to work.

Posted by: Damon Billian | Feb 15, 2007 4:14:24 PM

New reader here... love the posts but I wanted to also comment on the Head First series:

They're absolutely brilliant!

I've never experienced something that made learning so EASY and FUN! I can look at something like Design Patterns or OOA&D at have confidence that I CAN learn these things without struggling through some overly complicated textbook.


Posted by: Erik | Feb 15, 2007 5:20:18 PM

Why I read this blog? Actually, I don't think I can apply much of this in our products, with, given a possible customer of about one per country, there being barely the ressources to get it to work at all. Plus the customer (buying) is usually not the user (loving/hating).

I'm not even sure if I get your points on a level that I could meaningfully apply them at all. Anyway, I hope the reading subconciously affects me (like a book under the pillow :-). And then...reading here is fun!

Posted by: Andreas Krey | Feb 16, 2007 3:48:24 AM

Nice post , I liked it.


Posted by: Lizi | Feb 16, 2007 4:56:09 AM

You are unique:-)

Posted by: Mario | Feb 16, 2007 7:47:31 AM

Kathy, we <3 you, too.

But darlin'...while I know that you really mean it when you say you think you're "not that talented," the rest of us know that's not true. :) You're an extraordinary writer and communicator, able to take abstract concepts and make them concrete and accessible. Your illustrations alone are evidence of that, and the beautiful writing speaks for itself.

Posted by: Liz Lawley | Feb 16, 2007 8:20:56 AM

I heart you! I'll keep ignoring those cross-eyed looks when I say my business plan is to build a labor of love, and will point them to your brilliant (but humble) blog.

Posted by: michelle | Feb 16, 2007 9:32:48 AM

Thank you for this post!

I couldn't agree more and I'm glad to see you preaching this particular gospel. If only I could find a way to convince some of my more hesitant clients that "giving away" their knowledge will bring back more than guarding it like a state secret. *sigh*

I know this is how it worked in my own business... the more I gave away, the more I helped, the more eager I was to share knowledge, the bigger (and more profitable) my own business became. (I call it Karma -- despite the eye-rolling that term encourages.)

And just think how much nicer the world would be if everyone approached business with open hands and an open heart!

Posted by: Angela Parker | Feb 16, 2007 7:06:42 PM

I have come for the bunny slippers. Hopping V day. Late.

Posted by: fp | Feb 16, 2007 8:36:10 PM

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