Guru Review: Anything You Want

Derek Sivers' new book tells the story of how he went from struggling musician to successful internet entrepreneur.
Strategic Facilitation & Ideation,
August 02, 2011

The cover of the new book Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur, by CD Baby founder Derek Sivers, is meant to portray what it means to be an entrepreneur.

"Stuck in a sand pit of your own devising," reads the book's endnote, "held immobile by tiny rocks, and enjoying every moment of it. We hope that one day soon you'll feel the same joy and anticipation this little boy does, because that's what it feels like to pursue the thing you want, to do it with certainty and excitement."

That pursuit forms the main storyline of the book, which is essentially Sivers's journey from total obscurity as an aspiring musician to entrepreneurial celebrity as a music industry revolutionary—a journey never intended nor even desired. The book might just as easily have been titled "The Reluctant Entrepeneur."

And that's part of what's so intriguing about the central story.

Anything You Want is the third original offering by The Domino Project, the publishing partnership Seth Godin arranged with Amazon. Like its brethren, Poke the Box and Do The Work, Anything You Want delivers insight, inspiration and instruction all in a tiny package that anyone can read and digest in under an hour.

If you're not familiar with Derek Sivers, he's a musician best known for launching CD Baby by accident when he was selling his own CD on his website in 1998, just before the dot-com boom. When friends asked if he could sell theirs, he said yes, and kept saying yes until CD Baby was the largest seller of independent music on the Web, with over $100 million in sales for over 150,000 musician clients. Sivers sold CD Baby in 2008 to focus on new ventures.

Anything You Want doesn't adhere to the traditional business book formula (big idea with tactical takeaways), so as I did with Poke the Box, I'll depart from my own review template to share with you the insights and wisdom I found most personally compelling.

Your business plan is moot

You may think you know what people want, but you're wrong. You won't know until you actually start doing something. And there are always a multitude of options. Sivers tells the story of how his voice coach drove this point home by making him sing a song 10 different ways to show Sivers that what he thought was "the" way to sing the song was just one option. Sivers maintains you can perform this exercise with any plan, or even your life. "You can't pretend there is only one way to do it. Your first idea is just one of many options. No business goes as planned, so make ten radically different plans." Sivers never had a plan, just a dream and mission.

Forget funding

Beware of those with a big idea, but one that requires funding to get it off the ground. Huge ideas are ideas that are useful. And useful, truly useful, doesn't need funding. Start it small, keep it simple and let it flow, even if it's 1 percent of your uber vision. "Starting with no money is an advantage," writes Sivers. "You don't need money to start helping people."

Little things make all the difference

Sivers doesn't subscribe to the "don't sweat the small stuff" philosophy; just the opposite. "If you find even the smallest way to make people smile, they'll remember you more for that smile than for all your other fancy business-model stuff." Customers of CD Baby always asked "Do I have time to get it [CD] sent today?" Sivers added two little lines of code to his site that counted down how many hours and minutes until 5 p.m. local time—when CD Baby shipped orders via FedEx. "Customers LOVED this!"

Switch if it's not a hit

If everyone is shouting for more—"I need this! I'd be happy to pay you for this!"—you're probably on to something, and you should do it. If it's anything less, don't pursue it. Don't waste your time banging on locked doors and fighting uphill battles. Innovate until you get the massive response. "Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not from persistently promoting what's not working."

Hell yeah or no

This is decision-making at its most elegant. If you're not screaming "Hell Yeah!" about something, say "No." "Yes" doesn't cut it. "Wow!" or "Amazing!" does. Saying "no" makes room for what matters most, the things that do evoke a guttural "Hell Yeah!" Everything else just detracts. In other words, say "yes" to less.

Sivers's first-person account is warm, touching, open and at times funny—the story of the day he realizes he inadvertently gave his father 90 percent of his company years before it was a multimillion dollar enterprise and must pay $3.3 million to get it back is priceless.

And on that note, I can't think of a better way for anyone in business to spend $8 than reading and sharing Anything You Want. To top it off, Sivers gives away 241 of his favorite songs (in 10 genres) collected over the years to those who purchase the book.