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How “Smartcuts” Can Transform Your Media Brand

Quick Summary: How can your media brand leapfrog your competition? Not by shortcuts but by “smartcuts.” Here are a few examples that you can put right to work: Lateral thinking, agility, leveraging platforms, 10X thinking, and more….

Shane Snow is the co-founder of Contently, the publishing platform for brands, journalists, and storytellers. Shane is a journalist who’s written for “Fast Company,” “The New Yorker,” “Wired,” and “The Washington Post.” Shane also is the author of a terrific new book called Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success


Watch this short Q&A with Shane and please share it with your peers:

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What follows is a highly edited transcript of our chat. Make sure to watch or listen to the whole thing!

What is a “Smartcut” and why does it matter?

One of the things I found very early in my research is that the kinds of people and businesses who managed to beat the norm do so, almost by definition, by breaking with convention, by breaking rules that aren’t really rules, and by finding alternate paths to the usual path. A “smartcut” is that alternative path.

Smartcuts is really about finding smarter paths that aren’t necessarily shorter, but that accelerate what you’re trying to accomplish.

So how do I take a “smartcut”?

At a fundamental level, it’s about what psychologists call “lateral thinking.” When you’re approached with a problem, rather than answering the question you rethink the question. And when you are given a set of assumptions, you systematically go through those assumptions and ask, “what if these weren’t true?”

In the book I explore many of the assumptions we have about success in society, the common wisdom. And I try to either debunk or support them through case studies and stories.

The basic idea is this: What is everyone else doing, and how can I “zag” when they “zig”? Sometimes, it works phenomenally well, but sometimes it actually doesn’t.

In times of dynamic change any company’s business model might be challenged, and we’re seeing a lot of that in the media space. You have data in the book about the benefit of a pivot, a strategic change in direction that has the potential to reboot a business model. Can you talk about that?

Sure. The research shows that companies that stay the course in the original thing they do are statistically less likely to become superlative successes or to even avoid failure than companies that take one to two sidesteps from their original intention or their original mission.

But the flip side is that companies that do too many sidesteps end up failing at a much higher rate than that.

So there’s something about the ability to be just flexible enough that accelerates the success for a lot of these companies. And I think particularly in media and in technology start-ups, you see this happen.

You start working on a problem, and then you realize the problem is actually a little bit different than the one you thought you were solving, and so you go for it. But the stubborn people will work on a problem and work on it, and despite all the signs that they’re not on the right path, they stick with that path out of a sense of loyalty or ego.

See, the most successful innovators in any industry are the ones who are willing to question even their own assumptions while they’re building something. And the research actually bears this out.

The analogy that I love is the cheetah, the fastest land animal. It can go in excess of 70 miles an hour. But what makes it such an effective predator is not its ability to run fast. Scientists have found that it’s the cheetah’s ability to jump sideways that helps it catch the gazelle that jumps out of the way. So in business, you can be well-established and have tons of resources, but if you’re not able to jump sideways quickly, then you’re at a disadvantage to others who might be slower than you.

You’re talking about the difference between agility and speed.


Even in our business at Contently we discovered that a sidestep was a dramatic accelerant to our success. You look at media companies that are doing really well – nimble, newfangled media companies, like VICE: They’re finding revenue in places that are not analogous to the way that you used to make money as a media company. They’re doing consulting, they’ve got this HBO show now, and it’s a huge departure from what they used to do.

I think the key is to question the assumptions we have as the disruption happens to us.

Everyone wants their content to “go viral.” You have a couple of examples in the book of content that exploded and why in one case, the explosion turned into series of hits while in the other case it stopped dead.

Michelle Phan is an amateur makeup artist and an absolute sweetheart. She posted a YouTube video recreating the makeup for Lady Gaga’s music video, “Bad Romance.” That went viral. In the same month, someone who became known as the “double rainbow guy” also had a viral hit on YouTube. Both received a similar number of views, but what I talk about in the book is what happened next.

The “double rainbow guy” tried to recreate this moment of him marveling over the two rainbows that he saw in his backyard by posting a thousand videos of him in nature talking. It all fell flat and he became a “one-hit wonder.”

Michelle, however, has turned that video into a makeup line at L’Oréal and into a production company and a multi-million dollar business. And she has a subscription beauty company now that has hundreds of thousands of monthly subscribers. So it’s probably valued in the nine figures. She’s done that in just four years at the same time that this other guy didn’t.

And so they each had this opportunity. And the big difference between their stories is she was able to harness the momentum she had from her viral hit and to use that to sidestep in the other businesses.

When people saw her video of the Lady Gaga eyes, they got the chance to discover her other 50 videos that were very, very high quality that no one had recognized and no one had seen. And so she was able to win over fans that gave her more momentum than just a one-hit wonder. And she is also a ruthless business person, taking those hits to makeup companies and the advertisers, and leveraging that into a bunch of different businesses.

You have millions of people watching your makeup tutorials, maybe they want to buy or try samples of new lines of makeup that are coming out, and she turned that into a business. And now she’s helping other artists produce content and monetize that content. That’s another angle: How can you take your own expertise and turn it into money?

You make a surfing analogy. The skill of surfing is not really the hard part, you argue, the bigger challenge is to find or sense the right wave. Can you talk about what that means in the context of a business, a brand, or media?

Absolutely. When you’re competing with the best in the world so much depends on the platform you’re given – the wave you’re riding. You can be an incredible surfer, but if you get a small wave, then you can only do so much, whereas the surfer behind you who sees the bigger wave will win the championship.

In other words, we have this myth around first-mover advantage. You discover this new thing, and if you get on it right away you can build a business around it and you have a huge advantage. But if you look at the actual statistics, the vast majority of companies that do that actually get passed by someone else. And it’s because the next person ends up learning all of the lessons from the first person, and they can ride in on better technology.

But unwrapping all of this for a business, the “smartcut” is that the smart surfers will show up to the beach hours early and they’ll just watch the waves. And they’ll try to absorb and feel how the day is playing out. And they’ll look at the patterns of how the waves come in, what directions they come in.

So smart business people will spend more time methodically and deliberately analyzing the market. And it’s almost an obvious point, but it’s something that we fail to do when we have already established our assumptions and our rules about how our market is. The students of a market are the ones that are more likely to ride through on new trends.

It’s the idea of pattern recognition – not becoming complacent once you have become competent in a skill or you’ve built a decent business. That’s what makes the difference between the outsized successes and regular ones.

The final section of your book is called “10X Thinking.” What is that and what does it mean?

10X thinking is a term coined by a Google exec with an amazing name: Astro Teller. And what Astro Teller says is that, “It’s easier to build something that’s 10 times better than just 10% better.” But how can that be? It seems to defy math!

What you see in some of the most successful companies in the world, the biggest change-makers in history, is they have this ability to think 10 times bigger than everyone else. What you find is that people who end up doing this, who tell 10 times the bigger story, are able to rally the resources and the support that will allow them to do this 10X thing easier or just as easy as something smaller.

I like to say it’s easier to start a revolution than a successful lemonade stand. That’s because people care about the outcome of a revolution. And so that’s the principle behind 10X thinking.

To apply that, you have to start by breaking your own assumptions. That’s the theme of the book. You want to force yourself to think differently and to find alternate paths to tell yourself that you can’t do anything the same, that you have to do it 10 times as big. And that forces you to expand your mind in many cases rally the support that makes it possible.

For decades, private space companies have been trying to go to space, and for decades, they’ve failed over and over again. And it took this guy named Elon Musk to say, “I don’t want to just go to space, I want to die on Mars. I want to make it so that if we screw up the Earth, humanity survives.” And 99% of the world thought he was crazy, but the 1% of the world that has billions of dollars to throw at this kind of dream have rallied to help make his dream a reality. He recruited top engineers and has built this space company that now is sending rockets to space and landing them back on Earth feet down, all in less than a decade.

Yes, it takes smart people. Yes, it takes hard work. But there’s something fascinating about when you’re reaching higher than everyone else, you’re not going for the low-hanging fruit.

You’re going for the fruit that no one dreams of going for that that, ironically, can make it possible to do much more than people expect of you.

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