The Long Game and The Long Tail

Sam Altman, the founder of Ycombinator, tells people "your greatest competitive advantage is a long term view." Because the world moves at breakneck speed, we have skewed perception of a long term view. We think one year is a long time, even though it takes close to a decade for startups and individuals to become successful.

We judge the performance of a book based on how many copies it sells in the first week when the ultimate measure should be whether or it's what Ryan Holiday refers as a Perennial Seller.

My latest book had underwhelming sales in launch week. My agent said "if it was flying off shelves, you'd be able to do what you want for a third book. But it's not so you have to create something they can't refuse to buy." I considered An Audience of One a failure because of this. Six months after the launch, it's selling roughly 50 copies a week and just shy of 3000 copies, with little pushing on my part. It's following a long tail.

A few weeks ago was the ten year anniversary of The Unmistakable Creative, which Sid Savara and I started as the podcast for bloggers. Ten years later, we're not as well known or popular as people who started after us, but our archive has a long tail. A person might subscribe and go through the entire archive of our 700 interviews. Some of our listeners have been there since we started and are still listening.

With a long tail, a consumer becomes more invested in a creator's work because the opportunity is there. If you like one of Seth Godin's blog posts, there are 6000 more you can read. He didn't earn the attention of an audience with tactics, tricks, and hacks. He earned it by being generous, one random of act of generosity at a time. If you like what you read, you read more, and you end up buying his books.

When you build your body of work, you can focus on reach or depth. Reach gets you eyeballs. Depth captures hearts. Or to quote Sam Altman


It’s much better to first make a product a small number of users love than a product that a large number of users like. Even though the total amount of positive feeling is the same, it’s much easier to get more users than to go from like to love.


People are going to be more likely to fall in love with your work if there's a long tail. Think about how people actually fall in love. It's not as if they go on one date and say 'I'm going to spend the rest of my life with you." It's a long tail of first dates, second dates, meeting family, and sharing 100's of experiences.

According to Kathy Sierra, we're often too focused on my making the work, the product, or book awesome. But we should be focused on making the audience or the user awesome. There's far less competition for people who do that. If you can enable someone to accomplish something they care about, that's huge. I've been raving about the team at the graphic design firm Delesign because they made something I cared about possible (reviving our animated series." Adobe has figured out that people don't want their tools; they want what's possible with the tools.

If you want people to fall in love with your work, play the long game, focus on the long tail.

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