Derek Sivers

Derek Sivers: Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

Editor’s Note: After making a living as a professional musician, Derek Sivers went looking for ways to sell his own CD online and ended up creating CD Baby, once the largest seller of independent music on the web with over $100M in sales for over 150,000 musician clients. In 2008, Derek sold CD Baby for $22M, giving the proceeds to a charitable trust for music education. Since 2008, Derek has traveled the world and stayed busy creating and nurturing creative endeavors, like Muckwork, where teams of efficient assistants help musicians do their “uncreative dirty work.” He is a frequent speaker at the TED Conference, with over 6 million views of his talks.

Sivers is also the author of ‘Anything You Want, which shot to #1 on all of its Amazon categories. His new company, Wood Egg, is publishing annual startup guides to 16 countries in Asia.

Derek writes regularly on creativity, entrepreneurship, and music on his blog: Sivers.org

To learn more about him, please read his amazing book ‘Anything you want, visit his official blog, read his Wikipedia Bio, watch his amazing TED Talks Weird, or just different?, How to start a movement, and Keep your goals to yourself.

You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Derek Sivers recently to gain insights about Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Derek, thank you so much for joining us in the midst of your busy schedule. We are very thrilled and honored to have you at eTalks.

Derek: Thank you Niaz.

Niaz: You are a musician, programmer, writer and entrepreneur. You have founded CD Baby and MuckWork. You are also the author of an amazing book ‘Anything You Want’ which shot to #1 on all of its Amazon categories. In 2011, you have moved to Singapore and started your new company Wood Egg. At the beginning of our interview, can you please tell us about Wood Egg?

Derek: Starting five years ago, I got deeply curious about the differences between countries and cultures, fascinated with understanding the different perspectives. Two years ago, I moved to Singapore, and started visiting all the countries in Asia, asking dumb questions, making good friends.  But my learning felt too unstructured. So while walking around Yogyakarta, Indonesia, remembering “the best way to learn something is to teach it”, I came up with an ambitious plan. I decided to produce and publish 16 books per year on 16 countries in Asia: Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Knowing they wouldn’t be great at first, I committed to improving them every year for many years. After a few years of doing this, they should be pretty awesome.

Niaz: Can you please tell us why have you moved to Singapore? 

Derek: Really it’s just understanding a different point of view.  And not just visiting, but really living somewhere long enough so that it really feels like home.  We’re so surrounded by people who think like us that it’s impossible to see that what we think are universal truths are just our local culture.  We can’t see it until we get outside of it.

Niaz: What have you learned about the entrepreneurial environment of Asia? How is it different from other cultures?

Derek: I was born in California and grew up with what I felt was a normal upbringing with normal values.  I was speaking to a business school class here in Singapore. I asked, “How many people would like to start their own company some day?” In a room of 50 people, only one hand (reluctantly) went up. If I would have asked this question to a room of 50 business school students in California, 51 hands would have gone up!  Thinking maybe they were just shy, I asked, “Really!? Why not?” – and asked individuals. Their answers:  1. “Why take the risk? I just want security.” 2. “I spent all this money on school, and need to make it back.” 3. “If I fail, it would be a huge embarrassment to my family.”  Then I realized my local American culture. The land of entrepreneurs and over-confidence. I had heard this before, but I hadn’t really felt it until I could see it from a distance.

Niaz: What are the cultural challenges to build, operate and sustain next big organization like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook or Twitter from Asia?

Derek: The sense of possibility.  When you live in New York City or Los Angeles, you see famous people around you all the time.  If you want to be famous, seeing those people next to you gives you the feeling that you’re very close to your dreams – you’re in the place where it can happen.  But if you’re living in Urugay or Estonia, you feel that you’re a world away from that kind of fame.  So once a few super-ambitious people have a big international success with a company out of Indonesia, for example, it will give huge encouragement to other people from Indonesia – to give them the feeling that they are so close – that they can do it.

Niaz: What are the necessary steps should be taken to overcome those challenges for making a welcoming, sustainable and supportive environment for entrepreneurs?

Derek: Just do what Singapore and Hong Kong are doing.  They’re doing everything right.  Mix in a little of India’s “jugaad” rule-breaking culture, for a real winning combination.

Niaz: We love to say about breaking the rules though it happens in reality very rarely. You are one of those few remarkable people who have broken so many rules for making things happen, specifically while working with CD Baby. You had a moment you describe in the book when all the MBAs and VCs were asking you “What’s your plan, what’s your growth rate, what are your projections?” And you basically said, “My focus is on helping the customers, and as long as we’re doing that, I don’t care about the projections.” Business Students invest Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars in Top Business School to learn planning, strategy, growth, leadership and setting goals. And you have build CD Baby and sold it for $22 Million where you have not literally cared about planning, forecasting, strategy, and even growth. Can you please tell us about the evolution and success story of CD Baby?

Derek: Ah, it would take about 88 pages to properly tell that story, but that’s why I wrote “Anything You Want”.

Niaz: Can you please briefly tell us about ‘Anything You Want’?

Derek: It’s only 88 pages, a $4 purchase on Amazon, can be read in under an hour, and really tells the tale from beginning to end of starting CD Baby, growing it beyond my wildest dreams, the mistakes I made along the way, then selling it for $22 million, as you said.  It’s distilled down to “40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur”, as the publisher put it.  I’m not just telling my story, but looking back, found some important and usable lessons that you can apply to your own business.

Niaz: Now StartUp means finding an idea, taking seed funding, inviting angel investors and ending up taking fund from Venture Capital. It’s really a very complex cycle. I know it has two sides like a coin. In one side it’s tough to get funding. In other side, it’s tough to get right funding and advisers. Vinod Khosla, one of the co-founders of Sun Microsystems who later went on to create Khosla Ventures, cited in Techcrunch Disrupt SF 2013, ‘95 percent of VCs add zero value. 70-80 percent add negative value to a startup in their advising’. As it’s the scenario, you have had a great and different story. You have done great job with CD Baby and made it a multi million dollars company without taking help from VC. How can an entrepreneur build multi million Dollars Company without taking help of VCs? Is it possible now? Can you please explain it for us?

Derek: I know less-than-nothing about investors, VCs, or any of that.  Never dealt with them.  Asking me how to make a company without them is like asking an Argentinian farmer how he grows his crops without the Empire State Building.  It’s just not a part of my world, so I don’t even know how to compare my approach to another.

Niaz: What are your secrets of taking initiatives and how do you stay confident on taking those risky and challenging initiatives?

Derek: I’ve never done anything that felt risky or even challenging.  When you’re on to something good, and you’re the right person to do it, it just feels like common sense, and quite obvious.  If it feels too risky, too challenging, maybe it’s an unwise venture or maybe you’re the wrong person to do it.

Niaz: Many people now believe that we have already solved all of our interesting problems. New StartUps and companies are also working on almost similar basis. By any chance, if someone is coming with a great idea, rest of the others are getting into it and ending up creating mess. Can you please tell us about how to find really big and interesting problems, working on it in the long run to solve those problems and ending up building next big organization?

Derek: You don’t need big problems or big organizations like you don’t need big passion.  A few times, I’ve been asked a question like, “But what if I haven’t found my true passion?” It’s dangerous to think in terms of “passion” and “purpose” because they sound like such huge overwhelming things.  If you think love needs to look like “Romeo and Juliet”, you’ll overlook a great relationship that grows slowly.  If you think you haven’t found your passion yet, you’re probably expecting it to be overwhelming.  Instead, just notice what excites you on a small moment-to-moment level.  If you find yourself diving into a book about Photoshop and playing around with the program for hours, go for it! Dive in deeper. Maybe that’s your new calling.  For me, CD Baby was just a curiosity: that little hobby that kept me up until 2am every night, programming and experimenting. It just grew from there.

Niaz: Based on your exciting entrepreneurial career and the lessons you have learned over the years, can you please list 10 advices for Startup Company to survive, to grow and to go global?

Derek: I can’t, because it’s different for everyone.  When someone shows me their business plan and asks what they should do, I say, “Well – who are you? What kind of life do you want? Easy? Challenging? Why are you doing this? Money? Impact? Love? To prove something to the high school bully?”  Businesses are not the same.  Business paths are not the same.  Motivations are not the same.  No list of 10 advices apply to everyone.  And I can’t separate business and people.  What you should be doing with your business depends on who you are as a person, not on the business itself.

Niaz: What excites me mostly about you is your Humanistic Perspective of Entrepreneurship. Can you please tell us about the humanistic perspective of entrepreneurship?

Derek: I don’t understand how the two are different or separated in any way.  It’s like asking about the humanistic perspective on marriage.  It’s 100% completely and thoroughly human.  What’s good for business?  What’s good for people!  What’s good for each customer?  What’s good for each person working there?  What’s good for the owner?  These are inseparable questions.

Niaz: Do you think humanistic perspective of entrepreneurship is seriously big thing that will help entrepreneurs to be more human to solve real big problems of this mother earth to make it a better place to live in?

Derek: No.  I don’t think that big.  But I’m glad you do.

Niaz: What’s the one last thing you want to tell us?

Derek: Don’t make your business like someone else’s business.  Don’t make your life like someone else’s life.  Ignore people who tell you what you should be doing because someone else did.  Your life, joys, and motivations are different than theirs.

Derek: Thank you so much for sharing us your invaluable ideas, knowledge and experience. We are wishing you very good luck for all of your upcoming endeavors.

Derek: Thanks Niaz.  I really appreciate it.  Sorry I don’t have very many answers.

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Five Inspiring Quotes By Derek Sivers:

#1

You grow (and thrive!) by doing what excites you and what scares you everyday, not by trying to find your passion.”

#2

Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not from persistently pushing what’s not working”

#3

You can’t please everyone, so proudly exclude people”

#4

Anything you hate to do, someone else loves. So find that person and let him do it”

#5

If you really care about starting a movement, have the courage to follow and show others how to follow. And when you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first one to stand up and join in”

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Further Reading:

1. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

2. Daniel Pink on To Sell is Human

3. Barry Schwartz on Wisdom and Happiness

4. Hugh Mac­Leod on Creativity and Art

5. Shaka Senghor on Writing My Wrongs