Ever notice how your favorite bands are great at repetition? You might see their concert today, but they have another show tomorrow, in a different city, playing the same set list to a brand new crowd. And they do it without losing their enthusiasm.
The best bands don’t just repeat studio versions of their songs, either. If they want to keep their customers and themselves happy, they reinvent the same song. They’ll play acoustic or remixed versions. They’ll add other artists or new instruments. Some of the greats improvise large portions of their music. No two listens are the same.
And some musician’s best tracks aren’t even originals. They’re repeats of someone else’s music, sampled, remixed, or re-imagined in their own style.
One thing that holds many of us back as creators, inventors, and entrepreneurs is simply our inability at repetition.
I’ll watch new entrepreneurs lament as they try and come up with an idea: “Everything has already been done.” And yet Facebook wasn’t the first social network. There were other popular social networks. Dropbox wasn’t the first file-sharing solution out there. There were many. Airbnb wasn’t the first place you could list your extra room for rent. People had already been doing that on Craigslist for years.
But these entrepreneurs weren’t afraid of repeating an idea that had already been done by making it their own. Facebook was Myspace the way Mark Zuckerberg would have (and subsequently did) do it.
And it’s not just the fear of repeating someone else’s idea holding us back. We also suck at repeating ourselves. We’ll launch a product on a forum like Hacker News, or we’ll spend days spilling our souls into a new blog post, and then… crickets. No one shows up. No one signs up. So we declare failure and move onto the next shiny thing.
But great inventors know how to repeat themselves. Airbnb didn’t get it right out of the gate.
If you launch and no one notices, launch again. We launched 3 times.
— Brian Chesky (@bchesky) March 15, 2013
Airbnb reinvented what they were doing three times before people started paying attention. But sometimes what’s blocking you from being heard isn’t even poor execution. Ad agencies know this better than any of us. A common rule of thumb in that industry: It takes seven ad impressions before someone will take action.
James Altucher, a successful serial entrepreneur and writer, excels at repeating himself.
James has about 82,000 Twitter followers as I write this. If he tweets his latest blog post to that group, he’s going to get quite a bit of traffic and readers. But he doesn’t rely on one tweet. He’ll tweet again about a blog post he wrote months ago–he knows many of his followers never saw it the first time.
James is also great at repeating similar themes in his writing. He advises exercising your idea muscle, like any other muscle in your body: Record 10 new business ideas every single day. But he doesn’t rely on this advice sinking in the first time you read it. It won’t. So this theme is mentioned over and over again in his blog posts, talks, and books.
Any success I have today is because I’ve simply grown accustomed to and better at repetition. Draft is just another online word processor I created. It’s an idea that’s been done very well before by Google and Microsoft as well as a million small developers. But I’m not afraid to repeat something and make it my own. The book Blue Ocean Strategy has a framework for doing this, if you need inspiration.
Instead of competing with Google Docs directly, feature by feature, I focused on what Google Docs doesn’t do. I’m not trying to reach feature parity. Why sing Google’s song the way they do?
I shifted my attention from things Google already does well, like formatting and real-time editing, and I placed it onto things Google doesn’t pay much attention to, like merging individual changes and publishing. And I introduced features that haven’t even been a battlefield before, like on-demand copyediting built right into the product itself.
And it’s working!
Repeating myself is helping grow my audience too. There’s still days I’ll blog and no one shows up. But I’ll retweet the same blog post, or retell the same anecdote a week later, and this time thousands of people will read it.
Maybe it’s because I told it a little better this time. Or maybe it’s simply because Apple didn’t announce anything this week and people aren’t distracted. Whatever it is, learning to repeat myself as a writer has resulted in an increasing audience of my work.
You don’t have to look far to see that some of the most admired and successful people in the software industry have spent their entire lives chasing the same few ideas (and in some cases literally building the same product ad infinitum).
Don’t be afraid of repetition. Embrace it. Practice it. It’s an area, I’ve found, full of breakthroughs.
[Image: Flickr user Iris]