Tim O’Reilly is the CEO and founder of O’Reilly Media, the publisher that has printed all three of my books. He’s a high profile guy and gets written about often, but this week there’s finally a piece in Inc. that does the special thing of capturing someone I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with a couple of times over the years. I don’t know him that well, but it’s so rare someone you’ve met gets written about in a way that reflects the person you know.
One favorite part of the article is an old story Tim told. Years ago, O’Reilly Media was looking to find partners for an early Internet venture. Bob Broadwater, an investment banker, gave them the following advice.
“You don’t fish with strawberries. Even if that’s what you like, fish like worms, so that’s what you use.”
And Tim, in a short essay, explained:
That’s really good advice for any sales situation: understand the customer and his or her needs, and make sure that you’re answering those needs. No one could argue with such sound, commonsense advice.
At the same time, a small voice within me said with a mixture of dismay, wonder and dawning delight: “But that’s just what we’ve always done: gone fishing with strawberries. We’ve made a business by offering our customers what we ourselves want. And it’s worked!”
And in my own career I’ve thought much about these things, and I’m convinced they’re not mutually exclusive. Often in writing I’m aiming for Strawberries. This is the driving motivation in many of my essays: I simply wish someone else had written these things so I could read them. I feel there is a question or answer that should be out there, but isn’t, so I go and make it, and feel satisfaction when I do. Even if no one else cares, I feel like I solved a problem and filled a microscopic void in the universe.
But the ones I tend to publish are those that I sense, based on experience, there are many people who would want to read them. And to run the above metaphor into gross oblivion, this would be fishing with strawberry flavored worms, or worm flavored strawberries, which sounds awful and disgusting, but demonstrates there can be creative ways to satisfy yourself and others at the same time. There can be 80% worm and 20% strawberry, or 50% or 50%, or a hundred different breakdowns of how much you are thinking about you and how much you’re thinking about your customer, or reader.
If I know you, or have a sense of you, I can find the sweet spot between what you like and what I like and spend time there.
To only make strawberries makes you an artist. And to only make worms makes you a capitalist. To make both at the same time, or some of one now and then some of the other later, perhaps makes a successful artist. Or an artistic capitalist. Or in Tim’s case, it means you’re having a successful life that has helped people like me make successful lives, and perhaps that’s the best kind of fishing of all: fishing that helps other people learn to fish.