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Building A Business Utopia

book notes: Anything You Want by Derek Sivers

Whit Rasmussen
Whit Rasmussen
10 min read
Building A Business Utopia

Business is as creative as the fine arts. You can be as unconventional, unique, or quirky as you want. A business is a reflection of the creator.

Inspired by Derek Sivers' book, Anything You Want. A personal favorite.

Business: The Modern Perception

Business has evolved into a confusing concept. Suits, ties, plain dresses, high heels, polished shoes, leather briefcases. Organizations that exist to make money and pay you money so that you can buy their products and services to complete the cycle.

The modern perception of business is akin to a black and white rainbow - it might as well be a cloud. How often do you stop what you're doing to appreciate a cloud?

How do I know business is boring? Ask young children what they want to be when they grow up. Your experience may be different than mine, but I can count on one hand the amount of times I've heard a child say "businessperson!"

Business today is... well..... boring.

Failing From a Lack of Imagination

When you make a business, you get to make a little universe where you control all the laws. This is your utopia.

The reality is that "business" as a catch-all term may be inherently boring, but there has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. The internet has revolutionized all aspects of business building.

  • Need Knowledge? - blogs, YouTube, online courses, email a pro or peers
  • Need Support? - online freelancers, virtual assistants, B2B services
  • Need Customers? - social media, websites, blog, newsletter, marketplace
  • Need Growth? - collaborations, shares, advertising, acquisitions, influence

You can take an idea, build a systematic framework around that idea, scale rapidly by leveraging appropriate resources, establish an engaged customer base, bill and automate orders, and develop new products or services - all from the comfort of your couch with a laptop and an internet connection.

How crazy is that?

You can literally take an idea from concept to reality if you have access to the internet and possess the will to work.

Anything You Want by Derek Sivers

Derek Sivers dramatically changed my perspective of business and entrepreneurship. Anything You Want is my second most revisited book (only behind The Alchemist).

Derek is one of many role models and mentors in my life whom I have never formally met. His writing distills years of experience into a thoughtful collection of stories and experiences. Anything You Want is simple, but the lessons can be transformative. 10/10 recommend to everyone interested in entrepreneurship.

All text below (as well as above) in italics are Derek's words.

Derek Sivers in 10 Seconds...

I’ve been a musician, producer, circus performer, entrepreneur, TED speaker, and book publisher.

Monomaniac, introvert, slow thinker, and love finding a different point of view.

California native, I now live in New Zealand.

The Story of CD Baby - Distilling 10 Years of Experience

From 1998 to 2008, I had this wild experience of starting a little hobby, accidentally growing it into a big business, and then selling it for $22 million.

Anything You Want shares Derek's lessons from 10 years building that business. What follows are my highlights and notes from Anything You Want.

What's Your Compass?

Most people don't know why they're doing what they're doing.

Just Selling My CD

In 1997, Derek was a 27-year-old professional musician making a full-time living playing gigs around the U.S. and Europe, producing records, and running a small recording studio. He made a CD for his music, was able to sell over 1,500 copies at his concerts, but wanted to expand online.

At the time, the big distributors of music - the record stores - turned Derek down, so he decided to build his own platform. After setting up a merchant banking account (Paypal and other online payment platforms didn't exist in 1997) and copying some code from programming books he could get his hands on, Derek eventually ended up with an online shopping cart and a "buy now" button.

He told a few friends, who told a few of their friends, who told a few of their friends. In a relatively short period of time, Derek realized he had accidentally started a business. CD Baby was born.

Finding Your Purpose

If you think your life's purpose needs to hit you like a lightning bolt, you'll overlook the little day-to-day things that fascinate you. . . When you're onto something great, it won't feel like revolution. It'll feel like uncommon sense.

Not a Hit? Switch

Five years after CD Baby began, it was a huge success. Derek created something that people really wanted without forcing them to want it. The same could not be said of his previous pursuits - which he admits were uphill battles.

We've all heard about the importance of persistence. But I had misunderstood. Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not from persistently doing what's not working.

We all have lots of ideas, creations, and projects. When you present one to the world and it's not a hit, don't keep pushing it as is. Instead, get back to improving and inventing.

Hell Yeah!

If you're overcommitted or too scattered - when deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than "Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!" then say no.

No Funding, No Problem

There is plenty of money in circulation, ready to be invested in new businesses. Today, the need to raise money seems to be a precursor to starting a business. We hear about tech darlings and venture capital / private equity firms all the time. But no one NEEDs funding to start.

By not having any money to waste, you never waste money.

Necessity is a great teacher.

Being useful doesn't need funding.

Starting small puts 100 percent of your energy into actually solving problems for real people. It gives you a strong foundation to grow from, eliminates the friction of big infrastructure, and gets right to the point.

You Have to Start

Ideas are worth nothing unless they are executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions. Explanation:

Awful idea = -1

Weak idea = 1

So-so idea = 5

Good idea = 10

Great idea = 15

Brilliant idea = 20

No execution = $1

Weak execution = $1,000

So-so execution = $10,000

Good execution = $100,000

Great execution = $1,000,000

Brilliant execution = $10,000,000


a brilliant idea with no execution is worth $20

a weak idea with brilliant execution is worth $10,000,000

a brilliant idea with brilliant execution is worth $200,000,000

You'll be ahead of the rest, because you actually started, while others are waiting for the finish line to magically appear at the starting line.

Many Little Customers vs. A Few Big Customers

  • general, multipurpose product vs. custom-tailored solutions
  • your own boss vs. your clients become your boss
  • greatest impact to many vs. narrow impact to a few
  • need to leave?: ok, we wish you the best! vs. we're done for...

You Can't Please Everyone

You need to confidently exclude people, and proudly say what you're not. By doing so, you will win the hearts of the people you want.

It's a big world. You can loudly leave out 99 percent of it.

One of Many Options

In Derek's words - he was not a naturally talented singer. To improve, he took voice lessons. Each session focused on one song. In those sessions, Derek's instructor would ask him to sing the song normally. Once finished, he asked Derek to sing one octave higher, then one lower, then twice as fast, then twice as slow, then he would add any number of other seemingly ridiculous situations with which to sing the song - pretend it's 4am and a friend woke you up. Go.

After the many iterations, he asked Derek - "now how did the song go again?"

This same concept applies to business and life... it's called innovation. There's not necessarily a "correct" way to do something. Just because that's how it was done before, doesn't mean you have to do the same.

You can't pretend there's only one way to do [things]. Your first idea is just one of many options. [Nothing] goes as planned, so make ten radically different plans.

Know How You Grade Yourself

We all grade ourselves by different measures:

  • For some, it's how much money they make
  • For others, it's how much money they give
  • For some, it's how many people's lives they can influence for the better
  • For others, it's how deeply they can influence just a few people's lives

It's important to establish this for ourselves early on so we don't waste time doing what other people think is important as opposed to what is important to us.

Never forget why you're really doing what you're doing. Are you helping people? Are they happy? Are you happy? Are you profitable? Isn't that enough?

Care About Your Customers More Than About Yourself

Derek was once asked: "What if every musician just set up their own store on their own website? Since that'd be the death of CD Baby, how do you plan to stop that?"

Derek's response: "Honestly, I don't care about CD Baby. I only care about the musicians. If someday, musicians don't need CD Baby anymore, that's great! I'll just shut it down and get back to making music."

How many businesses do you know that would reiterate this mentality? I'm counting on my fingers and haven't bothered to use my second hand yet.

Act Like You Don't Need The Money

We want to give to those who give.

A Real Person, Just Like You

A powerful story about perspective... Derek's friend Sara runs a small online business from her home. She's done so for twelve years, it's her passion. One afternoon, a client sent her a ten-page email full of anger, slights, and criticisms for the poor quality of her business. Sara was absolutely devastated and spent her entire weekend dwelling on the letter.

Finally, at the end of the weekend, Sara spent multiple hours meticulously drafting an email addressing the client's concerns, sharing her sincerest apologies, and reassuring the customer a full refund plus additional credit would be issued.

The next day she called to ensure her customer received the email and to Sara's surprise, the customer cheerfully answered and said "Oh, don't worry about it! I wasn't actually that upset. I was just in a bad mood, and didn't think anyone would read my e-mail anyway."

When we yell at a website or a company, using our computer or our phone, we forget that it's a person that's affected.

Be Clear, It's Painful If You're Not

Aim to be simple and effective. This removes unnecessary costs due to confusion.

Best "Thank You For Your Order" Email Ever

When you make a business, you're making a little world where you control the laws. It doesn't matter how things are done everywhere else. In your little world, you can make it like it should be.

Whenever you order a product online from a business, you should receive an email thanking you for your purchase with some additional information. These emails tend to be cookie-cutter and boring. Not in Derek's world. This is what CD Baby customers received after placing an order:

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.

A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.

We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved "Bon Voyage!" to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Friday, June 6th.

I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. You picture is on our wall as "Customer of the Year." We're all exhausted but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

Amazing. Just Amazing.

Little Things Make All The Difference

Even if you want to be big someday, remember that you never need to act like a big boring company. Over ten years, it seemed like every time someone raved about how much he loved CD Baby, it was because of one of these little fun human touches.

Derek and team also did some other hilarious things - like sending a squid to a customer with their CD, per the customer's request.

Don't try to impress an invisible jury of MBA professors. It's OK to be casual.

Blissfully Ignorant

Derek's first formal job from his youth was only temporary. When he realized he needed to move on, Derek found a friend he believed would be a good replacement. He trained the friend and ensured everything progressed as usual before telling his boss he quit.

It would be many years later when Derek would discover it is not normal to find and coach a replacement before quitting a job.

There's a benefit to being naive about the norms of the world - deciding from scratch what seems like the right thing to do, instead of just doing what others do.

Prepare to Double

No matter what business you're in, it's good to prepare for what would happen if business doubled. . . Never be the typical tragic small business that gets frazzled and freaked out when business is doing well.

It's About Being, Not Having

When you want to learn how to do something yourself, most people won't understand. They'll assume the only reason we do anything is to get it done, and doing it yourself is not the most efficient way.

But that's forgetting about the joy of learning and doing. Yes, it may take longer. Yes, it may be inefficient. Yes, it may even cost you millions of dollars in lost opportunities because your business is growing slower because you're insisting on doing something yourself. But the whole point of doing anything is because it makes you happy! That's it!

When you sign up to run a marathon, you don't want a taxi to take you to the finish line.

On Delegation and Abdication

There's a big different between being self-employed and being a business owner. Being self-employed feels like freedom until you realize that if you take time off, you business crumbles. To be a true business owner, make it so that you could leave for a year, and when you came back, your business would be doing better than when you left.

When delegating, you have to trust but verify.

Lesson learned: delegate, but don't abdicate.

Make it Anything You Want

You can't live someone else's expectation of a traditional business. You have to just do whatever you love the most, or you'll lose interest in the whole thing.

Doesn't every business want to be as big as possible? No. Make sure you know what makes you happy, and don't forget it.

On Giving CD Baby to Charity

When Derek sold CD Baby, he received $22 million. By any stretch of the imagination, this is more than enough to live a phenomenal life and never have to work again. Derek chose to create a charitable trust and turned over every cent of the $22 million. He receives 5% per year until he dies, while the sum generates a return based on investments. After Derek's passing, the sum will be donated to organizations Derek is passionate about - all within music education.

Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were at a party at a billionaire's extravagant estate. Kurt said, "Wow! Look at this place! This guy has everything!" Joseph said, "Yes, but I have something he'll never have.... Enough."

Closing Reminder

Business is as creative as the fine arts. You can be as unconventional, unique, and quirky as you want. A business is a reflection of the creator.

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Whit Rasmussen

Investor 📈, Photographer 📸 & Writer 📝, Obsessive CrossFitter 🏋️‍♂️, One-Time IRONMAN 🥇, Regular Reader 📚, Perpetual Learner 💡, Habitual Optimist 😎