By the time I was 13 I had been selling candy and comic books to my classmates for almost 3 years. Though I did quite well, I was itching to try something bigger, and that meant extending my reach beyond the walls of Math class.
This was the late 80s, so resources were limited for a 13 year old living in the country. I ordered all of the free information available in the work at home section of the Penny Saver (a free newspaper consisting entirely of ads), and started going to the library twice a week to read up on entrepreneurship. I was searching for a business idea that I could pull off at 13, and after literally hundreds of books, booklets, and information packets I decided to publish my own booklet on comic book collecting.
Since I was seven years old I’ve been an avid reader. I consumed 2 or 3 books a week during my childhood, including a large collection of “crazy facts” books and the Guinness Book of World’s Records (every year). By the time I was 13 I’d been reading 2-3 books a week for 6 years, and the breadth of my knowledge was astonishing for someone my age.
I knew how the stock market worked, why Beta had lost to VHS, why Apple was losing market share to the PC, and how double-entry accounting worked (although I couldn’t do double-entry accounting). But I had no idea how to start a business. With all of my book knowledge about the business world, I had no clue how to execute an idea.
I’d read several books on self-publishing and writing non-fiction, and I could have a really good conversation about them, but I’d synthesized the information for knowledge-sake, rather than to act on it. That made a big difference.
And so it continued for months…I didn’t have the guts to start writing the booklet for fear I wouldn’t know what to do next. Instead, I visited more libraries and sought magazines that did nothing but rehash information I already knew. I filled my head with the same information from piles of resources, but I still couldn’t get things going.
After months I finally took the leap. I spent 60 hours researching and writing the booklet. I printed it at Kinko’s, placed a few classified ads, and sold 9 copies at $15 apiece, breaking even on the cost of printing and advertising. Financially it was a wash, but I learned a valuable lesson.
13 years later I went through a nearly identical scenario when I started my consulting firm, The Numa Group.
I’d read stacks of book about entrepreneurship, startups, management, leadership, consulting, and running a service business, but I had no idea how to get started. I was waiting for the one book that was going to kick me into action by telling me exactly how to proceed given my skills, strengths, goals, and financial situation. Alas, that book never appeared. I finally realized that I needed to take a leap of faith and go to a place where no one else could lead me.
Through these experiences I realized the following:
Some people are consumers by nature; they consume vast quantities of knowledge purely for learning’s sake. Others are producers; they consume knowledge with the intent of one day acting on the knowledge and producing something, be it a book, a song, a blog, a startup, etc… Neither is better than the other.
The key is to answer one question: which are you?
I want to say again that neither is better than the other. If we were all consumers we wouldn’t have anything to watch; if we were all producers no one would be reading our blogs or listening to our podcasts. What matters is:
There is a huge benefit to finding out if you tend to be a producer or a consumer.
Which Are You?
If you convince yourself that the zillions of books, blogs and podcasts you’ve consumed over the past 2/3/4 years are in preparation for that glorious day when you’ll tell your boss to stick it in his ear because you’re heading out the door to starting your own company, you are wasting your time. Don’t read another blog post about startups, Micro-ISVs, or the business of software. Once you’re done reading this post (or even before), go start building something (a product, a blog, a company…). Because until you do, the knowledge you’re gaining is all but worthless to you.
But if you realize that one of the pleasures in your life is to read about code/startups/entrepreneurs/music, then embrace that you are a consumer. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not bad as long as you realize that you are not working towards an end beyond your own edification, which again, is not a bad thing.
Likewise, if you’re someone who has an unquenchable desire to produce something, then stop reading about other people, and start doing it yourself. Seriously, don’t read another blog post, tweet, or issue of Fast Company until you’ve made a visible move towards that goal you so desperately want, but think that reading and dreaming about will somehow make it come true. Once you’ve made that single action towards advancing your idea, you can come back and read a few more posts.
While it’s true it’s not either-or, that you are likely a mixture of both types and will experience fluctuation in your ratio of production vs. consumption from one month to the next, unless your name is Robert Scoble you really do have to choose one or the other.
- Consuming for the pure love of learning is absolutely ok.
- Producing purely because you have a fire that won’t die until you do is fine, too.
- But don’t kid yourself about who you are.
If you’ve been reading startup blogs for years and never started anything, it’s time to accept that your tendency is to be a consumer. It’s not to say you can’t break out of that classification by starting something, but if you haven’t done it thus far you’re not likely to do it soon without some external motivation (maybe this post?).
If you have 50 software product ideas and your hard drive is littered with folders containing 30 lines of code from each, you tend towards being a consumer (or at least a producer who has trouble finishing things).
And if you figure out that you are a producer, stop daydreaming about the day you’ll make things happen. Start making it happen in the next 30 days, or forever hold your peace.