The long tail.
The first and the most recent episode of the podcast How I Built This have something in common. The first episode is an interview with the founder of Spanx. The most recent episode is an interview with the founder of Dyson. Both interviewees received the same response when trying to bring their product to market. The response was along the lines of, “If this is such a good idea, it would have been done already.”
Of course, in these specific cases, it hadn’t been done before. Modern shapewear and cyclone vacuums didn’t exist until these people decided to make them exist. And based on the feedback they received from those around them, other people were determined to look over these ideas. It’s the whole everything-that-can-be-invented-has-been-invented outlook. Which, while seemingly pragmatic, is obviously not true.
Seth Godin talks about the “long tail” a lot in his work. While we’ve been taught that success means reaching the masses—or the “short head” of a market—it’s possible to be successful while seeking to serve a specific niche within the long tail of that very same market. With this in mind, even something that’s been done before can be new to a group of people who haven’t ever had that thing made specifically for them.
It goes back to Kevin Kelly’s notion of 1,000 true fans. And this isn’t just limited to the world of products and services. Art can also find its place within the long tail. An often cited example is the Grateful Dead, who despite pleas from producers, never watered down their music to be more appealing to the mainstream. Instead, they made sure their original fans, their true fans, felt like their music would always be for them.
As I work on my online course—and develop my puppetry skills—I constantly remind myself of the part of the long tail that I’m focused on serving. Because I have moments where I’m sure someone should have already done what I’m doing. Then I look past my immediate doubts and I can see clearly that it’s one thing to have an idea and it’s something entirely different to bring it to a place where it can be shipped.
If success means being a bestseller or receiving international acclaim for your creative work, then the long tail might not be for you. If, however, you’d like to do work for the people you care about and be able to make enough money to keep funding future projects, then the long tail is where you belong. It might not come with fancy awards or hundreds of thousands of followers, but if you can pay your bills and do work you love, does that really matter?
So, what unmet need will the art you’re creating fulfill?