James, creativity, purple cows & Paypal

Music is the voice of the outer and inner worlds we inhabit. It triggers a reaction, our moods vibrate in response to what we’re listening too, it elevates human consciousness, it brings us to life, uncovering the hidden sound of silence and solitude in our heads.

I like to listen to music on my iPod,  the isolation of being in my own head is often the easiest way of losing yourself in the moment to memories, life and emotion, good and bad. Music that we feel in our marrow, that invites us into some other dimension of time, magnetises us to the present yet contains within itself all that ever was and ever will be.

A surge of dopamine enlivens the brain with a pleasurable play of emotions, as we associate a particular piece with a past experience – Temptation by New Order; Susan, they’re playing our tune. We’ve all got our favourite bands and tracks that have some special meaning, and over the years James, the indie band from Manchester, has been one of those bands who make music that connects with me.

When I first hear the opening bars of a number of James songs, something just happens. I’ve seen them live seventeen times. More than 38 years after their first release, James have continuously evolved to remain as relevant as ever, and have announced the release of their sixteenth album on 4 June, All the colours of you.

Formed Venereal and the Diseases, an early incarnation of James played their first ever show at Eccles British Legion, Manchester in March 1980. Name changes followed – Volume Distortion, Model Team International, and then they spotted Tim Booth dancing at a Manchester University disco and asked him if he would like to join them. Tim, too drunk to answer, awoke the next day with a phone number written on the back of his hand. He rang it, and made his debut at the Sheffield Leadmill, and the rest is history.

In August 1982 the band name James is adopted. They debut at Darwen’s 21 Club and in November record their debut single for Factory Records at Strawberry Studios in Stockport. Jimone was single of the week in both the NME and Sounds but it only sold 1000 copies, one of which was bought by a young man called Johnny Marr.

Since their formation, James have been lyrically spearheaded by lead singer Tim Booth, an essential spark of creativity. Booth’s poetic lyrics and markedly individualistic stage performances make him an enigmatic figure, dancing like a man in the throes of a tortuous tantric confidence crisis. It’s all there in the songs, soul-baring masterpieces. Booth’s vocals trail through those atmospherics with the angst and love of a talented performer.

All the colours of you is an eleven-track gem to be released 4 June, their first new music since Living in Extraordinary Times released August 2018. As with each of their previous albums, it makes a statement about their musical influences and direction. Each has marked a dramatic evolution in their creative style, as they incorporated influences from experimental electronic music, themes of modern alienation and C21st classical. These changes reinforcing the endless and restless ambition they have as they approach their fourth decade as a band..

Goateed and with his head shaven, Booth looks a little like Ming the Merciless reborn as a more compassionate yoga instructor. He makes serious yet adventurous music, you have to actively listen to the music and the lyrics, they have meaning. That commitment is driven by inspiration, by determination, by hunger.

The standout quality of James is their pure creativity, keeping an edge on their lyrics and standout, memorable tunes. What James do is remarkable, and they remind me of Seth Godin’s Purple Cow: the concept that you’re either remarkable or invisible.In a world that grows noisier by the day, Godin’s challenge has never been more relevant.

Godin evolved the traditional ‘4Ps’ marketing thinking with a new P – the Purple Cow. He identified this when he was with his family driving through France and were enchanted by the hundreds of cows grazing on picturesque pastures. For dozens of kilometres, we gazed out the window, marvelling about how beautiful everything was. Then, within twenty minutes, we started ignoring the cows. The new cows were just like the old cows, and what once was amazing was now common.

Worse than common. It was boring. Cows, after you’ve seen them for a while, are boring. They may be perfect cows, brown or black cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful light, but they’re still boring. A Purple Cow, though. Now that would be interesting.

On a long car drive you may see some cows on a hill, and see many more as the hours pass. Brown cow. Brown cow. Black Cow. Black Cow. There’s nothing remarkable about them, they pretty much look the same. But if you spotted a Purple Cow, then wow, that would be remarkable. You’d sit up in your seat and take notice; you might even pull the car over, let the kids out, take some pictures and share them with friends on Social Media.

Godin’s book came out in 2003, before the first iPhone, however, it is almost like Steve Jobs took everything Godin mentioned in his book and put it into creating the iPhone. The iPhone succeeded wildly as a product everyone wanted, and it stood out like a Purple Cow in the field of normal phones.

So where can we see Purple Cows? Banking is probably one of the hardest industry of all to try to disrupt, because the barriers to entry are huge – you need mountains of capital, regulatory approval, and years of building trust with your customers. Banks’ business models are largely unchanged in a hundred years, and they’re almost impossible to displace – as we’re seeing with the Challenger Banks and Open Banking initiatives still to truly disrupt their business model – but for some crazy reason PayPal didn’t seem to care, and became remarkable, a Purple Cow.

Look at their Purple Cow attributes:

  • PayPal spends less money on technology than even a medium sized bank does. Yet its technology platform is far superior.
  • Consumers trust PayPal as much if not more than they trust their bank. Even though PayPal has been around for a fraction of the time.
  • When a customer buys with their PayPal account, the bank has no clue what the customer actually bought. The transaction appears on the bank statement as ‘PayPal’. That gives PayPal all the power when it comes to data mining.
  • PayPal is quicker to market with just about any kind of payment innovation going.
  • PayPal refuses to partner directly with banks – instead opting to partner with retailers directly.

In a short period of time, PayPal created itself as a whole new method of payment to become a real alternative to debit or credit cards. But how did it manage to do it? There are two pillars of success to PayPal’s story as takeaways for your startup today.

They seized the moment. They became the favoured payment provider for eBay transactions. This was followed a few years later by their $1.5bn acquisition by eBay themselves. eBay were smart enough to leave them alone, and their newfound sense of boldness saw them strike a series of deals with other online retailers to replicate the success they’d had with eBay.

The second pillar of their success was partnerships. Banks had always been wary about forming partnerships directly with retailers, instead they relied on their partners Visa/MasterCard to do that for them, confident that credit and debit cards would always be at the heart of the financial payment system.  But the problem was that MasterCard themselves were already working on a partnership with PayPal, leaving the banks out in the cold. Today, PayPal has 360 million active users, and is used on 22% of all online transactions. PayPal grew its users by 15 million between Q2 and Q3 of 2020.

Making something remarkable means asking new questions and trying new practices, doing the unexpected and creating an offering that is genuinely innovative. Godin identifies some key traits of Purple Cows, showed by PayPal, for example:

Get into the habit of doing the unsafe thing. Remarkable isn’t always about changing the biggest machine in your factory, it’s about being bold and every time you have the opportunity to see what’s working and what’s not. It’s safer to be risky. Use this mindset to go for the truly amazing moon-shot things.

Explore the limits with early adopters. What if you’re the cheapest, the fastest, the slowest, the hottest, the coldest, the easiest, the most efficient, the loudest, the most hated, the copycat, the outsider, the hardest, the oldest, the newest, or just the most? If there’s a limit, you must test it. The early adopters heavily influence the rest of the curve, so persuading them is worth far more than wasting time and effort trying to persuade anyone else.

Target a niche offering. The way you break through to the mainstream is to target a niche offering instead of a huge market. With a niche, you can segment off a chunk of the market, and create an idea-virus so focused that it overwhelms that small slice of the market that really and truly will respond to your offer. The market is small enough that a few wins can get you to the critical mass you need to create an idea-virus.

Think small. One vestige of the social media explosion is a need to think mass. If it doesn’t appeal to everyone, the thinking goes, it’s not worth it. Not for me. Think of the smallest conceivable market and describe a product that overwhelms it with its remarkability. Be remarkable by being curated – think about organic food, speciality coffee.

Differentiate your customers. From the above two points, find the market segment that wants your product and ‘own your market’. Within this, find the group that’s most likely to influence other customers – cater to the customers you would choose if you could choose your customers. Have the insight and guts to craft a Purple Cow product/service offering that gets the right people to seek them out.

Find things that are ‘just not done’ in your industry. And then go ahead and do them. Ask ‘Why not?’ – almost everything you do is the result of fear or inertia or a historical lack of someone asking, ‘Why?’ Uber and Airbnb did just that, and what about Tesla – who gave away their IP of their electric batteries?

Playing it safe. Following the rules. They seem like the best ways to avoid failure. Alas, that pattern is a dangerous and mistaken fallacy. In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is failing, not standing out is the same as being invisible. Half-measures simply won’t do. Being noticed is not the same as being remarkable. Running down the street naked will get you noticed, but it won’t accomplish much. It’s easy to pull off a stunt, but not useful.

Part of what it takes to do something remarkable is to do something first and best. Roger Bannister was remarkable. The next guy, the guy who broke Bannister’s record wasn’t. He was just faster, but it didn’t matter. Godin challenges startups to be a Purple Cow, crafting something truly exceptional in everything we create or do. Like PayPal did in challenging the status quo, be unexpected. Be remarkable.

Musicians like Tim Booth are intrinsically motivated to innovate their craft, reflecting the guile, graft and learning journey of any entrepreneur. Booth is a talented, spirited man, driven, passionate – and that’s what every entrepreneur does too.

Most bands of James’s vintage are on the nostalgia circuit, but James are not ready for heritage status yet. They channel the spirit of punk, subverting expectations and forever doing everything on their own terms. Having joined James in 1982 as a drama student, Tim Booth remains a vibrant statement of continuing creative intent.

That’s what every entrepreneur must do too, use creativity to shape their own agenda and make their mark as a Purple Cow. Ideas are at the core of the modern economy, use your creativity to shape your future. As Pablo Picasso said, Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked – why not?

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