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The Best Thing I Ever Created: Derek Sivers

This is the latest in a monthly series in which industry leaders describe the projects and products that give them the most joy and pride. This month, entrepreneur and author Derek Sivers talks about the culmination of everything he’s learned.

When Duke Ellington was asked which of his compositions he liked best, he always said, “The next one.”

My head is completely filled with whatever I’m making now — whatever I’m doing next. Once something is done, it’s out of my head. I like how musicians say they “released” an album. Once you release it, it’s gone. It doesn’t belong to you anymore. When Bob Dylan said an artist should never look back, I took it to heart.

That said, I just released my newest series of books a few weeks ago, so I can still see them on the horizon as they fly away. But first, some context: Starting five years ago, I got deeply curious about the differences between countries and cultures, fascinated with understanding the different perspectives. I talked about a few fun ones in this two-minute TED talk.

So, three years ago, I moved to Singapore and started visiting all the countries in Asia, asking dumb questions and making good friends. Getting to know these countries is endlessly interesting. I want to understand them as well as I understand the 50 U.S. states. But my learning felt too unstructured. So, while walking around Yogyakarta, Indonesia, remembering “the best way to learn something is to teach it,” I came up with an ambitious plan.

I decided to produce and publish 16 books per year on 16 places in Asia: Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Instead of trying to write them all myself, however, I decided to build a system to get them researched and written. Lots of people doing a little bit each, instead of me trying to do everything alone. I re-read all the books I could find about crowdsourcing, and I learned a few things:

1. If you want help, it helps to get specific.

2. A plan that’s too dependent on any one person is too fragile.

It’s infinitely easier to find someone to answer a specific question than to find someone to impart wisdom on a vague topic. It puts the burden on the asker, to come up with a good question, and lifts the burden from the answerer. So I spent a couple of weeks coming up with 200 specific questions. Now, to write each book, we just had to answer those 200 questions.

To ensure that the book wasn’t dependent on any one person, and not just one person’s opinion, I made a system where each of those 200 questions had to be answered by three different people. Ideally one local, one foreigner, and one other.

Sixteen countries × (3 researchers + 1 writer) = 64 people. I used Elance and oDesk to find people in each country. Some disappeared, and some gave bad answers, but that was OK. Now the project wasn’t too dependent on any one person. Whenever someone disappeared, it was easy to get someone else in their place. And that was the robust plan that got it done.

This year, I made one last book that is the combination of all 16 books, but re-arranged for easy comparison between countries. And it’s 4,450 pages long! That’s something that’s only really feasible for e-books, not paper books.

Seeing that was the first time I thought, “Wow! I really did something kinda profound here!” Up until then, I had just had my head down in my work, but when I realized that book was 4,450 pages, I felt like someone who had been hammering nails into boards and painting walls for two years, then finally looked up and realized they’d built a house. It’s an amazing feeling.

Really, I’ll bet anyone you ask has a variation on the same answer: The best thing we ever created is the thing where we really used everything we knew, or grew to know in the process. It’s the culmination of everything we’ve ever learned. And with this project, I’m quite proud of the way that the plan is using everything I’ve learned about crowdsourcing and such. It’s like a little book factory. It feels very robust and long-lasting.

Originally a professional musician and circus clown, Derek Sivers created CD Baby in 1998. It became the largest seller of independent music online, with $100M in sales for 150,000 musicians. In 2008, Derek sold CD Baby for $22M, giving the proceeds to a charitable trust for music education. He is a frequent speaker at the TED Conference, with over 5 million views of his talks. In 2011, he moved to Singapore and published a book that shot to #1 in all of its Amazon categories. His new company is Wood Egg, publishing annual guides to 16 countries in Asia.

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