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How Famed Entrepreneur Seth Godin Built His Tribe

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How much would you pay to spend quality time with popular business author ? Several years ago, tickets were snapped up at more than $1,500 apiece to spend a weekend with him (in the company of 125 other attendees). Corporations pay him tens of thousands of dollars for speaking engagements.

Joi Ito | Wikimedia Commons
Seth Godin

So it’s more than a little surprising that Godin -- who could easily monetize access to him -- has distinguished himself among top business thinkers by running his own periodic (paid) internship programs, including a six-month “alternative MBA” in 2009, in which interns from around the world moved to New York to work with Godin. Three hundred fifty people applied for Godin’s program that year. His acceptance rate was 2.5 percent, while for the class of 2015, Harvard Business School’s was 12 percent. (By 2013, Godin was getting more than 3,500 applications for the program.) “I got more out of it than they did,” he says, “because the act of sitting with people face-to-face for that long was really powerful for all of us.”

Related: Why Brand Ambassadors Are Earned, Not Hired

For my new book Stand Out, I interviewed more than 50 top thought leaders in a variety of professions to try to understand how their ideas spread, and how they made it to their top of their fields. Godin is a prolific writer with a knack for clever and insightful catch phrases like “permission marketing.” But part of what’s enabled him to occupy a hallowed place in the pantheon of business thinkers is the passionate loyalty of the next generation of talent that he’s cultivated, which ensures that his message will spread widely and for decades.

Past Godin interns are a hall-of-fame lineup unto themselves, including bestselling authors (of I Will Teach You to Be Rich fame) and Michael Parrish DuDell, who wrote Shark Tank: Jump Start Your Business; Harper Reed, for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and, before that, CTO of the popular online startup Threadless; and well-known crowdfunding expert Clay Hebert. Charlie Hoehn, author of Play It Away, was one of Godin’s “virtual interns” from remote. In fact, Godin’s charges have created their own alumni community and meet up regularly.

Related: Marketing Wizard Seth Godin on Success and Inspiration

So what’s it like to intern with Godin? Tim Walker, who was part of Godin’s 2013 crop of interns, says that he set the tone like a great camp counselor. (Years ago, Godin actually did run a summer camp in Canada.) Recounts Walker, “There were no rules that said you had to do something . . . It was like a Montessori school.” One of the best parts of the experiences, he says, was observing his style up close. “It’s this amazing mix of ‘We have sh*t to do and we’re going to get it done, and you’re not going to be very comfortable because you’re going to be pushed out of your limits, and I’m going to be holding you to account and there’s no messing around.’ And then mixing that with, ‘And I’m going to cook all of you lunch everyday and tell you wonderful stories to inspire you and show you that it’s OK, whatever you’re feeling in this situation.’”

Parts of the internship didn’t work perfectly; technology glitches marred the rollout of the product Walker’s group had tried to launch But that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the project, however. “Sometimes, if you’re around your hero and something doesn’t work, you’re like, ‘He’s not the person I thought he was.’” But Godin was different from the start. “He didn’t build himself up to be perfect. That helps when things go wrong; that’s great leadership: ‘Failure is OK. We tried things as an experiment, and we do our best.’”

In one of his most famous books, Godin defines a tribe as a group of people connecting to a leader, to an idea, and to each other. In my into how to build lasting, breakthrough ideas, it became clear that having a group of ambassadors – a group of people who believe in carrying your message forward – is critical to your success. It takes real effort to cultivate a tribe, but Godin, almost uniquely among business thinkers, has been willing to do it. In the process, he’s indelibly shaped the next generation of business talent. “If I can teach people to do work that matters – to do work that I’m proud of and that they’re proud of,” he told me, “then I believe I’ve succeeded.” 

Related: Seth Godin on Dealing With Critics and Rejection

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