Anything You Want

January 2nd, 2012

Notes from Anything you want, written by Derek Sivers.

Short Summary

Derek Sivers sold his company CD Baby in 2008 for $22 million dollars. This tiny book is ten years worth of experience condensed into something you can flick through in about an hour.


This story is about him accidentally starting a business to scratch his own itch to sell his music online and it snowballing from there.

  • Business is not about making money. It’s about making dreams come true for others and yourself.
  • Making a company is a great way to improve the world while improving yourself.
  • When you make a company, you make a utopia. It’s where you design your perfect world.
  • Never do anything just for the money.
  • Don’t pursue business just for your own gain. Only answer the calls for help.
  • Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not from persistently promoting what’s not working.
  • Your business plan is moot. You don’t know what people really want until you start doing it.
  • Starting with no money is an advantage. You don’t need money to start helping people.
  • You can’t please everyone, so proudly exclude people.
  • Make yourself unnecessary to the running of your business.
  • The real point of doing anything is to be happy, so do only what makes you happy.

1997, Derek – 27 was a professional musician just ticking over making money doing his craft. He made a CD and sold 1,500 copies at his concerts. He wanted to reach a larger audience and sell it online but there was no company that would sell independent music online, the only way was through a major distributor and getting a deal with one was just as hard as getting a record deal.

From this news that he couldn’t sell his music online, he decided to setup his own online store thinking “How hard could it be?”. The answer apparently was very! In 1997 Paypal didn’t exist so he had to setup his own merchant account which took three months of paperwork and $1,000 in fees. Derek didn’t know how to program but what he did was copy example code from books and eventually he had his website ready and working.

He told friends about the new online store he created and a friend asked him could he sell his CD too and Derek added his CD into the system too. More friends asked to sell their music through his site and eventually strangers were ringing up asking could they use his site too. A business was born but one he didn’t exactly want as he was content with his life.

Derek wanted to keep the business small so he jotted down his ‘utopian’ vision statement and gave his new business the name CD Baby.

  • Pay me every week.
  • Show me the full name and address of everyone who bought my CD.
  • Never kick me out for not selling enough.
  • Never allow paid placement.

Not knowing what he should charge for this service, he visited a local music shop and asked what they would charge him if he sold his CD here. They told him he could charge any price he wanted but they would take a $4 cut out of every sale. And they would pay him weekly too. So he put this exact same model up on his website.

It was taking Derek three quarters of an hour to add a new album into the system so he charged $25 per album, later upped to $35. So his entire business model was this $35 cut and $4 cut for each album sold.

A business plan should never take more than a few hours of work

Five years after he started CD Baby, when it was successful, the media said he had revolutionized the music business.

But “revolution” is a term that people use only when you’re successful. Before that, you’re just a quirky person who does things differently.

Derek tells us that he spent twelve years promoting his different projects and it always felt like an uphill battle, the progress he did make took massive effort. But with CD Baby, making something people really wanted, it was easy.

Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not from persistently doing what’s not working.

If you’re ever over-committed or too scattered, this rule can come in handy:

If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say “no!”.

Having no funding, Derek says was a big advantage for him because he could concentrate fully on the customer instead of trying to please shareholders etc.

Never forget that absolutely everything you do is for your customers. Make every decision – even decisions about whether to expand the business, raise money or promote someone – according to what’s best for your customers.

He goes on to say that you don’t need funding, an MBA or other excuses to start a business, just start small; but the idea has to be useful to people. Starting small forces you to prioritize the core of the business.

Starting small puts 100 percent of your energy on actually solving real problems for real people.

Businesses are trying to be everything to everyone but you can’t please everybody so proudly exclude people. When CD Baby got popular, Derek would get calls from record labels asking to featured their acts on the site and they would be not allowed in because the site was for indie musicians that was that.

It’s a big world. You can loudly leave out 99 percent of it.

At a conference, somebody asked “What if every musician just set up their own store on their website?”. The reply they got was if musicians don’t need CD Baby any more, CD Baby would shut up shop and Derek would just get back to making music. A business is started to solve a problem. If the problem is solved, the business is no longer needed.

Care about your customers more than about yourself and you’ll do well.

If you set up your business like you don’t need the money, people are happier to pay you.

When someone’s doing something for the money, people can sense it, like a desperate lover. It’s a turnoff

There is a fantastic little piece called The most successful email I ever wrote that tells the story of when CD Baby first started sending out confirmation emails to customers to tell them that their CD was shipped, it was a generic “Your order has been shipped today…” Derek thought this was too unharmonious so he write something a little quirky instead. People loved the letter so much, they wrote about it on their websites. That quirky email brought him tons of new customers.

In 2001, CD Baby was three years old, had eight employees but Derek was always needed, always answering questions, finally he hit breaking point and decided he needed to start delegating. When an employee asked him a new question, Derek; instead of answering it, he gathered everyone around and told them they had his full permission to “Do what makes the musicians happiest. Make sure everyone leaves with a smile.” Using this philosophy, Derek was making himself unnecessary to his business. This left him working from home on improving the business. While he was away, CD Baby grew from $1 million to $20 million.

To be a true business owner, make sure you could leave for a year, and when you come back, your business would be doing better than when you left.

Through Derek’s delegation, the employees started a profit-sharing program that gave all of the company’s profits back to themselves. Derek gave them too much power. He eventually retreated to a friend’s house in London, never seeing any of the staff or the office again.

He sold the company and set up a trust called the Independent Musicians Charitable Remainder Unitrust. A few months before the sale, Derek transferred all the CD Baby’s assets into the trust. This trust pays out 5% percent a year to Derek and when he dies, all of it’s assets will go into music education.


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