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'Marketing genius' Seth Godin is a fearless believer in Buffalo

Former Buffalonian Seth Godin is a successful, famous man. Often described as a marketing genius, he is a sought-after guest on business talk shows, has a wildly popular blog and is a New York Times bestselling author with 18 titles under his belt.

Godin lived in Amherst until he was 18, graduating from Williamsville East High School in 1978 before leaving to earn degrees in computer science and philosophy from Tufts University and an MBA in marketing from the Stanford Graduate school of Business. He returned to Buffalo often to see his family, owners of HARD Manufacturing, a maker of hospital cribs headquartered on Grider Street.

In 1986, he started book packaging business Seth Godin Productions with $20,000 in savings. Later he founded Yoyodyne, an internet-based direct marketing company, which was acquired by Yahoo! in 1998. In 2005, he started Squidoo, a revenue-sharing article-writing website which was acquired by HubPages in 2014.

Godin will speak at the Buffalo Jewish Federation’s Made in Buffalo series at 7 p.m. April 27 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Q: What do you think of all the changes at Canalside?

A: Buffalo has long had a self-esteem problem. And the thing about self esteem problems is they're almost never associated with reality.  One of the things that symbolic events and developments can have, they can change our posture and our expectations. And it sounds like that's happening and it's really fabulous.

Q: You were involved in 43 North in the beginning. How do you think that's going?

A: Well, what entrepreneurs do, is they take something that doesn't exist and they make it exist. They are magicians. One of the things that the people at 43 North have said is "This place can help you make the impossible happen." If we think back, there have always been things that, before they occurred, were impossible, right? It's impossible to build a world-class art museum in a city the size of Buffalo, it's impossible to imagine making world-class aeronautic and space innovations in a place like Buffalo. It's impossible to envision the University at Buffalo could grow to become as big as it has.

Belief enables us to leap forward. I think that what 43 North is doing is 100 percent about that. It's not about the cash. It's about the fact that someone's gonna speak up and stand up and say, "Yeah, you can do this here."

Q: It seems impossible to start out today as a small business and compete with all these giant corporations.

A: People always think that. They thought that after Henry Ford cornered the market in cars. They thought that after Yahoo!, where I used to work, cornered the internet. You can go down the list. Every time someone shows up with what feels like the end, it's always been the beginning. And I see no evidence that's going to change. We are always closer to the future, not closer to the end.

Q: Are you familiar with our malls?

A: Of course! I used to work at the Carousel Snack Bar at the Eastern Hills Mall. My job was to clean the hot dog machine, which was this metal, spiked wheel, that they would pierce hot dogs on. It would spin around under light bulbs all day and it was always covered in hot dog juice. I used to have to carry it over my head and one day the grease slipped down my fingers and the hot dog wheel of death fell on my head and impaled me and I was lying on the floor covered in blood and hot dog juice. I picked it up and started serving hot dogs again. It made it so easy to become a vegetarian after that.

Q: I'm sorry, that's hilarious. What's going to become of malls in the future?

A: Shopping malls are a fairly recent invention. If all you are offering us is the chance to buy something, you have a problem because the internet already offers us the chance to buy everything. You can't be closer than the internet and you probably can't be cheaper than the internet. Most malls are built on the model of close and cheap, and close and cheap is no longer sufficient. So the future, if there is a future for retail, is about creating things that are worth paying for and delivering them in a way that's significantly better than the alternative online. And we see examples of this. There are bookstores that are thriving now, even though Amazon sells just what they sell for less money. But going to the bookstore and buying it in that setting is better than buying it from Amazon. That's hard to do, but it's the only way to build a retail experience that's gonna last.

Q: Are the robots going to take over?

A: Well, here's what happened in 1905. Machines replaced almost every job. The tractor wiped out the jobs of 100 people with shovels. The assembly line wiped out the job of 50 people who were standing under a drill press. Everyone said that rampant unemployment was around the corner because the machines had taken everyone's jobs. Well, it's pretty clear that's not actually what happened.

The same thing is already happening. I think robots is a bad way to think about it. Planning an airplane trip is faster and easier than before, computers can read X-rays, they can scan metals for fatigue, they can weld a car, they can beat us at Monopoly and Scrabble and on and on. Every time one of those things occurs, it's like "Oh, that's no big deal." But now, the artificial intelligence has started to replace the brain dead work many of us have been charged with doing. So the answer is: do work that isn't brain dead. That means taking more responsibility, taking bigger leaps.

I think it's thrilling, it freaks out a lot of people.

Q: You have a lot of ideas about education. Do you have advice for parents who want their children to do interesting things in the world?

A: It's pretty simple and really hard. Number one, we have to ask parents "What is school for?" and if you don't know the answer to that question, don't be surprised if you get what you expected.

We have built a school that is for creating compliant factory workers that can work at Bethlehem Steel and the Trico windshield wiper factory, neither one of which is hiring. What we ought to be doing, I think, is teaching kids to lead and to solve interesting problems, but we're not because parents aren't demanding that we do so. My ebook, "Stop Stealing Dreams," is free, it's always been free. So far, 4 million people have downloaded it. And I hope that people will read it and send it to their school board and their teachers and their neighbors and ask each other, "What is this school for?"

Q: Do you think college should be the default next step for most people out of high school?

A: Well, a great college experience is priceless. But too many college experiences are based on, "Is the college famous?" and end up being just like high school but with more binge drinking. And I think that's an incredible waste of $200,000 and four years of someone's life.

Q: What's next for you?

A: I'm coming to Buffalo! What could be better than that?


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