A little over twenty years ago, I was completing my final year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In my last semester, I teamed up with two other seniors to launch a new student organization focused on leadership development.
All three of us had significant campus leadership experience and we wanted to create something that would be a catalyst for future students. Since we’d had success in other capacities, we were able to get a bit of marketing behind our new idea.
On the week of our first event, an article ran about our new organization on the front page of the student newspaper, an achievement in itself at university of over 30,000 students. We even had the perfect name: I-LEAD (Illinois Leadership Education and Development).
David Ogilvy once said:
Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.
And boy did we fail fast.
Almost nobody showed up for the launch meeting. Those that did seemed a bit skeptical, partially because they didn’t know us but mostly because we didn’t articulate a clear path forward.
We had relied almost entirely on the newspaper article to market the event instead of reaching out to engage people personally. It also wasn’t clear to us where we were going with things after that first event, so it obviously wasn’t clear to anybody else.
We were a flash in the pan. The organization ended even faster than it started.
In retrospect, we made a critical error that many people make when beginning: we were more captivated by the idea of starting than in doing the real work.
In 1989, Kevin Costner starred in a fabulous movie called Field of Dreams. This dramatic, sports fantasy ends with a row of cars approaching the new business built by the main character. It became a cultural image that transformed how many of us view starting something new.
The cultural manta that was coined at the time, and still continues today, is this:
If you build it, they will come.
But it’s a lie. First, because it’s almost never true. And second, because it’s not even the actual phrase from Field of Dreams. The quote that’s repeated in the movie is this:
If you build it, HE will come.
As in one person, who does indeed show up at the end of the story.
This is a perfect example of how we hear what we wish was true. It’s literally been thirty years since the movie opened and I only discovered today, in researching this entry, that I’ve had the quote wrong all this time.
I suspect that’s because we’d much rather believe in a world where if we would just have courage to take the first step, everything else will fall neatly into place.
If we’ll just start the business, the financials will all work out. If we’ll just launch the online forum, people will show up and start contributing. If we’ll just get married, we’ll live happily ever after.
Thankfully (I can gladly admit today) it doesn’t work that way.
If you build it, he or she may come, but if you want “they” to come – and more importantly, to stay — the real work comes well after the start.