“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

Tom considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:

“No – no – I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence – right here on the street, you know – but if it was the back fence I wouldn’t mind and she wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”

“No – is that so? Oh come, now – lemme, just try. Only just a little – I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

[]  He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while – plenty of company – and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.

What is your favorite book about business?  I hope it isn’t some ghost-written rant by some executive that got lucky and now believes in the universal applicability of his life experiences, because the best lessons in business as in life aren’t in self-help guides.  They’re in the classics – take Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer for example.

The story of Tom getting others to pay him so that then can do the work offers so many lessons in business you could make an MBA program out of it.

One is to not be needy.  Earlier in the story, Tom Sawyer begs Jim to do the painting for him and gets rejected.

Don’t cling.  Don’t beg.  Don’t be miserable.  Don’t call to “check-in” or  ask “have you made a decision yet”.   This may seem obvious but it wasn’t at first to Tom Sawyer and it certainly hasn’t been obvious to many of the sales people I’ve tried to train over the last 25 years.  Some people just don’t get it.   Maybe the would if they had enjoyed a more well-rounded education that included classics such as Twain.

Another lesson is about getting your customers to do the work.  This is the secret to Tom Sawyer’s success in getting others to paint the fence:

Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.

This may seem manipulative and it can be, but I’ll bet you that a lot of your favorite products are ones that make you do the work:

  • Amazon gets customers to write reviews about its products.
  • Google gets businesses to pay for ads that makes the Google experience more relevant to users.
  • Software companies get customers to pay support fees for the right to call and point out deficiencies in the software.
  • Conference organizers charge vendors to put up exhibits staffed with magicians, masseuses and booth bunnies, not to mention top sales people who often are industry experts that are left begging to answer anyone’s questions.  Anyone.  Anyone.  Bueller?
  • “Unconference” organizers get industry gurus to donate their time as track leaders.
  • Community blog sites get others to do the work of generating great content for the privilege of having their stuff be seen by more people.

I’m sure you can come up with many examples of your own.  The trick of course as Twain points out is to make it “difficult to attain”.  Only the best reviews get shown on Amazon.  Only the high-bidders get their ads displayed on Google.  Only worthy software bug reports get attention from serious software developers.  And so on.

And you.  How are you leveraging community?

Tags: Google, Business, Amazon, Business Strategy, Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer