Why your secrets don’t matter

Homemade Wheat Bread

If you traveled to a certain town in the south of France, you would know that they had only one baker.

Oh, there were plenty of people who made loaves of bread, but they were merely workmen. Standing far above them all was… Arnaud.

Arnaud! So many tales told of Arnaud! Of his incredible perfectionism – did you hear that once he threw out an apprentice for stirring a batch of dough with the wrong spoon? And then he threw out the batch of dough and started afresh?

And his secrecy! Mon dieu, no-one knows even where he buys his salt! It appears in mysterious vans in the early hours, in boxes which have been painted over! Just his salt!

For twenty years it was thus, and then the unthinkable occurred: a new artisan baker opened his doors. Ha, said the wise ones. This new shop won’t last a month.

But it lasted the month. And the next one. Any by the end of the third month, it was a raging success. People lined up outside the shop in the mornings to buy their baguettes, the same way they not-so-long-ago lined up outside Arnaud’s.

It was a sensation.

Reporters arrived, as reporters do. They interviewed a very grim Arnaud, who bit off every word and glared at the boom operator.

And then they followed the smell of delicious baking to Sebastien’s. Sebastien himself came out to meet the reporters, and escorted them in to the shop. Inside was a riot of colour on the walls, with two very large posters.

One said, “Bread brings us together. It is a feast for all the senses, and nourishes our soul as much as our body. Bread is comfort and certainty. Bread is who we are.”

The other, “Our Recipe” – the classic five-ingredient mix, with every supplier named. A receipe so simple that you could make it at home, if you were so inclined.

The reporters elbowed each other furiously in order to be the first to ask, “Why do you have your recipe on your wall? Aren’t you worried that people could just use the recipe and make the bread at home?”

Sebastien laughed. “If they wanted to make this recipe, well, it is published on more than 1200 websites. It is a classic recipe. I lose nothing by putting it up here, or by taking people through the back to show them how their bread is made.”

“But what about the mystique?”

“People are not paying me for mystique.”

“Well, what are they paying you for then?”

“Some are paying for an extra twenty-minute sleep in the morning. Some are paying for my beautifully even-cooking oven that will bake the crust exactly right. But the rest are paying for love.”

He laughed again at their bemused faces. “I love my customers, and I let them know it. It gives them pleasure – we all need to be loved, n’est-çe pas? Also, I love bread. I am passionate about it, I am determined to make it as excellent as it can possibly be. Continually, I experiment! Just last week I found that by raising the oven temperature 2 degrees I can improve the texture of the bread, to make it have just a little more of the elasticity we enjoy without becoming dry.”

“But what about Arnaud? He too is a perfectionist.”

“I must correct you: I am not a perfectionist, I am a striver for excellence. Arnaud is making bread for Arnaud; I am making it for my people. I am seeking to please them, to delight them, to make them smile. And that is what they pay me for.”

“So why do you list your recipe then?”

“Because I knew it would get you to come here to interview me.” And Sebastien laughed yet once more.

The moral of the story

Paranoia about sharing the details of how you work is a sign that you don’t think there’s anything unique or amazing about what you’re doing.

I could cheerfully tell you everything I can think of about how I help people name their amazing products and websites and such, because it doesn’t matter. There are so many factors that I bring to my work – word nerdery, empathy, humour, long years of marketing study – that you couldn’t do it in just the same way. Of course you could do it in different ways, but then you’d be offering something completely different anyway. So why should I worry?

When you create magnificent work, you create something that can be analysed but not duplicated. And, free of the fear that sharing your secrets would make you redundant, you can talk openly about your methods, ingredients, inspirations… all the kind of details that help me build trust in you.

If you want to know more about how to create magnificence, then have a look at DIY Magnificence. It’ll get your dough rising.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Emily Carlin

  • Entirely true I think – if it is a service you are providing or that your work is the value added.

    • It applies to products, too. Apple isn’t using any technology or people who weren’t available to every other company, but they have made something remarkably different.

  • fantastic! i talk with so many biz mums who worry about how to deal with the competition, and how to make it in their niche when there is so much competition. i will be sharing this with them, i know it will help so many! =)

  • Damn it Catherine, you keep making cry with these posts because…..like it or not, it seems I’m the bloody perfectionist Arnaud!! I’m not proud to say it but I’ve even become bitter & resentful of others success in my field – just like Arnaud. Time to stop being so proud & protective ….

    • Dearest, you have your own beautiful work. I know you can find a way to do something that no-one else can duplicate, and get all the success you deserve. I hope to chat with you about it VERY soon, yes?

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  • Customer love, baby! Great story, great lesson, thanks. 🙂

  • Right on! There’s nothing I talk about in class that isn’t on a dozen revision sites. There’s no secret to showing up and being awesome :o)

    Plus, I lived in the south of France. There is _nothing_ like buying a fresh baguette from a friendly boulangère at 4am on the way back from a party.

  • Nice post Catherine and so true.

    People are not merely buying the product you are selling but also how working with you makes them feel.

    Doesn’t matter if you sell bread, design websites or pour tall skinny lattes. It’s why Apple employs ‘Geniuses’ and Starbucks plays jazz.

  • I love this. So much. And I’ve been struggling with the idea of exclusivity vs. openness. So I needed to read this today.

  • Great post, Catherine. I absolutely love the distinction — “I am not a perfectionist, I am a striver for excellence.” I also liked the explanation: “Arnaud is making bread for Arnaud; I am making it for my people.”

    It’s really true. Secrets don’t matter when you act out of love, connection and a drive to please you people. I’m inspired. Thanks for this great story. I’ll be thinking a lot about this tonight. 🙂

    • That’s wonderful, David. Please let me know what thoughts develop as a result!

  • “When you create magnificent work, you create something that can be analysed but not duplicated.”

    I like this. For me it also takes away the fear of being perceived as a copycat. When I write from my heart, the voice of the message will sound different from anyone else. It can’t help but be so.

    • Absolutely. Two bakers can make very different bread from the same recipe!

  • I laugh every time a “colleague” it’s afraid about sharing her knowledge.

    Amazing post!

    • Poor thing, she clearly needs to get more awesome.

      And thank you!

  • Very well put. We sell 1 of a kind items which makes for a challenging business, every piece needs to be photographed measured etc. Many people will say to us, oh you could sell this or that, it would be so much easier. They just don’t get it! We love what we sell and we love the joy our customers express when they receive their items. It is all about the love!

  • I’m actually under a code of ethics that forbids me from claiming to have “secret techniques”. (Not that there is any such thing.)

    And, conversely, I’ve followed exactly the techniques that other people use sometimes, and not got their results – because they are them and I am me.

    One of the reasons I pack my products with different approaches is because everyone needs to find the thing that works for them.

    And, of course, because that’s how I roll.

  • As a purveyor of information type products I am curious where you would draw the line between free and paid. A very successful and respected friend of mine urged me to ‘give it all for free’ and then let your fans tell you what they want to buy from you.

    I am not sure that ‘give it away and hope for the best’ is a promising business model.

    I don’t think that is what you are saying here, but would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

    • Excellent question!

      Clearly there needs to be SOME part of what you’re doing that should be paid for.
      Some people – like our baker friend – give away the information but sell the materials and implementation.

      Some info providers will talk all day about the why and sell the how.

      Some sell information packaged in a way that increases the possibility of ACTION – which is a very different and much more important aspect.

      Or they sell the information in a personalised format.

      All of those – and lots others – are great ways to give away lots of information and still make money. 🙂

  • This story is so very insightful. It’s not as much the recipe as it’s the personal touch. I am an internet marketer and never believed those guides that say ‘if I could make it, you can make it too’. This only shows it’s possible to make it, but you’d have to do it your way, not other people’s way.

  • Even though I admire you so much and want to say yes yes this is so wonderful and so true, I find this a really challenging issue, partially from being indoctrinated with the concept of Copyright and Intellectual Property all through graphic design school. I think you are right in essence that it is our us-ness that people pay for and which it’s impossible to copy; however I don’t think there’s any need to be naive about the need for copyright protection (or at least some level of creative commons awareness) and a willingness to stand up for oneself if someone has indeed taken one of your images (for example!) and claimed it as their own.

    • I don’t disagree with you one bit. The baker still owns the bread until someone buys it, and there’s a limit to what the person who bought it can do – claiming to have baked the bread themself is terribly not cool.

      But that’s about the result, not the methods. Does that make sense?

  • AMEN!!! :>

    And this, in a story, is why I have never been afraid to show someone how to wire wrap.

    It’s never the same. The choice of materials, the wrapping technique, all are (ideally!!!) as individual as the voice of the person making them.