Keeping Up With The Kardashians (@KUWTK) — The Secret To Their Success

Today I woke up to the headline that Khloé Kardashian brought her own lighting gear and crew to her driver’s license photo.

How silly. How vain. Khloé wanted her new ID photo to be better than what comes “out of the box”. The author of the article advised readers that if you pull a move like this “expect people to make fun of you.”

But, I think that’s actually the biggest secret to the Kardashian family’s success…

In 1968, Bibb Latané and John Darley, professors of Psychology at Columbia and New York University respectively, performed an experiment. They would put a test subject in a room and have that subject answer a questionnaire. But then they created an emergency. The room would start to fill with smoke from a vent. No alarms. No one else in the room. Just a growing uncomfortable amount of smoke.

75% of the test subjects reported the smoke. It’s a little surprising it’s not even closer to 100% isn’t it?

Then Latané and Darley changed the experiment conditions and added two other people to the room who were “in on the gag” and were instructed to not react to the smoke.

This time only 10% of the new test subjects reported the smoke!

But here’s where it really got strange. You might argue that we all know how important social proof is. You forced these other people to not react. Of course there’s going to be pressure on the test subject to stay still.

So they modified the experiment a third time, 3 new test subjects in the room, and now all three were naive of what really was happening in the experiment as they answered their surveys.

Of the 24 people in this part of the experiment, only 1 person reported smoke coming in the room within the first 4 minutes. After the experiment was concluded, still only 3 people total said anything at all.

This is crazy.

Being exposed to public view may constrain an individual’s actions as he attempts to avoid possible ridicule and embarrassment.

It’s called the Bystander effect. It’s also a huge reason that fire alarms need to exist. Not because it’s a signal for fire. But as Eliezer Yudkowsky writes for the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (h/t Max Temkin for pointing out the research):

The fire alarm tells us that it’s socially okay to react to the fire. It promises us with certainty that we won’t be embarrassed if we now proceed to exit in an orderly fashion.

“That we won’t be embarrassed.”

Keeping up with the Kardashians, or KUWTK, has been on for 14 seasons. And they just signed a $150 million deal to keep it going at least another 5. It’s been a mega successful show and it’s catapulted the careers of everyone involved. Even one of the youngest of the Kardashian clan, Kylie, started a makeup company. She made $44 million last year. The company is expected to be worth $1 billion in the next 5 years. She’ll be 25.

One of the things that’s most interesting to me about the show is that it doesn’t do what you might most expect — making the lives of the Kardashians look brilliant.

If you watch, you’ll see arguments. Jealousy. Dumb mistakes. Neurosis. Trouble with weight.

This isn’t stuff anyone wants to air to others. Believe me, I’m constantly filming my life and showing it to the world on YouTube, and I’m constantly editing out a bunch of these same moments.

As Khloe told People: “Not every episode is juicy to us; it’s only juicy to the audience.” But they do it anyways.

And look what that attitude has done for them. Most people would love to have a better picture on their driver’s license. Khloé’s the only one who actually does something about it.

You know what the big difference is between the Kardashians and most of the rest of us? They report the smoke.

P.S. You should follow me on YouTube: where I share more about how we run our business, do product design, market ourselves, and just get through life. And if you need a zero-learning-curve system to track leads and manage follow-ups, try Highrise.

How to innovate — 3 recent stories from successful brands

Last week I had the opportunity to attend ProFood Tech, a trade show for the food and beverage processing industry. I went to experience problems felt by companies outside my sphere of online software businesses. It’s funny though how much is still the same. Same problems. Same worries.

How do we grow this old brand? How have people’s tastes changed? How do we create new products without wasting tons of money?

There was a panel on innovation where three successful and aging brands shared recent successes at creating new products. There’s a lot to learn from them.

Bud Light

The CEO of Anheuser-Busch was visiting Asia when he noticed folks were pouring beer over ice. He immediately called his VP of Innovation, Pat McGauley, and asked for his team to figure out what was going on here. Was this a trend they could exploit?

The call was on a Friday. By Sunday, Pat was testing beers over ice with impromptu focus groups from the tour of the Anheuser-Busch plant in St. Louis. (I’ve been. It’s a great slice of American history.) Pat served beers over ice and got people’s impressions.

Everyone hated it.

This wasn’t going to work.

But Pat didn’t want to end up with a disappointing dead end for his boss, so he kept his team on the problem. If beer over ice doesn’t work here with US drinkers what would?

They came up with a margarita flavored malt beverage called a Lime-a-Rita and it blew up. Two years after launch the beverage was making $498 million in sales and commanded 28% of the flavored malt-beverage market (Adage).

Takeaway: I’m impressed by how fast Anheuser-Busch is getting experiments in front of new customers. They don’t let a formal process get in the way. They know they have customers walking through their doors every day on these tours, why not take advantage immediately of that signal and start using it. Too many companies waste countless time debating their experimentation process only to come up with the same result: the original idea sucks and they have to go back to the drawing board.

If a giant behemoth of a company like Anheuser-Busch can test out new product ideas in front of people this quickly, what excuse do you have?

Also worth taking away from this story is how margaritas weren’t actually new territory for Anheuser-Busch. They created a margarita mix years ago and it failed miserably. They sold it alongside the more popular margarita mixes copying every attribute they could: even the bottle design. The purposefully tried to blend into the current market and paid the price.

This time they made an effort to stand out. Get out of the mixed drink aisle and get in front of beer drinkers or people looking for a beer alternative.

Sometimes your product idea isn’t growing because you’re simply selling it in the wrong aisle.

It’s a task I’m working on actively at Highrise with some interesting results. How do we get out of the CRM ‘aisle’ with hundreds and hundreds of competitors?

Wheat Thins

Linda Lee, the CMO of Stonyfield Farm, shared her experience with Wheat Thins while she was still a Sr. Director at Mondelēz International, which owns the Nabisco brand.

Linda was in charge of Wheat Thins, and things weren’t going well. Over a decade Wheat Thins had seen decline. How could they fix this?

One thing Linda realized was the category of healthy snacking was actually growing. So something must be wrong with Wheat Thins itself. Knowing that helped them focus.

She realized the problem stood out right from the name: “Wheat”. Wheat isn’t trendy. Avoiding gluten is trendy. For example: 1 in 5 Americans are now trying to avoid gluten in their diet. (Thanks Bill Winterberg for the stat.)

Linda realized that if they could create Wheat Thin-esque crackers out of alternatives like rice and potato she might have a hit. So they created Good Thins. A nod to the quality, taste and texture of Wheat Thins but with trendy ingredients. And the product has taken off.

Takeaway: Linda studied not just her product but the whole category of products to figure out where the problem was. If you just focus inward you might not understand if it’s actually you or the market. For example, a Fax machine business today might mistakenly think their Fax machine doesn’t do enough; “let’s add more features.” But if you look at the market you realize Faxing as a category isn’t growing. Then you know it’s not just your product. You need to think about making more foundational changes. But if the market is growing, and you’re not, your focus changes. It’s you. Not them.

Which frees up your resources to focus on the right things to fix.


Nestle who makes Butterfinger was seeing global sales slump and wanted to come up with something new. Jeremy Vandervoet, Director of Marketing, was in charge of a turnaround.

One day Jeremey was searching through Pinterest as an early user of the platform and something struck him about his search for “Butterfinger”. People were posting tons and tons of recipes for dishes made with Butterfinger: cakes, muffins, cookies, you name it.

Jeremey had the insight of his career. Butterfinger isn’t just a candybar to their customers. It’s an ingredient.

So armed with this information, Nestle decided to take on a candy that no one ever dares to: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Reese’s is the best selling candy in the US with annual sales of ~$2 billion. People love their peanut butter cups. And the category got complacent.

Until Jeremy came along. In 2014, Nestle launched their Butterfinger Peanut Butter Cups. The first difference you’ll spot is a rounded square instead of a perfect circle. But the main difference you’ll taste is a peanut butter cup with a unique crunch to it from Butterfinger pieces inside.

It was a hit.

“[Butterfinger cups] has become the №1 launch in the history of Nestle U.S.A.’s confections and snacks division,” Tricia Bowles, manager of division and brand affairs at Nestle, told Food Business News.

It’s been so successful Reese’s is now trying and succeeding with their own comebacks at the “crunchy peanut butter cup.”

Reese’s versions with Pieces and cookies inside

Takeaway: Jeremy was able to look at his product more objectively than most. It’s not what you think your product is, it’s what your customers think your product is.

You start doing research like Jobs-to-be-Done interviews. You start watching customers and learn how they use your product in weird and unintended ways. You might just realize you made a thing that works rather differently than you planned for. But you can likely harness that other perspective and make it work for you.

Here at Highrise, the use we’re seeing isn’t of the “unintended” variety, but definitely in a place we haven’t paid much attention to: trade shows. Hence my work like attending ProFood Tech to uncover more of what makes trade shows tick.

None of these stories made it seem like these tasks were easy. But sometimes reaching outside of your core industry is also a great way to inspire some new thinking and ideas.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, please help spread it by clicking that below. And you should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us come up with better ideas and start businesses. And if you need a simple system to track leads and follow-ups you should give Highrise a look.

Why the hell not?

Whenever I dive into something new, I try to find at least one “why the hell not?” moment. And when I can, I try to leave evidence of that moment in whatever it is that I’m building.

When we launched our company (37signals) back in 1999, we launched a black and white, text-only site without a single piece of portfolio work to be found. All the other agencies we were competing with had very flashy pages, loaded with pictures of their work. So why black and white and text only? Because why the hell not lead with ideas rather than compete on pictures? We thought it could be better that way. It worked out well for us.

One of my favorite why the hell not moments was when we were writing REWORK. One of the things that always bugs me about paper books is that you have to leaf through a dozen or so pages before you arrived at page one of the actual text. You’ve got the testimonials, the table of contents, the dedication/acknowledgement page, the copyright page, usually a blank page, a title page, etc… THEN you get to the book. This is also one of the reasons I really like cracking into a new book on the Kindle — you start right at the text.

So when we were talking to our publisher about how we wanted REWORK to be organized and designed, I asked them if we could put the copyright page at the end, rather than the beginning. It would be one fewer page to leaf through up front, and if any page was ignored more than the others, it had to be the copyright page. So why the hell not just put it at the back?

Initially our publisher didn’t know how to respond. No one had ever asked that before and they’d never seen an example of a copyright page in the back. But ultimately they said yes, so today if you pick up a copy of REWORK, and go to the last page, you’ll find the copyright page right there in the back of the book on page 280:

You’ll also find the acknowledgement page on page 279, rather than right up front:

Whenever I’m struggling with a decision that seems “unusual”, I’ll look back at these two pages in REWORK and remind myself that just because everyone else does something one way doesn’t mean you have to do it that way. Sometimes it’s just worth saying why the hell not and going for it.

There’s a whole bunch of “why the hell not” in Basecamp 3. There’s nothing else out there like it. If you’re struggling to stay on top of your growing business, and you’re trying to run things on email, text, chat, and meetings, you’re doing it the hard way. Stop doing that! Try the Basecamp 3 way instead.

The secret to turning your business around from a champion BBQ pitmaster

We had millions of dollars in profits, but were bleeding customers. I had to do something, and fast. But what? A killer new design? Disruptive new features?

Pic form Health Guage

September 2012, Cadbury, a London-based chocolate and candy company, changed its Dairy Milk Chocolate bar. The bar had been the same since its debut in 1905. Customers were furious. The new bars were now too sweet.

But here’s the thing. The recipe didn’t change! It was the same exact chocolate and ingredients. So what happened?

David Cook, a flavor chemist, does a great amount of research on why food tastes the way it does. In 2003, David discovered that as the texture of a liquid becomes thicker in your mouth, it seems less sweet. Even though it has the same exact amount of sugar.

What changed with Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bar? It’s shape.

The bar became rounder. Cadbury claimed it was to create a better “melt in your mouth experience”. (coincidentally the new rounded bar was 4 grams lighter than its predecessor, saving Cadbury money).

The recipe remained unchanged, but that “melt in your mouth experience” changed its texture, and, as David has shown, impacted on flavor.

Melissa Cookston, in a recent Wall Street Journal article, sums up the science in a secret to how she’s now dominating a previously male-only club — competitive BBQ:

I think competition barbecue is more about consistency and texture. Flavor is so subjective.

Flavor is what you think of first. Texture and consistency aren’t as sexy, but they are often neglected opportunities that can make all the difference.

And that’s been the secret to our turnaround.

Highrise spun-off from Basecamp in 2014, 6 months after Basecamp shifted to focus on their flagship. But customers assumed the announcement meant a shutdown of Highrise was near. That didn’t bode well for customer retention. What should we do? Talk to customers.

But Highrise has a large swath of customers: lawyers, real estate agents, startup founders, artists, even geologists. Talk to any one of them, and you’d hear five must-have features. Another with a different five. There were commonalities, but requests varied widely across our entire customer base.

Then Bingo! In talking to customers and reading through cancellation surveys an interesting thing popped up. People often weren’t cancelling because the product didn’t do what it needed to do. They cancelled for reasons like: “I couldn’t tell if anyone was still running the company.” “I didn’t think it was being updated.”

The feature selection, design, even the price — those often weren’t the complaints. We had the right flavor; what the company needed was the right consistency and texture.


So what’s consistency in a business? Customers simply want to know someone is there, consistently caring for them. We made it our priority to ship 3 things every 3 weeks. It didn’t really matter what they were. We tried to pick common asks, but we cherry picked features that allowed us to make fast and consistent progress. We updated our blog and in app announcements to make sure we had dates easily scannable so you knew there was recent activity and progress. We started sending out regular newsletters with changes and updates relevant to our account owners. We did everything we could think of to make sure our customers knew we were there.


How many businesses do you deal with that all feel the same? Similar website designs, stock photos of professional models, emails that sound like a group committee picked out the language. That feel of a business is its texture.

At Highrise we’ve made an enormous effort to ensure our business has a unique texture. If you get an email from us for signing up, or feature announcements, you’re very likely going to get a picture of my family or news about our weekend:

I let our customers know there’s a team of real humans behind Highrise, who just like them might be lacking sleep because their 2 year old had a bad dream at 3 AM. 🙂 We also know what it’s like when someone might need an extra few weeks to pay a bill but can’t lose access, or needs a helping hand to work through an import.

The results from this focus have been incredible. Immediately our customer retention climbed. I get emails now from customers about their children and grandchildren. And most importantly the business has been growing again.

It’s not easy. But when everyone else is looking at improving flavor, paying attention to consistency and texture might just be what you need to turn your business around too.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, you should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us make better decisions. And if you find yourself overwhelmed while organizing your own small business, check out how Highrise can help!