January 15, 2014

How Scott Adams Growth Hacked His Dilbert Cartoon


If you've never heard of Dilbert before, you are most likely not an engineer, and you are probably not a big fan of comics. Dilbert is in fact a hugely successful cartoon by Scott Adams - you can today find Dilbert in 2000 newspapers in 65 countries. You may first think that Scott Adams is only a cartoonist, but he's also an author and an entrepreneur. He has also failed a lot, and he has collected his failures in the book How to fail at almost everything and still win big - Kind of the story of my life. In the book he described how he grew Dilbert from a side project to his main job.

Dilbert wasn't Scott Adams first cartoon. He recalled that his first comics were dreadful, and when he tried to submit them to Playboy and the New Yorker, they were rejected. Scott Adams has always had several side projects because they gave him energy to endure his boring job. One of these projects became the sketches for Dilbert.
"I would wake at 4:00 AM to draw before my commute, then work all day in my cubicle prison and come home to draw all night."

According to the book Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Holiday, Step 1 in any growth hacking process is to have a product where the product and its customers are in perfect sync with each other - a Product Market Fit (PMF). Starting with a product nobody wants or needs is the single worst marketing decision you can make. Step 2 is finding your growth hack, Step 3 is going viral, and Step 4 is optimizing the product.

Product Market Fit
Scott Adams submitted his Dilbert cartoons to several comic-syndication companies in 1988. One company accepted and sold Dilbert to a few newspapers in 1989. Dilbert quickly gained a small but enthusiastic following. 98 percent of the readers might have disliked the comic, but 2 percent thought it was one of the best comics in the newspaper. Scott Adams had a product where the product and its customers were in (almost) perfect sync with each other. 

Find your growth hack and go viral
One year after the launch, the sales to newspapers stalled, so Scott Adams needed a new way to generate more interest in Dilbert. He had to wait until 1993 when he decided to print his e-mail address in the margins of the comic. What he wanted to do was to open a direct channel to his customers and modify the product based on their feedback. Friends and co-workers had earlier given him criticism, but friends and co-workers tend to be nicer than anonymous Internet users. He got several e-mails filled with hate, but he also got real criticism he could use. What he realized was that everyone preferred the comics that took place in the office.
"So I changed the focus of the strip to the workplace, and that turned out to be the spark in the gasoline."     

Optimize the product 
Whatever your current state is, it can always be better, so Scott Adams needed to constantly try new iterations to optimize Dilbert.  
  • A television series. Scott Adams tried to make a Dilbert television show that involved human actors, but it failed miserably. But he learned a lot from the process, so the next attempt to make a Dilbert television show went far better. The now animated show ran for 2.5 seasons.
  • A movie. He has tried and failed to make a Dilbert movie for fifteen years.
  • Internet. When Dilbert stalled in newspapers sales, Scott Adams decided to generate more exposure by making it possible for people to read Dilbert online. Dilbert was the first syndicated comic to run for free on the Internet. He was concerned regarding piracy, but he realized that piracy helped more than it hurt.
  • Blogging. The main reason why Scott Adams is blogging is because it energizes him. But blogging also increases traffic to Dilbert.com by 10 percent. 
  • Simplicity. Dilbert was designed from the beginning to be simple to create, and Scott Adams continues to streamline the process.  
  • Books. The Dilbert Principle and Dogbert's Big Book of Business brought Scott Adams a lot of attention and put a turbo boost on sales of Dilbert to newspapers. 

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