Anything You Want: Derek Sivers’s Book Overview

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Anything You Want" by Derek Sivers. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Looking for an overview of Anything You Want by Derek Sivers? What is his advice for starting and running a successful business?

In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers gives recommendations for building a business that meets customers’ needs while still fulfilling your passions. Sivers argues that to run a successful business, you have to know yourself, what you love, and what you want in life.

Read on for an overview of Anything You Want—Derek Sivers’s best-selling book for hopeful entrepreneurs.

Anything You Want Overview

In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers shares 40 lessons he learned from being an accidental entrepreneur whose hobby turned into a $22 million business. Sivers’s non-traditional approach to business ownership—centering on honesty, creativity, and humanity—is a model for burgeoning entrepreneurs who want to stay true to themselves and do right by others while building their dream.

A professional musician, Sivers founded CD Baby in 1998 to sell his CDs online when major music companies wouldn’t. What began as an endeavor to address his own unmet need quickly led to Sivers helping friends and other independent musicians sell their CDs online. After growing CD Baby successfully through trial and error, Sivers sold the company in 2008 and put the proceeds into a trust dedicated to music education. Published in 2011, this book presents the lessons he learned along the way.

Know What You Love to Know What You Want  

In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers argues that to run a successful business you have to know yourself, what you love, and what you want in life. He asserts that the point of owning your own business and pursuing your dreams is to make you happy, so your passions should always be your guiding light and the benchmark against which you measure yourself. 

Your role matters: Sivers says that as the owner of your own business, you can make your role anything you want, so you should pay attention to which tasks make you happy and only do the ones you love, which will fuel you. Therefore, he recommends delegating parts of your work that you don’t like because doing things you don’t feel passionate about will drain you. 

(Shortform note: In addition to enjoying your business and keeping the passion alive,  understanding yourself and your priorities as a company head also builds confidence, makes you a more effective leader and decision-maker, and maximizes your performance.)

Size also matters: Sivers warns against growing your business bigger than you truly want it to be, even if your company is successful. This is because pursuing superficial goals, like making money for the sake of making money, will eventually dampen your interest in your business.

(Shortform note: Sivers doesn’t specify how you get to know yourself and your interests better, but you can illuminate your inner workings by asking yourself a range of questions, such as: What are my short- and long-term goals? What am I passionate about? and What new activities am I interested in or willing to try?)

Stay the course: Sivers asserts that once you’ve homed in on what you love, you should keep doing it—even if people tell you that others can do what you’re doing better, faster, and more profitably. He argues that you should measure yourself only against what matters most to you, not what matters most to others because their end goal is not your end goal and it won’t make you happy. He recommends that you ignore naysayers and continue to actively develop the skills you need to do the thing you love. Continue until these skills are so ingrained that they become part of who you are: It’s the act of doing that will make you what you want to be

Lesson illustrated: Sivers says he was a terrible singer as a teenager—and people told him so—but he continued singing because, more than anything, he wanted to be a singer. Fifteen years of singing later, Sivers found that he actually liked the sound of his voice—and others did too, suddenly praising him for his “natural” talent. He’s been a professional musician ever since. 

In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers asserts that knowing what you love to do should drive what tasks you take on and the role you play in your business. However, Michael Gerber contends in The E-Myth Revisited  that new owners of small businesses don’t have the luxury of freely choosing what role they’d like to play. Instead, they must assume and balance three: 

1. Entrepreneur (a creative, future-focused visionary)
2. Manager (a pragmatic system implementer and enforcer)
3. Technician (an individualist who prefers to do things on his own, in his own way)

Gerber argues that your business will reflect the role you naturally lean into most, so you must master and learn to keep all three roles in check. 

Develop Your Business Plan

In the previous section, we discussed the importance of identifying and pursuing the things you love. Now, we’ll discuss Sivers’s suggestions for developing a business plan that can help you put your passions into action. 

First, Get Going

Sivers says that great ideas are meaningless if you don’t do something with them and that the best thing you can do to make them a reality is just get started. It’s okay if you don’t have a clear plan or vision: Sivers had neither when he started CD Baby—he just had a desire to address an unmet need. 

Sivers says the most important thing is to not get hung up on everything that could prevent you from pursuing your dream, like a lack of money or fear of something going wrong. Don’t worry about developing the perfect business plan with terms and conditions and legal projections for scenarios that may never unfold. Just keep it simple, don’t overthink, and get started—because taking small steps toward your goal is always better than doing nothing.

Plan Early and Often

In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers discusses the importance of getting your business started right away so you can put your ideas into action, recommending that you keep things simple and not get bogged down by the details. But some argue that a well-laid-out plan can help you get off on the right foot. Here are a few things you can prepare for before beginning:

1. Research your industry and competitors.
2. Identify your audience and mission.
3. Map out your finances.
4. Put together a business plan.
5. Identify mentors and professional support.

In addition, it can help to begin with a clear financial strategy, which you can develop by determining whether you plan to self-fund your company, approach investors, or seek loans to get it off the ground.  

Mind the Boss-Employee Power Dynamic

Sivers says that when you’re the boss, you should always be mindful of the power dynamic that’s built into your interactions with employees because it impacts the weight of your words as well as their work. If an employee asks your thoughts on an idea they’ve come up with or a project they’re working on, be aware that your opinion carries more weight than that of a peer and that they may perceive your feedback as a directive rather than a suggestion or collaboration.

Sivers recommends that, in general, you respond positively to employees who ask your opinion about their ideas and projects, so long as doing so won’t make or break your company. This will encourage them, increase their investment in your company’s work, and will also boost staff morale.

(Shortform note: In Radical Candor, Kim Scott builds on the idea of positive employer-employee communication. She argues that one of the most important things you can do as a leader to improve your work culture is regularly to ask your employees for honest feedback about your impact on the business. After listening and considering what they say, show that you value their opinion by making adjustments accordingly.)

Prioritize Customers, Not Growth

In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers says that the primary goal of your business is to help people, so while your company needs to be profitable enough to survive, your primary focus should be on understanding and addressing your customers’ needs, rather than growing your business or getting rich. 

Sivers argues that it’s better to scrimp and save to build your business right than cater to investors. Although investors can help grow your business quickly, they may demand that you change your vision or compromise your values in ways that don’t help your customers. 

(Shortform note: If you’re able to start your business without outside investors, it will be easier to make customer satisfaction the priority of your business. To do this, however, you’ll likely have to lower your start-up costs. Are you selling merchandise? Consider an online store rather than brick and mortar. If manufacturing is a cost you’re not able to afford, you might think about selling a service rather than a product. A willingness to start with used, free, or borrowed equipment and spaces will also save you money.)

Here are two ways that Sivers says you can communicate to customers that they’re your top priority: 

  • Keep your website as free from advertisements as possible. When your customers easily find what they’re looking for on your site, the experience is positive. If they’re bombarded with distracting and targeted ads, on the other hand, it sends the message that your interests lie elsewhere. (Shortform note: Pop-up ads are a particularly off-putting version of online advertisements—and they can deter customers from visiting your website because not only are they annoying but they also can hurt your website’s search engine optimization and keep you off the first page of Google search results.)  
  • Publicly and loudly cater to your preferred customer base. This demonstrates to your niche clientele that you value them more than the general populace. This will attract like-minded customers and earn you a devoted fan base.
Signal That Your Customers Are Priority #1

Sivers recommends that you get loud about why your select customers matter to you, though he doesn’t specify how to identify your niche customers from the outset. Here are five steps you can take to home in on your niche customers

1. Identify an idea you feel passionately about and a problem you’d like to solve for yourself and others.
2. Assess your target market’s greatest needs using surveys and looking at sites like Quora, Reddit, and Twitter.
3. Research your competition so you can distinguish yourself from them.
4. Examine the potential profitability of your idea with your niche market. 
5. Vet your idea with family, friends, and acquaintances to assess its appeal and viability. 

Know When to Say “When”

You’ve followed your passions, built your business, led with balance, and always centered your customer. Now we’ll talk about how to know if or when it’s time to walk away from your business. 

In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers says that when you no longer have passion for running your business, it’s time to close shop or sell. This is more than having a bad day at the office—when you’ve surpassed your goals for the company, you can’t think of where to take it next (or simply don’t have interest in it), and when you begin routinely fantasizing about getting out, that’s when you know it’s time. 

Leaving the company isn’t just for you: When your interest in your company wanes, sticking around only risks doing damage to it. Sivers says that if you care about your company, you’ll make sure that it’s being run by someone who wants the job and will do it with their whole heart. 

Lesson illustrated: Sivers says he knew it was time to sell CD Baby when he’d achieved all his goals, didn’t have a vision for taking the business in a new direction, and was more passionate about projects outside the business than in it. He received two competing bids for the company and chose the lower offer. True to his principles, he chose the person who he felt was a better fit for his customers.  

(Shortform note: CD Baby is still alive and well. They retired the retail store in March of 2020 and are now focused on its distribution, monetization, and promotion services for musicians.)

Anything You Want: Derek Sivers’s Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Derek Sivers's "Anything You Want" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Anything You Want summary:

  • How to turn your hobby into a successful business
  • A non-traditional approach to business ownership
  • How to integrate honesty, creativity, and humanity into your business model

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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