Imagine you’re preparing for a dinner party.
You spend hours going through cookbooks and magazines, finding unique dishes to prepare.
You meticulously write out the list of ingredients, and then spend a full day driving around town. You go to farmers markets, delis, and specialty shops purchasing everything you need.
The following day, you wake up early and start cooking. You cut, chop, dice, simmer, fry, mix, knead, and bake. A delicious aroma begins to circulate throughout your home.
When the food is nearly ready, you begin work on the dining room. You lay a beautiful cloth on the table, and place hand-crafted centrepieces on top. Taking out your best dinnerware, you adjust each plate, napkin and piece of silverware.
Everything is ready. Everything is perfect.
You pour each place setting a glass of wine, sit down, and wait.
But nobody comes.
You were so absorbed in creating the dinner party that you forgot the most important ingredient: guests!
A lot of people build products the same way: they’re “head down”, and so focused on building their thing that they haven’t considered who they’re building it for.
And just like the cook who forgets to invite guests for his dinner party, when these products get launched, there’s no one there waiting to buy.
Even worse: a lot of these startup teams waste valuable resources building features that no-one wants. (This is like cooking roast beef for a vegan)
A better way
Start by choosing a group you can help. Next, research their needs. Once you understand their pain, provide help in small ways (like blog posts and answering questions on forums). And all along, build your mailing list.
Using this approach, you’ll eventually find a big “hair on fire” type of problem that you can solve. You’ll have the knowledge you need to build something people want. And, you’ll have a list of people you can launch to when your product is ready.
PS: I published this post back in July, but I’m putting my Amplification ebook on sale today (for Cyber Monday). It will teach you how to grow your audience by amplifying the content you’re already writing. Get it here 50% off (until the end of today – December 1st).
Listen to this post:
It’s been about 1 year.
Before that, I was just like you: working a full-time job, blogging a little on the side, listening to podcasts, and dreaming of creating my own products.
For 5 years, not much had changed. I kept doing the same things: fits of inspiration where I’d try to build something, only to fizzle out. I never seemed to be able to launch.
The hardest part about blogging was no one seemed to notice me. I’d get 10-12 views every time I posted. I tried building an email list, and only got to 20 subscribers. The same was true for products: whenever I created something, it just didn’t seem to go anywhere.
And then it all changed.
One year ago, I got serious about building my audience. I figured out what I’d been missing: I hadn’t chosen a specific audience to focus on. Go back and look at the first posts on this blog; I was flailing, talking about everything and trying to reach everyone.
First, I forced myself to choose a specific audience. I chose “product people” (which later became the name of my podcast). That was a really hard step. I agonized over it. But once I started focusing, first on business people, and finally on product entrepreneurs, it became easier and easier to attract a following.
Then, I went through these steps:
- I researched my audience’s pains, trends, and interests.
- I learned to recognize patterns.
- I created content in response to those patterns.
- I created products in response to those patterns.
- And all along I built my mailing list.
Because of the wonderful people that follow my work, read my blog (that’s you), subscribe to my newsletters, and listen to my podcast, my life has changed dramatically. In the past year:
- I’ve been asked to speak at conferences and on panels
- I’ve judged two Startup Weekends, a Rails Jam, and the Static App Challenge.
- I’ve been offered 5 jobs, one of which I just accepted (more details on that soon)
- I’ve earned nearly $40,000 in revenue from my side-projects in the last 12 months (while still working full-time, and raising 4 kids)
What an awesome ride! And all because I got serious about building my audience.
I believe that most people (and companies) can benefit from building their own audience.
Build it and they will come? Nope. Here’s why…
Most people try to build a product first, and then find people to sell it to. My inbox is full of folks who’ve followed this approach, only to be disappointed because no one showed up to their launch.
Successful product people follow a different approach: they launch their products to an established audience, and target a problem that audience shares. Why does this work? Because having your own audience is like having your own personal fan base. An audience will wait anxiously for you to release your new thing; instead of hearing crickets, you’ll have sales on day 1.
“You need to build an audience before you build your product.” – Hiten Shah
On Tuesday, July 29th, I’m launching a new online course called Build Your Own Audience. I’m sharing everything I know about growing your audience online (it’s based on my two sold-out workshops). It will help you choose and understand your audience so you can:
- blog better and get more traffic
- increase mailing list signups
- build products people want to buy
Have any questions about the course? Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org
PPS: Here’s a sneak peek at what’s inside the course:
Trying to launch a product? Your first priority is to build something that matters. You need to create something that people want.
But your second biggest problem will be getting attention.
Building something great isn’t enough. You need to be able to reach people that care. And that’s hard.
We know that the best products don’t always win. The classic example is BetaMax vs VHS (do any of you kids know what I’m talking about?), but there are others too:
Despite being the quintessential American rock band, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers were initially ignored by the US market. For years they couldn’t get airplay on American radio stations. What changed? They started getting traction in the UK. Once US radio stations heard that the cool Brit-kids were listening, they started spinning their LP. It’s all about distribution.
In some ways distribution is getting more accessible, and in other ways it’s as hard as ever.
Message distribution used to be highly centralized: there just weren’t that many channels. If you grew up in the 80’s, it’s likely you remember the same commercials as me. (Here’s me singing 3 jingles off the top of my head) That’s because we were all watching the same shows, on the same channels: a kid growing up in Edmonton, Alberta would hear the same ads as a kid in San Francisco. There weren’t that many options, and paying to get your message out was expensive.
Now, because of the Internet, it’s easier to create a message (it also doesn’t cost as much). But getting your message to resonate is harder, because there’s way more messages.
What can you do?
How can you get people to care about your thing?
Normally we think about marketing like this:
But, if you want to win at distribution you can’t play by those rules anymore. You need to think like this:
This means the first step isn’t blasting out a message, but rather listening.
Your goal should be to bring people closer to the solution they need.
10 things you can do
People are seeing thousands of messages a day – you need to break through the noise.
Here are some general guidelines:
- Build something people really want. Having something people are desperately seeking will make your marketing efforts 1000x easier. I’ll adjust Derek Sivers’ famous formula:
Product people really want x smart marketing = your best results.
- Choose 1 person to market to. Think about someone (by name) that matches the profile of the person you’re trying to reach. Cater all of your marketing efforts towards that person.
- You need to reach bigger audiences: the people that can help you are the entrepreneurs, podcasters and bloggers who have been building audiences for years. Think about how you could offer these people value, and connect with their audiences.
- Get on high trafficked networks that relate to your audience (news sites, sub-reddits, forums, Medium collections, etc…). Just like convincing people with big audiences, you need to offer communities value. Find out how you can help.
- Don’t create “marketing” create “help”. Write a blog post, create a small tool, publish a short e-book, host a webinar: build something that actually helps the people in your audience.
- Don’t underestimate the value of creating something surprising, unusual, and weird. A lot of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis‘ commercial success came from creating strange, off-the-wall videos. It was a breath of fresh air for hip hop fans – what could you do for people in your target community?
- Don’t use a marketing tactic just because it worked for Basecamp, Intercom, Buffer, etc… Think about how you can uniquely help your audience.
- Invite early fans and users to help you spread the word. Only have 1 user? Find out why they’re passionate about your product, and invite them to share that passion with others.
- Build lots of landing pages. A landing page is one of the best ways to experiment: you could try a new landing page each month. Focus the landing page on a specific pain you’ve seen in your community.
- The sooner you start your email list, the better. Early on, your marketing efforts should focus on getting email sign-ups. Why? Because, email is a great way to have real conversations with real people. You’ll be able to adjust your product (and your marketing) based on their feedback.
I hope this is helpful!