The talk here in Santa Monica is of startups. You can't get a kale salad or espresso without overhearing conversations about product-market fit, minimum viable product, or customer development as you munch your blast of green nutrients and slurp your caffeine.
At one time just another small seaside town with a pier, the little sister to Hollywood, the forgotten sibling to Culver City, Santa Monica is thriving, with new real estate development, new places to work, like WeWork, and even a new train line. Santa Monica has come of age. But there is something forgotten in all the startup excitement. Starting something is fun. Sustaining it is pretty hard.
Startups are almost like real businesses, except they often lack a long term plan, a stable customer base, a staff and money. Finding those crucial ingredients is part of a startup's journey toward profitability and stability. From what I have seen, many startups find those things out of order. They may get money first (and burn it off) or they may have a talented staff (but no money to pay them.) They may have a few customers but now way to find more. Let's figure out what should come first, and let's start with the obvious thing.
You have to know your customer or user. You have to know your audience and where they live, online and offline. You have to understand how to speak with them, and where they like to have those conversations. If you can't figure all that out, or aren't willing to devote time to learning about it, your super-smart idea will go unnoticed and your startup will fail. Ouch.
Harsh? Sure. But I speak from experience. When I was making documentaries for The Learning Channel, Discovery, The History Channel and Bravo I quickly learned that audience building was as important as having a good script and a good music score. When you make a documentary about motorcycles, you'd better reach out to motorcycle people, because they are your viewers. When you make a documentary about UFOs, you'd better reach out to all those MUFON groups because they are your audience and the love talking about UFOs. If you don't do that, your film (your startup) will be unknown.
If you are a startup founder, you ought to put "finding an audience" right at the top of your to-do list, maybe just below "buy ping pong table for conference room." Founders become hyper-focused on building their app, head down into building lead generation lists, obsessed about digging into new ways to impress investors. They are all worthy tasks, but they will mean nothing unless you have an audience to serve, delight, and engage.
Example? Jared Koch of Clean Plates has more than 350,000 people on his mailing list. The mission of Clean Plates is to make it easier and more enjoyable for you to eat healthy, sustainable food. Jared has led the company through a period of explosive growth, launching a cookbook, a restaurant guide, an iPhone app, and that amazing newsletter. Audience building is easier when you can include a few things: First, can you fence it in? The Internet is a vast, largely unmapped space, and if you can speak to a community, and find the road to where that community lives, you will have an easier time reaching early adopters (the only people who will care about you at first) and growing that audience. The second secret to audience building online is this: Can you attach yourself to a movement of like-minded people? Having a national chain of stores like Whole Foods, which caters to the organic food movement, makes it easier for people to understand something like Clean Plates, which caters to a similar community.
Think of those things next time you are pushing your startup to the next level, and maybe wait on buying that ping pong table for the conference room.
Want to know more? I am leading a webinar with Jared Koch this week. It's online, and it's free. Sign up here.