The most important thing to do first is to find an audience. It may be that building a product is an integral part of growing your audience, but you’re not ready to build a product or grow your audience until you’ve found the right audience to start with.
How will you know you’ve found your audience?
There are some important signs. For example, you can participate in their communities and be well received. An even better test is you can get their communities to consume your content. Before you’re going to have much hope of achieving Product-Market Fit, you’d better achieve Content-Audience Fit. When you have that fit, when traffic to your web site is growing steadily and you’re starting to get some big spikes in traffic from particularly compelling content, you’re close. When you can measure growth in the audience’s commitment to your content, for example, when your mailing list for your blog is growing and people are clicking through the weekly digest to get to the actual articles, you have achieved some degree of Content-Audience Fit.
Content-Audience Fit is a surprisingly high hurdle. It is higher than getting a bunch of random people to sign up to try a free software product, for example. The reason is that there is less value being offered by the content. People actually have to be willing to spend some of their attention on your content simply because it is that good. They do it because you’ve demonstrated you understand what they want and that you have something worthwhile to offer. There are tons of people that will play with some free piece of software for a short time, and you’re probably not even set up to measure how hard they played with it yet.
With Content, all you need is a blog to deliver the Content from and Google Analytics to measure its impact. Maybe augment that with a MailChimp account so you can actually start to aggregate some followers to your Tribe and use the Analytics there to tell how committed they are. Anyone who is willing to undertake the hard work needed to consume your Content and decide they like it well enough to want to keep consuming it is a valuable member of your Tribe. The more you can grow the Tribe, the more voices there will be to help you get your message out, to tell you what problems they need to have solved, and to guide you in the next phase of your journey: achieving Product-Market Fit.
To be a successful Bootstrapper, you’re almost certainly going to have to be a Content Marketer anyway. Advertising is typically going to be too expensive before you get some capital and a following. So do yourself a favor. Forget the product for a little while. Focus on achieving Content-Audience Fit. When your past striking flint and blowing on the tinder, you’ll have a little fire glowing. It’s a big accomplishment. So far it’s just kindling, but soon you’ll be ready to throw a real log or two onto that fire. That’s when you build your product, as soon as the Content Kindling has caught and you can see some actual flames. The timing will be perfect, because your costs will go up and your available attention for producing product and content will go down as soon as you ship your product.
You can’t afford to be just starting to look for Content-Audience Fit after the product is ready to ship. That’s too late. And it’s a terrible time to discover your market has no passion for what you’re trying to do. That bit of news was tragically knowable with a lot less effort if you had only started out finding an Audience.
Extra Credit Note to Investors:
If you find a team that knows how to create a product, we both know that’s not enough. You’ve raised the bar on that some time ago. But if you find a team that has achieved Content-Audience Fit, they’ve demonstrated a critical marketing skill. At the very least, you know that this team can present compelling content that draws a significant audience. Combine that Audience Insight and ability to compell the Audience with a decent Product and that’s the essence of a startup that will grow. I am surprised every time I walk into a startup and ask who in Marketing is a hard core blogger and hear back that basically nobody is and they’ve outsourced that task to technical writers of one kind or another. Those startups are proceeding on a wing and a prayer that they actually understand their Audience.
(Cross-posted @ SmoothSpan Blog)