Start With an Audience Not a Product If You Want to Win

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Find your Audience first…

Many Entrepreneurs identify too much with their product or idea.  They want to go from a product idea to a plan for success.  But that’s not the best way and if you insist on following that approach, it can often lead into a long blind alley.

Here’s a question I saw on Quora recently:

I want to be an entrepreneur but I have no idea what business to start.

The answers were all about going for it with whatever product or service was easy to hand:

  • “If you have a skill that is in demand, do that as a freelancer.”
  • “Just get it started.  There is no work called failure.”
  • “Sell anything that comes your way by chance.”
  • “…the other suggestions about starting a business solving other peoples’ problems, i am a firm believer too.”
  • “The problems you face or your family or your friends.”

Those were the most upvoted answers.  Every single one jumps ahead to selling something rather than on finding someone to sell it to.

Minutes later, I answered a friend’s question on Facebook, and it was the identical theme.  He’d read my post announcing this blog.  He said he was joining the mailing list, but since he had no product ideas he wasn’t sure how useful it would be.

I told him to build an audience first and then build the product.  His reaction was that I was putting the cart before the horse.  But it’s really not–you need to start from audience, not product.  The reason is simple, and this is what I told my friend:


It turns out building the product and hoping they will come is how you put the cart before the horse. Until you know your audience well and know that you can reach enough of them to matter, the product doesn’t matter.

There are so many ideas and products out there that have never succeeded because of that. But, there are very few cases of building a significant audience that never got monetized.  I can only imagine those that didn’t were due to lack of trying.

I started preaching this approach way back in 2012.  I wrote about finding an audience before a product on my Smoothspan / Enterprise Irregulars blog that year.

I believe in it fervently.  It’s how I went about starting my Solopreneur business, CNCCookbook.

I wasn’t as systematic about finding my audience as I would be today.  But I made sure I had an engaged audience that I could grow before I tried to do anything else.

Today, CNCCookbook receives 4.5 million visitors a year and it has been a huge financial success for me.

How Do You Find Your Audience?

There are any number of ways to go about it, but here’s one to consider:

Inventory Your Interests and Passions

You could try to discover an audience for an interest you know nothing about.  Perhaps you think that interest harbors big opportunity.

Just remember: Entrepreneurship is hard work.

Why not start with something you’re very passionate about?  That passion will help sustain you through the long nights on your journey to success.  It’s an energy that you can harness at times when you need that extra emotional tailwind to keep going.

So take inventory–make a list of ALL your interests and passions.  Add to it your skills, expertise, and profession–they’re all possible areas to find audiences.

And don’t worry about whether you have product ideas for this interest.

Find the Water Coolers

water cooler

Find the Water Coolers…

As an Entrepreneur, you won’t have unlimited resources with which to generate demand.  Even if you get a large venture capital investment, it’s not enough.

I like to use the analogy of a jet airliner flying very high.  Suppose each window represented an idea.  You break a window open and–nothing!  No pressure drop, no hurricane force windows, nothing happens.  There’s no passion from that audience.

You break the next window open, and it’s just like the movies.  Everyone is hanging on for dear life because the suction, the interest, the passion in that space is so strong it releases tremendous demand.

How can you discover whether there is passion around an interest you have?

Get out your Interest Inventory and go down the list.  Go online and start looking for blogs and online communities that fit each interest.  Online communities can be forums and Facebook Groups.  Things like Quora are also good as are LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and anything else you can think of.

These online communities are water coolers.  They’re places where people go and spend time talking about the interest.  The more the merrier, because this indicates the audience is even larger and  more passionate.

But wait, can’t you find a group talking about most anything these days?

Yes, you can, but we can quantify the level of passion and audience size.

Note down on your Inventory Worksheet how many groups you find and some idea of their size or membership.  Note down for blogs some idea of their traffic.  You can use my trick for evaluating marketers to get that traffic information–it’s a valuable metric.

Let me try a counter-example.  Suppose you have a product idea for a gizmo that makes paperclips obsolete.  It is so much better that you’ll take the market by storm.  Anyone that knows about your gizmo will have to have it.

So you go searching for online communities that talk about paperclips.  Not much there.  Certainly there are none purely devoted to paperclips, though you can find the odd mention here and there.

Same thing with blogs.  At best, there are some Office Supplies blogs out there, but even those seem pretty iffy.

This is not an idea that has a ready made audience you can tap into.  You’re going to have to create that demand from scratch.  It might be possible if you can find some vibrant audience that would care, but directly seeking a Paperclip Passionate Posse is not going to work!

Cross Reference Your Online Presence Research With Your Skills and Passions

Now that you’ve measured the outside world’s level of passion and interest for each of your Interest areas, you need to add your input to the mix.  Tie back your own relative skills and passion level to that list.  Try to also tie in some idea of your experience level.  Have you done some things that you can bring to the table that help establish your credibility?

For example, this blog is all about Entrepreneurship.  I’ve been a very successful Serial Entrepreneur all my life.  A lot of this is a matter of public record, it’s easy to lookup what I’ve done and get a sense of it.  I’ve got multiple blogs and web sites out there too that help corroborate my story.  For example, I am a regular blog columnist for the Enterprise Irregulars.

When you’ve got something to point to–experience, credentials, long-term membership in relevant groups–you’re not starting from scratch to build credibility with your audience.

Choose Your Audience

You’ve got all the information you need to choose an audience.  It won’t be a final choice, but you’ll audition audiences for success, one at a time.  And it’s time to choose the first audience you’ll try.

Pick one where as many of the factors are in your favor as possible:

  • The number and size online communities and blogs is a sign of a big audience with passion.
  • You’ve got some skills or experience in this area to bring to the table.
  • You feel enough passion to sustain yourself.

Got your audience picked out?


Now it’s time to test their suitability, and at the same time test yourself.

Test Your Ability to Achieve Content Audience Fit

This test is a big one.  It will determine whether you’ve chosen the right audience or whether you need to keep looking down your list.  I like to call it an Audience Audition.  You’re going to riff with this audience and see whether you can engage them.

Here’s how:

Go into the blogs this audience reads and writes and start commenting.  If there are questions in your online communities, ask your own questions there too.  More importantly, start answering some questions.  Facebook Groups are awesome for this because postings get liked.  Having metrics like number of likes is really helpful to measure your progress.

When you’re doing all this, watch the response to your activities.  Try to be analytical by coming up with counts, but even a subjective sense can work.  Here’s what to look for:

  • Do people like or share your responses?
  • Do you get into great conversations threads?
  • Are you starting to be treated like a regular in the community?

It’s important to try this across as many properties as you can.  You should be skimming through them anyway.  You’re trying to learn and absorb everything you can about how others with your interest think and feel.

Take a gander at what the most popular or most shared things others are doing may be.  This will start to tip you off on where the exact passion points are.

Can you create some content related to those passion hot spots?

Try it–you don’t need your own blog yet, post in the communities.

You’re Off to the Races

the right place

The right place…

If all goes well, and you’ve been able to engage the audience, you’re off to the races.  If you could not achieve engagement, no worries.   Go on to the next interest area on your list.  This is  not the one. Be ready to go through several before you hit on The One.  You’ll know and it’s worth it when you do find it!

Now stop and think about it.  At the very least, you’ve hooked up with some online communities and bloggers who have the same interest and passion for it as you do.  That is a good thing, no?

Your next step is to start a blog aimed at this interest area.  You’ve achieved a level of engagement, but it wasn’t on your own terms or your own turf.  The acid test is establishing that you can draw people from their comfortable online neighborhoods to come visit you in your neighborhood.  If they come to you for your content, you know you’ve got this.

Beware Walled Gardens!

Now, whether you want to write blog posts, podcast, or do videos as your preferred medium, you still need a web site.  You need a property that’s all your own and that you control.  A Facebook page or a Medium page won’t do.  Those platforms are Walled Gardens.  They’re for the benefit of someone else and not for you.

Every successful Walled Garden started out giving their audiences all the value, usually for free.  And nearly every successful Walled Garden has a history of transitioning at some point to taking more and more value away from their audience.  What started out giving the audience all the value turns to extracting more and more value for the Walled Garden.

This is a point I will hit harder in a blog post dedicated to the subject, but for now, I wanted to put it out there to save you a potential misstep.

What About My Product Ideas?!??

I started this article telling you to find an Audience before pursuing Product.  If you’ve found your audience, engaged them, and now have at least a few of them eating out of your hand by visiting your blog or web site, CONGRATULATIONS!

I also want to call your attention to something crucial to your Entrepreneurial Journey:

You now have the most powerful tool ever for creating and evaluating product ideas.

Think about it.  You can study your Audience under the microscope and learn from them.  You can even perform experiments using content to see how they react.

Here are a few ideas for you:

  • Run a survey asking your audience what their biggest daily problems or interests are.  I do these kinds of surveys all the time in my CNCCookbook business and the learnings are huge!  They’re also big traffic draws.  They’ve even gotten me connections with industry players I wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
  • Once you get a sense of the kinds of problems your product might solve or the benefits it could deliver, you can write blog posts about those problems and possible solutions.  No need to have a product, talk about how things are done today and invite comment.  The popularity of posts like this will tell you whether you’re tapping into the right idea or not.
  • You can do surveys that ask your audience which products they use.  What a great way to do a little competitive research.  You’ll learn who the market leaders are.  You’ll see what customers value most about each product.  You can even look for their specific objections to products.  All that competitive intelligence will give you great ideas about how to build your “Better Mousetrap.”
  • As you build your audience, you’re finding your guinea pigs too.  You’re going to want to have beta tests, focus groups, and similar kinds of things to confirm your idea.
  • Building an audience you can send forward to some sort of offer is critical if you plan to raise money for your idea on something like Kickstarter.  You don’t want to do one cold when you can seed it with an audience that has likes what you have to say and trusts you.

So now you know one of my big Entrepreneurial Secret Weapons: find your audience before you worry about product.  It’s not hard to do.  It doesn’t cost much.  It’s even something you can do part-time without quitting your Day Job.  In fact, it works better that way because finding and building an audience is not a full-time job until you’ve learned enough to really turn the crank.

Why not give it a try?

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