I think sometimes creators simply forget how people are or maybe they just don’t realize how people work.
Every single one of us wakes up with our own shit in our heads and that shit is usually wondering how in the hell are we going to overcome whatever obstacle is in our way.
That problem that is preventing us from living a life that is just 1% better.
Marketers say that it is the story that is playing in our heads.
Usually, this feeling is shared by others as well.
That’s how communities are formed.
That might seem like a pessimistic view of communities, but think about it.
People love to rally around a common theme and if that theme is pain and annoyance then it’s just that much stronger.
Even communities based around happiness can also be viewed through the lens of pain.
It hurts that I can’t get enough of this thing. I need more. Help me get more.
Which brings me to this point.
I truly believe that if you want to build a successful company (let’s go with 6+ figures) then you need to get good at understanding the problem, whatever it might be for your Hero.
You need to enter the story in your Hero’s head as it’s happening. You don’t get to start a brand new story.
However, you do have the opportunity to change the story in their head once you enter it, but we’ll talk about that later.
If you can gather people around a problem and offer them a solution, you win.
But you have to understand the problem and it has to be a problem that is almost always at the top of the mind of the people you want to help.
If I go to the dentist every 6 months, then your cool cleaning kit that prepares me for the dentist** isn’t ever going to get money from me because I’ll never think about it.
** It’s like when my wife cleans before the cleaning lady comes over.
The better you get at identifying that nagging problem, the more money you’ll make because you’ll get a lot better with your messaging and understanding who you need to target.
This is also why so many creators absolutely bomb at building businesses around audiences.
For the sake of this post, I’ll use audience and community interchangeably although in the larger context of things they do have their differences.
When I came across Jakob Greenfeld’s post, Build a business, not an audience, I read it with great interest and then saw that a lot of creators were applauding it because they felt the same way I just smiled.
(Sidebar: Here’s a discussion on Indie Hackers with the same sentiment and you can see my condensed thoughts in an answer there.)
Jakob and everyone else have every single right to believe that building an audience for their business before building a business is the absolute wrong way to go about things.
They bust their asses creating great content, getting people to follow them, and then when they do launch their offers all they hear are crickets.
MIGHT AS WELL JUST BUILD THE DAMN OFFER AT THE BEGINNING AND GET AN AUDIENCE AFTER, RIGHT?
You very much could do that.
People have been taking that approach for decades.
The Dangers of Product-Market Fit Thinking
It’s the whole reason the Product-Market Fit terminology came about because people would build something cool, see nobody cared, be confused, and then keep on pressing until someone finally paid for it.
The experts would just say the person needed time to find a product-market fit but that’s also a weird way to build a business when you think about it, right?
You have an idea that you think is great and when you’re done building it then you go out and find the audience (market) for it.
What if you reversed it so that it was Market-Product Fit instead?
Better yet, what if it was Market-Problem-Solution Fit?
- Find an audience (market, community, whatever)
- Discover a major problem that completely bugs the hell out of them
- Offer them a solution (your product)
It makes sense, right?
But creators that follow this audience-first philosophy do things differently. They think they’re doing the things above but what they’re really doing is this:
- Create content showing the world how awesome they are and they are awesome so nothing wrong with that
- An audience forms around this content because it’s interesting to them
- The creator launches a product that might be about one piece of content that they created and their audience gives them props and then carries on with their business
#3 is the key point here.
The audience sees the cool shit that the creator has built, says their congrats, and then thinks, “okay, I gotta go back to this big ass problem that I’m facing” and they give their money to the person that is actually solving the problem they are facing.
This leaves the creator wondering what in the hell did they do wrong? That witty tweet got over 1,000 likes with 50 retweets!
Their Twitter analytics show that they’ve grown their audience over 5,000% in 90 days.
The problem is that they didn’t build an audience around a problem. They built an audience around their personality.
Which again, nothing is wrong with that but your personality is not the thing people are thinking about when they wake up in the morning.
Having a strong personal brand comes in handy, but it doesn’t do much for you if you want to build a business that tackles a specific problem.
So what happens is that the creators get frustrated, give up on the audience-building mentality and go about working on their business.
Of course, I think there is a better way and it’s called the Community-First Collective.
Building a Community-First Collective
First, why Community-First and not Audience-First.
For me, an audience is a collection of people that are there to listen. It’s cool that you can have that, but when things are done they leave. They are invested in themselves and so that’s where their thinking remains.
When you build for your audience, they appreciate it, and you can do really well with this approach but it’s a one-way transaction.
You give, they get. Yes, you get money but that money means you need to go out and find even more people for your audience.
A community is a collection of people (collective) around a shared interest that stick around and continue to work on that shared interest. They are invested in the progress of the group because the progress of the group brings them progress as well.
When you build for your community, they love you for it and they help you to build something greater than what can be accomplished with a one-way transaction.
They help you build an economy.
They pay you, you give them value, they love it, share that value with others and then try to bring even more people into the community because the greater the community, the greater the value for them.
And of course the greater value for you.
But these are semantics so I won’t rain down living hell on anyone that says they are building an audience-first company as long as they understand they want more than just a following.
Unfortunately, doesn’t this sound like a pain in the ass? You’re a creator, you want to create!
You don’t want to become a community builder!
I get it.
However, if the goal is to make money (which of course is the goal), it’s much easier to do so when you have a collection of people that value a shared experience of trying to make things better (this means solving that main problem).
And because you are part of the community that means that your solution becomes the default solution for them.
People on Reddit kept on loading images up to random places and many times the places would throw bandwidth errors so you couldn’t see the images.
Alan Schaaf created Imgur as a gift to the Reddit community that he loved and was a part of.
It took off from there.
But does Imgur get created if Alan isn’t involved in the Reddit community and seeing the problems that photo-hosting sites like Photobucket, ImageShack, and TinyPic were causing?
Who knows, but it certainly allowed him to understand the problem better than most and because of that he was able to create the solution that so many people loved.
As creators, our egos always tell us that we definitely understand the problems that people are facing. Sometimes we use the excuse that because we have the problem then it must mean that others have it as well.
But if both of these cases are true then it’s even more important to start your business by building a community first.
And here’s the fun part.
You don’t HAVE to create a Circle or Discord (we use and love both), you can simply start where the audience already is.
Renting a Community
Maybe Reddit, Hacker News, Indie Hackers, or Product Hunt is your jam. These sites already have massive audiences so you can start there (if you’re working with the developer/designer/indie maker crowd).
You can rent a community (even large Facebook Groups works) before you make the decision of owning one.
What you do next is very important. This is where I see a lot of creators drop the ball.
They jump into these communities and say things like, “I have the perfect solution” or “hey, I created something I figured you all would like“.
But being part of a community means to actually be part of a community.
Your first core buyers are going to be the people that buy your solution because they like you. Sure they see that it solves their problem but it’s even better that it solves a problem and it’s from someone that they like.
This is why you see so many potentially awesome solutions get kicked out of communities before they even get a chance because the creator of the solution just isn’t known.
They’re an outsider so they are viewed as a marketer instead of someone in the community looking to help.
Remember, a community is all about having a shared vision. If they don’t see you as part of that shared vision then you don’t get a shot.
So talking about the problem first instead of the solution shows them that you share the same vision as them. You want to help with the problem and get rid of it just as much as anyone else.
And here’s the cool thing.
You simply have to view your profile on these platforms as the community and this is where the creators trip themselves up.
Building a Decentralized Community
The moment you create an account and get a follower, you’ve started a community. That person followed you for a reason because they feel like there is some type of shared interest.
“I like their content. It resonates with me.”
Some of your followers will try to engage with you and when you engage back, now you have a stronger bond.
If you had a Twitter account that ONLY talked about how to make sure you get the best odds at every sneaker drop by Nike, then you’re going to get people that are interested in that.
Which means, your business SHOULD be about helping that community out.
Unfortunately, creators talk about whatever they want to talk about which is usually a broad range of topics. I don’t blame them, it’s tough to be pigeon-holed, but that also means now you’ve created a community with diverse interests.
It’s hard to get a group like that to buy anything and this is why you see people go for large scale growth with their followings.
If you kind of talk about one thing a lot and build an audience of 100,000 people then of course you’re going to sell whatever you’re offering.
However, if you only have a following of 5,000 then you might not sell a damn thing.
And that’s where the frustration lies.
The Two Approaches
I think as creators there are two solid approaches that you can take. I want to flesh each of these out a bit more over time, but for now I’ll give you the rundown and philosophy behind each.
The Solution-First Sprinters
Some of you are still going to dive headfirst into creating the solution (building the product) right away. You crazy son of a bitches! I can’t stop you so I won’t try, but I will help you.
Your choice is then to go looking for where the audience is so you can begin to talk about the problem and you better know the problem before you start talking about it since you’re already building the solution.
If you can’t find a single place where the audience might be then you’ll have to find a way to create the community yourself.
But again, you have to figure out what the shared vision is with the people that you’re trying to attract. You don’t have to blatantly say “this community is for these people that have this problem“.
It might be a broader community. For example, maybe you’re creating a solution for developers for one part of their workflow. Do you create a whole community around that one part of the workflow or do you just create a community for developers in general?
The Community-First Gatherers
With this group you either have a solution in mind and want to test it out before committing to building anything or you’re not sure about a solution but you know the people that you want to help.
From there it’s similar to the process above. Look for where the community is or you start building one yourself.
I should mention that this can happen with a blog as well. No, blogging isn’t dead.
People just lost patience with it.
I think when it comes to blogging (which I still love btw) I think the best approach is to not see your blog as a standalone entity. See it as part of the decentralized community that you’re creating.
For example, you don’t have your Twitter community and then a separate blog community.
Instead, your Twitter community is your blog community which is also your YouTube community. Everywhere you’re at you’re talking about the problem and therefore you’re building a community that exists in multiple places.
You’re sticking to the shared vision that your community has and because of that you get to build your community in multiple places at once.
But again, that only works if you understand the Problem.
You Ain’t Moses
I think many creators see themselves as Moses at the top of the mountain walking down to show the masses this awesome solution that they have.
Only some people can pull of that act.
Instead, it’s much better to walk with the people and be just like them.
Show them that you live the problem just as much as they do. Show them that you’ve created something not through your own genius but because it was the only way to solve that shitty problem that is always in your head when you wake up.
If you’ve been truly paying attention to your community then your solution will be absolutely perfect for a lot of them and they’ll be banging down the doors to get access.
But I understand that this path doesn’t sound as fun as just building and hoping the shit sells so I never hold it against the people that go this tried and true route.
Plus, how may examples are there of people intentionally starting communities to prepare for the applications that they’re going to sell down the road?
I’m Building Multiple Brands With This Approach
This is what Makers Mob is going to be all about.
It started with individual communities like we built for Pocket Business. But now we’re going bigger.
And we’re doing it out in the open. You can join the Makers Mob Collective for free as it’s open.
Over time you’ll be able to find like-minded individuals no matter what approach to being a creator that you take.
More importantly, we’ll be openly sharing our approach to building a Community-First Collective.
Chris Dixon famously wrote that you should take the approach of come for the tool, stay for the network.
We’re taking a different approach. Building the network so we can better understand what tools to build.
I hope you’ll join us for the ride.