Boost Your Startup’s Chance of Survival – Build an Audience First


An idea hits you like a bolt of lightning. You’ve got this incredible concept for a startup – something that will change lives, turn an industry upside down – and maybe even make you some money in the process.

So the first thing you do is get to work making it happen. You start putting together your team and your business plan. You begin feeling out potential investors. And of course – you start developing your revolutionary new product or service – because you need that Minimum Viable Product.

But wait a minute…

Are we forgetting about something? What about your audience – AKA your potential customers?

You may think you know who they are. You may think you know what they need. You may think you have the solution they’ve all been waiting for.

But you might be surprised…

The Old Way of Selling Something New to the Masses

Here’s the way it used to work.

First you developed a product. Then you had to bombard the masses with advertising while jockeying for media attention and shelf space.

The company that could spend the most money to get in front of the most eyeballs as many times as possible would be most likely to succeed and squash the competition through saturation.

That’s not the way it works anymore.

And that’s good news for bootstrapping entrepreneurs.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. New products and services are still being marketed this way. The problem is that it is becoming less and less effective. This goes for both B2C an B2B companies.

There are way too many distractions out there. There is way too much “stuff on the shelf.” People have so many options – choosing what to ignore is just as important as choosing what deserves their attention.

Lifelong entrepreneur and best-selling author Seth Godin had this to say in a blog post title Choose Your Customers First.

“It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Each cohort of customers has a particular worldview, a set of problems, a small possible set of solutions available. Each cohort has a price they’re willing to pay, a story they’re willing to hear, a period of time they’re willing to invest.

And yet…

And yet too often, we pick the product or service first, deciding that it’s perfect and then rushing to market, sure that the audience will sort itself out. Too often, though, we end up with nothing.”

If your startup is going to survive – you need to end up with a lot more than nothing.

Why You Should Start with a Minimum Viable Audience

The concept of a Minimum Viable Product is a big part of the Lean Startup methodology. That MVP could be a prototype, a bare-bones version of  your ultimate vision, or even something as simple as a list of potential features.

The purpose is to allow those within the startup to learn fast, fail faster and make changes as needed.

“The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and then developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible. Once the MVP is established, a startup can work on tuning the engine. This will involve measurement and learning and must include actionable metrics that can demonstrate cause and effect question.”

The Catch 22 is –  it is almost impossible to do any of that without potential customers to learn from.

This is why the idea of developing a Minimum Viable Audience (MVA) along with your MVP is so important.

Brian Clark, online marketing strategist and CEO of Copyblogger Media wrote about following what’s become known as the “audience first approach” in his article 5 Ways a Minimum Viable Audience Gives You an Unfair Business Advantage.

Clark says you’ll know you have an MVA when –

1. You’re receiving enough feedback from comments, emails, social networks, and social media news sites in order to adapt and evolve your content to better serve the audience.

2. You’re growing your audience organically thanks to social media sharing by existing audience members and earned media.

3. You’re gaining enough insight into what the audience needs to solve their problems or satisfy their desires beyond the free education you’re providing.

He points out that the first two things feed into the third – which is what you as the entrepreneur ultimately want.

In some cases, it might make sense to achieve a Minimum Viable Audience before you even create a Minimum Viable Product. Corbett Barr, CEO of says it can work either way.

In his article Which Comes First – Audience or Product?, Barr writes:

“A business can’t exist without both a product/service AND an audience.

The real danger lies not in whether you start with the product or audience first, but in becoming overly focused on one without the other.

You need both a product and an audience. Your product has to be a great fit for your audience. As a business builder, your goal should be to figure out whether your audience will buy your product as soon as possible.

The real risk is in spending months or years on a product or an audience only to find out that no one wants your product, or that you can’t figure out how to offer something to your audience that they’re willing to pay for.”

Having that MVA could lead you to the realization that you need to pivot – of make a course correction for you business – which could mean changing your business plan, your target market, or the purpose of your product all together. But your audience could also help you avoid having to make those pivots in the first place.

Let’s be honest. No one likes to completely revamp their game plan when things are already rolling. Pivoting can be a painful and expensive experience.

When you choose the people you want to serve and build an audience of potential customers – you’ll be much less likely to misjudge the needs of your ideal audience – because you truly understand their problems.

How Do You Build a Minimum Viable Audience?

That’s the million dollar question, right? Generating a following isn’t always easy to do – especially if those people are skeptical of you because they know your ultimate motivation is to sell them something.

As a content marketer, I could go on and on about this topic. But instead let’s just keep it simple.

The most important thing you need to remember is to make everything you do about your target audience.

That means – if you start blogging, don’t waste your time writing posts that focus only on what your company is up to. Don’t simply post updates on your progress. Don’t use social media to pat yourself on the back all the time. Don’t post photos of your team building exercises.

Aside from you – nobody cares.

You have to determine what kinds of things you can create and share that will be valuable to your customer, that will get conversations started, that will get them asking the right questions, which will show you what they are truly interested in and reveal the big problems of the people you want to reach.

These days – every company is a digital media company. And the exciting thing is, the internet has leveled the playing field making it much easier for startups to compete.

You don’t have spend millions of dollars advertising on traditional media. You can create your own media and distribute it in a highly-targeted fashion all for next to nothing.

If the media you create (articles, eBooks, tutorials, videos, podcasts, infographics, photo galleries, surveys, forums etc) is good enough that people will share it with their family, friends, coworkers and industry peers – you could find you’ve built a Minimum Viable Audience in no time at all.

Building an audience is about earning attention, gaining permission to communicate and above all – establishing trust. And yes – doing all of that does take time.

But it’s worth it.

When you have an audience – you have a built-in customer base. You have your own resource for market research right at your fingertips. You have a built-in word-of-mouth marketing engine that spreads your ideas to others.

You can’t have success without an audience. Keep them top of mind from the very beginning.

What strategy would you recommend for building an audience? How have you used an audience for market research?

Share your tips, thoughts and opinions in the comments and get a conversation started.

Image Credit – Justin Scott Campbell via Flickr

Written by Kasey Steinbrinck

Kasey was a serial entrepreneur as a kid with countless lemonade stands, a detective agency and neighborhood carnival operator on his resume. He also sold rocks out of a suitcase door-to-door.

A storyteller at heart, Kasey has created content for local television, radio, print and online publications. He is proud to be born and raised in Northeast Wisconsin.

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