Causality between building a preemptive audience and business success: A case study
Published November 17th, 2020 • ☕☕ 11 min read
In for the TLDR? Find the Twitter thread version here.
A friend of mine is convinced that if you have a lot of followers on an arbitrary social media platform, you are in a much better spot to launch your product than without an audience. He points at people like Gary Vee, and Tai Lopez, implying that they are selling products purely on the back of their popularity. And although he has a point, I think this is extreme cherry-picking. In my opinion, it works for them for specific and unique reasons.
As I noticed, building an audience before having a product/service seems to be an evolving trend, even in the indie maker community. In my effort to find clearness, I've compiled a list of founders and influencers running businesses with differently sized audiences. I hope the examples will shed light on the correlation between large audiences and entrepreneurial success.
Before we start looking into this: You'll notice that when I write "audience", I usually refer to the Twitter following of a founder. That doesn't mean an audience can't be built on another platform, but it's what most tech founders associate with "audience".
Further, I will be referring to various sizes of audiences and grades of (routinely presumed) economic success. Those lines are blurry and defined by my intuition of what is what for the average indie maker.
Large audience but little to no success
A large audience in this context leans towards 50k and goes up infinitely. Little to no success means that the project/founder can not self-sustain or the project has died.
You have 50k followers on the platform of your choice. Will you be able to make your next startup successful with that many people behind your back?
TJ Holowaychuk has 47k followers on Twitter (and 44k are occasionally seeing his contributions on GitHub). If you're a developer working with Node.js a lot, there is a good chance you've been using his code, or at least, code impacted by TJ.
TJ runs a software business called Apex, which offers monitoring/logging/uptime. I ran across it a few years ago and ever since haven't seen it build up a lot of momentum. Then, two months ago, I found a comment by TJ on Indie Hackers:
Congrats! It's definitely tricky, even with my reasonably rare ~50k Twitter community it's still difficult, startups have it so easy in comparison.
-- TJ Holowaychuk
Maybe 50k is not enough. How about 2.6m? In May 2019, Instagram influencer Arii failed to sell 36 T-Shirts. The story has been torn apart by media shortly after, with various theories on what had gone wrong. Fake followers, wrong audience, no marketing strategy, lousy product. I'm convinced it's everything except fake followers. Sure, she probably has many, but at 2.5m total, I am confident a few hundred thousand legitimate ones rule this out as the sole reason for failure.
Do you remember Beme? The social app to record videos when you hold it up to your chest? This was an endeavor by Casey Neistat, who had ~1m YouTube subscribers, ~135k followers on Twitter, and ~400k on Instagram back at the time. Despite accumulating millions of new fans of his own on all platforms ever since and CNN buying Beme in 2016, it eventually shut down in 2018.
Beme wasn't the only project by Casey that went down. There is also 368, a "place where professional gamers, internet creators and cultural icons meet and create". Although it is open and operating, it's safe to say it's not what Casey had envisioned for it by far.
[...] building a business is a really slow, really painful process [...]
Not convinced yet? Let's reduce the audience down to its purpose: Attention and somewhat targeted reach.
With this in mind, we can look at the products, which have been spun up and eventually killed by yours truly, Google.
Although Google isn't a person, I think it's a potent example that a social audience isn't tied to a projects' success. Google has millions of followers on all major social media platforms (don't expect me to link the accounts up).
For emphasis: This is a collection of > 200 diverse products by big G itself, an ex-1-trillion-net-worth company that made 160 billion in revenue in 2019.
Each of those products has been likely in development for at least a year, with a dedicated and motivated group of brilliant people working on it. Furthermore, many of those products have been rolled out to Googles' existing audience by integrating them seamlessly into the user experience (Picasa, Google+, Google Reader, Google Video, etc.) or otherwise promoting them with the help of Googles' ecosystem and a bag of serious cash.
Medium audience but immense success
A medium audience in this context ranges from approximately 5-45k. Immense success means that the project is alive and healthy, and the founders can live far beyond their needs, with an ample surplus.
This is a selection of folks with a following that you wouldn't deem overwhelming but still have more to nurture their projects from than the average indie maker. To provide these particular examples significance, I made sure that they had a disproportionate amount of success. I also would like you to pay attention to how their followings became vast after (or should I say while?) building their businesses.
Probably you didn't expect someone like Pieter Levels, who now has an impressive following (currently ~92k on Twitter) and is popular in the industry of online entrepreneurship, to be in this category. However, if you look closely, at the time Pieter launched RemoteOK in 2015, he had about 9k followers. I'm not saying that's irrelevant, but I am having trouble to justify RemoteOK's success from solely that. Pieter launched Nomad List, the second startup he is known for, even earlier, in August 2014, when he barely had 4k followers on Twitter. That didn't hinder him to get significant press coverage early on by such as Inc.com or Business Insider India.
Jon Yongfook (~18k followers) not only has somewhat of a celebrity status in Singapore, but he also has a noteworthy Instagram following (~14k followers). Jon created Bannerbear and discloses his numbers openly. Before Bannerbear, he has "failed" a lot of times, both with zero revenue projects and projects that had millions raised and hundreds of employees.
Sahil Lavignia, who has accumulated even more followers than Pieter by now (~143k), can tell a bizarre story about his company Gumroad. He had ~9k followers when he got funded in the millions around 2011-2012. Although I have been on Twitter at that time I fail to remember how influential numbers like this were back then. In the darkest hours of Gumroad, around November 2015, Sahil had grown his audience to ~17k followers. Another three years later, in November 2018, he had ~20k followers when Gumroad slowly started to rehabilitate from its prior downturn.
Nowadays, you can't browse Twitter even for a minute without seeing a Gumroad link popping up somewhere. But Sahil jumped from success to failure and back with each transition taking years and rather moderately growing his Twitter audience. I'd argue his Twitter presence never played a critical role in his business' following success: To this date, his followers presumably view him more as the daily source of wise life advice than as the CEO of Gumroad.
Little to no audience but great success
Little to no audience in this context is everything less than ~5k followers. Great success means that the project is alive and healthy, and the founders can at least sustain their life financially from the project alone. Note that I did not research how many followers the founders in this category had at launch time because they fell into the given range even at the time of writing. But, naturally, you can assume it was even less.
On the other side, there are those who have no large audience and succeeded at their business. These folks are laser-focusing on building their business, not on building an audience for their business.
Because it's easy to find successful products of founders who don't have a large audience (hint: Look for cool products, the founders are almost always small on social media), here are more examples:
Richa Prasad (~40 followers) and Lucy Liang (~450 followers) offer online weight loss coaching on Coach Viva and have recently hit $10k monthly average. I love how they've managed to get a common idea to work with smart, sequential marketing efforts. For example, they started out with their personal network, made adjustments to the product itself based on feedback, cemented their authenticity with reviews, and eventually landed on YouTube.
Brett Williams is virtually non-existent on social media but has had tremendous success building designjoy.co), a productized service where he sells web design on a monthly subscription. With that, Brett is reporting to make $26k MRR and has recently crossed $400k in total revenue. The project is about three years old at the time of writing.
Sarah Hum (~4k followers) and Andrew Rasmussen (~1.5k followers) are the founders of Canny, a crowd-feedback tool used by large brands and tools like ahrefs, React Native, and even Netflix. Although Canny has recently hit $1m ARR, neither Sarah nor Andrew have an exceptional social media following. They found success in strategies like content marketing, cold outreach, and putting effort into a great launch on Product Hunt.
Fabrizio Rinaldi (~4k followers) and Francesco Di Lorenzo (~2,5k followers) are building Mailbrew, an all-in-one email digest for all your favorite news and updates in one place. Among their popular users are DHH and Chris Coyier, and they have reached 6.5k MRR, which means they have about 800 paying customers.
Danny Postma (~4,5k followers) is building Headlime, a copywriting tool to help you create better headlines. The tool has ~2k votes on Product Hunt and generated $16k in the first 48 hours. Danny is currently working on V2 and has almost retreated from social media, which should tell you where his focus is.
I know this section already has more than enough examples. But it is my favorite category, so let me come up with two more:
Jen Yip (~3k followers) is, as she describes, the founder, engineer, designer, and customer support at Lunch Money. It's a budgeting app, which she has been working for at least since mid 2019, and hit $4k MRR close to a year later. Jen went through a lot of learning, but eventually, focusing on building a remarkable product is what has worked for her best.
Rustem Mussabekov (~1k followers, used Twitter last time in early 2018) is the sole creator and maintainer of Raindrop, a beautiful bookmark manager with native apps for Android, iOS, macOS, Windows and a plugin for 5+ different browsers (how can one developer maintain all this?). If you're a website owner, perhaps you've discovered his plugin through the referrers in your analytics. SimilarWeb shows a whopping 1m monthly visitors on average, and I'm sure people are happy to pay for this incredible piece of software.
Big audience big success
Did a product become a success because someone shoved it down the throat of their massive audience until enough of their evangelists paid for it, despite it being awful? Or did the product become a success because it is supreme?
There is no way of telling in this case, and I do not want to subjectively judge a product's usefulness. I'm sure there are enough examples for both cases here, but because it doesn't allow for much interpretation and isn't a helpful category in itself, I suggest we skip it.
I understand that these examples are picked arbitrarily and are skewed towards a particular perspective. I am sure you can find other examples that will tell the exact opposite story.
In fact, let me give you a few quick counterexamples. Research on why I think those people have successfully sold new products to their existing audience is on you, though: Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Lenny Rachitsky, Kent C. Dodds, and Kelly Vaughn. Hint: It seems this strategy does work quite well when it comes to content/info products.
However, I'm convinced that, as a founder, your audience will not be the deciding factor for the success/failure of your business or product, and you should probably not focus on building one. Don't bind your hopes for success to the existence of a vast following.
I'm not saying that everybody mentioned here has built their audience because they actively wanted to build it. Some of the founders ended up with many followers "naturally".
In fact, the folks who emerged flourishing at their business started out small (on social media), as makers more than influencers. On the flip side, the influencers who turned towards entrepreneurship trying to monetize their existing audience failed.
Big audience seems to be more of a result of success than the reason for success.
-- Pieter Levels
For me, the most significant value of a large audience is not that it enables you to succeed in the first place (which is questionable in the first place, as is the intention of this article to prove), but the feedback that comes from it. It helps you to understand if your product has a chance at succeeding, how to pivot on bad decisions, and how to augment good ones. Those are valuable benefits which will prevent you from wasting time at a hopeless projects and instead allocate it where it's more worthwhile.
Build your business
Instead of building an audience to push your business, start by creating an actual need to reach your potential customers. You do that by building your business.
I'm not saying you have to develop a full-blown app with hundred thousand lines of code. I'm saying start bringing your idea into reality. Write a business plan for yourself. Seek the help and opinion of others. Set up a teaser site and start collecting emails. Do something real.
There are countless ways to get your product in front of people and get initial verification (or rejection), including paid ads, cold contacting, engaging in various communities on- and offline, or building your product in public. I am sure there are more approaches, each with a tenfold of specific implementations.
Truth to be said, it feels to me like makers are anxiously avoiding these ideas. They are afraid to commit a thousand bucks on ads, afraid to talk to real people, afraid to fail in public. They are scared and hope that building the audience is the ultimate shortcut. It is not.
Detour to building in public: A recent and excellent example of building in public is fast.co. If you're on Twitter, there is little chance that you haven't heard from it before, as Domm Holland (CEO) and Matthew Kobach (head of content marketing) do a fantastic job at creating social buzz for the company. Note that their approach is not audience first, but business first. They are just really good at surfacing the venture to the public. This becomes eminent when you realize that Domm is another perfect example for the "Little to no audience but great success" category, as he started out with only 1k followers on Twitter when Fast was founded. All audience has been driven through the business, not the way around.
After all, what does an audience achieve for your business in the first place? Reach and attention. It is a marketing tactic like many others - and based on the input of time and the statistical rate of success (I'm lying, there is no statistics, merely my gut feeling) at accumulating 20k of ambiguously interested people, it's not a good one. I am not even taking into consideration whether they might like your product yet.
Building a social audience is not an entrepreneurial blocker. It's not a necessity, not a guarantee, and it's not efficient. I'd go as far as to claim that it's nothing that should ever become your mission as a maker. If your focus is on building an audience, no matter the platform, chances are you're chasing the influencer lifestyle.
If there is anything to draw from this, it's this: Going from a maker to influencer is more promising and happens more naturally than going from influencer to maker.