Fringe Benefits: Why startups mustn’t appeal to the masses

In a two-party political system like we have in America, the fight is always over the middle.

The hard-lefts vote Democratic, the hard-rights Republican, even if they don’t know the candidate, even if they don’t like the candidate, because it can’t be as bad as that other guy who is even further removed from their ideology. No sense in either party trying to battle over those extremes.

But fighting for the middle is murky — without a strong affiliation and a consistent set of beliefs, how do you convince all of the centrists you’re the best candidate?

The answer is political safe-talk: saying the right thing to the crowd in front of you while leaving enough wiggle room to say something different to the next. Frolic at the intersection of ambiguity and generality. Assert nothing controversial, lest you lose the room. Even when you can’t bring yourself to say something they’ll love, just say something they can’t quite hate.

Of course this sort of behavior is why we distrust and dislike politicians, and why most Americans prefer voting for “none of the above.”

A startup must be the opposite of a politician.

A startup should be the bat-shit crazy independent candidate who runs for president even though he’ll end up with only 40,000 votes.

After all, wouldn’t you be happy with 40,000 zealous fans, each contributing $10/mo to your cause?

How do you get 40,000 fans, whether web app customers, blog readers, or book-buyers? By talking to the fringe, not the middle.

By taking a hard line on what’s important to you. By having strong opinions, even if weakly held. By being specific, not general, By speaking to your target audience, not to just anyone who happens by your website. By taking the smallest, most well-defined niche you can muster and owning it 100%.

You’ll need to be honest too. It’s hard to be passionate, strong, specific, and zealous without also be honest. Honest with yourself in what you profess and honest with others that you’re espousing it with neither apology nor qualification.

Not sure what you believe? Not sure what’s important to you? I wasn’t either three years ago when I started this blog. Maybe that’s something worth fixing. Best way to figure it out, though, is to start writing and see what comes, then look back later and see if you still believe it.

Though this part is difficult — as much because of introspection as of converting thoughts to words — it makes everything else easy because zealots aren’t like normal customers. They willingly put up with bugs or lack of features, they’re your unpaid salesforce, you’ll feed off your own words and theirs to construct compelling yet accurate website and advertising copy.

Then you’ll discover the best part: People outside your niche will like what you’re saying too. You’ll find that people who aren’t your “perfect” customer are nevertheless willing to join you, because strong opinion coupled with abject honesty is compelling. Even if you say, right on the home page, “This product is for little startups only!” some project manager from IBM will buy 300 seats.

It happened to me. Lots of times.

You’ll be surprised how many people outside your target market wish that they were inside, and will join you if only to live vicariously.

Take this blog — it’s written specifically for founders of small, single-digit-sized startups, bootstrapped or angel-funded, who sell product online. Yet, the majority of my readers are not that! Most aren’t running business yet, they’re thinking about it, or they have a side-project they hope might become a business, or they want to twist their corporate job into something more meaningful. Many are consultants. A strong minority aren’t even in software.

A strong, clear message of any sort beats a muddled, generic message attempting to appeal to the masses.

Let the silly politicians pander and play to the masses. Be your own tribal leader.


38 responses to “Fringe Benefits: Why startups mustn’t appeal to the masses”

  1. One of your best posts Jason. The tricky thing is, at some stage you’ll feel you need to please the crowd rather than your core adopters. It works exactly like that at work as well. First, as soon as you’re hired, you pay attention to satisfy your boss’ needs. Then, the bigger and more confident you become, the more people see your value and ask you stuff. They may be important guys, like VPs or C-level, and you want them all to be happy. So, you start moving to the middle, like politicians do. At that point you stop doing what they admired you for, and start playing politics instead. 
    Having said that, a question for you. You say the majority of your readers don’t own a business. Yet, you’re writing for small start-ups owners. What would it change if you started writing with the majority of your readers in mind?   

    • At some point you get big enough that you don’t need to focus on just the one niche. You *can*, but you don’t need to.
      If your goal is to grow grow grow, then (almost by definition) you can’t stay in a niche forever, you just use it to get a foothold. If your goal is to run your own company your own way, make enough money, have a certain impact on the world, etc., then you don’t have to leave.
      You ask if I should start writing for a different audience, and my answer is “no” only because: I write about what I want to write about, whatever that is and whoever that helps. That’s worked so far, and I don’t have the need to change audience or style or anything just to get new subscribers.
      I *am* trying to grow as a writer, which will mean changing things, sometimes things like style, etc.. But I’ve found that following whatever I’m most excited about leads to the best stuff anyway.

      • Hey Jason, just to clarify, I didn’t mean you ‘should’ start writing for a different audience. I was just curious about…how you stay true to yourself I guess. If I knew I had a big audience fitting a certain profile I would constantly wonder whether I should write with those people in mind, hence maybe changing topics or similar stuff. Thanks for the answer!

  2. Great post, reaffirms everything I’m doing at my company. We’re developing a game for a very specific market that has been under-served and if we manage to attract players from outside our target market, its just an added bonus.

    PS – just switched to WPEngine for our company site/blog and loving every bit of it so far. Definitely recommending it to others.

    • Thanks! We have an affiliate program too if you want to earn from the recommendations.
      As you know we LIVE for word of mouth recommendations!

      Let me know what your company is.

  3. You’re right.  I am not your target audience either, but close enough.  Probably 75-80% of your thoughts have application to me and my business, which is Window Video Systems, or, Projected Digital images directly on storefront windows.  The close-enough characteristics are: bootstrapped start-up, digital graphics, entrepreneurial, web-managed, software component, digital content, totally new media.

    • That’s a lot of stuff to be “close enough.” :-) Happy to hear it — that’s the theory, I’ve seen it play out for myself, but it’s instructive for me and everyone else to see that it really is true in general.

  4. Ton of bricks. I really did have it backwards.

    I really thought one of my biggest hurdles was ‘how to appeal to the various sophistication levels of my entire potential audience (who aren’t looking to be converted…selling the disk recovery software beforehand as you noted in the podcast). I was concerned I’d have nothing to sell to the majority that want to buy. But instead I’ll just (or not) sell to them later.

    I also thank you for making me realize why writing is hard…because it’s reverse engineering a a thought that’s been internally optimized for the 8 years and then add a perfect set of comments.

      • Yeah, one of the mistakes we made at the start was to go WAY too broad. We’re tightening and focusing now, and who knows maybe someday we’ll go broad again. But you should always start small and focused. I think it’s hard for entrepreneurs though, because we are always thinking big (and broad).

  5. Jason, FYI I’m not in software but love reading your blog!

    I’m currently marketing a top of the line BBQ smoker ( that costs almost $4000. Some of my former Fortune 50 company colleagues tell me “no one” will buy it at that price, it needs to be at $700. We decided to focus on the hard core, BBQ competitor niche, or the zealots as you talk about. There are thousands of BBQ competition teams out there… a far cry from “no one.” I’d be happy to sell to 10% of those teams right now.

    Thanks for the great post and being a start-up role model for me, since I don’t have many who aren’t in the large corporate world.

    • I’ll bet if you sell just 1-2/mo you’re making an OK wage. I bet if you sell 1-2 more/mo you’re making more than your Fortune-50 friends.
      And working less, and more fulfilled and your customers are happier, and you’re happier.
      And if it’s more than that?

      • Totally agree. Most people, especially those not selling on the internet (your F50 friends) have no idea how big and diverse the world is. You’ll sell more BBQ’s than you think. Not only will you sell to the hardcore, you’ll sell to the upper-middle-class that just installed an outdoor kitchen and is trying to impress his friends. And Oil people in Dubai with so much extra cash they just want “the best”. And 10 other niches you didn’t even know about when you started.

        For example, we sell some of the most ridiculous, stupid t-shirts design in the world. Every “normal” person would NEVER think anyone would buy THAT t-shirt, but people do. Every single day, over and over again!

  6. “If we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself” ~~ Dan Formosa / Smart Design. from Documentary “Objectified”

  7. Great post as always Jason.
    The reason you resonate outside of your niche is because a niche, any niche, is by definition a small part of a larger whole.

    I am not a tech guy at all except as a hobby.  I subscribe because you address that part of the “greater niche” (!) that is striving for the Dream; to stand up and launch our own enterprise, inside or outside of an existing organization, and gain the freedom to express our own leadership and business creativity.

    FWIW, I’m a (currently independent) food service manager working on a new business  opportunity for an international sports, ent., & hospitality corp.

  8. Totally agree! I recently wrote a series of blog posts on our company blog with some offensive content. This was an interesting experiment, done purposefully. Here are the titles of the posts:

    – I tried it, tech industry’s shit tastes like chocolate cake
    – Your customers are leading pathetic, boring lives (with reference to ‘having average sex with an average partner in the burbs’)
    – Earning the right to be an A-hole

    We also sent these articles to our 20,000+ newsletter subscribers, and boy did we hear from them! We had a few people who promised to never do business with us again, because they HATED the articles and thought we were offensive! But we had even more people respond back saying they loved the honesty and original insight, and thought it was refreshing for a company to talk like this.

    I’m not sure if this is our permanent voice, but experimenting like this is a lot better than sending out another boring newsletter and writing another boring blog nobody will remember.

    I personally think even the folks who swear they’ll never buy from us will spread the word. After all, we sure left an impression in their brains!

    • Be careful that you dont go too far though, i know of someone that took things to a whole new level regarding being offensive, he got lots of attention for sure but it massively backfired on him, people began to investigate who and what he really was, it got messy and he basically will never be able to undo the damage.

      Once you get away with something you might begin to enjoy it too much to the point of thinking that you can get away with publishing anything.

      • John – totally agree. It was more of an experiment, to test out a little edginess. That might be a better word than offensive. I think 37signals is a great example. They’re not offensive, but definitely edgy, always having their own viewpoint that might not be the “popular” one.

    • I love edgy businesses and and hate the fact that many businesses are completely devoid of personality. I would much rather work for some company that isn’t afraid to publicly say “shit” once in a while. 

      That being said, I agree with you that startups should not focus on pleasing everybody. When developing software, every new feature can be a tremendous cost in terms of code complexity. People that beg for one extra feature on the promise that they will buy are most likely going to cost way too much effort to be profitable. If they want more features, they should go to the enterprise company down the street: if they want a quality user experience, they should stick with a startup. Despite the down economy, its easier than ever to launch a startup and a lot of developers are unfortunately languishing away at these boring .com’s when they should be creating their own little edgy startup. The code is easy and can be done in peoples spare time. It’s the administrative stuff, the marketing stuff, the legal stuff, etc that is a real downer. What people have to realize is that a lot of this stuff can be outsourced, and that some of it isn’t necessarily necessary. And with a ton of companies listed at that can help people get more traction on social media and bypass the media filter, even marketing is not as much of a concern as it used to be. Forget TechCrunch and other big media: go straight to the people with authenticity and have fun with it.

      If you want to break free of these boring big companies, you really gotta go for it and it takes effort and guts, but it beats being bored to death all day long and seeing your company scared of offending anybody.

  9. Wow! LOVE this post! I have some tinkering and “thinkering” to do… BTW, you now have a new blog reader! Thanks for this.

  10. Just have to say I love this! I am redefining my niche basically because of what you are saying. My message is for more than my target audience. I feel so blessed.

  11. Some part of me is really resisting taking a hard line on messaging and showing what I believe in as a person to be what my company believes in. How do you deal with beliefs that could alienate possible channels in the future?

    • I don’t think you will alienate as much as you currently believe you will.
      People say “the Internet never forgets,” but don’t they also say that companies should and do change over time? And as much as people could dig around your blog posts from two years ago, almost all the traffic is on the latest ones, and your website, and whatever you’re saying today.
      People don’t remember what you say. Almost no one in your potential market has heard of you, and almost none will have, even over the next few years, so you’re not setting up as much precedent as you think.
      I know this because I used to feel EXACTLY like you do, and I didn’t even learn my lesson during my first startup. It took a few before I really believed this. It’s normal. But you’re worrying too much. :-)

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