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How 12 Successful Founders Get Inside Their Customer’s Head

One of the most brutal and constructive lessons we learn as bootstrappers is this: nobody cares about you or your product.

Many here at The Sparkline have learned that lesson the hard way, launching a product or website—some labor of time, love and sweat—into nothing but crickets… no sales, no links, no love.

This is true in my own story as well. It wasn’t until I was dragged over these coals that I realized the importance of defining, understanding and targeting my specific audience… because you don’t know how to delight them until you’ve decided who “they” are.

In episodes 49 + 50 of the Fizzle Show we featured interviews from 12 innovative entrepreneurs about how they define their audience, exploring:

  • What steps do they take to figure out what could be successful?
  • How do they get out of their own heads and into the hearts and minds of their audience?
  • What are the tools, data and analytics they use to make decisions?

The conversations were riveting for me, a long time web designer, because I coveted information like this to put together an experience that actually resonated with the target audience. What words, idioms, aesthetics would reach through the crap and noise online and grab a hold of them?

Discovering who the audience was, the truth about them, is the key to creating that experience.

As I talked with these folks, I was pleasantly surprised to learn some new idea. I was also struck by the different methods each used. These are all successful folks, and they’re each using different methods to get to the heart of their customer.

I like that. There’s no right answer in the conversations below, but there’s a ton of ideas, tactics, stories and tips to sink your teeth into.

First, The Podcasts

If you haven’t yet, you should listen to these two podcast episodes. Not only do they feature most of the interviews below, but they also feature lots of commentary from Corbett, Caleb and I, taking these insights deeper.

  1. Discover, Define & Target Your Audience (FS049)
  2. Tactics To Understand Your Ideal Client, Reader or Market (FS050)

Second, The Free Guide

Fizzle’s Guide to defining your audienceI love this topic so much because it can lead to so much insight. So we created a 28 page guide to walk you through how to define your audience. There’s worksheets, notes on each of the interviews below, powerful questions and more.

Download The Guide »

The Interviews

Below are the interviews and some notes about each. I’ve also included these notes in the guide mentioned above. Enjoy!

Rob Walling“Lessons learned by a Solo Entrepreneur.” Fresno, CA •

  • The easiest time defining an audience was when he stumbled into an audience by blogging at Software by Rob. Then I doubled and tripled down on that same audience to build microconf, the podcast, microprenuer academy.
  • Blogging to build an audience might not work as well for a B2B audience.
  • He started GetDrip by talking to his existing audience. He’s expanding that through content marketing, seo, paid acquisition.
  • Facebook Ads was a good change. Facebook is demographic-based (not intent-based like keyword advertising).
  • 4 headlines with a few different demographics (Startup founders, email marketers, info marketers are the three audiences he tested early on).
  • When he really started paying for Facebook ads (4 figures a month-ish) it became clear he needed to segment specific people to specific landing pages (startup founders DONT care about the same thing info marketers care about).
  • Give yourself a time constraint if you’re fiddling with your ideas and advertising methods too much. (e.g., 25 min a day maximum).

Pat Flynn“Lead by example. Be honest. Hold nothing back.” San Diego, CA •

  • Typically it starts with keyword research. What keywords are underserved?
  • Then he reaches out and tries to call people in those spaces. What are your biggest pains, what was difficult about what you did, what do you wish you would have known, etc?
  • He also finds other people making things for that niche and gets in touch with people in that audience, gets in touch in any way he can to find out what their biggest pains are, what they wish they would have known before they started.
  • FoodTruckr has a podcast because he figured out from talking with people with food trucks that they don’t read often, mostly listen to radio etc.
  • You can get so much more info on a short phone call than you can on a few emails over a few weeks.
  • For FoodTruckr he scraped google searches for existing food truck owners, got emails for 400 people, reached out via email to have a call. Of 400 emails 20 responses from first email. Then a second email, “just in case you missed it, i’d love to talk to you…” and from that go round 50 people responded.
  • From keyword research he discovered “food truck for sale” was an underserved keyword… it validated the idea enough to do some more work (getting to emails and calls).
  • He uses Long Tail Pro for keyword research. Put in a seed keyword (e.g., “food truck”) and it lists out a TON of other related keywords with statistics about those terms (frequency of searches, competition, etc).
  • He uses facebook ads to validate tag lines, subtitles for books, etc… see which one gets the most clicks.

John Lee Dumas“EntrepreneurOnFire: Awarded Best in iTunes 2013 IGNITE!” San Diego, CA •

  • He learned a lot early on from Derek Halpern’s idea to respond to everyone who signs up on your email list with a question: “what are you struggling with right now?”
  • “I get thousands of emails a month but I find value in responding to most of them because I get insights about my audience.”
  • He emailed every person who signed up for his email list asking 1. how did you find us, and 2. what do you struggle with?
  • Based on the responses to those emails he came up with the ideas and content for the products he’s developed. He heard directly what they struggled with.
  • Vocaroo, press a button, record an mp3 and attach it to any email you’re sending. He liked doing this because it showed the recipient it’s actually him responding, not an assistant.

Tara Gentile“Helping small business capitalize on big ideas.” Astoria, OR •

  • She’s developed something called the Customer Perspective Process where she tries to dig into the social information she has about the people she’s looking to serve.
  • We spend too much time in analytical data (customer surveys, keyword research, etc) trying to develop a customer profile instead of getting into who these people really are. Our brains are very astute at understanding people by nature.
  • She goes small first. Think of individual people. “Who is the one person I know who has this problem?” or “Who is the one person I really want to serve? What problems do they have? How do they think, act, feel?”
  • All of the messaging and marketing and branding and content are defined by the discoveries that come from those questions.
  • “Flipping the sales funnel.” Typically we get as many into the funnel at the top and filter down to those who will buy the product. She flips that around and focuses on 1-3 people (her “virtual focus group”) and she thinks about the social patterns she sees in them… how do they want to feel? what things are they trying to acheive? what frustrations are they currently dealing with?
  • She builds products based on an individual’s desire/struggle because if 1 person has a very particular problem that we can identify and really understand, then lots of people likely have that problem.
  • Big data analysis can be expensive in time and energy (as well as money).
  • Most of the time focusing on specific individuals can lead to answers, insights and results very fast. “Yes, I mean it: really just think of one person.”
  • She uses insights based on one person multiple times: headline of sales page, product outline, launch series, content strategy. One answer, multiple times.
  • for the prospective map.

Jason Glaspey“It’s not just that I’m good at not working, it’s that I’m good at making not working work. #mountainbikes #dad #husband #geek” Hood River, OR •

  • He’s been trying to find the right size of an audience. We often pick either too big or too small of an audience. Too small and, even if your product is perfect, it won’t be enough revenue. Too big and you won’t have enough access to individuals and you’re just lost.
  • “Don’t blog about Star Wars. Blog about Jawas. Better, blog about one specific Jawa who’s on the screen for one minute. Become the go-to guy for that Jawa.” ~ Merlin Mann
  • He asks himself: am I solving a problem for an audience I can actually get to? If they’re looking for a solution, will they actually be able to find me?
  • Sometimes he will find people (site owner, publisher, etc) talking to that audience and then make those people (the site owners) his audience… This way he doesn’t need to make a new audience from scratch… he co-ops an existing audience in some mutually benefitial way with that site’s owner. This is an especially valuable tactic in a large, convoluted space.
  • In that case you may make less money per product sold, but you could very well sell thousands more products than you would have on your own.
  • He thought PaleoPlan’s initial audience would be all crossfit people… these people are used to prescribed regime, disciplined, care about their health, etc. The problem was, those crossfitters are really busy, not usually the kind of people who were actively looking for solutions to this problem.
  • He created another excellent product for a designer crowd. But that crowd also wasn’t actively searching for a solution to the problem that product solved.
  • The people who ended up finding PaleoPlan were the people who were searching… middle aged moms looking to get healthier.
  • Just because you have a product doesn’t mean you have an audience.
  • Just because you have an audience doesn’t mean others who would fit that audience are going to find you.
  • Are you able to switch gears quickly to better delight the people who are finding your product?
  • He’s always looking for an opportunity to make a product for other bloggers/audience-owners because growing an audience sounds tedious to him.

Steve Kamb“Rebel Leader of @NerdFitness. Frequent traveler. Strength training enthusiast. Complete goofball. Decent piano player. Awful singer. Ostrich whisperer.” Nashville, TN •

  • He sends an email to everyone who signs up for his email list asking “what are you struggling with right now?”
  • He also pays attention to the questions he continually gets in other channels… email, forums, blog comments, etc.
  • He’s done pre-sales and announcements for things they hadn’t made yet to see what the audience’s reaction to the product was.
  • He’s also started sending traffic to product pages that haven’t been built yet to collect email addresses and interest (as opposed to blindly creating a product).
  • He created a guide to running before doing any prelim audience interest tactics like these and the guide didn’t end up selling all that great.
  • When he made the women’s fitness guide he prelaunched a minimal product at a discounted price for a limited amount of time (saving him time and money in the making of the product). Then he made the product better with input and feedback from actual buyers of the product. This did a lot better than anything else he’d done in the past.
  • When he has an idea for a product he’ll write an article about it, mention the potential of a bigger book or guide on the topic and create a separate email list for people who are interested in said book/guide to be able to work directly with those people.

Josh Shipp“Every kid is ONE caring adult away from being a success story.” Los Gatos, CA •

  • First he takes it back to the audience he originally chose to work with… the people he cared about and wanted to serve. “Who do I, selfishly, feel the most passionate about helping?”
  • It’s really important to feel like you care about your audience… then whatever methodologies you come up with to help them, so be it. When you selfishly dig an audience you will naturally be in the position to do the homework and the nerdy stuff and it won’t drain you… it’ll delight you.
  • “Care” can be tough… what does it mean? How do I know if I care or not? etc. But when you care about the audience you’re more likely to endure the difficulty that comes with creating any business.
  • No matter what you build there’s going to be some difficulties and hardships… it’s not going to be easy all the time. So it makes sense to ask yourself, “this thing I’m building, do I actually like the inhabitants?”
  • He asks either in person or via email or surveys: what sort of things could I make that you would be willing to buy? Which of these sorts of products would help you? What is the number one problem you struggle with?
  • He finds that people tell you they want the advanced stuff when what they really struggle with are some critical basics.
  • He also does some tests to “dip his toe in” to see if this particular audience is interested in this particular product. He often does this through pre-selling the product or doing a limited run on the first go.
  • If you care your motivation to solve those problems is not only financial… which can make you better at solving those problems.

Jon Collins“Director of Story @TrumanPDX Co-founder @epipheo I write epic novels in my head and impromptu children’s songs at bedtime.” Portland, OR •

  • He goes through an exercise to develop the “persona” he’s targeting. A persona is an attempt to get to a general idea of a category of people without getting too general or too specific.
  • He creates a story map for these personas asking 4 questions:
  • What is success for them?
  • what conflicts are they experiencing?
  • What questions are they going to have?
  • What do we want them to do?
  • It’s really great when the answer to “what do we want them to do” directly impacts the problem they have.
  • The job is to find out who your thing is valuable to and market to them, tell them the truth about why your thing is important. Sometimes the truth is not that interesting so you may have to sex it up, etc., but the point is to get these folks’ attention rather than waste your time with the people your thing isn’t valuable for.
  • When he builds things he thinks of himself as a tour guide for that persona. “We’re entering into that person’s story a moment in time and we’re trying to become a story teller to bring them on a journey so that, when the story’s over, they see the value in that thing.” In order to do that we have to know them.
  • Dear JJ Abrams. Jon and his team made this!

Sarah Peck“I encourage people to be brave, use their voice, tell their story, and cultivate kindness. I teach writing, swim outdoors, and love yoga.” New York, NY •

  • There’s a huge disconnect between being a person who’s interested and capable in lots of things and clearly communicating who you are to someone who’s typically got a specific need they’re looking to address.
  • You may have lots of ideas and lots of places where you can help people, but it’s always difficult to put that into a “form” (whether that’s written, podcast, video, whatever).
  • She’s had the most success finding and growing an audience when she’s very specific about her projects… choosing to focus one one category (writing or swimming or architecture or design… etc).
  • “I am not a niche.” That’s right, but in order to communicate and resonate with your audience you will have to focus so they can understand you.
  • When we listen to stories we track and digest small packets of information. The same is true with how you communicate who you are and how you help people.
  • If I say, “I am a writer,” you can understand that and share it with others. But if I say, “I am a writer who does architecture but I swim in the mornings and I like urban designs and sometimes I do yoga” and I’ve lost you.
  • It’s in our best interests to be clear with our messaging/positioning because it’s more shareable/understandable and we’ll impact more people that way.
  • It’s painful… picking something to focus on is really hard. “I’m so much more than a writer,” but she didn’t have traction until she focused on one topic (writing) and made something for that specific need.
  • The root of the pain of choosing a “niche” is the fact that you actually have to say “no” to so many things.
  • The catch 22: if you want to make something, you have to give other things up.
  • Her philosophy is: even though it’s painful to focus on one thing and say “no” to things she could also be doing right now, she’s banking on having more time later to pursue those other things. This year writing. Next year, swimming. The following, yoga. Etc.

Nathan Barry“Founder and Designer at ConvertKit. App designer, writer, traveler.” Boise, ID •

  • He built an audience around what he wanted to talk about. (1. design, 2. marketing.)
  • “I want people to come to me who are a good fit for what I want to talk about.”
  • He likes to pursue things from the angle of “this is what I know and want to teach,” rather than the other way around: “where’s the opportunity? can I talk about that?” He’s done both… He prefers the first.
  • Idea validation technique 1: create a landing page asking for email address to get more info. Someone giving you their email in exchange for something is basically a form of payment.
  • Idea validation technique 2: ask people “do you have this problem? i’m thinking of building this. would you buy it?” and if they say yes, ask, “can I have your credit card info?” That last part is where the real feedback happens.
  • Discovering what you want to make: the best way he’s found is this (he heard it from Amy Hoy)… ask “who am I?” List out all attributes and discover what audiences you fit into. Dad, traveller, writer, marketer, author, snowboarder, etc…
  • When you target an audience you’re a member of you’ll enjoy it more, can stick with it a lot longer, care about it more, you’ll understand their pain a lot more, have more important insights, and more stories that relate.

James Clear“Entrepreneur, weightlifter, and travel photographer in 20+ countries. Good things happen to me for no apparent reason.”

  • Defining who your audience is and what they’re willing to pay for doesn’t have to be hard, but it involves a lot of work.
  • To serve an audience long term you’ve got to figure out what’s important to you, what your voice is. It can take a while to discover what those things and that voice is.
  • Think about it in leadership terms. Leadership is a way of rallying people who believe the same things you do. As you write more about what’s important to you the more you collect people who feel the same. (as opposed to trying to convince people who don’t already care about those things.)
  • Try This: Be more vocal about what’s important to you, what values you care about. His recent integrity report does this by answering the questions: What are the values that are important to you? How are you living by those values now and expressing those values in your work? what are some areas of improvement?
  • When you open up and talk about whats important to you other people resonate with it.
  • How do you figure out what you should sell them? Derek Halpern’s response to email signups (“what are you struggling with right now?”) is helpful.
  • Surveys. He uses a short google form.
  • TIP: for surveys, use really easy quick ones up front. This starts a little momentum, get’s their foot in the door, making them more likely to fill out the whole thing.
  • Asked his audience specifically, “what are 2 or 3 things I could write about that would help you?”
  • Also asked, “what are other books that solve this problem for you?” Then he went to amazon and look at all the 3 star reviews to see what those books lack… that showed some gaps that weren’t already being filled for that problem.
  • If you write about a topic every week you’re gonna develop a feel for what people want.
  • Just build and launch something. The idea that you can create a product that’s a best seller right off the bat is completely false. Launch, get feedback, improve, launch, get feedback, improve again… etc.

Josh Chang“I like to live. Communications planning at Wieden+Kennedy. It’s like child and youth development.”

  • The biggest thing is figuring out what you want to accomplish, what is that goal? Do you want to learn about a market? Test an hypothesis?
  • From there you have two roads to discovery: quantitative and qualitative.
  • Quantitative: Where are they? How do they consume messages? How large are they? Google or Facebook insights can be good for this as well.
  • Qualitative: out in the field, talking to people, figuring out what makes them them, what’s the truth about them? Creating what he calls the consumer journey. What do they do, what do they consume, etc.
  • The Old Spice guy actually came from an insight that most of the time it’s wives and girlfriends buying deodorant for their men. The idea for the campaign came directly from that.
  • Getting into the individual helps make it tangible. They become a muse, an inspiration for creative decisions.
  • Good Questions: Who defines your brand? Who is the ambassador for your message and mission? Who are you trying to present this to and who are you trying to sell this through?
  • “The greatest thing we can offer is to be great listeners and to have empathy for your culture to understand what is the truth.” ~ John Jay
  • Getting to the truth about them is the real work. It can be difficult because it’s likely something they are not explicitly saying to you… it’s under the surface just a little.

Now, Your Turn

There’s no right answer about this stuff. So, tell me: what have you done in the past to define your audience? Any stories you can tell about when you DID or DIDN’T define your audience well?

Hope you enjoyed this roundup post. Get the Fizzle Guide to Defining Your Audience and let us know if it helps you out.

what is the truth abut your audience? Define your audience.

The Top 10 Mistakes in Online Business

Every week we talk with entrepreneurs. We talk about what’s working and what isn’t. We talk about successes and failures. We spend time with complete newbies, seasoned veterans, and everything in between.

One topic that comes up over and over again with both groups is mistakes made in starting businesses. Newbies love to learn about mistakes so they can avoid them. Veterans love to talk about what they wish they had known when starting out.

These conversations have been fascinating, so we compiled a list of the 10 mistakes we hear most often into a nifty lil' guide.

Download the guide

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