TL;DR: when you know what to plant and where to plant it, you reap the harvest.
"If you address a market that really wants your product — if the dogs are eating the dog food — then you can screw up almost everything in the company and you will succeed. Conversely, if you’re really good at execution but the dogs don’t want to eat the dog food, you have no chance of winning.” - Andy Rachleff
Never has this quote been less true than right now. At Future Commerce, we’re finding that the most influential - and perhaps most valuable - brands are building audience-first. This is contrary to the classic product/market fit that you may have heard of repped in the early oughts from very successful folks like Marc Andreessen.
Evan Moore will be on our show next week. If you don’t know Evan, he previously worked at Goop, where he helped Gwyneth scale from a newsletter with a passionate following to commerce powerhouse. He’s now applying his superpowers at an even greater scale to NBC/Universal’s vast catalog (more about their DTC strategy next week).
Now, I’m not going so far as to claim that the paradigm has shifted, but a new challenger has appeared. Audience-first brands like Goop and Yeezy have taken the celebrity of Gwyneth and Kanye and allowed them to find products that resonate with their adoring fans.
Instead of looking for a hungry market and entering that space from scratch, the next wave of businesses will build audiences. They will get to know those audiences, ideally building a community along the way, and then serve that community with the products and services that they are best suited to provide. In other words, market/product fit is not the crux of startup success. Market/product fit is the overflow of the connection between the creators and the consumers.
This strategy isn’t available only to celebrities. Podcasts create a powerful audience dynamic that allows you to turn fans into customers based on their tendency to devote large times of passive engagement. Turning that passive engagement into active participation can be work, but just ask Joe Rogan - it can be insanely valuable. Newsletters, too, are a growing category that themselves can be monetized. Instagrammers are raising venture capital for product reviews, for crying out loud. Audience-first has serious staying-power.
I’m making this sound philosophical and romanticized, but this is not a sunshine and rainbows strategy. It requires a lot of hard work and sometimes a lot of runway. Building an audience is hard. Getting to know an audience in a measurable way is hard.
So here it is - my hot take of the day is to reprioritize what to focus on as you start a business:
1. Team. Given that the next priority is audience building, the first place to start is authentic content creators. People who are passionate about something and understand how to manifest their ideas in ways that inspire others.
2. Audience. If you have a team that is prolifically, consistently creating compelling original content you need to make sure you get it in front of the right people. Find where those people’s attention is focused and get in front of them. Build a relationship with them. Get to know them in both a qualitative and quantitative way. Understand how they live, what they need, and why they are paying attention to you.
3. Product. Build and sell products that you know your audience will receive from you with open arms. If at all possible: even collaborate with them on what you’ll make and your roadmap. This will enable you to focus on winning products - stuff that you know will sell out. Stuff that fills a waitlist. This is market/product fit, but you’ve stacked the deck.
The audience is your terroir. The better you know it, the better you will be able to understand what, when, and where to plant.
The problem with the classic model of just finding a market ripe for “disruption” and “feeding the hungry dogs” is that you have no relationship with those people. They have no reason to trust you, and you only understand them through market research. You might have a great idea, but a false step in a market with zero prior relationship could mean catastrophic consequences.
The audience-first approach to company building has two distinct advantages over the Andreesen-Horowitz classic market-first model:
1. Better data for making the right products (audience participation)
2. More latitude to make mistakes (fans who champion your success)
Building a direct, first-party audience brings a level of trust and authentic relationship that gives you the latitude to be more open and communicative with the people who will be buying from you.
If you already have a brand and you’re growing audience, you’re not alone. Outdoor Voices, hell even Mailchimp, are all looking to try to turn their customers into audiences. Do the hard work now and create platforms that allow people to engage with you in longer, deeper ways. It makes you better, it makes your product better, and it makes a lasting impact.