Without This, Your Product Doesn’t Matter

“Almost every failed startup has a product. What failed startups don’t have are enough customers.” — Gabriel Weinberg, Traction

I refreshed the screen and looked again. Boom. #1.

I had written a #1 bestseller. It felt good―really good. That was nine months ago.

On most days, my book is still a #1 bestseller on Amazon (albeit in a smaller sub-category), but sales have decreased, along with my overall ranking. Now other questions loom in my head. Questions like: “How long will it stay at #1? What happens when the popularity fades? How do I increase the shelf life? How do I increase the LTV of my current readers?”

When I first started creating things (apps, games, and most recently, books), I thought product was all that mattered. My goal was to create the best product possible. I love creating. I love design. I get inspired by writing, thinking, and making stuff. These are my passions.

But after nearly a decade of designing and building, I’ve realized that product is actually not the most important thing after all. In fact, there’s something far more critical.

Your product is worth nothing if nobody knows about it. In Traction, Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares assert that you should spend 50% of your time on product and 50% on marketing. I actually think they’re wrong. It should be more like 80/20, 95/5, or even 99/1―in favor of marketing.

Typically, as creators, we pour all of our passion and effort into the product we’re creating. But therein lies the dilemma. If you’re creating a product, you presumably want people to use that product―which is becoming a bigger and bigger challenge. Why? Because there’s more noise in the world than ever before. The frequency and volume of information flowing into the ever-expanding internet is only accelerating. The ability to hold people’s attention is therefore increasingly more difficult. Getting people to discover your product can’t be an afterthought. It needs to be the focus.

Don’t get me wrong. We’re living in an amazing time. Sharing information has never been easier, and that’s a good thing. I’m a huge fan of the entrepreneurial movement. But as creators, how are we supposed to contend with content overload? Our customers are being swallowed up by endless ads and games and apps and books that aren’t ours. Most of us are getting overlooked―and it’s crushing. For many of us…it’s the end. If we can’t distribute our products effectively, we die.

It took me nearly a decade to fully understand this. Honestly, I’m embarrassed to say that. But it’s true. What matters most is not your product. What matters most is your ability to build a community around your product. To build loyalty. To build trust. To find your customers. (Yes, you need to find them. They won’t just find you.)

If you’re an entrepreneur, or a reader of nonfiction, this is old news. Michael Hyatt has a book about it called Platform. I’ve already mentioned Traction, which goes deep on the subject. Seth Godin’s book on this is called Tribes. Gary Vaynerchuk’s version is called Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. And the list goes on. These people are all very successful. They know what they’re talking about. Yet, so many of us (including me) seem to ignore their message. Why is this? Here are a few explanations:

We’re blinded by passion.

Because we’re so deeply consumed by the art of creation, we feel different about our product than everyone else on the planet. To us, it’s the most amazing thing ever. We’ve emptied our heart and bled for it. We’ve given up a part of our soul for it. We’ve toiled with the toughest problems imaginable before finally, after countless sleepless nights, finding an elegant solution. The best solution. Surely, everyone will flock to this product, right? There should be a wait-list a mile long. Unfortunately, our feelings don’t transfer to everyone else. That’s just not how it works. Instead, we need to somehow get people’s attention, gain their trust, and then―only then, will they begin to experience the product as we’ve intended.

We’re shortsighted.

Twitter has screwed us. Everything is now bite-sized. Everything is quick. Go, go, go! As a culture, we’ve become impatient and entitled. If you look at the most successful people in this world, they’ve built their empires over time―brick by brick. They’re not one-hit-wonders. They go to work every day. They play the long game.

We’re misinformed.

We’re shortsighted because we’re misinformed. The media loves to write about unbelievable successes. And they love to write about horrible failures. That’s about it. They love excitement and drama. I can’t blame them. They’re businesses. They need to make money, and they make money by driving traffic to their sites. Unfortunately, this skews our perspective of reality. As consumers, we only see about 1% of what’s actually happening in the world.

We hear about Snapchat and Facebook and YouTube. The founders of these companies struck gold early in their careers, without much failure. YouTube exited in less than two years for over a billion dollars. Snapchat was Evan Spiegel’s first product. Same for Zuckerberg with Facebook. Yeah, they poked around with a few other things, but their stories are mainly about speedy―and monumental―success. These outcomes aren’t typical. That’s why I love hearing about people like Jan Koum, who worked at Yahoo for nearly a decade, got rejected by Facebook when he applied for a job―and then built WhatsApp, which later sold to Facebook for $19 billion. Or, the story of Slack, which was born out of a 4-year failed attempt at building a browser-based game called Glitch. Or even stories about non-VC backed companies, like Drip, a software startup founded by Rob Walling after he spent years building his brand and fiddling with other products.

Everything worthwhile takes time―even in the lottery-winner scenarios. Zuckerberg did other stuff before Facebook. And Snapchat had a slow start. It didn’t pick up speed until a few years after it was conceived. I’ll say it again―everything worthwhile takes time. Don’t let the media fool you. We’re all misinformed. It’s just the nature of the beast.

We’re lazy.

Most everyone reading this will understand everything I’m saying and nod their heads, but here’s the problem: They still won’t execute on it. I, myself, have fallen into this bucket for most of my life. There’s a simple explanation: It’s really hard. If you’re a product-focused person like me―it’s very difficult to come to terms with the fact that you need to spend 80, or 90, or maybe even 99% of your time on marketing.

It took me a year to write my first book. I spent about 20% of that time on marketing, and 80% on writing. It should have been the other way around. If I hope to see sales from my book for the next decade, 100% of my effort now falls into the ‘marketing’ category. So you can see how the scale quickly tips to the marketing side over the long haul.

Here’s the good news: Marketing means many things. It’s not just about setting up Facebook ads. Marketing is anything and everything that is not your product. Okay, maybe not everything. Eating a bologna sandwich won’t do much to improve sales. But if you make an appearance on a podcast show, that’s marketing. If you write an article, that’s marketing. If you meet someone at a conference, that’s marketing. Most of what you put out into the world will have repercussions that eventually come back to you in some way. If I go hide in my room for the rest of my life, very few people will buy my book a year from now. But if I keep putting things out into the world―even things that are unrelated to the book―more people will eventually discover it and potentially make a purchase.

So how do you build a tribe?

Have a brand. 

You need a website. You just do. Whether you’re a company or a person. WordPress. Get it done. I’m an idiot for waiting so long.

Work your marketing into the product itself.

If you have a book, link to your website within the opening pages. You’ll generate leads and be able to sell other products in the future. If you have an app or a game, give people the option to rate it from within the app or share it with friends. If you have a podcast, plug your brand within the podcast itself. Etc.

Have a long-term outlook.

Realize that not every product needs to make money. Part of selling is brand-building. I give my books away to all of my email subscribers for free. I do this because I know there will be other things down the line that they might want to buy from me. Giving products away for free also generates good karma. People are more likely to write positive reviews or share the product with friends if they got it for free. People love free.

Also realize that not every product needs to be your ‘home run.’ James Altucher wrote an amazing book called Choose Yourself. Most people know him for that. What they don’t know is that it was his 11th title. Hal Elrod wrote The Miracle Morning. That was his big hit, but it wasn’t his first book. It was his sixth. My first startup built a product that completely flopped before we released one that worked. You get the point. Think about your product as a single dot on a very long line―with the understanding that there will be many other dots.

Create multiple products and cross promote.

Tim Ferriss has produced three insanely good books. He also filmed a TV series, and now hosts an award winning podcast. That suite of products took nearly 10 years to assemble. Over that time, Tim has also amassed a huge following. He does this systematically, by releasing multiple products and keeping his audience engaged. Once you have multiple products, you can cross promote them. In the back of The Four Hour Workweek, for example, Tim includes bonus material promoting The Four Hour Body. Works like a charm.

Be authentic, honest, and kind.

I can’t stress this enough. No example or scientific theory is needed here. It’s common sense, but so many people screw this up. Just be real. That’s it. Customers can feel your authenticity. They’re drawn to it. And if you’re fake, they’ll flee.

*****

The authors of Traction have identified 19 channels for growing your customer base. I highly recommend you check it out. As of this writing, it has over 200 reviews and a 4.7 star rating on Amazon.

Anyone can create a product. Few can create a high-quality product. And even fewer can find traction.

The product needs to be good. That’s a given. But if you want to succeed in the long run, you should increase your marketing efforts. It’s far more important than the product itself.

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