The questions almost no startup founders ask

The following is a chapter from Ryan Holiday’s new book, The Perennial Seller, a fascinating look at what it takes to help books, tech projects and art that last. In this chapter he discusses the questions that no startup founders ask before they begin work.

For more background on the book I encourage you to visit his post about how he made the book over a grueling (and fun) two-year period.

The critic Toby Litt could have been talking about all bad art and bad products when he said that “bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self.” Bad startups are the same. They aren’t actually businesses, they are self-indulgent playthings that do nothing for no one.

In my library I have a little book called Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof. Unless you’re a permaculture nerd, there’s no reason you’d have heard of this book. That’s the whole point—the book is for permaculture nerds, or at least aspiring ones. This might not seem like a big niche but this indie-published engine-that-could has gone on to sell some 165,000 copies (more than most books will ever sell) and is still in print some thirty-five years after publication. It’s on its second expanded and revised edition—the first came fifteen years after initial release, the second twenty years after that. It’s the kind of perennial seller that all authors aspire to—indeed that creators of all types should aspire to. The author made something that lasted and she made something that will continue to last (unless society suddenly stops producing garbage).

This kind of success doesn’t happen accidentally, and it’s not the result of marketing either. Her book, like many other perennial products—from Craigslist to Pixar movies—is a conceptualization success story. They didn’t bump into their audience or lasting success, they aimed for it. They built around it.

Yet if you ask most creators the relatively simply question: “Who is this for?” they can’t give you an answer. They cannot fill in this very basic sentence: “This is a ______ that does ______ for ______.”

Over the years, my firm Brass Check has worked with many hundreds of startups, writers and makers. I’ve asked clients this very question many times. As a writer myself, I’m always shocked at the answer. Because these people have spent hundreds of hours working on something without ever stopping to ask who the hell they are making it for. If they had, they wouldn’t give me answers like:

· “Everyone”
· “You know, smart people”
· “Malcolm Gladwell fans”
· “Myself”

The problem with those answers is not just that they are vague (“smart people”) or ridiculous (“myself”); it’s that such audiences don’t exist. There is no convention where Malcolm Gladwell fans get together. They don’t all read the same website. Just as every politician has to create his or her own coalition in order to win, no creator can magically inherit the audience of another. Whatever you’re making is not for “everyone” either—not even the Bible is for everyone. For yourself? Are you honestly satisfied selling just one unit?

Paul Graham famously wrote that “having no specific user in mind” is one of the eighteen major mistakes that kills startups: “A surprising number of founders seem willing to assume that someone— they’re not sure exactly who—will want what they’re building. Do the founders want it? No, they’re not the target market. Who is? Teenagers. People interested in local events (that one is a perennial tar pit). Or ‘business’ users. What business users? Gas stations? Movie studios? Defense contractors?”

At least those answers are plainly wrong or unspecific. The most common response is even more alarming. It’s the creator who answers the audience question with:

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought much about it.”

If you haven’t thought about who your product is actually for, then what the hell have you been thinking about?

Successful products know who they are for–not generally, but specifically. Even the ones that have ambitious long-term goal to monopolize a broad and large market with a big audience, start with much smaller ones. As Peter Thiel outlines in Zero to One, the key often to start by dominating a small niche where you have a specific audience. Facebook started on Harvard and expanded to other campuses to now global dominance. As he put it, “Dominate a small niche and scale up from there, toward your ambitious long-term vision.” I like to think of it as concentric circles: Each small audience is contained inside a potentially larger audience. It’s like the line from Sex and the City (which happens to make Lady Gaga’s career trajectory quite well): “First come the gays. Then the girls. Then . . . the industry.”

When Susan Cain sat down to create a book about introversion, she had a very specific audience in mind: introverts. This was also a traditionally underserved audience, which is even better from a positioning perspective (when supply is down, demand is high). The result was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking—a publishing sensation that has not only moved in excess of two million copies, but spurred courses, leadership consulting, and a viral TED talk that has been watched more than 14 million times.

In the same way, the Left Behind series is obviously for Christians. Its films, novels, graphic novels, video games, and albums are preaching with a very specific choir in mind. Cannibal Holocaust, on the other hand, is a dark and twisted horror film meant for the most extreme horror fans—it’s certainly not for highbrow critics or average theatergoers.

The Blue Collar Comedy Tour (with well-known Southern comedians), The Three Amigos Tour (with well-known Latino comedians), The Original Kings of Comedy Tour (with well-known black comedians) and the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (with well-known Middle Eastern comedians) were all aimed at very specific ethnic and social groups. Since 2009, ABC has taken a similar approach with its weeknight programming. They developed a series of family sitcoms that target discrete segments of their overall viewership. Modern Family (2009) is about a mixed family featuring different types of modern relationships. The Middle (2009) is about a struggling Midwestern working class family. The Goldbergs (2013) is a nostalgic show about family life in the 1980s. Black-ish (2014) is about a suburban, upper-middle class black family. Fresh Off the Boat (2015) is about an immigrant Asian family trying to make it in suburban Florida. Obviously each one of these shows appeals to larger audiences but they would not success without first nailing the proposition for their first and most important audiences.

If you haven’t thought about how your product(s) do this, then again I ask, what have you thought about? Presumably you have some vision of people purchasing or using this thing you’ve spent all your time making. How could you not know who they are? It’s not going to happen by accident!

The single most important consideration a creator can make with their project is to sit down and think about who its for. Not after they’re finished and they’re trying to market it, but right now, before they’ve even begun.

You must be able to explicitly say who you are building your thing for. You must know what you are aiming for—you’ll miss otherwise. You need to know this so you can make the decisions that go into properly positioning the project for them.

The next step is to take a person who represents this audience represents and keep them in your mind every single day—while you’re writing, coding, designing, testing. Stephen King believes that “every novelist has a single ideal reader” so that at various points in the process he can ask, “What will ______ think about this?” (For him, it’s his wife, Tabitha.) Kurt Vonnegut joked that you have to “write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” John Steinbeck said “Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one.”

For my first book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, I knew I was specifically targeting media folks, publicists, and a new generation of social media employees. Here’s the exact language I laid out in that proposal:

Jobs in social media are one of the hottest-growing sectors in the economy. . . . This growing workforce eagerly eats up whatever information it can learn from—these young workers have not yet begun to grasp how the industry really works because the industry is only in its infancy. Fundamentally different from the preachy-and-useless books from media critics and “—for Dummies” style how-to books, Confessions of a Media Hit Man is not only an instructional manual for mastering the wild world of social media but an honest warning of the dangers—written by someone who has personally been there. Marketed as intended, Confessions of a Media Hit Man is poised to inspire and define a generation of workers in the style of its predecessor, David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, which became the bible of the advertising and public relations industry, is still in print more than fifty years after publication, and sold more than one million copies.

The title of the book eventually changed, and the book was written and rewritten over the course of a year in order to fulfill my admittedly grandiose pitch, but the audience stayed the same. Everyday as I was writing, I would sit down and converse with that young-twenty something PR professional or social media intern who was trying to figure out how the hell their industry worked. Every word I wrote was aimed towards them—towards explaining everything I had learned in my career and wanted them to know. I had to work my ass off to get it right—and that was possible only because I had first articulated said target (as I write this, the book is #1 in Blogs/Blogging, #2 in Media & Communications and #2 in the Public Relations category on Amazon, 5 years after its release)

Craig Newmark, who founded Craigslist two decades ago (he doesn’t run it day to day anymore, but his philosophy has been enough to keep the site focused and effective) told me that he started Craigslist mostly to reciprocate the exact service that other San Franciscans had done for him—help him get settled into a new city. It was his clear image of a new person in a new city needing furniture, an apartment, to meet new people that allowed him to build the service into the massive network that it would be come.

If you don’t know who you’re writing for or who you’re making for, how will you know if you’re doing it right? How will you know if you’ve done it? Hope cannot be a strategy. You are unlikely to hit a target you haven’t aimed for.

Picking a lane isn’t limiting. It’s the first act of empowerment we take as a creator. Recently Charlie Rose asked Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the blockbuster musical Hamilton, what set him apart from some of the smarter, more talented kids he had gone to school with. Miranda answered: “’Cause I picked a lane and I started running ahead of everybody else . . . I was like, ‘Alright, THIS.’”

For any project, you must know what you are doing—and what you are not doing. You must also know who you are doing it for— and who you are not doing it for—to be able to say: THIS and for THESE PEOPLE. In some cases, that might be an enormous niche. In Miranda’s situation, it’s people looking for a very different kind of Broadway show. Regardless of what it is, you have to know. You have to choose. Having this clarity allows you to focus your creative energy in a very narrow, effective way. It allows you to focus that energy on making the right thing for the right people.

Creating a “perennial seller” whether it’s something small like Appelhof’s Worms Eat My Garbage or something enormous like an Apple product begins with the pre-work. The conceptualization. The motivations. The product’s fit with the market. The execution. These intangible factors matter a great deal. They cannot be skipped. They can’t be bolted on later.

Too many creators and entrepreneurs expect to get lucky. They want to be for everyone…and as a result end up being for no one.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts and five other books. His monthly book recommendations go out to over 80,000 subscribers. He lives in Austin, TX.