Startup explorations #10 / More adventures in Twitter: Who’s following me?

In my last post I summarized one prospective product in terms of problems and solutions. I might summarize it even further as: a smart assistant to help you discover your community. But what does it mean anyway to discover one’s community? I have been thinking about how we might describe the ideal members of our personal communities—how we might identify those people with whom we might find some sort of lasting connection.

In the spirit of experimentation, I looked at my own current Twitter account and its grand total of 34 followers to see if, based on those who choose to have my tweets on their feed, we can paint any broad pictures: the kind of thing a smart technological solution ought to be able to do at scale. I chose to look at several different parameters: the type (whether it’s an individual, a company, or something else), level of anonymity, continent, keywords gleaned from a user’s profile, number of tweets, number of accounts followed, number of followers, and whether I have had any prior connection with them (friends, followers from previous accounts, etc.). The following table represents a partial picture of my most recent followers.

As we can see from the data, my followers consist largely of “builder” types: software developers or technological people working on indie projects. Many of them I’ve described as “thoughtful”—this is strictly not something that appears as a keyword in any profile, but a description of my own making, based on a quick glance at a particular profile, with attention to writing style, subject matter, and tone, among others. We can infer that my ideal community is made up of people in the tech industry who are indie creators and are interested in “thoughtful” subjects—thus we know to be more deliberate about seeking such people out.

Looking at the numbers as well—especially number of followers—we can see, as anyone might correctly assume, that at this time I’m far more likely to be followed by people whose follower counts are under 1,000. Two of my followers have over 6,000—but one is a prior connection from one of my earlier accounts. Knowing this, I would probably focus my efforts on people whose follower counts are between 1 and 1,000.

This is only a quick scratch at the surface: there are many more ways to play around with this data; many more ways that we might use our knowledge to find what we’re looking for. I would only emphasize that ultimately, the point isn’t numbers (i.e., getting the most number of follows possible) but to maximize our chances of finding people who might become part of our audience, and with whom we might build meaningful connections. How can we introduce a more human element to this whole process? Are there any other insights we might be able to gather that only a human mind can think of?

Startup explorations #9 / Ideas worth pursuing

By now I feel like I have enough of an idea, at which I hinted in my last post, to begin a little wireframing. From here the idea begins to leave the safety and comfort of my own head, and goes little by little into the open where it’s much more vulnerable to reality. The following is a quick summary of the key points:

Problem:

  1. Building an audience from the ground up is too intimidating or discouraging.
  2. Careful searching for like-minded people to follow is too time consuming.
  3. Difficult to engage with already established people.

Solution:

  1. A discovery tool that recommends the best people for you to follow, which would most likely result in good engagement.
  2. Integration with popular social network sites like Twitter and Instagram.
  3. No need to calibrate or manually specify a whole bunch of parameters; the technology would automatically base its recommendations on various dynamic factors: follower counts, frequency of use, keywords, etc. It would learn more about you and your ideal community over time.

Again, I would describe our ideal user base as: those creators who are fully committed to their work and have something valuable to share, but struggle to build a consistent following, are intimidated by having to start from the bottom, or find it difficult to find a like-minded community.

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As I begin sketching out screens and figuring out menus and buttons here or there, I’m forced to confront my own ideas even more. The most formidable hurdles at this point are all psychological: the more shape an idea takes, the more I doubt myself. What if I’ve gotten it all wrong? What if this idea sucks? It always seems much less convincing the moment I get it down on paper; suddenly a dozen other ideas seem much more interesting.

But as the truism goes, “ideas are cheap.” A recent post by Seth Godin expresses it in a different way: one’s big idea is probably not original, not breathtaking, and won’t be immediately popular—but it’s worth pursuing if it’s helpful and generous. “All the big ideas that made a difference follow this pattern.” Will this small idea transform into something bigger down the road? It could, but first it needs to be pursued.

Startup explorations #8 / Adventures in Twitter

I continue to obsess over this frustrating subject I’ve chosen—audience building—but in the last few days have focused my exploration largely on Twitter. Twitter is my favorite of the big social media sites; I have met many interesting people on it, some of whom have become steady internet friends, though I have never used it in any strategic way. I’ve had several accounts over several years, none of which has ever gained more than a few hundred followers. But it is a fun game to play.

Twitter’s great strength is naturally the tweet: a short post with a specific character limit, which makes the barrier to entry very low. It is like the public square of old; anybody can take part. In theory, this makes it very easy to find ongoing conversations, slip in and out of them, and make connections with like-minded people. But in practice, human nature makes it difficult to build a following this way: no matter the content, people with already large followings will always attract more people than those who don’t. This is my main frustration with using this platform: not so much the platform itself, but those aspects of human nature which it encourages.

Of course, this is the power that a following commands which it makes it so valuable and coveted: it is more than what the word “audience” implies—a passive, faceless group of people to which you need only shout and sell a product. It is a community of people with whom you continually engage and grow. It is a following around yourself, as a person, which potentially can outlive products and companies; an engine that generates demand around your work. For these reasons, some argue that the best way to go about starting a venture is to build an audience first.

Still, the hard part remains: starting from the bottom. A creator who might have valuable things to share might spend a long time shouting into the void, and struggle to find true engagement rather than just followers, as long as their follower count is not high enough—despite the fact that theoretically, all it takes to get an audience is a tweet here and a follow there. I think there will always be an element of unpredictability to this, as with any endeavor centered around people.

But imagine if we could make this a lot easier: how can we get all the thoughtful, interesting, quirky people together who are just starting out on the path to audience building? How can we get these people to find like-minded spirits in similar situations with whom they’ll be more likely to start lasting relationships? The world is a big place: there is room for more communities to be formed—more opportunities to create such communities that don’t just rely on getting noticed by someone famous.

Startup explorations #7 / Creators follow creators

I enjoyed this podcast episode from How I Built This with Guy Raz—an interview with the founders of Patreon, Jack Conte and Sam Yam. I think theirs is a great story not only because I love seeing musicians and artistic types venturing outside of their particular bubbles, but also because it’s a great example of finding a very specific problem and addressing it in such a succinct way that it seems like a no-brainer. In this case, the problem was that creators who already had a sizable following were making very little money on the “traditional” platforms such as itTunes and Youtube. The solution, then, was to give them a better way of getting paid directly by fans through a subscription or patronage model.

As Patreon grew, and more and more creators began to sign up, its limitations became clear. The ones who find most success in the platform are creators who have followings on other platforms and are able to direct them to Patreon, while creators in the early stages of growing their audiences struggle to gain traction. The founders admit this; this is a gap for which Patreon was not designed. How to fill this gap? This is a worthy problem indeed, a good solution to which would allow a greater range of people to join the creator economy—perhaps not as superstars or celebrities, but a “middle class,” which I referred to in my last post.

Conte and Yam themselves give us a clue in the podcast. They describe the early stages of Patreon: how they started with just a handful of artists (including Conte, who is himself a musician), and how they struggled at first to get people to sign up. What eventually did it was artists seeing other artists getting on the platform and getting visible results—a slow process at first, but with compounding effects. Creators follow creators.

Startup explorations #6 / Inching further, and thoughts on a “middle class” of the creator economy

I found this essay by Li Jin very compelling and have been letting it guide my thinking at this “discovery” stage. I believe in it fully—the creator economy does need a middle class. The truth is that not everyone is fit, nor even wants to be, among those in the top 1 or 2 percent of moneymakers or celebrities on the current creator platforms. But that is no reason why there can’t be a larger percentage of these creators who are able to derive a decent income from their audiences. Furthermore, as Jin argues, “Creator platforms flourish when they provide opportunity for anyone to grow and succeed. When the American Dream is just a dream, the fate of platforms becomes precarious.”

The essay outlines several strategies toward creating a more robust middle class of creators among these platforms: focusing on content type with less replay value, better discovery algorithms for new content with an element of randomness, and facilitating collaboration and community, among others. (The rest are well worth considering as well, but these are the ones that have interested me the most so far.)

I’ve been thinking in the last several days about how all of this relates to my own prospective project. In my previous post, I wrote about some of the initial insights I derived from doing several customer discovery interviews: I was very intrigued by the popularity of Instagram among several different content types, and also surprised by the lack of mention of subscription-based platforms such as Patreon. I suspect that for many prospective middle-class creators, the development of a robust following—most easily measured by follower count, which Instagram is very successful at facilitating—is the great hurdle to be surpassed, before they can even think about ways to monetize that following.

From here, we can see how we inch a little closer to a clearer picture of our prospective customers, as well as a more succinct understanding of their problems. I’m interested in those creators or artists who are truly making an effort—as shown by a discernible body of work that can be stored digitally and accessed publicly—who are trying the currently available tools in some combination, but may be stuck somewhere and are not yet getting the results they want. I don’t think any app or tool can directly give anybody a high follower count—but I think the best way to facilitate this is to get these people together somehow and allow them build a community and “pool” followers together. A good “discovery” system, as Jin suggests—an easy way for artists to connect with one another as well as with fans—would be essential to any platform that seeks to serve this customer base.

Startup explorations #5 / Customer discovery: Further thoughts and first insights

In a previous post, I wrote about beginning to do customer discovery. Again, I note that I scraped together an education in this process by reading a few articles; in the future, I would love to see how a real professional conducts these interviews. This is a challenging step in the ideation process. I’d much rather skip all of it and go straight to building—however, in the end, it is well worth knowing that you’re working off of hard-earned data from real people, rather than just going off of assumptions and what?—Reddit? At any rate, in real life, we learn the skills we need to learn by doing. I’m very sure I’ll be doing more of these in the future, and that I’ll also learn as I go.

In this first round, I interviewed ten people. I used a combination of video calls, phone calls, and email. Calls are probably the best by default: it’s easier to ask follow-up questions and dig for more detail; but if you’re not careful, it’s also very easy to get derailed. However, I did not truly see a difference in the quality of responses I got between phone and email, but this is probably because I knew everybody I was interviewing to some degree. These are all people in an industry that I know well; I had a good context for each of them. I knew who would be thoughtful in writing, and who would be better off speaking spontaneously. In my non-expert opinion, it’s more important than any particular medium that your prospective customer is comfortable with that medium.

I also had a good idea of the kind of people I wanted to talk to. I went with a variety of creators, mostly but not limited to musicians. What they all have in common is that 1) they are all independent as artists, that is, not under professional management (whether they work non-creative day jobs or not); 2) are actively performing, producing content, or otherwise making a discernible effort; and 3) have the ultimate goal of working full-time as artists. Furthermore, all might be described as squarely “middle class” in terms of the creative economy—that is, they are not “stars” even though they are all very highly skilled and credentialed.

The following are some preliminary insights I’ve gleaned from these interviews as a whole:

1. Separation of concerns between building a following and converting it to an income. These are quite different tasks—the first one does not necessarily lead to the second, although it enables it, and some of the skills required of both overlap. At this time, I’m more interested in the first.

2. Clarifying following or audience. I observe two different senses in which these words are used. Nowadays when social media is ubiquitous, a following or audience is usually seen in terms of a number of followers or subscribers in any of the common platforms: YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc. There is usually a large component of strangers, or people an artist encounters online by chance. The main problem is that a large number of followers does not necessarily translate smoothly into an income. Rather, what it truly provides is a powerful kind of social validation, as well as a way to extend one’s reach beyond personal contacts.

In my observation, a smaller number of artists are rather suspicious of social media and don’t really bother much with them beyond casual personal use. Instead, they define their audience in terms of personal contacts which they build organically and over time. Usually this applies more to performers where “work” is much more defined—for example, an organization hires you for a specific one-time or short-term job. This kind of audience or following is not necessarily measured by headcount, but by reliability with regard to finding and securing work. The upside is that these relationships tend to be of a high quality. The downside is readily seen during times of disruption, such as the current coronavirus pandemic, when work dries up and an artist suddenly finds that their means to expand their reach are limited without social media.

3. Instagram is very popular. By far, nearly all of the people I interviewed favor Instagram, or otherwise are planning to use it more actively. Instagram is much more outward-facing than Facebook, more focused than YouTube, and it lends itself well to spontaneous connection with strangers. The concept is also very simple and the app is very easy to use. Among my interviewees, the one who has the most experience with Instagram also had the most to complain about: the app has changed a lot over the years, and has become much more unfocused. It has a lot more new features now, and continues to grow far beyond what it was originally intended to be. So it is going the way of Facebook (which acquired it many years back) in some ways; one no longer gets the sense that they are getting authentic updates from their friends and contacts, but rather just targeted content designed to get clicks.

4. The available tools are fine, but require initiative. Of course, this is true with anything in life. Many artists see the work it takes to build a following as a chore—it consumes a lot of time, and also most artists are not really trained to be businesspeople. They are unable to think of their audiences as customers. But no one tool can really do all the work of building someone else’s following. Instead, I think we have to think of facilitating the process instead, and making it a little smoother where we can. That said, there are some artists who do enjoy the business aspect of things—such as data analytics, coming up with strategies, etc.—even though it is only a secondary interest next to creating. How can we make all of it more interesting and encouraging to the average artist?

5. By far, the one thing most artists really want is more time to create. Related to the previous point, this is pretty consistent across everyone I spoke with. Time spent promoting work or doing business tasks means less time creating. Creating art or producing content in itself takes enormous time and is often not very efficient. No work is ever really “finished.” But to an artist, creating is the whole point of anything—many dream simply of the freedom to pursue and hone their craft, not necessarily to become wealthy or famous, but to inspire, connect, and cultivate good relationships with others.

Startup explorations #4 / Brief thoughts on “Anything You Want” by Derek Sivers

I became increasingly interested in the notion of “doing my own thing” a few months ago as I was trying to figure out how to proceed with my career in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. One of the first figures I found who provided a lot of inspiration was Derek Sivers. Sivers started out as a musician (like me) before “accidentally” founding CD Baby in the late ’90s—at first, only as a way to publish his CDs on the internet, which then grew to become one of the largest and most well-known online distributors of independent music. This story, as well as that of eventually moving on from his own company, is the impetus behind Sivers’s short book Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneurship.

Sivers takes a very lean, individual, and unapologetically casual approach to things, which I admire. The book is meant to be a distillation, short enough to read in one sitting, of ten years worth of business experience. If I were to distill it even further into one unifying message, from my point of view, it’s that a company can be an extension of one’s personality, a vision of one’s perfect world, “whatever you want.” A creator through and through, Sivers considers business no less a creative act than music or fine art. His approach emphasizes a more human side to an industry that can otherwise be impersonal, transactional, and overly formal.

Therefore, central to all of this is the need to help people above all; everything else, including money, growth, and all the usual trappings of running a company, is secondary. Sivers deemphasizes any grand plans or visions in favor of just “helping people today.” He advocates starting as small as possible—as he did with CD Baby—with what can be done now, regardless of funding: what problem can you help solve for a single person at this moment?

As I’ve said before, I believe any project that hopes to solve the most challenging problems facing artists and creative types cannot afford to neglect the human side of things; not only because we are dealing with a kind of people who are especially attuned to the “things of the soul,” but also because our world today is filled with so much noise, digital and otherwise, with no signs of slowing down. In such a state of affairs, it becomes increasingly difficult year after year to find genuine connection and community; I suspect that more and more people are becoming aware of this, and are seeking better options than those currently on offer.

Startup explorations #3 / Beginning customer discovery, and a self-interview

I’ve just started doing “customer discovery” interviews. According to one source, customer discovery is a “customer-centric, scientific process that puts evidence behind an assumed product-market fit.” My education in it consists of reading only a few articles in the last two days; but in less technical terms, as I understand it, it is a method for discovering where the problems are that might need solving, straight from prospective customers. The crucial thing here is to test one’s assumptions without imposing them on anyone. Hence, the interview questions are rather broad and open-ended, designed not to lead anybody to answer in any particular way.

At a first pass, with lots of help from the resources I consulted, here’s what I came up with :

  • What do you do?
  • What tools do you use to get people to follow your work?
  • What do you like about these tools?
  • What do you not like about these tools?
  • What’s the ideal outcome?
  • If you could come up with an instant, magical solution to get what you want, what would it look like?

Recall once again that the problem I’m interested in is that of audience building. Here I’m putting many of my assumptions to the test about what creators are doing to grow their followings and the problems they face as they do that. My assumptions, of course, come from my own experience as a musician. If somebody were to come to me with these questions, as a musician, I would answer as follows:

What do you do? I compose music orchestral, chamber, and vocal music, as well as musical theatre.

What tools do you use to get people to follow your work? Mainly Facebook and Instagram.

What do you like about these tools? The level of potential engagement on Facebook is pretty good; it feels more personal because my network is mostly people I know or have met in person. Instagram stories are really easy to do; because they expire, it feels like you don’t have to make as much of an effort; and you can see who’s viewing your stories even if they don’t really engage. Although I don’t have any real strategy for getting more followers on these platforms.

What do you not like about these tools? Nothing about the tools themselves, I guess. I don’t like using them. I don’t really enjoy attention and would be much happier if I didn’t have to bother with these sites. In general it feels rather “salesy,” although there are rare moments that seem like genuine connection. On the whole, using these tools has not really resulted in a following around my work. One would would have to be using them constantly to get any real traction. Also, I find that sharing media on Facebook doesn’t usually get far.

What’s the ideal outcome? Ideally, there would just be enough interest in my work for me to be getting a steady stream of commissions, performances, etc.

If you could come up with an instant, magical solution to get what you want, what would it look like? A way to share or point to my work that doesn’t feel like it requires so much effort before getting any traction; or a way to make the whole thing somehow feel more human, and not just transactional.

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I wrote these answers down very quickly and without thinking about them too much, and later on I might change my mind about one thing or another; but, if prospective customers of our future product are anything at all like me, I would assume that they’d give similar answers; the thing to do now is to confirm these assumptions, or otherwise allow them to be challenged.

While all of this sounds rather simplistic, doing interviews in real life naturally comes with many challenges. In real life, people are much more dynamic and do not always give straight answers. Sometimes they overthink, and try to manufacture a “smart” answer, which obscures truth. Sometimes a conversation gets derailed, or veers off to unexpected places. I expect to learn a lot more about this whole enterprise as I get more practice. Talking to people strategically does not come naturally to me, and I suspect it is a stumbling block for many others as well. More than that, usually one would rather let their ideas run with reckless abandon and not have their assumptions challenged—but it’s the only way to get to the bottom of things.

Startup explorations #2 / Trends and opportunties: Beginning notes

I mentioned in my previous post that I’m interested in the problem of audience-building for artists or creators. There seems to be great opportunity in building off the current global trend of the booming creator or “passion” economy: middlemen between creators and audiences have largely faded away, creators have more control over what they produce, and audiences get to interact directly with their favorite creators. The subscription model and “micro-patronage” have become widespread and have been shown to work—we may find other useful models in the future, but the shift toward more direct relationships between creators and audiences has effectively facilitated meaningful human connection and is likely to last.

The dominance of video is also a current trend, greatly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many performing artists, notably musicians, have been driven to adopt video (Zoom, YouTube, Facebook Live, etc.) as a short to medium-term solution for performance, teaching, collaboration, etc. Given these trends, it becomes important to remember, what are audiences paying for? Quality of content itself remains important, but it’s also meaningful and effective connection, which technology attempts to facilitate.

Some parallel directions this could take:

Meaningful connection through in-person events. Video will continue to be vital for many creators (a trend that should not be cast aside), but I’ve observed that many creators have also begun to be more aware of its limitations—notably, that it can never replace the human aspect of live, in-person experience. This would apply more to performing artists: instrumentalists, singers, actors, dancers, etc. Hence, the opportunity to take an opposite route and encourage audience-building with a hyperlocal approach. What if we could have a platform that enables performers and audiences to find each other in-person through a map system, updated in real-time with all events currently taking place near a given user’s location?

Meaningful connection over the internet. This is more applicable to creators: composers, songwriters, writers, filmmakers, visual artists, etc. Could we have a platform that focuses on enabling creators and fans to find each other by highlighting quality work? Many of the current independent creator subscription sites such as Patreon, Substack, etc. do not have developed systems for either discovering new work or audience-building.

One possible approach is a more developed system of personalized recommendations. Perhaps a user, with each sign in, can be shown a page with a dynamic list of work that they might like and consider supporting. Any user can choose to highlight any work they find particularly impressive, which goes into the system that manages these recommendations. To make this meaningful, quality work would have to be emphasized. Instead of organizing or ranking recommendations by “likes” or numbers of supporters (which can be off-putting to artists who don’t already have large followings), perhaps there would be a kind of endorsement from someone in the community who has chosen to highlight it. This could be one way to incentivize community engagement—by correlating it with platform visibility and discoverability.

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In summary, my thinking is to build off all or some of the trends outlined above—the creator economy, dominance of video, the subscription model—while in parallel possibly resisting aspects of those trends that are negative—lack of meaningful connection, information overload, low-quality work, the concentration of success to creators who have large followings before they even get into a new platform.

My thinking on all of this is naturally influenced by my personal experience as both a performer and creator, and my ability to sympathize with the difficulties of audience building. I have a good sense of the conflicts many artists face: they are sensitive people who strive always for meaningful connection and quality work rather than pure numbers, balanced with the need to compete and sell in a winner-take-all environment. I think we can work on building a platform with a strong human element to it that takes these things into account, that will ultimately encourage more creators to take their careers into their own hands.

Startup explorations #1 / Introduction, background, goals

I have never called myself a businessman, although all creative types must be businesspeople in some way. I started out my career as a composer in the classical music industry—I had to maintain an online presence, self-publish, write contracts, keep a payment system, etc. if I wanted any of my work to get performed. It all came down to the need to build an audience if I wanted my work to be sustainable. I wasn’t good at these things, but they needed to be done anyway, and they take a lot of work. Along my path, I decided that being a full-time musician wasn’t for me, but the question of audience-building remains pressing wherever one goes, if one hopes to do work that has any meaningful and lasting impact.

Approaching this question is more straightforward in some industries than others—when it comes to artistic types, one deals with a certain kind of people who are driven primarily by meaning, connection, beauty, and such parts of the human condition that are difficult to put into words but we all know are vital. The best artists are not necessarily those already at the top making all the money (sometimes, they have little concern for money), but we know that many of them deserve to be heard and supported for their potential to make meaningful, positive contributions to society. The currently booming creator economy is a testament to this potential, as well as to the truth in the idea that people can be empowered to control their own careers and do work that they truly care about.

Since winding down my own music career, I’ve developed and continue to develop a secondary skill set in technology. And as chance would have it, I’ve now found myself working for an exciting startup studio which sees great opportunity in the creator economy. It’s a great pleasure for me to rediscover many of the business and entrepreneurial concepts I learned as a student of music and administrator at a small arts company, and now with the added perspective of a developer, as I take on the challenge of creating a technological solution around a problem that will always be close to me: that of creators and audience-building.

Hence, this blog. To me, this is a creative and exploratory project with the twofold goal of: 1) documenting the journey of creating a new business—hopefully, with luck and persistence—from the very beginning, and 2) learning everything I can from the many resources available to me about startups, their economy, and how they’re built. I hope this project will prove both instructive in some way and entertaining to whoever reads it.