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 #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 #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.