How to Build a Successful Business With a Small Audience

image of a collection of garden gnomes

More subscribers. More traffic. More followers.

It’s easy to get caught up in the race for more. More is better, right?

We all want our businesses and blogs to grow. But not all growth is ideal or even beneficial. Sometimes blind growth can be harmful.

More contacts and more eyeballs doesn’t always mean better eyeballs. Would you rather have 1,000 people’s eyes completely glued to everything you do, or 100,000 with an attention span rivaling a fruit fly on amphetamines?

More traffic isn’t always better either. New traffic is great, but if 99% leave without subscribing or taking some kind of desired action, does it really matter? Wouldn’t you rather have a few new followers join you every day as lifelong customers, than a few thousand who window-shop and quickly move on?

How big is “big enough?” Have you thought about this? Incredible size easily leads to overwhelm of too many good ideas. I’m sure there are quite a few “big people” out there who wish their businesses were smaller and simpler.

It’s not that growth is bad

Growth is natural. If your product or service is first-rate, if your content is terrific, if you spend lots of time building quality relationships, and if you learn to effectively promote yourself, you’re going to grow.

But we could always do more. We hit one milestone number and immediately we start wishing for the next.

We have this idea that in order to be successful we need to be as big as possible. So is that really true? I don’t think so.

  • Charlie Gilkey has a blog of just over 3,000 subscribers. And with this relatively “small” following, he has had no problem carving out a niche for himself helping creative entrepreneurs launch and develop their products. He regularly partners with peers who have five times or more the size of audience he has.
  • Adam Baker runs another profitable, agile business with a few thousand subscribers. He’s managed to stay lean enough to travel the world with his family while he runs his business.
  • Yusuf Clack has built a successful business by targeting a small niche and speaking to them in a way that no one else has. He doesn’t have a huge online following. But he has a passionate one.

These are just a few of the many people out there who are doing quite well with a relatively small but highly engaged audience.

How exactly do you make this work?

Instead of playing for numbers, you play for depth. Think knock-out punches instead of a torrent of annoying fly-swatting jabs.

Okay, maybe that’s a bad analogy, you don’t make friends by hitting them in the face.

How about if I just tell you a few ways to deepen your reach?

  • Do less, better. It’s much easier to make an impression when you focus on doing a few key things incredibly well. Become known for helping people by doing something amazing.
  • Create high-value products and services. If your product price range is under $20, you’ll have to move a ton of inventory. But if you focus on valuable, higher-priced products (like awesome consulting or private training) you won’t need as many clients.
  • Make more intimate connections. You can create a deeper connection with someone in a five-minute phone call than you can in five months of twitter conversation. The more you can connect on the phone and in person, the better, and the more likely you’ll create relationships that go beyond the surface level.
  • Build a referral based business. When your focus is on people (not just numbers), more people will want to refer you to their friends and peers. This means you need to offer excellent customer service and you need to always exceed expectations. Also, if you have a service or product that complements someone else’s, it will be a natural fit for them to refer their people to you.
  • Make yourself accessible. So many people create unnecessary distance between themselves and the people they help. They have filters, gate keepers, and barriers to communication. One benefit of staying small is it’s much easier to engage with your audience. Show that you’re someone who really cares and wants to help. The more you do that, the greater depth of connections you will build.

The more you focus on depth, the more you realize that breadth is only relevant to a point. If you become obsessed with growth for its own sake, it can be hard to keep perspective.

Sometimes being small is just fine. Sometimes, in fact, it’s fantastic.

About the Author: Jonathan Mead is a martial artist and self development writer. He just released a guide called The Dojo that helps you get amazing things done before most people finish breakfast.

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  1. I had to learn this the HARD way! I used to build these MEGA sites that brought in thousands but now that is actually what I do and mentor in Niche Marketing. Especially online your money is definitely waiting for you!

    Great post adding ti to my premium collection

  2. I like this one: Do less, better.

    A really great idea that many people miss in the scramble to keep eating.

  3. @Jonathan:

    I’d say you and the people you listed in your post believe in the famous quote: “Success is something you attract by the person you become.”

    I’d say the “smaller” following you and the others have all believe you guys are the type of people this quote represents.

  4. Being small with a focused audience I feel is the best way to really attract change and make it work. Great article. Thanks.

  5. But in the initial enthusiasm, all that is visible to a person are Dollars and a HUGE following and a wish for more and more and more….

    So it means it is not necessary go BIG and Bigger and Bigger.

    Nice Examples you provided there….

    Which show that it is perfectly good to have a small Audience but which are RESPONSIVE.

  6. Hey Jonathan,

    Awesome stuff you wrote! It’s not always about the numbers. When you have a specialize targeted audience. Your bottom line numbers will reflect from it. Main reason you are speaking their language and no one else is.

    Have a great weekend!
    Josh

  7. Charlie Gilkey has 3000 subs? I thought this article was about a small audience… :)

  8. Referral based business. That’s music to my ears, and that’s where I’m shifting my energy.

    So far, it’s worked very well for Blogger Beats.

  9. This is hugely important. I know many biz owners with a list of less than a thousand people who do mad sales. Quality will always beat out quantity in the long term. Not everyone can have a list with 100k people…not every niche is that size. But EVERYONE can provide significant, unique value to a tight knit group and make a damn good living.

  10. the IM crowd needs to learn how to ACTUALLY run a business. That will make a big difference.

  11. That’s how I survived for 10 years as a web developer. Word of Mouth. After year 5 I stoped worryin where the next job was going to come from, cause it always did.

    Now – the problem was I didn’t strategically create it or massage it. It just happened. The power Jonathan describes above is in the purposeful creation of your business and it’s audience.

  12. Very good points…Having a niche and captive audience is a very powerful asset.

    One point I would bring up is that social proof is a powerful force & asset as well. I recently wrote a post on this on my blog.

    Many people have a follow the crowd mentality and if someone sees that a blog has hundreds of thousands of subscribers or twitter followers- people tend to think….Wow this many people can’t be wrong…they subscribe… The cycle repeats itself and traction continues to grow.

    I’m not disagreeing with you at all, but I would rather have 1,000 captive subscribers that are part of a larger subscriber base than the the 1,000 alone. Truth be told social proof can help one lead to a larger captive audience over time.

    *Agree with your point on developing a higher quality product or service at a higher price delivered to less people.

    As in many circumstances….much of a strategy is situational based on the industry, business offering and customers.

    Good post!

    DB

  13. I loved the boxing analogy! (Also, one swift roundhouse to the head will do the trick—just kidding!)

    I really appreciated this post. I don’t envision having a huge following for my niche, and this was very helpful.

    I agree that customer service is vital, and I’m loving the referral based business component.

    Thank you Jonathan.

  14. Your examples of successful sites are perfect. Kudos to them. They show that it is about being effective.

  15. I think especially for those of us who are just now joining the online business arena, we have no choice but to go the referral based route. There’s too many big players for us to try and make a splash without having depth to our products and services.

    I also think that if you focus on your small audience and stay committed to shipping to them, chances are you’ll naturally develop a large audience that become committed to you too. (At least, I hope that is true!) :)

  16. Totally agree with everything you said. My problem is that I can’t seem to get ANY subscribers, or I don’t know how to find out if I have any. AND no one comments on my blog. I get readers, but zero comments! Frustrating. The few comments I did get are all postive. But no new ones. :(

  17. Great post; thanks for making the point that you can be very successful in business with a small audience. Most people get frustrated by it and give up.

  18. Very helpful to someone who has a list of under 600, but has email open rates above 60%, an active community and a few successful product launches under my belt. I sometimes feel like a loser because I don’t have the big numbers. This post makes me feel better. Thanks!

  19. Susan –

    What you have is pure gold.

    The reason many of the “big guns” need huge lists is because they have poor open rates and poor conversion, so numbers matter.

    Your current numbers matter. :-)

    Dave

  20. A refreshing perspective and so encouraging to newbies.

  21. @Dave Navarro your VERY right Dave I even wrote a funny story about that titled “How to Beat Up GURUs in niche marketing and Take Their lunch Money” LOL

  22. Some great points. The interesting thing to consider is that what you are doing is the exact opposite of spamming. Rather than making thousands/hundreds of thousands of poor quality posts/emails/comments, focus on making a smaller amount at a higher quality.

    Before you do anything, ask yourself ‘would a spammer do this?’ If not, then you’re probably on the right track!

  23. Jonathan,

    I am generally in agreement with the points you make, but the accessibility issue is dicey. I believe that people trust a site where they can connect with the author on a personal level. I generally use a photo on my site, along with a short bio and the general area I’m located in.

    However, I’m a little paranoid about my phone number and email. There are a lot of crazies out there in cyberspace, and I wonder how wise it is to put too much personal information on your website.

    I use WordPress sites with comment sections. If something I write strikes a chord, I’ll usually hear from them. Then I can correspond with them in a venue of my choosing, based on the validity of their remarks.

    I’ve made many friends that way and developed some nice contacts. I work hard at answering legitimate inquiries.

    Maybe I’m misreading how much accessibility your article suggests, but it seems that too much personal info may lead to trouble.

    Are there others that feel the same way, or am I the Lone Ranger?

    Thanks,

    Steve Benedict

  24. Great post Jonathan. I agree. Sometimes less is more. When a company starts to grow and expand, they take the risk of becoming too bureaucratic and detached from their customers. It is easier to build strong customer relationships with a small organization.

  25. Hey Jonathan,

    I typically don’t comment all that much, but I wanted to because your post resonated with me considering I’m trying to do exactly what the title describes.

    I only have 150-some rss subscribers, about 300 email subscribers, and my traffic barely reaches 100 uniques each day…so I’m the very definition of “small audience”.

    But over the last 6 weeks I decided to make a commitment to creating content at least 2 or 3 times a week and to be as helpful as I possibly can to whomever views my site.

    Since then I’ve sold my first 3 MMA Boxing Instructional DVDs…I’m assuming that’s no coincidence.

    I’m not trying to be anyone other than me. I don’t try to sound like more of an expert than I really am. I’m just trying to convey what I know to other people and hope that some will find it valuable.

    The fact that your byline said you were a martial artist made me want to at least say hello.
    It appears like you just had your first MMA fight, and I’m chronicling the journey towards mine. So we seem to have a bit in common.

    I subscribed to your blog, so I look forward to more good stuff from you.

    Thanks and take care.

  26. @Christina,

    You need to set up Feedburner to track subscriber numbers. Just search for it and it should be mostly self explanatory.

  27. @jonathan I’m sure there’s no coincidence between your product sales and your increased content marketing and engagement. I’m seeing more and more how going out and being helpful leads to awesome results, in more than just income.

    And J. Mead, I completely agree with you that a small list doesn’t mean you can’t make money. We’ve been offering a combination of products and one-on-one services to our list, and have been getting excellent results. The key is in having great offers and an even better relationship with your subscribers.

    Thanks to you and so many other “Third Tribers” for all the lessons in coolness that build these relationships. :)

  28. @Martypants: If that was more people’s mantra, I think we would all be a lot less stressed, and a lot more effective.

  29. Great post, Jonathan, and thanks for the link! But, aww man, you just laid out all of my super-secret strategic principles. What am I going to do now? (;p – the same thing I’ve been doing.)

    Steve B: I so hear what you’re saying. There are a lot of things to be worried about and ways that the type of accessibility he’s talking about can go wrong.

    On the other hand, I’ve had two fantastic calls with people just today who some might consider “out of my league.” Rather than sending long emails, I simply picked up the phone and called the number they had online or in their email signatures.

    If I may make a suggestion: consider using a Google Voice number that routes to the numbers you specify. That way, people can reach you, but there’s one level of privacy between you and them. You could also use Skype Out in a similar way.

  30. You had me the whole way until be accessible. Not that I think being accessible is bad, but if the goal is to create a higher profit, lower maintenance business…being too accessible can put you right into a situation you want to avoid. I think if you set it up right and are accessible through certain channels (blog, Twitter, etc), you can afford to have a very knowledgeable and customer-service orientated person as your “gate keeper”.

    Great post and very valuable advice. Just my different approach to accessibility. Whether your audience is big or small, making a business all about you can be problematic on a day-to-day and long term basis.

  31. @Charlie DUDE I like this how did I miss this?? (Google Voice) just submitted an invite request if anyone has an inside game on this to get the service please reach out to me.

    Thanks again Charlie

  32. Jonathan- So agree! Props for giving a voice those of us who are making a living providing value to smaller groups of passionate people.

    I spend loads of my time concentrating on intimate connections and building referrals and it’s definitely paid off in my (tiny) corner of the world.

    And thanks for the reminder that bigger isn’t always better. Just when I start lusting after more visitors/followers/noise someone (like the amazing you!) reminds me to chill out and celebrate what I have.

    XO Molly

  33. Aww, you have to include Tim Sykes in this. He makes seven figures a year of a site that has a small and targeted audience.

  34. I am intrigued by this post. There is a part of me that says “yes, yes, yes” but another side of me says, “hmmm, it all sounds good but does it really work” – as in, will it bring in enough profits for me to be able to maintain it? I did an e-magazine for three years and although I built up an amazingly loyal following with over 3,000 on my emailing list and many hundreds of subscribers, I couldn’t stick with it because I just couldn’t seem to make enough money to justify the effort every day (there needs to be a balance!). But perhaps I was too afraid to ask for a higher price for my e-magazine that would have make it a viable business? Maybe I should have stuck with it and produced more ebooks and whatnot? Food for thought indeed. I’m now back at it with a much better footing in social media and an interactive website. I’m hoping this time around I’ll learn from past mistakes.

    Thank you for this article and for giving me some real food for thought (and yes, some inspiration too)!

  35. @Corey thats what I meant when i first posted my very first comment sir.

    I was the same situation with a background in marketing in the entertainment industry I created and ran MEGA traffic sites and had a lot of popularity but wasn’t as profitable.

    Ask yourself 2 things:
    1. Were you solving a major problem that niche had?

    2. (this is where the money comes in) if that market of yours had enough of a “need” to solve that problem that they would be buying from you quickly?

    If the answer is a absolute YES you should relook into it if a somewhat maybe or no you made a good decision to leave a lone because that was more of a hobby.

  36. Such a great article. It’s not all about the amount of followers and subscribers you have. It’s about the number of your “true fans”. Who cares if you got 10 000 followers if only a handful of them convert and make you profit. I personally believe in organic growth. Make real connections with your clients, talk to them and let them know you care! Makes all the difference in the world.

  37. @Darren Actually it’s Mrs. but that’s my mom’s fault ;-)

    Well, I guess I never saw my first run as MEGA. Hah!

    Great points!! Yes, I was solving a problem well but I’m not sure that they have enough of a need – as you said. I’m still trying to figure it out! My niche is providing support to families raising children bilingually/multilingually (as is my family). This area has become very popular lately (more so than back when I started) but it is possible that what I offer isn’t really what people are willing to pay cold, hard cash for… which is why I do wonder if I should just leave it alone or not. Hmmm.

    Thank you! Even more food for thought! Perhaps I should have learned my lesson the first time through.

  38. A surprisingly scaleable way to handle the connection thing is with audio. I saw a big leap in the connection people made with me when I started doing audio, first for Teaching Sells and then with other products. There’s a very human connection in the voice.

    Real availability can’t scale. And it will make you crazy to try. Naomi Dunford wrote a great post about that.

  39. I have to admit I totally agree with the small is sometimes better or at least less complicated, but that is probably due to the fact that I have not ever had a massive audience.

    I have from day one of my online career always wanted to give quality intsead of quantity and I think that has a place in what you are saying in your post, it doesn’t have to be about trying to get a massive traffic flow as long as you can make a connection with the people that do follow you, that can be better and easier to manage.

    So a great post and I really relate to what you are saying, I would rather help a hundred people change their lives, than not have the time to help a thousand make a change, if you get what I mean.

    Thanks
    Rob

  40. @Corey OK removing foot from the “sir” mouth LOL hey if there is a “pressing issue” in that niche (if you dont know ask them) thats where your product or service will be. If not keep it in hobby land and move on.That lesson costed me over $20,000 over several years Corey er ah Mrs Corey LOL

    @Sonia your right. plus audio makes and excellent upsell to ebooks.Video though for more on hand watching instruction is also good.

  41. @Darren No offense taken whatsoever! And I enjoyed your comments, even though they leave me feeling a wee bit nervous. I want to know what the right decisions are 100%, always, all the time, never doubting.

    @Sonia I so agree about the audio! On a separate note, I LOVE your stuff, lady! I’ve been getting your email newsletter and well, what can I say, it is GREAT!

  42. Hey,
    Yeah I agree that small can be good in a lot of ways. IF you know how to do it. But your post gives me a lot of hope for becoming successful with a small audience. Thanks!

    Peace,
    Darren L Carter

  43. @Corey, oh goodness, you are so kind. Thank you. :)

  44. Quality versus quantity and doing less versus doing more. Very nice post, Jonathan. Got me thinking on how I should approach things.

  45. Hi Jonathan, small definitely sounds good in this context. We all need to decide it we want to work on a more personal level with a smaller group of people or try to please more people with less personal input.
    Sonia, thanks for the audio tip. I’ve been trying to create a more personal experience with video (need to do lots more) and a live web party which was a great way to connect with my faithful readers.
    I know you’re both doing a top job with your own business and blogs and it’s great to have you as role models:)

  46. Bob Jenkins :

    Here’s the phrase that just jumped me:

    “The more you can connect on the phone and in person, the better, and the more likely you’ll create relationships that go beyond the surface level.”

    Thanks

  47. Hi guys,

    I always thought “The more the Merrier.” But I know personally that statement is not true, because sometimes you get a lot of traffic and only the ones that subscribe to your blog will be the faithful readers.

    Kind regards,
    Sam
    X

  48. It’s hard to keep things simply conceived and executed whether, in life or business must of what we do tends to look like a diner menu (you know, 5 pages with cusines that span the globe). We tend to try to solve problems by adding not subtracting. When people hit walls the natural tendency is to say “What am I not doing? How can I do more?” Rather then “How can I do less?”

  49. I have to put one caveat on the conversation…qualified audience.

    It really doesn’t matter if the number is 150 or 150,000. What matters is that the prospect is a qualified prospect – someone who may need what you are offering.

    You can sharpen your focus, but it must be sharpened in the right direction.

  50. Thanks for this inspirational post. Yes it’s about going deeper rather than wider. Adam Baker looks like he’s got it made with his ability to run a business and travel the world – just how I want to spend my time!

  51. Thank GOD for this post. “List envy” is hard to avoid when you keep coming across people with 5- and 6-figure list sizes (even when you know that you’re an apple and they’re an orange and comparing is not only not helpful but slightly ridiculous).

  52. Great post there. I would like to emphasis on the quality traffic. If you focus on traffic from social media, I must say that they are going to be complete waste of money. Social media traffic is highly un-targeted and non profitable in my opinion. I would spend my time and effort in doing SEO rather than try and get social media traffic. Of course they work for some, but do not work for the most.

  53. I think I’m going to write “Do less, better” on my whiteboard and leave it there. In almost any field, it’s easy to get carried away with the desire to be everything to everyone and make everyone happy.

    At the end of the day, depth is almost always better than breadth – for you, for your customers, for your company. Thanks for the great post!

  54. I have been trying to build this small business for some time now – without the success I envisioned!

    This post is timely and made me realise I was focussing on the wrong thing – traffic.

    As a small business my focus should be on intimate, one on one engagement and connection.

    Thanks for the wonderful post.

  55. People really seem to underestimate small following in this business. As a result, they bail way too soon ….

  56. I am a subscriber to Jonathan’s blog and once again, he has delivered an amazing piece of content here. I am building a small business coaching program using every single strategy here. In fact, my goal was to build a membership base of 1000 extremely loyal followers who all advocate for me because I deliver value to them.

    I am doing this following some of the exact steps listed in this blog. Specifically, I have made myself personally available to every member so they feel like they are being taken care of and it is working famously. I am getting a flood of referrals and people are requesting to enter my program. I still have to market it and promote it but the word of mouth value here is undeniable.

    Great blog post loaded with applicable action items!

  57. I can tell you this is a fact – I have a small niche, and make a very good living. I sell myself as an author and teacher as well as selling supplies, tools, etc. to people in my small focus group. I have about 2000 subscribers to my newsletter, and they are very faithful followers both in reading, interacting, and supporting through purchases. Bigger is not always better. I don’t pay for any advertising, either – my traffic is all word of mouth.

  58. This was a great article! Absolutely true! I have built my business completely on niche marketing, and it really works! Sometimes, less is truly more. Thanks for writing such a great article!

  59. My niche is very small and I am always working to build it up. I just do not think my audience has money to pay for a subscription service.

  60. Nice article. I tend to get caught up in the numbers, how many twitter followers, how many subscribers to my blog, etc. etc. But in the end, the numbers don’t really matter. Like you said, would you rather have 1,000 people listening to you or 10,000 people ignoring you. Pretty simple actually. I’m going to focus on harnessing the small community I’ve already built, and the rest will fall into place.

  61. Quality is always better than quantity. Good article!

  62. This is some really valuable advice. I started my business about a month ago, and I’m already starting to get a bit worried about numbers. (Even though I know I shouldn’t!)

    Thanks for this post, it really gave me a little bit more insight.

  63. Jonathan, thanks for continuing to goad people into living their dreams and taking action. Great insight here.

  64. Jonathan, great comments and ideas. Starting is always the hardest part.