5 Ways a Minimum Viable Audience Gives You an Unfair Business Advantage

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Startups aren’t “real” companies, according to retired entrepreneur and author Steve Blank. At least not in the way we usually think of the concept of a “company.”

Startups are instead temporary organizations on a mission to find a scalable business model. Once that business model is found, a “real” company is born to execute on it.

For many years, Steve Blank has been a mentor to Eric Ries, whose book The Lean Startup took the entrepreneurial world by storm in 2011. If you haven’t read Eric’s book yet, you should as soon as possible.

For now, let’s dig in deeper on the meaning and origin of “lean” in the context of business.

Then we’ll get into what this means for digital media entrepreneurs.

What does lean mean?

The concept of lean originates from the world of big business, specifically in automobile manufacturing.

Derived from the production systems used by Toyota Motor Corporation, lean came to generally mean delivering value to customers while promoting efficiency and elimination of waste in the process.

Boiled down, lean means:

  1. Starting with a simple process
  2. Knowing that there’s always room to improve
  3. Improving constantly based on feedback

Applied to startups, lean means conducting Blank’s “search for a scalable business model” in an efficient, customer-driven approach. It’s about acting according to relevant information instead of pure intuition.

Vastly simplified, this entails:

  1. Building a minimum viable product (MVP)
  2. Finding out if people will pay money for it
  3. Using feedback from those buyers to rapidly evolve the product into something better that will sell in the broader market

The scary thing about the lean startup concept for some is that the product is truly minimal. Sometimes the product doesn’t really exist, and you just watch for buyer intention by sending PPC traffic to a dummy website.

Other times, it’s software so unstable that the developers cringe at release. Or a service without proper support in place for anything other than a few test clients.

Despite the scariness, lean methodology works exceptionally well in the context of a startup. That’s because the only way to know what people will buy is for them to actually buy it, and you don’t want to sink huge resources into something that doesn’t sell.

It’s cool to see this movement becoming mainstream, because all of Copyblogger Media’s products since 2007 have been developed according to lean principles. With each new line of business, we initially built a minimum viable product or service, and then we rapidly evolved newer and better versions based on customer feedback.

There’s just one major difference.

We started first by building an audience, and that’s how we found our scalable business model and became a “real” company.

Serving that audience with valuable free content revealed loads of useful insight into the problems and desires not currently met in the broader market.

Enough, in fact, for us to make our MVPs more “viable” from the start than we would have been able to otherwise. This led to better initial sales momentum, higher customer satisfaction, and ultimately more profit.

Using this process, we’ve never launched a product or service that’s failed. This is why I advocate you start first with a minimum viable audience.

What’s a Minimum Viable Audience?

As alluded to above, a minimum viable audience (MVA) helps with finding out what people are willing to buy.

But for digital media entrepreneurs, a MVA does much more than that, thanks to the power of agile content marketing.

You have an MVA when:

  1. You’re receiving enough feedback from comments, emails, social networks, and social media news sites in order to adapt and evolve your content to better serve the audience.
  2. You’re growing your audience organically thanks to social media sharing by existing audience members and earned media.
  3. You’re gaining enough insight into what the audience needs to solve their problems or satisfy their desires beyond the free education you’re providing.

As you can guess, the first two aspects of an MVA feed the third. So let’s look at the specific benefits of starting with an audience rather than going straight to development of a product or service.

1. Serving an audience is market research

I’ve often said that social media is the greatest freely accessible market research environment ever known.

Let me qualify that, however, because I’ve always meant it in the context of creating content that builds an audience via social media distribution of that content. I learn more from serving an online audience than any other approach I’ve taken to truly understanding a market.

The power comes from learning directly from an actual group of people in response to relevant stimuli (your content), rather than trying to glean a great idea from general research about an abstract market. Real people who pay attention to you, with real problems and desires.

I’m not saying you should ask them what they want to buy. People only truly tell you what they want to buy by buying it — anything else is not reliable.

Steve Jobs famously said:

It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.

It’s your job as an entrepreneur to know what they want. But first, you need to arm yourself with enough intelligence to make an educated guess.

Producing content for an audience allows you to make better-educated guesses. Much better, in my experience.

The audience will tell you, unsolicited, about problems and desires that no existing product solves. They’ll tell you how existing products and services are missing the boat, or how the companies behind them are less than desirable.

Combine that with broader social media monitoring and competitive intelligence, and you’re armed with serious insight into a highly viable product. Or, at least the first version of one.

2. Build a better product, faster

Whenever you launch a new product or service, you must not only accept, but embrace that it will not be perfect. Not even close.

Even armed with better insight thanks to the audience, you won’t get everything just right. Plus, once a sufficient number of people interact with your new product or service, they’ll do and think of things that you’ve never even considered.

This is a good thing.

One key point of the minimum viable product approach is that early adopters of something new are more forgiving, and more willing to provide feedback, than customers that come along later. In my experience, this is true.

But no one is more forgiving than an early-adopting fan. People who already know, like, and trust you due to the quality content you’ve already given them are the best initial customers you’ll ever have.

The key is to be very explicit about the situation. We always launch a new product or service at our very best price, on our very best terms. And then we tell them exactly why: the great deal is in exchange for them helping us make it better.

We’re in the process of doing this again right now.

Our upcoming Rainmaker Platform is being released by invitation only. These early adopters will get a deal that will never be offered again in the future in exchange for feedback, and we’ll use the data to make the platform even better based on real-world use.

Being that transparent might not work with cold traffic from Google AdWords. But we’ve found that an existing audience of fans will jump all over it while we serve future customers better, faster — even at a higher price.

3. An audience attracts outside opportunity

The story of how Copyblogger Media came to be is interesting. If nothing else, it’s unconventional.

Basically, I built the audience here at Copyblogger starting in 2006, and one-by-one, year-after-year, opportunities for products came to me from others, unsolicited. Some partnerships were for collaboration in creating a product, while others were for software and services that I couldn’t possibly have created or managed on my own.

By 2010, I owned an interest in four separate companies that revolved around Copyblogger, collectively doing several million dollars in annual revenue. After some shuffling around and yet another opportunity arising, five companies merged to become Copyblogger Media later that year.

When people say we seem to have a Midas touch because we’ve yet to launch something that’s failed, they aren’t seeing the whole picture. They don’t see what I said no to.

Referring once again to Mr. Jobs:

Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.

I’ve been fortunate to be blessed with an “unfair advantage” when it comes to being presented with product and service opportunities. But that’s due to being smart enough to build an audience first, not any other sort of magical gift.

Not only will the audience reveal what it wants, it will reveal what’s not right for the long-term benefit to both them and your company. You’ll know what not to do as much as you’ll know what to do.

And you’ll have plenty of opportunity to do both.

4. Waste not, want not

At SXSW Interactive 2012, an entire track was devoted to lean startups, which was a very cool thing. What wasn’t very cool was the number one question that kept coming up:

How do I get funded?

As mentioned above, one of the fundamental tenets of lean processes is the avoidance of waste. A lot of would-be entrepreneurs don’t seem to understand that waste can occur at the moment you take money from an investor.

Taking money too soon, or taking too much, or sometimes at all, is a:

  1. Waste of equity — you’re giving up a percentage of your company before you know how much is appropriate or necessary
  2. Waste of control — once you have investors, you lose a degree of freedom that might also not be ultimately necessary
  3. Waste of opportunity — cash is designed to be spent, which often inhibits seeking more creative solutions, like strategic partnerships

Explore the benefits of bootstrapping an audience first. I built what became Copyblogger Media with only $1,000 for a WordPress design, web hosting fees, and a bunch of my time on the way to early profitability.

Start with an audience, and let them reveal what they want.

At that point, you’ll be in a much better position to determine how much money you need. You’ll also have better leverage in negotiating your valuation (see below).

You might even find you don’t need (or want) to waste one bit of your company.

5. You’re building a valuable media asset

The final point comes down to pure math.

A company that acts like a digital media company first — using content marketing to attract an audience — is worth more than another company with comparable revenue but no audience platform.

Let me give you an example.

In 2010, before we merged those five companies together to form Copyblogger Media, I received a proposition. A publicly-traded Internet company offered me seven figures for copyblogger.com (which I owned 100% at the time).

They didn’t want StudioPress, or Scribe, or Teaching Sells (the products and services that generated the revenue). Just the website.

The offer was based on their business model, which was selling online advertising and producing conferences. I declined, given that the site is way more valuable to our model than it is to theirs.

The point is, a digital media platform that you own has independent value as intellectual property. And if that platform is at the center of your revenue model like it is for us, that asset must be taken into account in valuation, whether at acquisition or when taking a round of investment.

The value of an authoritative website grows every year. The audience grows every year. The insight into the next line of business or market expansion comes every year.

Like I said, it’s an unfair advantage. Why not join the club?

Editor’s note, this article was originally published in March of 2012.

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Reader Comments (27)

  1. says

    “Serving an audience is market research”

    I hadn’t thought of it in that way before.

    Since I started my blog, I have seen different responses to different types of posts. As a result, I write more of the types of articles that (in the past) have received a strong reader response.

    Basically, the comments and social shares that my articles have garnered, have been a kind of Market Research (all be it, without my even realizing it).

    • says

      For me it’s one of those amazing, “hidden in plain sight” ideas. It’s very powerful, it’s something that is very achievable for most businesses, but most don’t think to do it.

  2. says

    I had to laugh when I read the “how do I get funded” question above. This seems to be coming up more and more in my circles as new players come on the scene immediately wanting to “monetize”. It is interesting how online content producers used to be scared to monetize and we had to be very cautious when we started asking for money by giving a lot away first and becoming an active participant of a community. Then as more premium sites showed up and this became more the norm, new content producers were less cautious and more quick to ask for money with little to no building of a following. This gold rush of sorts has changed the playing field dramatically with a lot of people clamoring for attention (and money) without any vested interest from the audience. I say all this mainly to reinforce Brian’s message about building the audience first. I see a great many people forgetting that step and launching right into product mode and while his point of doing research based on what they buy is valid, it still scares the BLEEP out of me without a strong presence and relationship within your customer’s community.

  3. says

    Very insightful. I’m wondering how you reach the minimum. We have a few hundred facebook followers, but they’re mostly silent. The times we’ve asked questions, (aside from a few “likes”) the silence continues. Wondering: Is there a critical mass or certain number that must be reached? Is the silence a sign of a non-viable audience? Any insights appreciated …

    • says

      Make sure your questions are directed towards attributes you think your audience members organically have. In other words, don’t ask them how they see your business or offerings. Ask them what they like to eat, or what sorts of cars they drive, or about their school or work lives. Their answers will help you to get a better picture of what they are like, which in turn will help you to make better products and services for them.

  4. says

    Great post. It’s been evernoted for future reference :)

    The relationship between a blogger and his audience is quite symbiotic, isn’t it?

    The better you serve them, the better they serve you.

    Give them what they want, and they give you feedback. They help you grow. And eventually they let you know what you can sell to them.

    I think a lot of bloggers cripple their efforts because they’re thinking about their own wants more than they think of their audience’s.

    Put your audience’s wants before your own, and eventually you’ll get the kind of business you want (although it might be in a slightly different form than you first thought it would be).

    Write about what they want to know about, and sell them what they want to buy. Think about them more than you think about you, and in turn they’ll help you succeed.

    See? Symbiosis.

    • says

      “I think a lot of bloggers cripple their efforts because they’re thinking about their own wants more than they think of their audience’s.”

      Maybe that’s because a blog’s status is stuck somewhere between a personal diary and a business model these days. In a diary your own self and your perspective of things are central to the message. But from a business perspective that message must also mean something to someone. I think that finding the golden mean is the most challenging thing when it comes to blogging.

        • says

          Maybe not on the surface. But that is the intrinsic essence of the blog format, and a large part of its appeal. A company wants a blog because they want to get ‘personal’. Otherwise they can stick to pamphlets and annual reports.

          Besides, there are different gradations in the personal:business ratio across different blogs depending on the blogger’s goals.

      • says

        That’s my point.

        If you blog as a business model, you should shift your inspiration from “What do I want to write about?” to “What does my audience want to know about?”

        And then you can still inject that message with your personality and perspective.

  5. says

    Thanks , Brian, for bringing “Lean Startup” to attention.

    Among other ideas, I’ve taken from Eric Ries’s book the idea that even an established company is better to have a “lean department” that will let the company try different stuff, and thus improve its current system, adjust to changing environment, improve staff’s productivity, and put innovation to the next level.

    As he says about himself:
    “I’ve always been a bit of troublemaker at the companies at which I have worked, pushing for rapid iteration, data-driven decision making, and early customer involvement”.

  6. says

    I hadn’t thought of the benefits of building a minimum viable audience in that manner, so thank you.

    Your post has really underscored for me the importance of interactivity and interaction with the audience, in terms of having a minimum viable audience.

    Would you say that the numbers associated with a minimum viable audience for any startup would be dependent on the niche or industry?

  7. says

    I am a bit skeptical of using the lean start up model in the way Copyblogger has done. I have done it both ways and much prefer to have the product first. I built an audience via podcasting and blogging and then had to figure out a way to make money with it. That was really difficult for me

    On the other hand when I started with a business and model (online psychotherapy conferences) I was able to ramp up and make more money every year and get better with every event. That was much better for me.

    Though to be fair, much of my success in the first niche did come about from tracking keyword searches. My google analytics gave me several specific words representing products that people were looking for and I created the product and then started selling them.

    Great food for thought on this article. Thanks!


  8. says

    Love the idea Brian! Learning and earning on the run makes sense to me. In a sense I am a boot strapping blogger, hitting the ground running with a minimal investment and tweaking things along the way.

  9. says

    I love this process. The idea of an MVP changed how I was interacting with my audience and what eventually led me to pursue my dream, being able to turn the attention of a blog readership into a legitimate business. Thanks, Brian!

  10. says

    Digital media company – I just got goosebumps.

    It never dawned on me to “monetize” first. Sure, I offer my services on my website, but I’m aware that in the online world, that will be meaningless until I prove that I know what I’m talking about. My first concern has been to create valuable content and build the audience. Beginner’s luck for doing that first? Who knows. Maybe just dumb luck.

    And yeah, I understand bootstrapping…a couple hundred dollars and a TON of hours losing sleep later, I still have things to fix and improve upon.

    I guess I’m saying, thanks – for validating what felt natural to do in the first place.

  11. says

    Good points all, but it’s important to consider the differences when considering what leads to the success of any business model.

    In this case, some of the success of Copyblogger could be attributed to a business model I call the “Snake Eating Its Own Tail.” For instance, teach a course on creating an online course, and place it on a site that provides online courses. In this case, write a blog to teach bloggers how to blog. It’s a great way to build an audience and therefore a platform from it — very smart.

    • says

      Robbin, that’s true. Despite that, it’s been my least favorite way to build an audience. We get “meta” here out of necessity, but it can present its own challenges. The important thing to realize is that being meta is not a requirement for this approach to work — in fact, if anything it requires an extra emphasis on transparency in order to build trust when compared to a more straightforward approach.

      • says

        I don’t think it’s a matter of choosing a favorite path; it’s just the path that worked, and very well.

        If I understand what you’re saying, it’s a subset of the idea of building an audience first vs. a product/service-oriented approach. The former requires more transparency or let’s say personality with an emphasis on the “person” writing the blog vs. delivering a product/service on its own merits (if that’s what you mean by “straight forward”). That personality is then used to build an MVA or minimum viable audience, but that’s the crux of the matter really. Figuring out the formula, then building on it. And that’s the most difficult part of all — the Snake Tail model is one way to solve that problem.

        Most people, no matter how much research or writing they do, have a tough time creating their MVA. Rather than just research and experimentation, what we need is to come up with other models (a strategy) to help them build that first active audience. Perhaps a good start would be to analyze other successful blogs to see how they did it.

  12. says

    This is an incredibly validating post. I learned some of these lessons the hard way. I think that so many of the missteps are ultimately ego driven – we have the nerve to presume that we know what people want, before we get something to market. A minimum viable audience is helpful, no doubt, but even then, you must always lead with a minimum viable product. Thinking that you can ‘perfect’ your product is a guaranteed recipe for disaster.

  13. says

    The new way to become successful in the digital age is to build and serve an audience first. Then you can think of ways to make some money from it. Without an audience though, no one is looking for you.

  14. says

    i read that book and it was amazing… lots of things to learn for people like us who are doing businesses. thanks anyway.. keep updating!!!

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