Five Ways a Minimum Viable Audience Helps You Create a Successful Startup

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 content 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 were 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 developed six distinct lines of business (so far), and have never created a product 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 a 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; and
  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 a 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. I need to 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.

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.

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.

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 at copyblogger.com 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. There are plenty of other similar stories that we’ll explore in the future.

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%).

They didn’t want StudioPress, or Scribe, or Teaching Sells (where all the revenue came from at the time). 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, an audience platform that you own has independent value. And if that platform is at the center of your revenue model like it is for us, that asset has value that 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.

Brian Clark is Editor-in-Chief of Entreproducer, a multimedia email publication exploring the business of independent digital media. Get more related content on Twitter.

Here’s what Entreproducer covers:

  • The business, revenue, staffing, and legal models that move you from content start-up to success.
  • Audio and video profiles of the entrepreneurs and companies that are pushing digital content innovation.
  • Tips, tools, and tactics for getting online content to work for you, no matter how you make money.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing the behind the scenes look at your story with Copyblogger, and turning down an offer to buy it. It’s amazing to me that they didn’t want the products / revenue generators, but just the site for it’s authority. Quite the concept, when you know how much more valuable it can be as an asset.

    I also think there’s something to be said about single author or few-author blogs where you can also build a relationship with the audience over time. That informs what products you create, and also the direction of the business and blog too.

    • Brian Clark says:

      They basically didn’t want to be in the software business. The deal was that if I stayed on board, I could promote all of our products in addition to the ads and conferences. That brought up the concept of me working for someone else, which isn’t a pleasant thought for me. :)

      • Being an advocate of the Copyblogger Media and a member of the Third Tribe I know some of the “behind the scenes” aspects of Copyblogger.

        However, I am not sure if I’ve heard about that buying offer, but it’s not a surprise for me that your turned it down.

        I hear what you say about working for someone else and I think that it’s not a pleasant thought for anyone who stopped doing it at some point. :)

      • hey guys,

        I don’t think is a bad model to work for someone else, for as long as they give you free will do to your own thing… however, this offer sounds arrogant to me, so I think they just wanted to piggyback on your ascending success and enslave you…

        Their business model was too limited anyway…

        Smart move on your part to turn ’em down! :)

  2. Hey Brian,

    Excellent post. Small typo here:

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

    “do” should be “to”

    Feel free to delete this comment afterwards 😉

  3. Were you standing over my shoulder when you wrote this? 😉

  4. As someone currently building a Minimal Viable Audience, it’s an exciting (and stressful) time.

    We plan on launching with 800 pieces of content… which, in hindsight, may be a bit too aggressive.

    We could have just launched with 100 pages and started promoting… but I think launching with a fully developed site has its advantages (well rounded, greater chance of ranking in Google, plus it makes a helluva first impression).

    Of course, this depends on what your site does. Jon Morrow’s new blog launched with just a video and an opt in. And it worked.

    Same with Entreproducer.

    Two questions for everyone:

    1. How many pages of content would you consider launching with?

    2. What do you consider a Minimum Viable Audience? What metrics are you most concerned with improving? Subscribers? Social shares?

    • Brian Clark says:

      Adam, you’ll definitely want to check out the next article. Starting with some content is smart, especially if it’s truly cornerstone content that must be there. Beyond that, you risk doing a lot of work that doesn’t matter when you find out you needed to pivot and adapt editorially.

      • “800 pieces of content”? Wow. That is aggressive. Are you releasing that content all in one go? Or is the content lined up?

        If it’s lined up, then are you going to listen to your audience only after you’ve put out the 800 pieces? Hmmm… But depends of course a lot on your niche. All the best Adam!

        I think it worked for Jon and Brian is because of that beautiful little thing called community! Let’s hope we get to build our own too! :)

        • It’s all in one go. I’m hoping when we launch people will see it and think “Damn, this is a killer resource!”

          Of course, as Brian pointed out, they might visit and say “Damn, this would be a great resource… if they just did A, B and C.”

          In which case I’ve got a lot of work to do. Ah well, live and learn.

      • I agree, it’s probably overkill… and I’m hoping we won’t need to change our editorial direction. I got carried away because it’s a travel site which covers the world… so I didn’t want to leave a region/continent bare.

        As for the next article? Dude, I was already looking forward to it 😉

    • Adam,

      Kudos to you for planning ahead! My wife and I are developing a couple of new sites and we agree that having content before is a great strategy.

      Our plan is to have 3 months of content produced before launch, as well as some type of free e-course around our pillar content that we can offer as an incentive to sign up for our list. Very similar to the Copyblogger model for Internet Marketing for Smart People.

      All in all we’ll have something in the range of 30 – 50 pieces of content ready ahead of time. Some of this we’ll post before hand and some we’ll use as backup for when we travel and cannot produce content while in transit.

      • Good for you!

        I’m doing something similar on another site, which follows Copyblogger’s business model (I even use the Copyblogger theme, modified, of course).

        It’s a lot easier when you start with the end in mind.

        For example, you’ve got your content planned out, then create a three month autoresponder series with valuable content and the occasional pitch.

        Excel works really well for mapping it out. I just wrote headlines for each email, then lined up in a logical manner.

        Got three emails about WordPress? Put them in order… then pitch a WordPress product that can help them.

        Best of luck,

        Adam

  5. Brian, your best article for Entreproducer yet.

    And yes, The Lean Startup is a great book… almost required reading for anyone who wants to create a startup (or operate a business for that matter).

    Printing out yet another article :)

  6. I love that you’re giving us a peak behind the curtain of CopyBlogger Media. Not only the “how it was done”, but the “why it works” too.

    I really appreciate that you take the time to share your brilliant business ideas.

    I’m actually copying your model with my own site ii V7 Jazz Studies; building the audience, then the products.

    Thank you!!

  7. Instead of trying to find the market to sell to, people want to spend money on setting up their IKEA-powered offices and get the latest and greatest of this and that.

    Content marketing of course is the way to do it online. Translate that as ‘community building’ and that word applies to offline as well.

    And once you have a community (CB in your case), then the community does tell what to sell to them. Just awesome!

    And your observation that people were most interested in “getting funded” instead of being interested in getting their minimum viable audience together is dead on! If I get a penny for every time I hear wannabe-entrepreneurs complain that they do not have the money to start or “if only they had funding”, I would have enough money to fund quite a few of them. :)

  8. Brian, thank you.

    Each week this fuzzy vision I have of a successful business gets a little clearer thanks to these posts.

    Quick question:

    Are there more overt ways to discover what your audience is looking for?

    My site is not geared toward interaction through comments so it’s difficult to gauge what kind of help people need. I do receive questions through email, but it’s not giving me a clear picture of my audience’s pain points.

    • Brian Clark says:

      Johnny, look at the example Ankesh gives below. One great way to overtly ask is to ask open-ended questions about problems and desires. Don’t ask what they’ll buy, or what products or services they want. Don’t use multiple choice surveys, as we tend to suggest the answers we want without knowing it. And not that this is a real option, but never do a focus group. 😉

  9. Being a blogger who is also working on a startup, I’ve also been reading up on awesome information from Eric Ries, Steve Blank, Paul Graham, Ash Maurya and others. Love it how you’re making the know-how from one industry applicable to another.

    Receiving audience feedback is really under valued. I love how Derek Halpern of SocialTriggers.com applies this concept. Everyone who subscribes to his blog updates is asked a question: “tell me what you’re struggling with right now.”

  10. “It’s about acting according to relevant information instead of pure intuition” makes great sense to me. But I still love it when pure intuition gives me the invaluable answer.

    I use both logic and intuitiion.

    Thank you for the great post.

    • Brian Clark says:

      We use intuition way more than we realize. Cognitive science is finding that we are largely intuitive beings.

      The problem is, we often start with false premises that lead us astray. So, better information allows us to intuitively make better educated guesses.

      • So, train our intuition?

        That reminds me of the Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, and how we can train the neuro pathways in our brain to our advantage.

        So by training our intuition, we can change whatever fundamental perceptions we have, specifically regarding our business. Even change our basic reflexes.

        Thanks for the idea, Brian!

  11. After 3 years I’m still a start-up. I still find myself floundering around offering services that flop, and then pivoting into something else. It is truly difficult to find something that works amid little feedback.

    I like the MVA concept, but I think the whole premise of most of the posts here – and the entire concept of Copyblogger – is that you have to be an excellent writer/editor. Do you *really* think that it can be a learned skill? I find hours a day going into very little content. And then the content doesn’t get much reaction. I think this scenario is very common – like insanely common.

    Should we give up Copywriting, and start trying to find our own way or work harder? Or… ?

    Thanks so much for these posts – the insight is so well formed and so personable, I feel like you’re offering your own coaching service! :)

    • You don’t have to just write blog posts to create content and build an audience.

      – You can make videos on your web cam.
      – You can do audio interviews over Skype.
      – You can draw funny cartoons like The Oatmeal.
      – You can take photos with your iPhone and create a following on Instagram and Tumblr.

      There are lots of mediums that don’t involve a ton of copywriting.

      • Very good point – I was stuck on copywriting. But the point is to draw an audience!

      • Johnny,

        I concur with Cathy, all great points.

        But I thought I’d add one to it so it rounds out all the suggestions you’ve made to Cathy.

        DON’T WRITE BLOG POSTS.

        Find a content producer to either collaborate with or hire for a fee to develop content that will draw your miniman viable audience.

        While anyone can learn essential skills to become good at something over time, it doesn’t pay to indefinitely delay real outcomes that could be achieved NOW if the essential skill needed is the one that’s holding you back.

        And while the content producer is helping you build your audience, you can look over their shoulder and learn a thing or two about how they’re producing the content.

    • Like Johnny said above, there are different mediums. Contact influential people in your market and interview them. Then post it on your site. Then post it as a video and/or podcast.

      Great is writing is, well, great (head slap) but it’s much better to be USEFUL. Get that part right and you’re golden.

    • If you check the IMFSP Radio episode with Tim Ferriss as a guest speaker, he says that his own copywriting is not an innate skill, but learned.

      That is from the man with a New York Times bestselling book. So I’d say: yes, it can be learned.

  12. It’s the knowing what not to pursue that is the tough part for me. How many MVA’s can you create at one time? (I know that lean doesn’t mean sparse.)

    You still do any coaching, Brian?

    • Brian Clark says:

      I’ve never done coaching, at least not one-on-one.

      As for knowing what to say no to, first, commit to one audience. The opportunities I referred to in the article are for products, not additional audiences.

  13. I know most people here are in digital products business and you write mostly for them, but I learn so much about everything for my own tangible products. I am gratefull you give me so much food to think. Thank you Brian :-)

  14. It’s really interesting watching startup space and internet marketing converging. This is in part, I’m sure, because so much of the current VC funding is “Web 2.0″ oriented (for appropriate values of Web 2.0).

    I had to do a page search to find “pivot,” (found in a comment) which I am going to assume is the subject of your next article. And if not, I can’t imagine you won’t be writing on pivoting sooner than later.

    • Brian Clark says:

      Dave, the concept of the “pivot” is a big part of The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. It’s used there in a product sense, in which case the initial minimal viable product turned out to be not viable at all from a sales standpoint.

      Also, see the Jason Calacanis interview I did when he talks about the shift in Mahalo’s strategy from ad-powered human search engine to selling apps. HUGE pivot.

  15. This was a great article, Brian. Like other commentors, I loved getting a behind the scenes look at CopyBlogger.

    I’m really looking forward to your next article. I’m currently building my audience and so far it’s going really slow. I think I need a little more hustle and self confidence to really branch out and find out where my intended audience hangs out.

  16. Hi Brian

    In regards to your idea of the Minimal Viable Audience I see that if you look after them well then they will become your Most Loyal Audience as well.

    And the loyal audience will trust your new products and continue to buy off you.

    Cheers

    Ainslie

  17. You are really onto something here Brian. I’ve been practicing (and evangelizing about) lean startups. You’re offering a missing piece: most startups I know struggle with developing effective channels, and actually finding the real hidden gems (viable products solving right problems) in the first place.

    Our biggest challenge with MVA is finding the right level for our topic – not to broad and not too narrow. We’re building Grant Snap, an online tool to help entrepreneurs and scientists more easily access R&D grants. So I blog for entrepreneurs (on lean startups), and my co-founder about grant writing. But these seem to be too narrow – only interesting to practitioners. People don’t necessarily make a link between new business development and lean startups, or R&D grants. But blogging on entrepreneurship or science in general is too broad.

  18. Great practical perspective on Lean. I’ll be sure to share this with others who are still trying to grok the whole concept. Also, love the domain :) Thanks to whoever submitted to HN.

  19. I’m curious about one thing when it comes to the “audience” factor for developing content;

    While you mentioned that using comments, social media shares and other metrics for signals to determine if you have a minimum viable audience, aren’t there some subjects and topic to don’t necessarily translate with “audience reaction” in that manner?

    My questions centers mostly around the “Real Estate” subject/topic space on the web, where on it’s face it is both technical and intimidating to the public (and why, I think, most bloggers in the space stay in the “tips” and “secrets” and “myths” lane when producing content).

    Are there other ways, possibly offline, that could be used in place or to compliment “on site reactions” to gauge if there is truly a minimum viable audience?

    (but the cliff hanger at the end might hold the answer next week … same bat time … same bat channel)

    • Brian Clark says:

      Michael, I think we need to distinguish between existing business models that can be marketed better with content (like real estate brokerage), and attempts to create new products and services based on unmet or poorly satisfied market desires. The MVA is design for the latter situation.

      I can tell you from having been been in the real estate business that content marketing works very well, but you’re not necessarily innovating on the service itself. In home brokerage, the audience is transient, because they have a defined goal with an absolute end point (they either buy a house, sell a house, or decide not to).

      But with a hyperlocal model, a lot of your content is designed to serve and area rather than only educate prospective buyers and sellers. You can definitely attract an MVA that way, and they can tell you what they want beyond real estate listings and service.

      Also, on real estate education topics designed to pull in leads, I don’t see the need for distinction. Here are three off the top of my head:

      • 8 Myths About Buying Your First Home
      • 10 Secrets to a Successful Home Inspection
      • 15 Surprising Facts About Relocating to Portland

      That’s exactly the type of content people want when thinking of engaging an agent or broker. And it has a decent chance of being shared in social channels.

      • I see your point and concur that a hyper local site will be a better source for developing a MVA.

        Really appreciate the thoughtful response and the great headline clinic (and topics to capture interest) for good measure.

        I’ve seen what Jay Thompson has done with the Phoenix Real Estate Guy blog and it’s great. But the hardcore readers are the guys who talk inside baseball when it comes to the business and that may attract relocation referrals from colleagues but I wanted to attract consumers.

        Countless thanks for the great advice and hope I can stand and deliver just as you’ve suggested … my business depends on it.

        (and kudos for leading the digital entrepreneur charge with this great offering … can’t wait for the book).

  20. What jumped out at me early on in this article was the concept of “feedback”.

    We all recognize the value of feedback but it’s not uncommon for entreproducers to fall into complacency with what we’re used to thinking of as feedback (comments, etc…), rather than finding extended ways of creating “feedback loops” which is the bigger concept in my mind.

    Perhaps it’s semantic but when I stop thinking about getting feedback, driving comments, … and think of creating “feedback loops” all kinds of possibilities open up in my mind for how I can better engage my audience and get them to engage me.

    • Brian Clark says:

      Scott, you’re right. Feedback loop is more accurate. It’s not that you get feedback and then have a solid final thought. You get feedback that informs your next move, which results in more feedback, which tells you what to try next, etc.

      It looks like this:

      Idea > content > feedback > iterate > repeat

      I hope to spell this out better in the next article.

      Also, your comment is a perfect example itself. I know what I mean by “feedback” in my head and in my process, but I didn’t express it as clearly as I could have. Your comment effectively makes me aware of that, and now the next article will be better.

      See, I need you smart people. :)

    • Wow Scott,

      I think I had a breakthrough myself after reading your comment and Brian’s response, as I was asking the same thing but specific to the challenge I’m experience.

      The idea of opening up the process as a feedback loop instead of just on site reaction helps broaden my perspective on how I can define feedback.

      Idea> Content> Feedback> Iterate> Repeat can be achieved effectively if the feedback loop is tailored to the way visitors use your site’s content (i.e. who it attracts and what they’re for).

      really appreciate the comment greatly.

  21. Superb article, Brian, with an excellent follow-up of comments.

    My question to you and everyone is what ways would you suggest for building a visitor-review site audience? In this situation, the audience is also largely the content producers. (Think Angie’s List, Amazon reviews, Hotels.com, etc.)

    So, if you were launching a site that provides customer/user reviews of services in a particular industry, what would you use as incentives to get your first reviews/reviewers? I think once things get going, there’d be a snowball effect, but initially there would be the “no one wants to be first on the dance floor” effect.

    Thoughts? Thanks!

  22. Another important benefit of the MVA is it’s role in helping you recruit talent to your effort.

    Audience members who fundamentally align with your ideas can potentially become great recruiting prospects when you start hiring. The difference is that these recruits will already be aligned with you on a cultural level.

    Furthermore, you will not have to expend the time/money normally associated with traditional recruiting.

    Sometimes “fans” can make the best employees – just ask anyone who works at Copyblogger.

  23. Hi Brian,

    Over the past few days, I read The Lean Startup and studied this post a few times, so I’ll take a stab at anticipating the idea behind agile content marketing.

    Each installment of content we publish is like an experiment inside a lean startup environment. We hypothesize a topic we think our target readers will care enough about to 1) comment upon, and 2) share. The response (or non-response) of readers enables us to 3) gain insights that help us understand the wants and needs of the audience, aka validated learning in lean startup parlance.

    Good stuff. Looking forward to the next chapter, to find out whether my guess is on target and read your thoughts.

    Jack

  24. #3 cannot be emphasized enough. Having an audience has done more for my career than anything else I’ve done.

    Opportunities just appear out of nowhere when you have the attention and trust of hundreds or thousands of strangers.

    The Buffer founders used their audience on Twitter to test the idea for their Twitter app: http://blog.bufferapp.com/idea-to-paying-customers-in-7-weeks-how-we-did-it

    I wrote about how this idea can be used for a career:
    http://careergreenlight.com/networking-is-useless

  25. Brian, Great practical data. We have been bootstrapping it for seven months now, and find it hard to get good traction with an audience. We’re getting repeat clients, but not getting a following that talks about us to their friends. I think asking them for their feedback could be key to finding the path of referrals and community. We just started on the blogging so that might help as well. Love hearing how those who do it are getting it done! Thanks!

  26. Brian, it’s a monster of a post, but I’m so glad I chose to read it fully! I had never thought such a strategy were possible, yet now it is explained to me I can see how it can only work! It’s amazing how created your audience and now I am wondering how best to adapt your strategy to increase my audience and be sure I have the right audience? More work to do! Many thanks!

  27. Brian – Really enjoyed your conversation at SMC Dallas last night, this concept really resonated with me. The idea of leading with media rather than advertising makes a lot of sense. It’s interesting applying this to different niches – such as those involving more interest/entertainment-based than information/education-seeking based behaviors, if that makes any sense.

    For example, my husband works in the comic book industry where there is a lot of potential to build interest-based content (we love/are entertained by this!), whereas there doesn’t to seem to be as much demand for informational/educational content, which seems to be a cornerstone content format for content marketing. Although I could be wrong about about the content demand in that niche, or it could signal a content opportunity.

    Either way, I’m trying to wrap my brain around applying this model in that type of niche. Penny Arcade is the big one that comes to mind for me that’s not leveraging an advertising model as its primary monetization strategy. Any examples (in this type of niche) you can think of that might apply?

    Thanks again!

  28. Johanna Fenton says:

    Hi Brian. This is just about my favorite blog these days. Thanks.

    Hey – I got all pumped up after reading this. I showed this to a great friend and trusted colleague, anticipating that he’d reply that it blew his mind. I’m especially interested in the minimum viable audience idea. Well, he replied, saying something like, “So this is just like Seth Godin’s tribes. Conventional thinking.” My bubble was burst. And now I’ve lost what it was that originally blew my mind. :) Can you bring me back on the straight and narrow?

    • Brian Clark says:

      Your friend is deluded. Most people outside our little world don’t even know who Seth Godin is. And even fewer have put anything he’s said into any practical application. Pretty far from convention.

      Tribes has been of limited influence on me, because it’s essentially a rehash of Seth’s foundational work, Permission Marketing. That concept is what I’ve built a string of businesses on, in my own way.

      That said, one difference between me and the wise bald one is he doesn’t write “how to” content — he just plants ideas. I’m at least going to give “how to” a try. 😉

      • Johanna Fenton says:

        Thanks Brian. Perhaps I’m deluded too, because I’m a newbie, and innocently thinking, Everyone follows and practices Seth Godin’s advice, right? I lack the history to see what’s happening on a large scale.

        I really do appreciate the “how to” approach you’re taking. That’s why I’m your biggest-smallest fan. (Big in love, but small in influence. Sorry Brian. Someday I promise to help you out.)

    • Hi Johanna,

      Godin made us understand the value of building a tribe. Brian seems to be adding a layer of structure.

      If you develop a tribe around your subject, an MVP is a way of figuring out how to serve the tribe while minimizing the waste of time, money and resources. A successful MVP can be accelerated into an expanded business model. An unsuccessful MVP can be pivoted in a different direction or even discarded.

      That approach is a departure from what we see so often: building-out an untested business model then throwing some marketing dollars at it. Ouch.

      Both can work. The Tribe + MVP approach seems like it would be faster, cheaper, and less painful.

      I don’t presume to speak for Chairman Brian 😉 but that’s what I’m getting out of it so far.

      Best regards,

      Jack Price

  29. Great one here Brian. I’ve got this in me that it is not necessary to pitch investors rather it will be better for me to build a good business and become an investor. That is when my money can climb high. If I am seeking inveestors, then i will be doing so to sell my business outrightly

    Sheyi

  30. Brian, would you agree that your CONTENT is the MVP in this case?

    Eric Ries explains that an MVP is anything that gets you through a complete build-measure-learn cycle.

    And the MVP can test ANY part of your business model, not just if people will pay at the end. For instance, content can test if the problem is big enough for people to take action with a webinar. Or content can test your unique value proposition with just a headline.

    A “Content MVP” allows you to pivot early and often. With content you can change your focus before you waste time and money launching a full service or product.

    So, your Minimum Viable Audience as you describe is when you finally achieve Problem/Solution fit. This is when the content matches the problem people have.

    Armed with the insights of Problem/Solution fit, you can move on and create the first version of your product or service, and test the complete lifecycle of your customer. Now the search begins for Product/Market fit.

    I think you have a powerful concept and a track record using it to build businesses. But I do think your understanding of the MVP is slightly different than what Ries writes.

    • Brian Clark says:

      You’re not building a product, you’re building an audience. So yes, it’s actually different from what Ries talks about, because it’s a precursor to thinking about product in the first place. In other words, it precedes a “build-measure-learn” exercise at the product level even though it follows it’s own unique build-measure-learn process. That’s why I’m straying from Eric’s methodology, because it’s different, precedent, and mine. 😉

  31. I’m working my way through Steve Blank “Lean Launchpad” class and I just realized something.

    Prof Blank advises entrepreneurs to test and validate their “Unique Value Proposition” and “Customer Segments” first. In his estimation, it’s the most risky part of a business model, and everything else follows.

    Brian, it seems that you emphasize the “Channel” (content marketing) and “Customer Relationships” (minimum viable audience) first. That’s how you figure out what your Value Prop and who your customers really are.

    It comes down to what’s riskier – building something people don’t want, or not being able to reach them. The pure Lean model seems quicker, but the entreproducer model seems better for discovery.

    Pardon me as I merge your model with the Lean model in my mind! I’ve gained a lot from what you’ve taught me, and I gained a lot from reading the Lean Startup and putting it into practice last year.

    Thanks for indulging me.

  32. I know this is an older post but wow, thanks! We are getting ready to release a new version of Mokumax and this is exactly the type of stuff we need to read.

  33. I’m working on building a minimal viable audience for my pre-release training network http://www.trivial.ly (currently just a video and signup form).

    In my spare moments, I’m building engagement through Facebook, which is starting to pay off.

    My question is, how big does a minimum viable audience have to be to be minimally viable? 100? 500? 10,000? How would you measure your audience?

  34. New to the site and just signed up for newsletter. With this article as my first read, I’m hooked. Thanks for taking the time to create this platform and article. Love it.

  35. Angelique Tonge says:

    Hi Brian, Thank you so much for this article. It’s great hearing that other people are in the same start up boat (I’m still building my boat). It’s still very early days for me, so I guess this is the best time to read your posts. Great knowing that focus groups aren’t necessarily the starting block!! Thanks for the pointers.

  36. Angelique Tonge says:

    Also, it might be useful having a share via email link? I didn’t see one? Just a thought cause I wanted to share this.

  37. Great article, loving the entreproducer podcast.

    Quick question.

    You mention that social media sharing is key to growing and building a MVA. But, what if my business is not something people want to share on social media?

    The niche I am in is a health related topic, it’s a fairly large niche but isn’t something people would exactly want to be posting about to their twitter and Facebook friends.

    Would love to know your thoughts.

    • Brian Clark says:

      That sounds like a perfect opportunity to create a private paid forum. Sensitive topics are exactly what people will pay to discuss in private. The more difficult part of getting the word out, but that might be something that pay per click would be perfect for.

    • If no one is willing to talk about it on social media it means you’ve picked an expensive customer to reach!

Sites That Link to this Post

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