Starting a Business, Starting a Tribe

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 10/02/2012

I walked past Seth Godin at the Maker Faire New York this weekend. I didn’t stop for his talk because I was with a 22-month old who wouldn’t sit still for it. But I read his business platitudes every day, and am a fan of that long tradition of business guru writing going back to Peter Drucker. This got me to thinking why I’m still working for the man, and my answer keeps coming back to a lack of risk-taking and I sufficiently clear thinking.

Entrepreneurialism is too fancy of a word. Everybody should be able to pursue their passion, so long as there is a money-making aspect to it that you enjoy doing, and make a livelihood out of it. This spirit is everywhere at the Maker Faire. If you could do most of it at home to cut out the mind-numbing daily commute, only attending the occasional “in real life” events like this to get the word out, the world would be a much happier place.

I’m thinking I will start to refine my website now to be how-to guide on the more technical aspects of this dream—and maybe help myself along in the process. So many endeavors these days require you to bring onboard the “technical co-founder”—the idea being that you can somehow bring all the brilliant ideas to the table, and just add geek. Well, it doesn’t work that way. Just ask the Winklevoss twins.

Instead, you should BE your own technical co-founder, and if you’re starting early enough in life, or have kept that youthful absorbent mind, you should be able to do it. Hey, the worst that could happen is you become a little more technology literate. Okay, where to begin? I suppose at one of the trust quotes of legendary business guru Peter Drucker of all time: “The purpose of any company is to get and keep customers.”

To make money, you need a product or a service. If you’re an empire-builder, the dream is to have a product that scales, so you can deliver it to the world while somehow preserving what was so special and unique about it at a small-scale—that won you your first-round of customers in the first place. But people are creatures of habit and resist change, so your product must have some inherent characteristic so compelling that it can change habits and break through the “good enough” barrier that keeps them skeptical of your wares.

One way to do this is to define a wholly new category of product that people didn’t know was possible before—like the first time anyone marketed deodorant. You are not therefore breaking old habits, so much as creating new ones on a clean slate (or smelly one). However, your product shouldn’t be too radical and unable to be categorized or you’ll die before people realize how brilliant you were. It should be just different enough, and satisfy a good pain point—preferably 10x better than anything that has come before.

Once you put out your product, copy-cats will eventually step in and undercut you—once they see your foolishness can actually make money. You can try to protect your intellectual property with patents, but even better is to achieve critical mass in sales among your early adopters, and come to define the category. If you go this route, you must be first AND best. Otherwise, clever second-to-market folks will improve upon the countless nuanced little details and leverage advantages from their established business to crush you.

You will need a good product by this time and a strong company brand. The brand is likely to be tied to your personality, as we are in the age of the founder. You will probably communicate with your customers directly, and cobble together a tribe. A fair amount of your time will go into the care and feeding of your tribe, but they will reward you by becoming your marketing army. A few will be your champions, and others just quietly Liking and +1’ing everything you do.

You will choose a category to dominate, and probably make it achievable by going after a modest and specialized niche, and serving it better than literally anyone else in the world. This must necessarily mean that your online content on the subject-matter is also the best in the world, and be rounded up and curated for easy consumption. Navigation of that content should equally delightful by search, hierarchical drill-down or in a linear story-telling fashion.

Did I say story? Yep, you need a story. It’s got to grab and engage and make your target audience immediately relate to you. There should be a 30-second elevator pitch version of your story, and a forever-growing Wikipedia-style history version. In the end, you are just telling a story with your business, hoping it will be retold far and wide in your lifetime, and I you’re an empire-builder, maybe long beyond.

A simple, easily told story means focus—at least at first—at least until one part of your business can finance taking risks in another. Until then, everything is a pitfall. Everything is a distraction. Everything is dilution of focus. Your entire company should be easily understood by the hierarchical drill-down navigation of your website.

All the terms in that website navigation should align closely with the terms you know to be searched on by your target audience. This is because as pervasive navigation, it is leaving strong evidence to search engines that this is what you are really about. Develop those pages into the never-moving, ever-improving go-to locations on those topics—even beating out Wikipedia in terms of immediate usefulness. Make something people will be delighted to discover when they click through on you, and anxious to talk about to other like-minded future tribesmen.

Cull and collect data from your Internet presence and plow what you learn back into your product or service. That data should come from both unintentional search-hit referrer data (keywords) and deliberately submitted questions and correspondence. Have an artistic vision and stick to it—but only to make genuinely better product, and not out of stubborn principle nor to deny reality. Listen to what people are trying to tell you in order to make a new reality.

Now, you must split your time between nurturing your tribe and improving your product or service. Thankfully, they are closely interrelated. Remember, the mission of any company is to get and keep customers. Products can be reverse-engineered and copied, but they’re going to have a tougher time stealing your tribe—so long as it is a good strong one. And so, you should keep in mind what makes a good tribe even right as you invent your product or service.