Fringe Benefits: Why startups mustn’t appeal to the masses


In a two-party political system like we have in America, the fight is always over the middle.

The hard-lefts vote Democratic, the hard-rights Republican, even if they don’t know the candidate, even if they don’t like the candidate, because it can’t be as bad as that other guy who is even further removed from their ideology. No sense in either party trying to battle over those extremes.

But fighting for the middle is murky — without a strong affiliation and a consistent set of beliefs, how do you convince all of the centrists you’re the best candidate?

The answer is political safe-talk: saying the right thing to the crowd in front of you while leaving enough wiggle room to say something different to the next. Frolic at the intersection of ambiguity and generality. Assert nothing controversial, lest you lose the room. Even when you can’t bring yourself to say something they’ll love, just say something they can’t quite hate.

Of course this sort of behavior is why we distrust and dislike politicians, and why most Americans prefer voting for “none of the above.”

A startup must be the opposite of a politician.

A startup should be the bat-shit crazy independent candidate who runs for president even though he’ll end up with only 40,000 votes.

After all, wouldn’t you be happy with 40,000 zealous fans, each contributing $10/mo to your cause?

How do you get 40,000 fans, whether web app customers, blog readers, or book-buyers? By talking to the fringe, not the middle.

By taking a hard line on what’s important to you. By having strong opinions, even if weakly held. By being specific, not general, By speaking to your target audience, not to just anyone who happens by your website. By taking the smallest, most well-defined niche you can muster and owning it 100%.

You’ll need to be honest too. It’s hard to be passionate, strong, specific, and zealous without also be honest. Honest with yourself in what you profess and honest with others that you’re espousing it with neither apology nor qualification.

Not sure what you believe? Not sure what’s important to you? I wasn’t either three years ago when I started this blog. Maybe that’s something worth fixing. Best way to figure it out, though, is to start writing and see what comes, then look back later and see if you still believe it.

Though this part is difficult — as much because of introspection as of converting thoughts to words — it makes everything else easy because zealots aren’t like normal customers. They willingly put up with bugs or lack of features, they’re your unpaid salesforce, you’ll feed off your own words and theirs to construct compelling yet accurate website and advertising copy.

Then you’ll discover the best part: People outside your niche will like what you’re saying too. You’ll find that people who aren’t your “perfect” customer are nevertheless willing to join you, because strong opinion coupled with abject honesty is compelling. Even if you say, right on the home page, “This product is for little startups only!” some project manager from IBM will buy 300 seats.

It happened to me. Lots of times.

You’ll be surprised how many people outside your target market wish that they were inside, and will join you if only to live vicariously.

Take this blog — it’s written specifically for founders of small, single-digit-sized startups, bootstrapped or angel-funded, who sell product online. Yet, the majority of my readers are not that! Most aren’t running business yet, they’re thinking about it, or they have a side-project they hope might become a business, or they want to twist their corporate job into something more meaningful. Many are consultants. A strong minority aren’t even in software.

A strong, clear message of any sort beats a muddled, generic message attempting to appeal to the masses.

Let the silly politicians pander and play to the masses. Be your own tribal leader.


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