How to Build a Successful Company without a Product

By now, it’s a well-known cautionary tale: a startup builds the best, most innovative, most cost-effective tool on the market, but then can’t find anyone to buy it. It’s a problem every entrepreneur will face if they aren’t willing to test their ideas with actual customers before launching.

However, many entrepreneurs have good reasons for not taking the time and effort to do so. Customer phone calls, surveys, meetings, and interviews all get tedious, and they are not necessarily productive, either. Customers can’t always tell you exactly what their pain point is, or – more often – they don’t know exactly what they would need to cure it.

So how can you build up an audience and validate customers without building a product, releasing it, and just hoping people like it?

The answer is content.

Why a Good Content Strategy Is Crucial to Your New Business

Building a product takes huge amounts of time and resources. Don’t you want to make sure you’re building something people will buy before you make that investment?

A blog is an incredible secret weapon for startup founders. Not only is it a place where you can begin to grow a following without having a completed product to offer, but it’s also a place where you can build your brand, test ideas, get user feedback, and engage your future customers in a conversation that will get them invested in your brand and help you create a better product for them.

A blog builds credibility

People are more willing to buy a product when it comes from someone they already know and trust, so why not establish yourself as a trusted source before you have something to sell? A blog is an amazing platform for you to establish yourself as a leader in the community and the market you hope to penetrate. An excellent pre-product blog will have thought leadership, industry news and analysis, and insights from experts in your field.

Building credibility doesn’t have to take a lot of time, either. One or two posts a week, with really high-value content or news, is often enough to stand out from the crowd of “Top 10” lists and fluffier business blogging pieces out there. Define your values and your audience, and write content that those people would find worthy of sharing on their Twitter feeds.

A blog builds an audience

The company that focuses on building an audience first and building a product second will find that a captive audience is more willing to work with you on products that don’t quite hit the mark.

Think about it: if a friend you’ve known for a year shows you their new product and you don’t like it, you’re likely to help them improve it because you like them and are at least a little bit invested in their happiness and success.

But if a stranger on the street shows you a product and you don’t like it… Well, who cares? This person and their product don’t really mean anything to you, so you can basically just take it or leave it.

Moz (formerly SEOmoz) started as a blog and built up a huge following of readers before ever launching their main product. They found that their loyal readers were willing to stick with them through product iterations because Moz already was giving them such valuable content on their blog.

seomoz blog

image source: http://moz.com/blog/goodbye-seomoz-hello-moz

It’s the idea of reciprocity: if you create a valuable resource for people and invest in their success, they will feel loyal to you and return the favor by supporting you down the road.

A blog builds innovation

Once you have established yourself as a credible source with a loyal following, you can start using the blog to validate your product ideas. (By the way, your following can be 15 people to start with. Don’t think a good blog has to have 10,000 views a month to matter.)

Danielle Morrill used her blog to build up credibility as a startup business analyst. She published posts ranking and analyzing startups from different portfolios, and – based on the success of those posts – launched her actual product, a startup analysis index.

april 2013 startup index

image source: http://www.daniellemorrill.com/2013/05/april-2013-startup-index-1183-companies-71-are-growing

Plenty of other businesses have followed similar strategies, using their blogs as platforms to share previews of the products they were building and to get feedback from their potential users.

Groupon began as a blog where the founders manually updated the site with daily deals on restaurants and movie tickets. Once they saw that people were interested in the product they had to offer, they built it into the site you’d recognize today.

Zen Habits began as a highly trafficked blog about living mindfully in a busy world. Eventually, it grew into courses, books, and a growing business, once the founder, Leo Babauta, validated his concept for the kinds of products his readers would be willing to pay for.

By building up an audience with a blog, you give yourself a huge resource you can leverage at any time. If you engage with your readers (and don’t just market yourself), you can start fascinating conversations where you learn details and touches your product needs that you never would have thought of.

You save time and money by getting to bounce ideas off of actual customers (instead of investors or product developers who won’t be buying your product). You also get future customers further invested in your success. The more your audience feels they were involved in the development of the product you release, the more likely they are to stick around and buy.

How Can You Develop an Effective Pre-Product Content Strategy?

Building a content strategy before you have a product isn’t easy, but the benefits of spending time building up that content strategy vastly outweigh the drawbacks of spending that time building a product with no audience or market to launch it to.

So, as a founder with limited time and resources, what can you do?

Create a modest content calendar.

How often can you realistically post? Once a week, twice a week? Whatever you can reasonably do, create a simple spreadsheet with dates, and lay out a few topics for the first few weeks.

At popforms, we sat down and came up with 100 blog post ideas during one long brainstorming session. Now, we just pick and choose from that list as necessary, adding in new ideas when they fit better. This makes writing a post every week super simple, because we don’t have to start from scratch every time.

Define your audience and brand.

Who do you think your future customers are? You know the industry/field you want to operate in, but who exactly are you trying to reach? Managers? Moms? Pet owners? Residents of a specific town?

Don’t branch out too broadly in an attempt to grow an enormous following. That strategy almost always backfires. Why? Because people can get general information anywhere. General information often isn’t helpful and usually doesn’t solve the kinds of problems people go to business blogs for.

Focus on your niche, and the things that you are an expert on. Speak to the people you want to convert into customers, and forget the rest.

Create a mailing list.

Tools like MailChimp make this really simple. Even if you have only a few followers, put a sign-up form on every page of your website to make it really easy for new followers to give you their email addresses. Send a regular update to your list, sharing content from your blog and any other news that will keep your followers engaged with your journey.

Communicate with your followers.

It’s great to have 1,000 email addresses in your mailing list; it’s better to have 1,000 customers that you have communicated with directly and formed a connection with. The power of your audience increases directly based on how much you interact with that audience.

You should ask for feedback, and then respond to feedback emails personally. Ask lots of questions. Ask people what they want to read, bounce ideas for products off of them, and ask them about their own personal pain points. You won’t believe what you will learn.

Your startup’s blog should be its secret weapon. It has the power to turn visitors into customers and so-so product ideas into million-dollar launches.

Do You Want to Have an Outstanding Business Blog?

KISSmetrics and popforms have teamed up to share our wealth of business blogging knowledge with you in a free, two-week email course designed to make your blog better and more powerful than ever before.

At popforms, our blog is one of the most important pieces of our business, and we like to think we really know our stuff. Plus, with the brilliant minds at KISSmetrics helping us to power the content, it’s a win-win :).

If you’re ready to turn your lackluster business blog into all that it can be, sign up for our Better Business Blogging course today:

About the Author: Kate Stull is a co-founder and content strategist at popforms, a startup that is building tools to help enlightened leaders and teams work better together. You can find her on the popular popforms blog and follow her on Twitter @katestull.

  1. hi Kate

    Your blogging course sounds interesting. Should sign-up soon, surely will find some gold nuggets that will take my 300+ niche site network next level :)

    Cheers!

  2. Great piece. Blogging is a great way to build an audience and validate a market before investing in an actual product.

    In addition to Moz, I wrote about how Mattermark, Silencer, Ghost, App.net, and Groupon used to this tactic to get early traction: http://ryanhoover.me/post/58917704787/blog-first-startups

  3. I wish I could hug this post.

    I’ve been trying to drive this point home with my clients. Now I can just send them here! I’ll definitely be referencing this post in upcoming content of my own.

    Thank you, you fine Metric Kissers, you.

  4. If time is the constraint, we can build a basic web app lot quicker than building a blog with the tools available now. But blog (with audience) would give you more insights, But having audience for your blog is tougher these days.

    What I find problem is that having access to the audience who can give feedback. If you are not building next Google or Apple, the product is not the usual problem.

    However, nice article though.

  5. Engagement of right audience is very crucial and where content strategy plays it’s emerging role. Thanks Kate !

  6. Haha, how true this is. Several times I have built a product only to find that I can not market it effective and sell it. Now after several failures I once finish the product once I have a confirmed booking / purchase. This way you risk much less of your tiime.
    James

  7. Thats really very helpful information.Now i can think of starting a new business on my own.You have provided me the initial steps.

  8. Hi guys, here is another video added to this stuff “how to start with guest blogging”.

    http://moz.com/blog/guest-blogging-strategies-whiteboard-friday

  9. Started reading the article, learned something totally different! Thanks for sharing the “wrote 100 posts” that you can just choose from, it definitely pays off to write several articles in advance and use the time for promotion etc. Will definitely use it, thanks :)

  10. Great article, that outlays the importance of blogging.

    I love your emphasis on defining your brand. To me it’s the hardest thing to do but the most important. Because it help checkmates you by Keeping you in line

  11. It redefines the statement ‘Content is king’, the most overused phrase in blogging industry.

  12. Hi Kate:

    This is such a great post! Like, like, like.

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