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Build a Business, Not an Audience (jakobgreenfeld.com)
208 points by jakobgreenfeld on March 1, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 48 comments

Ironically, this post is a masterclass in audience-building.

I question whether the author believes what he's preaching, since he's taken the time to write this post, create a newsletter, add a sign up form and follow me on twitter plea, and then post it to Hacker News.

I've found that, generally, people who think audience-building is a waste of time don't spend their time audience-building.

What's so clever about this article in particular? It fits into the proven, "pessimistic take on a new trend" form of clickbait, published to an audience that loves pessimistic takes.

Hacker News is the perfect venue for this piece of content, since people here all wish they could just build something amazing and people would flock to it by default. The author is telling the crowd exactly what they want to hear, while ironically, building his own audience.

I would take this post with a grain of salt.

I'm the author and wondering if you read the post beyond the headline.

Quotes from the text:

> "But don’t get me wrong. Having an audience is awesome and I love great content."

> "Publishing content online is the best way to become visible so that opportunities can find you."

My point is that churning out content by remixing other people's work for the sake of building an audience is a common procrastination trap. I love when people share first-hand learnings and with my most recent posts, including this one, I'm trying to do just that.

Another quote:

> "Your main priority always should be to do meaningful things, to solve real-world problems, to be the man in the arena. And if you share what you learn along the way, people will start to listen. Write when you have something meaningful to say, and not to stick to some self-imposed writing schedule."

> wondering if you read the post beyond the headline.

Asking if people read the post is against HN guidelines:

‘Please don't comment on whether someone read an article. "Did you even read the article? It mentions that" can be shortened to "The article mentions that."’


My point is that churning out content by remixing other people's work for the sake of building an audience is a common procrastination trap

If that's your point, it doesn't support your headline. What's that got to do with warning against building an audience?

If you want to see the advantages of building an audience, just go read some indie hacker interviews:


Half of those businesses seem to be built on the back of audiences built up over years.

> But this doesn’t bring them one inch closer to their goal. It’s just a form of procrastination.

Well, being at the right place at the right time really is how 19/20 people get rich ("become entrepreneurs").

Nowhere in the post the author says or even recommends not to build and audience. All he is saying is that it souldn't be your main focus.

> Hacker News is the perfect venue for this piece of content, since people here all wish they could just build something amazing and people would flock to it by default. The author is telling the crowd exactly what they want to hear, while ironically, building his own audience.

What I got from the article is: building an audienc should not be the top priority, the quality of the audience matters more than the size of it and focus on creating valuable content. Again, it never discourages doing it.

>> Nowhere in the post the author says or even recommends not to build and audience

Title: Build a Business, Not an Audience

A sort of reverse-Reddit, if you will (everyone reads just the title, not the article, well, in this case, OP read the article but skipped the title :-)) ).

> Your main priority always should be to do meaningful things, to solve real-world problems, to be the man in the arena. And if you share what you learn along the way, people will start to listen. Write when you have something meaningful to say, and not to stick to some self-imposed writing schedule.

The way I read the author's article was : solve real-world problems and then write about your learnings from it. Do you disagree with the author?

What real-world problems has he solved and what has he learned by solving them?

Curiously, the article fails to mention either.

Although it does have a "Follow my Twitter feed and sign up for my newsletter" call to action at the end. Perhaps that counts?

Yeap, this seems like marketing 101.

Also, looking at the profile, the author seems to be peddling various cookie-cutter "products" he's trying to sell to "entrepreneurs"... I wonder if he read his first link.

I can see why you'd think that, but knowing Jakob, respectfully, you're wrong.

Jakob shares authentically. Not with the primary goal of building an audience to sell stuff to, but because it's natural for him.

His particular brand of learning in public and making connections with others on similar journeys is appealing to me. I worked very privately in my last business as a solo founder. It wasn't sustainable.

I've learnt a lot from how Jakob works. Am I the audience? What is an audience? Is your best friend? Your parents? Your team? What I take out of it is how to make genuine connections instead of inauthentic re-hashed tweets.

Actually, trying to build audience from HN is not a very good idea, because the value of HN is that it is a community-curated content mix, and chances are it's readers are more than satisfied with it's volume and quality.

From my perspective I am always surprised when I see such article on the HP. When I check articles in the newest section - https://news.ycombinator.com/newest - most of them do not get upvotes and dies. So there is for sure some skill involved in getting here. :)

Skill, luck or sockpuppet accounts.

> pessimistic take on a new trend

I don't see how describing reality is a pessimistic take.

Omg, this comment is so brilliant. Thanks for open my eyes. This is more elaborated and intrincated than Nolan's movies.

All we want hear why we are failing. Most of us are going to the chase and adventure of get the quick-buck-overnight success

>this comment is so brilliant.

Eh, this is the tone of virtually every top-level comment on HN. "Actually, ... blah blah blah."

What business has this "Jacob" built that makes him an authority on the subject and not just another dream-seller without any successful companies behind him?

Isn't this article _exactly_ what he's arguing against - this is 100% audience building and i can't even se any "business" whatsoever on his website?

Reminds me of the hold Bill Hicks "Anti Marketing Dollar" joke about selling the same things rebranded as opposing views.

> Save yourself thousands of dollars. Here’s all the writing advice you need:

The essay is good but this one sentence at the end reeks of the “bullshit industrial complex” that it’s trying to warn against.

If that is the only writing advice you need, then you’re in a good position. For everyone else, I recommend “Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace” which is a low-bullshit guide to fixing your writing.

I’m not trying to be pithy here; otherwise intelligent people sometimes suck at putting words down, even when they have something valuable to write.

Doubly so if they have had significant exposure to academia. By her own admission, my wife wrote better back in high school than she did coming out of her doctorate. She’s not trying to be impenetrable, but those neural circuits are just too well-worn at this point.

The biggest bait-and-switch of college education IMO was spending the first two years learning how to write. Everybody knows full well that the next two years are spent writing papers and theses in the same impenetrable, verbose style as used in the published journal articles. After all, those make up the majority of the reading list for intermediate and advanced-level courses.

Thanks for the recommendation. Just placed an order.

Amazing essay.

I found this quote particularly enlightening. It really sums up the feeling I have about a lot of self-proclaimed experts with a social audience. Clubhouse has been the quintessence of it.

"With feel-good platitudes and remixed content you’ll only attract fellow beginners. Everyone else recognizes the content immediately for what it is. Hence, the primary value of your much larger audience is that you’re able to sell them a “How to grow your Twitter following” Gumroad course for $47."

I've caught myself in recent weeks nearly going into this so called "Bullshit Industrial Complex". I've got a few projects I'd like to build in the year, but wasn't planning on starting immediately due to other obligations. Hence I thought to myself sure, let me build a following in the meantime!

After following a few people on twitter and participating in a few threads, I quickly saw this as just not for me. I don't want to be selling the image of myself, because:

1) It's a lot of effort not actually related to the product (as the article mentions)

2) Honestly, it makes me feel narcissistic.

3) I've been trying to get _away_ from attention grabbing social media to get work done and have some more quiet in my life. Is having a following the only way to get the work visible? Surely not!

So definitely, I'm out to build usable things and not an audience.

Top of page: "Build a Business, Not an Audience".

Bottom of page: "Powered by ConvertKit".

(I do think the author is genuine in his point; I just found that juxtaposition funny.)

I used to create Android apps and had quite a few apps listed on Google Play. I never made any money.

I was disheartened and started teaching coding on YouTube.

I have more subscribers than the number of downloads my apps have ever got and made almost $3K from teaching coding.

I have created side project products which I thought were pretty good but got to absolutely nowhere because I didn't have an audience. But I got no time to build an audience and built products. I have a full-time job and a family I love to spend time with. And I'm an introvert on top of that.

So I guess I'm wired to fail in this whole product thing.

If you’re able to, I’d look into outsourcing some of the audience building and cold contact to someone else.

Hire an intern to manage your social media. Find a VA to send out your cold emails.

Your projects don’t have to flounder because you don’t have the time to build an audience.

> outsourcing some of the audience building and cold contact to someone else.

All due respect, this is maximally wrong advice. You need to talk to people to figure out their pains and if your product alleviates them. You'd be better off doing the cold contact and paying someone else to build the product.

I never had an ounce of success until repeated failures forced me out of my shell and in to actually talking to potential customers.

That’s why I suggested outsourcing some of the customer contact. E.g., deciding what your customer archetype looks like and then having an intern send them cold emails. Or using a Twitter tool to filter in tweets related to your project, then handing some of the relationship building to someone else.

That's great advice. Thank you very much!

I can mostly second this advice from the perspective of someone creating a physical product. Effort that doesn't directly go to toward delivering to customers something they're willing to pay money for is active procrastination.

It's much more effective to just get on with creating the thing and let the audience build up as you start delivering. This has the advantage of making sure that your audience is only people that are really in to that thing.

Just as an example, one dumb thing I did was to build up an Instagram following that is > 90% Americans, while my intention is to only ship to Europe and the UK. Time well spent...

> “In recent years one of the most common pieces of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs has become that you should focus on building an audience. Everyone is screaming it from the rooftops.”

No, one of the most common pieces of advice you have heard might be that, but by definition, you are only hearing advice from people who have an audience. You’re in the audience. They’re the people you’re listening to.

People who have prioritized other things than building an audience don’t have much of an audience, so you don’t hear so much from them.

The same thing happens in all tech communities, not just entrepreneurship, by the way. Many of the voices in dev Twitter are actually voices in DevRel Twitter, because DevRel requires you to build an audience - while merely being a dev doesn’t. Same is true of the online security community, or game dev YouTube. The voices you hear, the ones who are telling you ‘here’s how to get noticed! Make content! Stream on Twitch!’ - those people are visible, but not necessarily the right people to emulate unless your goal is... mere visibility.

The author argues against this strategy of audience building:

* remixing feel good content of others

* trying to find a product fit by audience building

* You know you're creating valuable content if you're scared before hitting the publish button (?)

Hard to respond to the article because it's making a lot of unrelated points. Here's a rephrasing of some of the author's points and some of my thoughts on audience building:

* building an audience of potential customers is powerful

* vanity metrics (# of followers) are less important than engagement metrics

* The building a Twitter audience course referenced in the blog post made $200,000 (https://twitter.com/dvassallo/status/1365962052469018626). It's a 90 minute powerpoint presentation with no editing. Shows how powerful building an audience and then selling to them is.

Almost all the content I create is highly technical distributed data blogs and it's allowed me to find open source collaborators and get help on difficult bugs. Having the right audience is awesome.

“ Hence, the primary value of your much larger audience is that you’re able to sell them a “How to grow your Twitter following” Gumroad course for $47. A high-quality audience is an endless source of opportunities. A low quality one is at most a Ponzi scheme.”

Haha, hot damn, shots were fired! I’m guessing this was aimed at dvassallo.

I'm of the opinion that you should focus on building an audience but it depends on the type of audience.

Whenever I'm working on a new brand I think about the problem that the audience has and that's what I want to create an audience around.

When you create an audience around a problem then when you have the solution (your business) the audience fuels it.

However, too many people take the advice of building an audience before a business to mean that they need to build an audience around their personal brand/persona and that's why you end up with the things in the author's post.

While building a personal brand can be very helpful for clout and opportunities, it's never a surefire way to generate success for a business because who is your audience at that point?

This piece deserve front page just for its potential noise reduction effect. By the way, maybe there are too many « curators », but at least they provide a filtering function. It make me thinking about the alternatives and opportunities to create a filter as a product.

I came to a similar conclusion earlier this year.

I previously had a lot of success audience building by chronicling a project I was actually on. My content was shared everywhere and the follower counts and attention grew quickly but organically.

Since that project finished, I fell into the trap of finding stuff to write about and share out of habit. I realised it was a waste of time at best.

Since getting back into a new project and going back to my old mode of just sharing experiences, attention and opportunities seem to be flowing again.

My takeaway is that authenticity is key for content marketing. People crave it and identify the lack of it immediately.

People learn in different ways and underlying truths are passed better with more relevant examples for specific audience.

Many might not create something completely new and original, but creating something new just for it to be new is bullsh*t too.

If the fundamental truths are already there, and one can mix it for a new platform, add some commentary and find new ways to make it accesible for new audiences - he is creating something valuable nonetheless.

Oh man, does this resonate. I was invited to participate in a panel on doing business as a person making and selling stuff. I build furniture. Early on, while I was still a student, somebody told me that I have to get on Instagram, because "that's where all the woodworkers are" [0].

Also I this panel was a person who makes things that sell at a more impulse purchase price level [1]. One question was about social media strategy. And they were all over how to get the most exposure on Instagram: when to post, how to interact with the app to get ranked higher, how to get your friends to save your posts instead of liking them, how buying stuff from other makers on Instagram and posting it shows how you support the community and helps your brand, etc.

I had so many questions I didn't ask: how much time does all this gramming take? How much money do you actually make? Do you actually sell anything via Instagram?

Of the woodworkers I know personally, exactly one has gotten any business via Instagram. I'm sure some of the really instafamous ones get work, but it's a long way to the top. I think my time is better spent building furniture and selling via other avenues. I post what I'm doing, but I don't worry too much about it.

I'll be honest: I'm not making software money building furniture. But the business is growing (in revenue and profit terms, I have no desire to manage employees). And I see a path for it being a truly meaningful contributor to our household income in the next year or so [2]. To clarify: it has been modestly profitable the whole way, just not hugely so. A move to a new area in a year with limited opportunities for in-person sales probably set things back a year, but it's still going OK. Picking up some contract jobs has helped with the cash flow immensely.

I don't mean to make any assumptions about anybody else's business, but you've got to be selling a lot of impulse purchase priced items daily to make ends meet. That's a lot of time doing fulfillment and everything else that gets product in the customer's hands and money in your pocket and less time making things. Maybe they've found a way to make it work, but I had to wonder if they have more audience than business.

I'm not asserting that this is case for that business. It's not, however, a way I see a profit in. Thinking this way probably ensures I'll never be big time, but that's OK. Meaningfully profitable is my goal with this.

[0] Yeah, I know. Fuck that: I need to be where the people with money are. Still I've learned a lot from other people's posts, gotten good feedback, and if we're honest, the imaginary internet points are nice when you don't see another soul in the shop for days at a stretch. It's good to know other people are enjoying my work.

[1] Details elided for reasons that will soon be obvious.

[2] I'm the meantime, there's that old joke: What do you call a drummer without a girlfriend? Homeless.

The Twitter summaries of courses, books, interviews etc can be useful, even if it's second- or third-hand. That's because the original material tends to be heavy on fluff. Every business/productivity book has about 50 pages of useful content, wrapped in 250 pages of useless padding.

There's also a degrade in quality as knowledge is summarized over and over. But is not that bad as you wrote, how you pretend people to learn anyway?

Last time I checked there are thousand options for Math books, wonder why they need to be remixing that over and over.

I don't think they really are remixing it that much. They change problem numberings and the attached online software code for the yearly new edition to prevent students selling their second hand books to each other. Brand new titles about old Math are either trying to solve that problem or join in on it, depending on who is offering it up.

> If you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you’ve seen the following pattern over and over again

I don't think I've ever seen the pattern described there, so I guess I'm completely out of the loop here? Is that a common pattern others here see too?

Many of those advocating "build an audience" are interested in selling advertising.

Audiences are saleable to advertisers.

Businesses are not.

For better or worse, I think Basecamp started this trend. Not necessarily with the content they have created and sold, but with the ideas that get misunderstood. I think it was Jason Fried who said people should be selling their byproducts, which amounts to remixing content, selling what you’ve learned to others. This works and is good practice for some things, but it gets extended into so many other things that we get an “information product” economy where the information is the only product instead of the information being a byproduct of the experience you gained by building something else.

On a high level, the author makes some good points -- a lot of remixed content is bad, the quality of the audience matters more than the quantity, a lot of entrepreneurs are just creating courses to help other entrepreneurs pay for classes or create their own courses vs creating an actual more helpful business.

But I feel the author needs to take a few things into account:

1. "Ok" content opens up the door to "good" content which can help you create "great" content

A lot of reporting is not in-depth investigative journalism, it's basically regurgitating what other newspapers have already said. But in a sense, every reporter "pays their dues" by writing on these type of stories, in the hope that doing a good enough job with that will let them tackle harder stories, and maybe one day the investigative journalism stories that they are actually passionate about.

Really it's about building "street cred". By showing you can talk about soft topics in an effective way, many people will be open for you to talk with them about harder topics, which will further cement your credibility, and then slowly move you up to be a subject knowledge expert.

2. A ton of "meh" content can many times beat out "great" infrequent content

Ideally, you would put out great content, all the time. But since many entrepreneurs can't budget for that (takes too much time / energy / money), putting out any content at all can still be beneficial, and can be another entry point for people to find you, discover you, help elevate your product, and give you more of the time / energy / money needed to make better content.

3. It's easier to get Elon Musk/Paul Graham in your followers with a large network than a small one.

In the example in the blog post, the author compares 2000 followers of mostly beginner entrepreneurs to one with just Elon Musk/Paul Graham in their followers, the latter of which is obviously more beneficial.

But to take a step back, how would that have happened? For Elon Musk/Paul Graham to be a follower, they would need to know about you, and recognize you as someone worth following. The most common scenarios might be that they worked with you in the past, or grew up with you. But outside of that, they'd most likely know about you because you were recommended to them from someone else, or they stumbled across you. And for that, you'd most likely need to have a large audience of people that knew about you, so you could eventually get recommended by someone in that audience.

That's not to say that Elon would follow you or you'd get recommended just because you wrote a bunch of articles like "3 ways the Electric car is going to take off", but you might have a better chance than if you wrote just 1 very long form piece of content.

4. Sometimes, people need content "remixed" Sometimes, content only sticks with someone when they are hearing it from the right person, under the right context, under the right conditions.

If I heard a professor explain Artificial Neural Networks, I might not "grep" it, or maybe it only partially sinks in. But when a Youtube video from someone I follow presents the same information to me "remixed" in a way that I am more comfortable with, it sinks in immediately.

The right person saying the right thing at the right time can make a lot of difference.

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