The Accomplished Solopreneur

Issue 23.41

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Where do you start building a business: audience or product?

There are two different schools of thought when it comes to starting a solopreneur business. One school says “build an audience first”, the other “build your first product or service first”. Both have pros and cons – here they are, what I did, and what I recommend.

Where do you start?

There are two big things you need to have a successful solopreneur business:

  • A product or service
  • Someone to sell it to

The big question for many solopreneurs – especially when they’re starting out – is which do you build first? On the face of it, you should start with a product or service, because you only need to do that once. Selling, which starts with marketing, is something you will do for as long as your business exists, so logically that should come after you’ve built your product or service.

But it’s not quite that simple.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of each, and what you can do if you’re already half way there.

Starting with building a product or service

The first school of thought says:

  • Build your first product or service.
  • Then start building an audience you can sell it to.

There are pros and cons to this approach.

Pros of starting with a product or service

The biggest advantage of starting with your (first) product or service is that when you’ve build it, you can focus all your energy and time on marketing and selling.

If you’re not already good (or at least decent) at marketing, this is a good approach. Learning to market and sell can suck up most of your time. If your product or service is ready, you don’t have to carve out time to go and build it.

Cons of starting with a product or service

The biggest disadvantage of starting with a product or service is that you can get it wrong.

This happened to me when I first went solo over a decade ago. It turned out that no one thought they needed the “business clarity” I was selling, so I failed to sell much.

But this can turn out to your advantage (see what I did below).

Starting with building an audience

The second school of thought says:

  • Start building an audience.
  • When you have an audience (and an understanding of what they need), build your product or service.

A common way to do this is on LinkedIn. Start posting about your favourite topic, follow and engage with people who respond to your content, and you’re building a following. Get this right, and you have a list of people you can reach when you’re ready to sell.

There are pros and cons to this approach as well.

Pros of starting with an audience

There are two big advantages of starting with building an audience:

  1. You don’t need to know exactly which product or service you’re going to build.
  1. You learn what your audience really needs.

On the face of it this is a great way to start – if you don’t know exactly which product or service to build. It’s also a great way to start if you’re not in a hurry to make money from your products or services.

Many solopreneurs start their journey as a side gig – just writing about what they’re passionate about. This approach allows you to continue building an audience for as long as you like.

Cons of starting with an audience

If you don’t deliberately set out to learn what people really need, you can get the wrong impression, and eventually build the wrong thing.

Building an audience is also not the same as marketing and selling a product or service.

While you will build a following of potential clients, you will still need to learn how to position your product or service to sell it to them.

What I did - and I’m doing today

As I mentioned above, I started my solopreneur journey with trying to sell “business clarity” to small business owners. I had observed their websites were not particularly clear about the problems they solve (many still aren’t), their value propositions were vague, and I coined the term “business clarity” in the hopes that clients would line up.

I was arrogant – I thought I knew better than them.

It didn’t work – no one felt they didn’t have business clarity. I suspect some were even a little insulted when I told them they needed clarity.

But I hadn’t wasted my time

I’d spent a lot of time building the tools and services I would deliver as part of my business clarity offering. When I wasn’t able to sell it, I initially felt I had wasted my time.

Everything changed when I start selling highly engaged teams. Same tools, same services, just packaged differently.

I can’t quite remember how I decided to pivot to highly engaged teams, but it worked. Here was a problem that every small business owner had, would like to solve, and were willing to pay for.

Turns out, I hadn’t wasted my time building all the tools and services. I did have to put in some work to repackage and rebrand, but it was minimal.

What I’m doing today

As I’m writing this, I’m also getting ready to beta test SoloBOSS (the Solopreneur Business Operating System). The idea for SoloBOSS is a mix of the two schools of thought:

  • Start with an audience: I’ve learnt from my existing audiences on LinkedIn and Medium (totalling around 3,500) what resonates, and SoloBOSS is designed to solve some of their problems (overwhelm is top of the list).
  • Start with a product / service: I started building SoloBOSS to solve my own frustrations. As it turned out, other solopreneurs have exactly the same problems.

This is very much the best of both worlds (or schools of thought), so my actual success at selling the product will be largely determined by my marketing.

Bottom line: I’m finishing off the product and all the bits around it before starting to seriously market and sell, so this is mostly a “start with a product” approach.

What I recommend (even if you’re half way there)

Before you even think of following either school of thought, you need to define your niche.

Always start with defining your niche –  who you help and the problem you solve for them.

You can’t build an audience if you’re not clear on your niche, because your writing / posts / videos won’t be targeted. Similarly, you can’t build a product or service if you don’t know how it’s for and what problem it’s designed to solve.

So always start with defining your niche. If you’re already sort-of up and running, make sure your niche is super clear.

You already know the pros and cons of the two schools of thought. Here’s my recommendation:

  • Start with building an audience if you’re not clear on what your first product or service should be.
  • Start with building your product or service if you are pretty certain what people need.

The iPhone is a great reminder of something that was built without a lot of overt market research. The concepts of the touch screen, no keyboard, everything done on the screen – that was envisioned by the Apple team, not consumer studies.

In some cases, you know better what your clients need than they do. But not always.

Whichever route you choose, know that you probably won’t get it right the first time around. You will be learning, tweaking and pivoting – the important thing is to start and keep going.