IF YOU WANT TO GROW YOUR BOOTSTRAPPED STARTUP INTO A SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS WITH REAL CUSTOMERS (AND REVENUE), CREATING A PASSIONATE MOVEMENT IS THE BEST WAY TO DO IT.
Whether you’re designing athletic shoes, a new iPhone application, or multi-million dollar wind turbines, the goal of every founder is to get off the ground, grow, and graduate from bootstrapped startup to the next phase with real customers and real revenue as rapidly as possible.
One way to achieve rapid growth and establish a keen following? Ignite a movement by creating an experience that people are drawn toward, have an emotional connection to, and are passionate about. And often, a company’s ability to do that successfully is set long before the ink has dried on the original business plan. It comes down to the company’s DNA, the people who support it, and how well they tell their story.
So, how do you get this combination right for that next breakthrough idea and the team and customers that will support it? Well, it’s not as easy as companies like Spotify, Virgin America, and Patagonia have made it seem.
1. Enjoyment is more important than access.
We’ve moved from a world of products and services based on enabling access to information to one in which the most successful companies are those that offer delightful, engaging experiences.
In real estate, the likes of Trulia and Zillow have transformed the data side of things so it’s no longer enough for agents to provide access to listing information and expect buyers and sellers to knock down their door for representation. Instead, they must create a buying experience consistent with the digital, mobile-friendly world we live in today. (No fax machines allowed.)
The same shift has occurred in the music industry. No longer is there only one TV channel (MTV) devoted to showcasing the latest and greatest acts and their newest singles. Over the past decade, streaming services like Pandora, Rdio, Slacker, and others that have opened up libraries of millions of songs to the public–and become a large source of digital revenues for artists and labels, too.
Spotify is one such service that’s become a juggernaut in this space–and fast. Since launching in Sweden in 2008, the company now has more than 20 million users worldwide. That’s largely because they’ve won where others have failed or had only lackluster results in helping folks enjoy the experience. Instead of just creating a platform to access music, Spotify put its emphasis on enjoyment of the music itself (even Metallica tracks)–and empowering users to share that with others.
There’s more to creating a movement than identifying a problem and building a product to solve it. (Imeem and Last.FM are two examples of now-forgotten music streaming pioneers that didn’t get it right.) Specifically, it’s about knowing your story and communicating your value in the market in a powerful way.
2. Tell a unique and ‘ownable’ story.
It’s not enough to create a product that’s incrementally better than what existed before and expect it to steamroll incumbents. Sure, Virgin America may have an inch or two more legroom and arguably better in-flight entertainment than other domestic airlines (and of course, the purple mood lighting), but that’s not what has fired up the masses about the offering. Instead, it’s much more about its unique narrative to “reinvent domestic flying” and make “flying good again” that’s created a passionate, loyal customer base.
In a world where air travel is increasingly stressful, expensive and unpleasant, Sir Richard Branson saw an opportunity to tell a story that hadn’t been heard amongst major airlines–one that fought for the consumer and delivered on its promise to create a delightful experience. Even with a recent announcement that it would slow its breakneck growth to increase financial standing, Virgin America continues to be a hit with millions of travelers worldwide.
Igniting a movement is about delivering an entirely new experience that’s so novel that it becomes contagious. Silicon Valley is littered with startups with better products and cheaper alternatives that never broke though. A great product just isn’t enough.
3. Live what you preach.
Since starting dotloop in 2009, I’ve never gone into an industry event or customer meeting focused purely on the number of leads that come out or forcing the product on the buyer. Instead, the majority of my time is spent on engaging with prospective buyers, showing why we’re passionate about the problems we’re solving, and why our vision to eliminate paperwork in real estate is unlike anything else.
To build a movement, it can’t be about chasing dollars and business cards. Instead, it must be about engaging and establishing a genuine connection with your audience every chance you’re given. And if you’re successful at that, revenues. and big followings, often result.
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and his company’s Common Threads Initiative are prime examples of this mindset. In late 2011, Chouinard set out to reduce the environmental footprint across its customer base, even at the sacrifice of new sales, by encouraging customers to buy less if they didn’t really need a new jacket or beanie. Instead, the company asked them to repair older gear, reuse or resell whatever they don’t wear much, or recycle whatever’s truly worn out.
And the result? Patagonia punched in $500 million in 2011 sales, growing almost 30 percent in each of the past two years. As Chouinard put it, “Every time we’ve made a decision to do the right thing, it ends up being good business.”
4. The human element.
Founders must place a great deal of importance on getting the right people in the door. (As Derek Sivers said onstage at TED, “The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.”) And while almost any job description posted on LinkedIn or Monster has ‘checklist’ requirements that must be met, what’s more important is hiring passionate people who love what they do, connect with the people around them and truly believe in the impact they have on the world. The intangibles–and identifying those ‘it’ factors–make the magic happen.
For the first 18 months of my company’s life, our churn rates were very high. We just couldn’t put a finger on the folks that would turn into rock stars – and those that were truly invested in reinventing how houses are bought and sold. Since then, we’ve distilled a few core ideas that are infused into everything we do, our executives have been on long enough to develop an intuition about what will stick and what will grow the company.
Most notably, we’ve inserted mandatory (and informal) meet and greets between candidates and current employees. Just like in personal relationships, professional chemistry creates the unbreakable bonds that often make or break a company. It’s as critical to hire for fit as much as competency and experience in establishing the core of any movement and spreading that passion outward.
It’s not essential to create a movement in order to be successful, but it sure does help in terms of encouraging rapid growth and adoption and create thriving, sustainable businesses. My money is on the companies that consider love and engagement core to their DNA to strike it rich in the end.