Startups and The Power Of Polarization

By Dharmesh Shah on September 24, 2008

Startups, particularly those world-changing, curve-jumping, bet-the-farm kind are a tricky business.  The temptation for startups is, as Seth Godin would say, “to create average products for average people”.  The reason is simple, there’s a massive market of average people.  And, they want average products.  Nothing too controversial.  Nothing that makes them too uncomfortable. 

Guy Kawasaki, one of my favorite business authors addresses this in a recent article titled “The Art of Innovation”.  Here’s #4 from that article:

Don't be afraid to polarize people. Most companies want to create the holy grail of products that appeals to every demographic, social-economic background, and geographic location. To attempt to do so guarantees mediocrity.”

But, my advice would be to not try and “solve for the middle” — but strive to polarize an audience.  If you’re really looking to make a big difference, you want a group of people that passionately disagrees with your idea/approach/business.  Why?  Because when you’re doing something that polarizes, and you have a bunch people that passionately disagree with you, you have a chance to find people that passionately agree.  It is these passionate people that help fuel the growth and help spread your idea.  And curve-jumping companies almost always have an idea that spreads at their core.  Your enemy, as in many walks of life, are not the ones that hate, but the ones that are apathetic.

In short, have the courage to take a stand even if it means you’re going to make some people uncomfortable or annoyed.  Of course, you actually have to believe in the stand that you take, but the idea is that if you believe in it, push towards the edges even if it causes a big rift in your community.

So, let’s take a look at a small, recent example from my own startup, HubSpot.  I’m using the HubSpot case because I know it well and have been on the “inside” of (as a founder and Chief Stirrer of Pots).  It also just happened yesterday as part of our own internet marketing efforts.

The quick story at HubSpot is simple:  We believe there’s a massive transformation going on that is causing people to move from outbound marketing (advertising, direct mail, telemarketing, etc.) to inbound marketing.  Inbound marketing is about increasing the chances that people that actually give a flying flip about your offering will find you.  (Not to hunt down masses of people most of whom don’t give a flying flip and interrupt them with your message).  The idea itself is not that controversial.  But, this video that we created recently is.  It’s short, and sort of funny, so go watch it and then continue.

So, here was our issue.  When building this video we had to decide:  Are we really advocating that companies throw away all of their old marketing methods (including telemarketing) so they can switch to our way (inbound marketing)?  It’s just not practical.  If we asked people to do that, we’d risk losing a bunch of prospects that just wouldn’t take us seriously.  We’d risk a bunch of our prospective customers thinking we were a whole lot of clueless.  But, we did it in anyway.  Then, we went a step further.  When we created the associated blog article, we gave it a controversial title “Dude, Cold Calling Is For Losers”.  Now, not only are we making fun of people that are doing cold calling, we’re actually calling them losers.  Remember, we have 5,000+ people that are subscribed to this blog, many of them are marketers, and most of them likely do some sort of telemarketing. 

So, what do you think?  What are you doing to “take a stand” when it comes to the vision of your startup?  What was the last risk you took online?  Something that would really irritate a big batch of potential customers?  Share your experiences here.  I promise, we won’t hate you.

Apologies for those that think this is article too self-promotional.  I try to keep OnStartups focused on things that I think will help other entrepreneurs.  Often, my best exampes are from my own personal experience.  Nudge me back if I cross the line.

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8 Startup Insights Inspired By The Mega Mind of Seth Godin

By Dharmesh Shah on September 10, 2008

I’ve had a really interesting and crazy week (crazy in a good way).  As many regular readers of know, I’m a huge Seth Godin fan.  I’ve read most of Seth’s books over the years and keep up with his blog.  He’s even been kind enough to comment on one of my prior OnStartups articles (“Why Your Startup Shouldn’t Hire Seth Godin”).  But, until recently, I’ve never had the opportunity to actually hear him speak in person.  This past week, I got to hear Seth twice

Most recently, Seth was a keynote speaker at the recent Inbound Marketing Summit in Kendall Square, Cambridge (MIT central).  Not only did I get to hear Seth speak, live and in person, I had the thrill of getting to have lunch with Seth and “just chat about stuff” (like getting some advice about my startup).  This has got to be the most thrilling thing that’s happened to me all year.  Very exciting.  [Interesting trivia:  Early in Seth’s career he worked in Kendall Square for Spinnaker Software].

So, here are some of the ideas and insights I gleaned from Seth, that I thought might be useful to other startup fanatics.  Although the core insights were inspired by Seth, I put my own lens/spin on it from the perspective of a startup.  All the really brilliant stuff is Seth, the mediocre stuff is mine.

8 Startup Insights Inspired By Seth Godin

1.  Resist becoming “average”.

This is my favorite insight.  At my startup HubSpot, we use the geekier term “regression to the mean” to refer to this phenomenon.  Basically, the notion is that over time, the world pushes you towards becoming more average.  Often this means doing what is “tried and true” or “proven.    Or, as Seth says, “creating average products for average people”.  For businesses in general, but startups particularly, regressing to the mean is a dangerous thing.  Why?  Because the “average” startup is not successful.    The only way to succeed is to not be average.  You have to go to the edges and resist the pull to the middle.

2.  Communicate Directly With Your Customers

You’re the founder/CEO/president/whatever of the company.  You’re doing your best to work on the company, intead of in the company (just like all those business coaches said you should) .  You may think you’re really important to the business.  In fact, you may even be really important.  It doesn’t matter.  TALK TO YOUR CUSTOMERS.  Whether you’re in the backroom writing the next Facebook/YouTube/Google/whatever or you’re more of an operations/finance person, you need to be have direct conversations with your customers/users.  There is no substitute.  For startup people, this is not particularly hard advice to follow (because someone has to talk to the customers, and there’s only two of you in the company, so there’s nowhere to hide).  But, you’d still be surprised at how often people avoid direct contact with the customer.  No, not you of course, but your co-founder.  For a great example of a successful startup that talks to customers, look to Jason Fried from 37signals.  He actually reviews and responds to customer support emails.  He’s a awfully busy guy too.  And, he’s got over a million users.  What’s your excuse again?  [Note to self:  write an article with notes from meeting with Jason Fried last week].

3.  Let Your Users Talk To Each Other

Online communities are all the rage.  But, too many of them are started because companies want to “build a community to establish ourselves as a thought-leader and promote rich interaction amongst our team and our customers.”  Blah, blah, blah.  It’s fine that you want to be a thought-leader and at the center of your universe.  It’s great that you want to start a “rich dialog”.  But, provide some mechanism for those that inexplicably find your offering “interesting” (hopefully interesting enough to actually pay you) to connect with each other.  Give them easy, convenient ways to connect to each other and then get out of the way

4.  Start a Freakin’ Blog

Yes, I know.  You’ve been meaning to do it.  But amidst the writing of code, and raising of funds, and meeting of minds and all the hundred other things you have to do this week, there’s just no time to write.  Heck, it’s just you and your buddy Joe, right?  And besides, you kicked off that a few months ago, wrote about some stuff, and only 4 people read it.  It just wasn’t worth it.  You have a business to grow!  But, you promise you’ll make the time.  Someday.  Once you get done with this product-release/funding-round/support-nightmare/pr-event/whatever you promise to try the whole blogging thing (again).  I’m here to tell you that you need to make the time.  But, don’t listen to me.  Here’s Seth Godin:  “You’re forgiven if you don’t get it…it’s easy to write the whole thing off…here’s what to do if you still don’t get it: Start a blog.”

5.  Stories Spread, Not Facts

Sure, I get that your shiny new startup with it’s shiny new software written in a shiny new programming language is going to change the world.  I get that.  But I, like most people, don’t want to hear about product.  I certainly don’t want to tell other people about your product.  But I love a good story, and I’m guessing others do too.  If you want your idea to spread, stop focusing on the facts, stop focusing on your offering and start focusing on your story.  Make it genuine.  Make it interesting, and as Seth would say, make it remarkable.

6.  Beware The Need for Critical Mass

I’m going to lead with a quote from Seth on this one:  “Failing for small audiences is a loud cue that you will fail even bigger with big audiences.”  Too often, startup founders talk about how they are pushing to get to “critical mass” and how “economies of scale” are going to kick in.  That’s all fine and dandy.  I get it.  I’ve been in the software industry for a long time.  But, is it absolutely, positively necessary to get to some “critical mass” before your business starts to make any sense at all?  Is that mass all that critical?  Does it have to be? 

Can’t you make some kind of business out of something that looks a bit like this:

Mass You Have < The Magical Mass That Is Critical

Why do so many startups have these mythical, magical numbers (“once we hit 1,000,000, users rainbows are going to spontaneously pop out of nowhere and magic fairy dust will fall out of the sky and make our financials look sooo much better”).

7.  They Didn’t Call It the Industrial Gentle Change

It was a revolution, and like all revolutions, it’s neither gentle nor comfortable.  If you’re building a startup that really is going to revolutionize something, you’re going to have take some chances and make some people uncomfortabale.

8.  You Have To Start

To do anything, you have to start.  You can’t wait for the perfect situation.  The perfect idea (which doesn’t exist), the perfect business plan, the perfect timing, the perfect market, the perfect investor, whatever.  You need to get going. 

I’ll close with this quote from Seth during lunch:  “I’m impatient and shamelessly unafraid of failing.”

I’ve got lots more Seth nuggets and pearls of wisdom, but that’s all we have time for right now.  I need to get back to working on the next alpha version of Twitter Grader

So, what do you think?  Did any of the above insights resonate with you?  Any you just don’t agree with?  I’m not qualified to defend them, but that’s never stopped me before. 

Topics: marketing
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