Great entrepreneurs do not know their audiences
There’s nothing like a trip to Kansas to remind you.
I happened to be here for a wedding this weekend, and I slept during my flight from LaGuardia to KCIA. It takes me a few minutes to really wake up from a great nap, and so my first cogent memory was of hopping into the cab.
The taxi driver asked me where I was going, and then he moved onto the more important question at hand…
“You cool with the Christian Rock station?”
I wasn’t sure that I had ever listened to one of those, so I told the man to go ahead and pump it up. I may be Jewish, but I’m cool with a few power ballads about Jesus. At some point, he asked me where I was from, and he asked me what I did, and when Bleacher Report finally entered the conversation, he told me how much he liked the site.
And when I got to the wedding, Bleacher Report came up a lot. Most of the guests were strangers to me, but somehow they seemed to know about my past and wanted to hear more.
The wedding was great, and — per an agreement with my uncle, a retired professor — I extended my trip by one day to teach a course at Kansas University. The topic was Entrepreneurship. The students were sharp, they had a lot of smart questions, and the hour went by quickly. But the most enjoyable moment was in the first minute, when I kicked off the lecture by asking (with a show of hands) who was familiar with Bleacher Report? Most of those hands were in the air.
And when my uncle dropped me off at the airport, I was wearing one of the 10 Bleacher Report hoodies that I smuggled home before I left the company. The TSA security agent noticed it, and he asked me if I worked there. “I used to work at Bleacher Report,” I told him, “but not anymore.”
“Love that site,” he told me. He also used the mobile app.
Kansas has a population just under 3 million. It has no major cities.
And, yet, Kansas is still bigger than Manhattan and San Francisco combined. Fine, you can throw in Williamsburg too, and Kansas is still bigger.
(Sure, it’s not bigger than the five boroughs combined, but how much do Queens and the Bronx really have in common with Manhattan anyhow? They grow further apart each day.)
Most people I know have never been to Kansas, and I can’t blame them. After all, I have spent time in fewer than half of our United States. And as far as the big rectangular ones go, I have been to very few of them.
New York is a wonderful city, but it’s also the ultimate hallucinogen. It deludes you into thinking that the rest of this country is anything like those few hundred square miles you call home.
And here’s another tip — most of this country doesn’t give a crap about New York.
Or San Francisco. Or Los Angeles.
Or any other place where trustafarians complain about gentrification as they wait to buy $9 pulled pork sandwiches from a truck.
I don’t think that I could ever call Kansas my home. There is plenty about the state to which I take great exception. But I recognize that if I want my website to reach 50 million people, a great many of them will be from Kansas.
And, unlike an airplane, a website cannot fly over Kansas en route to SFO or JFK.
Those readers exist. They work just as hard as a San Franciscan, they value their free time just as much, and their money comes in the same color.
But it continues to amaze me how many successful new media companies live in a world where Kansas — quite simply — does not exist. Sure, a few folks from Topeka may pop up now and then, but for the most part, it’s a New York and San Francisco kind of thing.
Sometimes it’s about the topic. New media publications like PandoDaily and TechCrunch are naturally geared towards the coasts — Pando only holds its monthly speaking events in New York and California. TechCrunch Disrupt is held in the same two places. And the site demographics almost surely over-index to those locations. Outstanding career sites like TheMuse share a similar challenge — readers in rural locations are looking for very different jobs from New Yorkers and Californians.
Sometimes the publication is inherently local. Curbed and Thrillist wouldn’t really work if they expanded to Lawrence, Kansas or Brattleboro, Vermont. Sure, they are great sites that I visit regularly, but if I ever take off a year to teach at a rural college, it will be a year without Thrillist.
And some sites are editorially positioned to attract city dwellers. There is no reason why a Nebraskan would be precluded from visiting Flavorwire, which covers an array of topics. But they do have four cities listed in their left sidebar (NY, SF, LA, NO) and articles about indie flicks… which are not easily accessible to people who live far away from an art house theater (which is a lot of people).
Every site listed above is one for which I have a great deal of respect, but I would have no interest in starting a similar company.
To me, there is an inherent challenge, and a much-deserved reward, for starting a publication that can theoretically reach every neighborhood in America. In most cases, it requires some unique strategizing — Bleacher Report’s ultra-local email newsletters were our best manifestation of this. Our most popular editions were for the places that no other websites cared about… the open rates on our Boise newsletter were astronomical.
In fact, it is fair to say that our ultra-local email newsletters were at the center of our victory over Sports Illustrated and every other sports competitor who failed to harness the real power of the digital medium.
Our value proposition was that we could get to the Nebraska reader whose beloved Cornhuskers football team was generally ignored by Sports Illustrated. Metric after metric demonstrated that our Mississippi State readers were better engaged than our New York Yankees readers, because the latter had so many publications catering to their needs.
So even when we compared ourselves to big magazines, Bleacher Report’s focus on “the rest of the country” is what gave us the winning edge.
I’m not sure how Bustle is going to get huge in Topeka, Omaha, or Starkville, but it’s a challenge that I am excited about embracing. And it will require us to evolve the site over many years.
But when we get there, it will be sweet, because a truly national publication is an incredibly rare accomplishment. Bleacher Report’s magic was that we found ways to appeal to so many different types of sports fans. We reached 50 million of them each month, but still managed to deliver the audience we always said we would… mostly men, and in all 50 states.
And that massive undertaking is precisely what I have in mind when I go ask investors for the big checks. If I didn’t want to reach such a wide audience, then I would neither ask for, nor receive, large amounts of capital.
And, from that perspective, my goal for Bustle is to do precisely what I did with Bleacher Report — find a way to reach an audience who I do not know… and will probably never know, at least not personally.
Conventional knowledge says that you should know your audience.
But, I disagree.
I think the fun part is launching a great product, making it better, and finding your audience along the journey… amongst people with whom you share little in common…
In towns that you will likely never visit.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]