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This week’s chapter is on a topic near and dear to my heart: Writing in Public.
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Writing in Public
How to build an audience for you and your startup
Paul Graham was one of the first entrepreneurs of the internet era to build his reputation by writing in public. His blog is still revered among startup founders as a source of wisdom backed by decades of experience.
Arlan Hamilton, the pioneering VC behind Backstage Capital, broke into the mainstream with a blog post on Medium.com in 2015: “Dear White VCs: If you’re reading this, it’s (almost!) too late.”
Twitter is absolutely packed with founders, creators, investors, and wannabe celebrities who have built massive followings. Some have turned this leverage into investment funds, others use it to hawk courses and infoproducts and NFTs, and some build entire businesses off their internet fame.
The question remains: How do YOU turn writing into media leverage? Into a PR and marketing asset that not only benefits your company, but your career?
Warning: If you’re looking for a “get big quick” scheme, this chapter is not for you.
This chapter won’t be about growing the biggest possible audience, but using what you have to get what you want. We’re going to stick to the principles that ensure long-term growth and success.
Writing in Public: 5 Steps
Identify a clear purpose
Stand for something
Show your work
Build relationships, not an audience
1. Identify a Clear Purpose
Our business goals need to live in harmony with the rest of our lives. This includes our goals about writing in public.
Sure, we’d all love to have half a million Twitter followers and 50,000 email subscribers. But are you prepared to dedicate that amount of time and energy towards that goal?
Any goal we set will take resources away from other things that are important. That’s why Peter Shallard, a business psychologist and founder of CommitAction.com, advocates for “ecological goal setting.” In other words, you need to make sure your goals are aligned with other priorities in your life and your larger purpose.
So before you set out to build a massive online audience, ask yourself, “Why do I want this? Why do I need this?”
For most entrepreneurs, 50,000 email newsletter subscribers would do little to move the needle. Trust me, I’ve seen email lists this size drive literally zero revenue.
It’s not about the size of your audience. It’s about why everyone is gathered in the first place.
I’ll share a personal example. My goal is to build the most successful book publisher for entrepreneurs and business leaders. On Twitter, I’m purposely positioned as the book publisher for entrepreneurs. I only have 2,500 followers, yet I received multiple inbound requests per month from entrepreneurs interested in becoming authors. I also get several referrals every quarter from people who’ve never even worked with me. One of these referrals turned into a $40,000 book client.
Don’t try to grow a big audience for its own sake. It’s a hollow goal and not guaranteed to help you build your business. Get specific about what you want to achieve and the type of audience you want to attract, then target that little corner of the internet.
2. Stand for something
“If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”
—Hamilton, the Musical
As you build your public persona, you need to have a clear position on something.
For Jake Bjorseth, his position is crystal: “Let’s talk Gen Z.”
Bjorseth is the 22-year-old founder of Gen Z marketing agency, Trndsttrs. His agency, composed of a dozen other Gen Zers, works with the largest consumer brands in the world: McDonalds, Nike, L’Oreal, and Coca Cola to name a few. Jake regularly hosts CMOs from Fortune 500 companies on his podcast. He regularly flies from LA to New York to Chicago and back to LA in the course of a week to meet with big-time clients.
How did Trndsttrs build this impressive list of brands?
“All of our current clients came through my LinkedIn profile,” Jake said.
Over the last two years, Jake has amassed over 53,000 followers on LinkedIn. He gets inbound requests daily, thanks in part to his friendly bio: “Let’s talk about Gen Z.”
On LinkedIn Jakes talks about—you guessed it—Gen Z and marketing trends related to them. Trndsttrs spends nothing on paid media or salespeople, but they do help Jake boost his personal brand in support of Trndsttrs. The better Jake does, the better the agency does.
What do you stand for?
3. Show Your Work
In a world where everyone has a microphone to reach the masses—where hucksters and snake oil salesmen thrive—founders have one weapon to rise above the noise:
Show. Your. Work.
If you’re building a business, your life is an Oscar Award Winning drama. Startups contain every element of a gripping story: Dreams, ambition, enemies, struggle, rebirth, and triumph.
Simply sharing your day-to-day life as a founder is often enough to build an engaged audience—and maybe land a few customers.
Showing your work is also the secret to overcoming imposter syndrome.
Many founders deal with the feeling of not being enough. Imposter syndrome is more prevalent than ever in the age of social media.
If you’re plagued with feelings of fraud, anchor yourself by writing content based on your actual experiences. Don’t prophesize or share “secrets to success” like some people do. Write about what you know, which is the work you’re doing every day.
Our daily lives as entrepreneurs is full of content inspiration.
If you’re struggling to decide what to write about, here are 10 prompts to get you started:
What was I working on today?
What questions do customers/clients ask me?
What problems am I paid to solve?
What were my biggest challenges 6 months ago? 2 years ago? (Another helpful model: Write for yourself from 2 years ago.)
What do I think my industry will look like 5 years from now?
What did I learn this week?
What news from my industry excited me this week?
What news concerned me this week?
What do I believe to be true that few others believe?
If I had an apprentice - someone I was training to take over my role - what lessons would I teach them?
Audiences demand authenticity. When you’re feeling like an imposter—like you’re not successful enough to write in public—remember that nothing is more exciting to people than watching someone strive for greatness.
4. Be Consistent
In an age where anyone can build a public profile and reach millions overnight, consistency is the only thing you can’t fake.
Audiences value writers who have been around a while. If they’re going to invest their time and energy into you, they want to know you’re going to stick around. People want to know they can count on you.
The #1 reason why founders fail to build an audience is that they give up before they ever really get started. Building an audience takes time more than anything else. If you commit to writing for 12-18 months, you’re eventually going to figure it out. You’ll find your audience and your perfect positioning.
What does consistency mean, exactly? Show up daily, weekly, and monthly on different channels.
On social media, where content is ephemeral and timely, show up daily. Write blog posts/newsletters every week. Release larger projects every month.
Not only will this cadence keep your audience engaged, but each channel will build on the others. You can roll up your best daily posts into a weekly newsletter, and your best newsletters into a white paper, ebook, or video.
If your goal is to build an audience, be nothing if not consistent.
Show up at the same time every day, week, and month. As you’re growing, stay obsessively on-topic. Avoid commenting on pop culture, news, or topics out of your expertise. Yes, add the occasional personal message, but even this should be on brand.
If you want to be known for something, talk about it more often than anyone else. Be consistent.
5. Build relationships, not an audience
As a writer and entrepreneur, the thing I value most is the people I’ve met on my journey. From Andrew Warner to Mac Conwell to Amanda Natividad to John Hernandez, it’s the relationships that keep me going.
Building an audience can quickly become a soulless numbers game if you forget about the people on the other side.
Take time to start one-on-one conversations and build actual relationships with others. If you’re on Twitter, DM someone who regularly comments on your posts. Ask them about their goals and how you can help. Jump on a call with an email subscriber who opens every one of your newsletters. Where do they live? What obstacles stand in their way?
Building relationships is good for the soul and also for your startup.
Personally I find it very difficult to quit products or services when I’ve had a personal conversation with the founder. Maybe you’ve had the same experience.
The more time you spend building relationships, the more committed your audience will become to your success.
Mac is the founder of Rarebreed Ventures, a pre-seed investment fund for underrepresented founders. He regularly takes 200+ phone calls/month with founders, limited partners, and people just looking for advice. Mac’s spotlight has grown because of the personal relationships he’s built.
Arvid is just as generous with his time. After selling a SaaS business, Arvid began writing books for founders. He found success by writing in public and asking his audience to help. He’s built relationships that extend far beyond one book or business.
If you’re going to write in public, don’t measure your success on the size of your audience. Measure it on the quality of relationships you build.
If you can say you’ve met one person who has changed your life for the better, I would call that a victory. After that you’re playing with house money.
Have fun, build an audience, build relationships, and grow your business.
What did you think of this post? Tell me in the comments.
What did you love?
What didn’t you like?
What has YOUR writing in public experience been like?