Should I become an influencer?
On distribution beating products, the Thoughtleader <->Fashion-Haul-Bimbo spectrum and moving to Mexico. Let’s dive in!
A short recap
After my first shot in the startup world didn’t work out (for reasons discussed here, here and here), I wasn’t sure what to do next. While pondering, I built Founder’s Pie and even got paying customers within three weeks, but the topic didn’t excite me enough to keep working on it — too bureaucratic. Then I was stumbled upon by a team from Germany looking for a third Co-Founder and CMO. The position really teased me, so I spent almost a month test-working with them to see if it’s a good fit.
In the meanwhile, however, I moved to Mexico City and after a few weeks over here I decided that it’s not really possible to co-found a company with 6 hours time difference and a 9.500km distance. Certainly I could have moved to a different timezone or back to Europe, but the initial plan was to nomad through latin america for a good while. Plus Mexico City is one of the most (if not THE most) fun place I have been to. It felt wrong to leave, so I passed on that opportunity too. If you ever get a chance to spend some time here, do it!
Planning the next move
So here I am, sitting in the WeWork in Mexico City, tinkering over my next move. Easiest would be to get a remote job, preferrably from an american company as they tend to pay better. Regular salary, regular work hours — but more of a Plan B as I still struggle with people telling me what to do.
How about starting a new company from scratch? I have hustled the value prop-interview-people-iterate-hustle for over a year now and feel like doing something different. Fortunately, in the process I understood something that provides guidance:
Distribution > Product
Even though I never really marketed knugget to consumers since we didn’t have a problem-solution fit, I understood that there are two (and a half) ways to build and sell a product:
- Build the product, then find customers or
- Build an audience, then find a product they’re happy to buy
- (Then there is the hybrid of Building in Public hence building an audience while building the product. I’ll leave it out for now.)
There are great examples that both of these approachs can work well, but the latter seems to gain more and more traction. On a very large scale, look at how Mr.Beast sold 1.000.000 burgers within a 2 months. The success factor is not a unique entrepreneurial talent but an unfair adventage in distribution. Why does it work so well and why now?
Building products, both digital and physical, gets easier and cheaper quickly. No-Code tools empower everyone with a problem to build their own solution, Alibaba makes sourcing large quantities of products as easy as buying something on Amazon. The cost of creating a product is decreasing.
The cost of distributing a product on the other hand is increasing. The cost to run ads on Google, Facebook and Amazon goes up with every dollar shifted from traditional to digital advertising channels. Many startups feel this squeeze: It gets more and more expensive to acquire a customer and due to the increasing offer of similar tools and services the customer livetime value shrinks. Without a solid lockin, a significant moat or a monopoly it’s increasingly unlikely to drive outsized returns.
And more and more influencers understand that their audience grows to be more valuable than the supply chain of the brands they collaborate with. They rightfully ask themselves, why they shouldn’t launch their own products. It does introduce complexity to their business but the returns can be significantly higher. And more importantly, their own product is uniquly better positioned to resonate with their audience, as it cannot get more authentic then that. The classical Pay-for-Post-Model is fadeing out. So should I become an influencer? I have some serious concerns…
Influencers, I see you now
Quite frankly, I was never really fond of influencers. They are famous without a particular talent, the artifical worlds they create and portray on Instagram repell me. What value do they create? And what damage do they do broadcasting a life and body image millions of teens try to live up to?
Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for influencers. I am fully aware that it is a full-time job, many of them work long days, weeks and months. Everyday you have to produce content to stay relevant. Back in 2018 I worked on a Nonprofit project with two friends and we had the idea to build an audience ourselves to bring more attention to the projects we worked with and give them a kick-start for their own international audience which eventually could become donors.
We tried it for two weeks and then stopped, for two reasons:
- First, it took so much of our time to produce content for ourselves that we had not enough time to produce content, build websites and develop fundingraising strategies for the organizations we worked with.
- And secondly, everything we did we started to see through the eyes of how instagrammable it is. You stop immersing yourself into new experiences of which you can make many in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. Instead, you have to withdraw yourself from the authentic experience and think about how it could be broadcasted best to build up a persona on social media. This is not only stressful but it decreases the quality of life. The real experience gets clouded. The worst part is, that even when you decide not to post anything you feel like you left some potential untapped — at least I did. I wonder how full-fledged influencers live with their second-hand lifes.
Twitter & Not Boring
It was until a friend recommended the Not Boring Newsletter by Packy McCormick that I understood, that there is a wide range of influencers who benefit from the power of audience. Here is the specturm I see:
The thoughtleader, of which another very good example is Naval Ravikant, is valued for their deep insight into a certain field and their ability to clearly articulate their current understanding of the topic, how it influences society and how this relationship might develop in the future. The Fashion-Haul-Bimbo is an artifically good looking person who gets paid to consume and lead others to consume more. Yay!
To connect with the american startup scene, I got a Twitter account earlier this year. The more time I spend their, the more example I see of people who, often anonymous, are valued for their perspective on a certain topic. It’s a different class of influencers of which I know only a handful in Germany, at least in my field of interest.
Long story short
I understood that you don’t have to be a Fashion-Haul-Bimbo putting your personal life on a pedastal to build an audience. You can gain a group of true fans who value your work and are willing to reimburse you for it based on how you filter and process information.
Since I enjoy writing and know a fair share about video production, I think I fulfill the prerequisite to get started. As a marketeer, building a community is one of the key challenges in a world of abundant products. So far, I didn’t really prove that I am capable to do it, maybe I am not. The only way to find out is to give it a serious shot. If you haven’t noticed already, you are consuming my first, insecure steps right now :)
One questions remains…
The key questions is: How do I position myself? To build an audience you have to go niche. Chances of success are much higher when writing something very relevant for a small group of people compared to writing something broadly interesting for a large groupe of people.
Recently, I have been reading a lot about decentralized web (aka web3). I only start to grasp the implications of a fully distributed and ownable internet for the internet itself and for society, but I think it offers a great opportunity to dive deep into a novel technology — and grow with the “niche”.
Building an audience is a low-risk entry point: I can immerse myself into the web3 community while trying to deeply understand the topic. While doing that, I can learn how to build an audience within this niche (it works quite different that other web communities, afaik). The upside is that I can do that without the inherent risk attached to building a single product. The downside is that it can take a long, long time to find your audience — my persistance will be challenged.
¡Pero no hablo español!
But before we get to the professional side of things, I want to reach a personal goal: Speak (more or less) fluent Spanish to get the most out of my time in latin-america. Since simply doing an intensive course is kinda boring, I want to use this opportunity to dive deep into TikTok to better understand how the platform works — as a Marketeer I have been sleeping on it way to long!
How I go about it and how that is related with getting purple hair, you’ll find out soon. Here is a little teaser: