Today's guest recently sold his company, FeedbackPanda, but instead of disappearing to an island, I've seen him all over Twitter, all over his blog, all over Indie Hackers helping people. In this episode, I talk to Arvid Kahl (@arvidkahl) about how involuntary reciprocity built his audience and how Indie Hackers can do the same. We'll dig into his new book, The Embedded Entrepreneur, to break down how he co-developed and grew his businesses through audience engagement.
• Check out The Bootstrapped Founder: https://thebootstrappedfounder.com/
• Follow Arvid on Twitter: https://twitter.com/arvidkahl
• Arvid's new book: https://embeddedentrepreneur.com
What's up, everybody? This is Courtland from indiehackers.com and you're listening to the Indie Hackers Podcast. More people than ever are building cool stuff online and making a lot of money in the process. On this show, I sit down with these indie hackers to discuss the ideas, the opportunities, and the strategies they're taking advantage of so the rest of us can do the same.
Arvid Kahl, welcome back to the show.
Thanks so much. It's an absolute pleasure to be on the second time.
Yeah. You were here in I think December 2019, just before the pandemic, and we were talking about your business, Feedback Panda, which you had bootstrapped to something like $60,000 a month in revenue pretty fast. You and your girlfriend had done it together and then you ended up selling it.
Then since then, I don't know, people can go in one of two directions once they sell their company. They can just disappear and fall off the face of the earth, which sometimes happens. I have no idea what happens to them or they can be like you, I've seen you literally everywhere, all over Twitter, all over Indie Hackers, all over your blog and my inbox and just doing all sorts of stuff since then.
Yeah, it's been a wild two years. I gotta say, the moment we sold the company, I fell into this whole void of not knowing what to do. I had the choice of not doing anything and doing something or doing whatever, essentially.
We sold the company to be financially secure, to de-risk our, wealth essentially. That really helped. We didn't have to do anything, but I immediately went and tried to play World of Warcraft.
That was my go-to at that point, because I, before many, many years before I started playing and I kind of stopped even going to university for that game. I dropped out of university because of World of Warcraft twice. That's my dedication to end game rate content right there.
I thought, hey, I mean, now I've made it. That was my kind of the thought that I had at that point. Now I can just do whatever I want and what do I want? Well, just continue doing what I did before.
I started playing World of Warcraft. I downloaded the game. I started playing and it kind of got boring within a couple days. It got soul crushingly, boring within a couple of days.
Here I was thinking that I could just go back to what gave me joy before. It gave me, I had a community in World of Warcraft. It’s kind of where I started learning how to speak English in a conversational setting.
Cause I'm German, and we don't have that much opportunity to speak English in a setting with other people where stuff really happens. When you have to kill that dragon, you better communicate clearly.
So that was really nice, but I didn't find a community that was good enough. I didn't find content that was good enough because I noticed that I had no passion for the game. All the passion that I had before I started bootstrapping businesses or doing stuff like that, all that passion was gone.
It was replaced by another passion that I only realized in retrospect, and that was helping people. That was serving people. Because with Feedback Panda we had these thousands of online English teachers that we supplied with the tool that made a difference in their day.
Like every single day, it made a big difference for them. I was able to talk to them through Intercom customer service chats and build relationships with those people. I didn't even know that that was the source of my passion.
But the moment we sold the company, the moment we handed everything over, our customers, our jobs, you know, and everything that was gone. That's when I jumped into writing.
When I started with my blog and started writing about one topic that is SaaS or bootstrapping related every week. I'm still doing this. I think I'm at week 87 at this point uninterrupted. Well, you know what it means to do uninterrupted content for many, many years. There's this kind of threshold and once you're over it, you just continue doing it automatically.
It's like the runner's high or something. We run for the first mile or two and it's awful. Then after that, you just hit some cliff where you just don't care anymore. You can just go for mile after mile.
Absolutely. I started a newsletter and a podcast myself because I wanted to have an accountability system because by nature, I'm kind of lazy. When I look at stuff like, you know, I'm one of those people that just gets up super late and tries to avoid work until it's too late to do work.
I needed a system because I knew, hey, I'm starting this blog. I want to commit to releasing information to people who might need it on their own journeys, who may want to build a business, who may want to sell a business, all these little things.
I knew that within a couple of weeks, if I didn't have a system in place, I’d just stop and play another online game or something or try to go back to World of Warcraft.
That's why I set up the newsletter. That's why I set up the podcast. The moment I had one subscriber, I knew I had to deliver every week from now on as long as I have at least one subscriber, somebody expects something of me. And that really helped.
It's fascinating that this process of starting a business that actually helped people and also made you money and also gave you this purpose in the world, because you're helping people solve a problem, kind of ruined the things that used to give you enjoyment.
You can play games for hours and hours, but then you suddenly realize that spark is missing and this game hasn't changed at all, it’s suddenly boring. I talk a lot about the kind of things that motivate people.
A lot of research has pretty much confirmed that when it comes to work and the things that you do, it's having mastery and being able to be really good at what you do, which you could do with both the business and video games.
It's having autonomy, which is basically nobody telling you what to do, which again, you can have in business and video games, but then the last part of it is purpose.
It's really hard to have purpose if you're playing video games all the time. It's like, what's the point, you know, you're earning this virtual currency or virtual points or whatever, but it doesn't really matter.
Ehen you actually start a company, or you’re doing something that you can see how that's providing help for people in the world and that last sort of puzzle piece fits in, it's like, oh shit, I've been missing this and I didn't even realize I was missing it.
Every time somebody says something that like to a younger version of Courtland would have sounded like cliche or cheesy. I just like helping people. I get it now because it feels so good. It feels so much better than doing something that might be fulfilling otherwise, but that doesn't necessarily give you that purpose.
I feel like the culmination of all this stuff you've been doing, all this blogging and podcasting and tweeting you’ve been doing is kind of this latest book you've written. It’s called “The Embedded Entrepreneur: how to build an audience-driven business.” Why do you think people need to read this book and who needs to read this book?
Well, there are way too many founders out there that go product first. They have an idea. They go idea first, right? They want to build something really cool. Then they look at it and they try to find the market, try to find people who want to buy it, but they've actually built a solution looking for a problem.
You see this every single day on Product Hunt. There's a couple of products that do really, really well. Then there is still a long tail of products that have three or four upvotes at the end of the day.
It's heartbreaking. It's really heartbreaking. I suffer for each of those founders who put in weeks or months of work into that product just to see it flop because nobody cares.
I wrote a book because I want to show to people that idea first can be reversed and you can actually start with who do I want to serve? Where are they, how can I find out what they actually suffer from? What problems do they have? What are the critical problems that allow me to build something that they actually have a budget for? Then how can I become a source of reputation in their community so that they actually trust me and just, don't just shove me away like all those other people who markets in their communities. That's what the book is about.
There's such a huge need for this because I also run into a ton of people, not just entrepreneurs, but anyone who wants to create something for other people, anyone who wants to generate passive income, people starting newsletters or podcasts or YouTube channels or blogs, or who want to be creators on Twitch or OnlyFans or Patreon.
They'll get started. They'll do exactly what you're saying. They'll just have an idea and say, I'm going to create this and I'll put it out into the world. Then it's just crickets and no one's buying it. No one's reading it. No one's watching it. It just seems so frustrating for them to figure out, okay, why aren't the numbers going up? It feels impossible.
Then they look at the people who are succeeding and they look at why and read their stories. Half the time it feels like they cheated. It's like, oh, they had a really big audience already.
I talked to Aella who was one of the top 0.08% creators on OnlyFans. And I was like, how did you get so successful? She's making $50,000 and $100,000 dollars a month. She's like, oh, you know, my first month I made $13,000, but that's because they have already an audience on Reddit.
She already knew the people she wanted to serve and the problems that they had, and she had a direct connection with these people. By the time she joined OnlyFans, she was already set up for success.
I think to the average person who doesn't have that foundation, that seems impossible for me. It seems like cheating. They just give up. Maybe the reason they need a book like yours is because it kind of teaches them how to do that for themselves.
I completely agree that it looks like cheating, but it's not. I think Product Hunt is a similar example.
I launched a book a week ago on Product Hunt and it went to number one immediately because I just posted on Twitter, “Hey people, it's on Product Hunt.” I have an audience on Twitter, 20 some thousand people.
I have a global audience, too, because currently I'm in Berlin. I'm kind of in between India and the United States, which are two gigantic startup communities in many ways. So, my Indian friends helped me in the morning and throughout the day more people from Europe. Then the Americas came in and upvoted my product there.
It's a book, which is not often launched in on Product Hunt. It's usually you have a lot of interesting SaaS projects or just interesting stuff on Product Hunt not necessarily an info product. But I stayed at number one for the whole day, because I had people all over the world who wanted to help me and help me succeed.
Then look at somebody who doesn't have this audience. They maybe put in more effort than I into their product. Now it's ranked four or five because they don't have the people. It feels like cheating, but the whole point is Product Hunt is an audience amplification tool. It's not a product quality tool. That's what a review page would be. But Product Hunt really is if you have the people that will amplify your product, you're going to rank high.
The same as for Noah, who launched his potions.so just two days prior to me. Noah Bragg, he’s a big player in the startup community because he's very actively building in public and he's sharing everything. Obviously that creates an audience and that's great. That creates an audience of people who actually want to help you when you need them.
So, I've written this for people who told me what they needed to know. I've shared my manuscript for the book with hundreds of indie hackers, and they helped me collaboratively to make it better.
Everything about the book is audience-driven. Even the cover was essentially picked by the audience. I wanted to show people with the product itself, how products like this can succeed. I guess at launch day, that was way beyond my expectations and the number one Product Hunt ranking kind of show that this might be a good one way to do it.
It's interesting, you mentioned that people like us, engineers, people who code things, we tend to be a little bit product obsessed. We start a company, we just think about all the code that's going to go into it.
But literally everybody I talked to who’s starting a company for the first time has this same sort of affliction. They think about the thing they have to create. The thing they have to build. You talk about a book, they immediately start thinking about the cover for the book and the title for the book and all the words that are gonna go into the.
They don't think about all the sort of the invisible part of that iceberg that's beneath the surface that nobody really sees, which is all the research that goes into figuring out who this book is for. Who this product is for, et cetera?
I think it's just like, there's this principle in psychology called the availability bias, where essentially we're just biased towards things that are easy to see and easy. Whenever we're looking at other stories of people succeeding, what do we see? We see their app, we see their book, we see their Twitter account, but we don't see the research.
We don't see the very first step they took. We don't see how they got started. So, when we go to start those on endeavors ourselves, we just don’t plan for that kind of stuff. It's the biggest trap in entrepreneurship I think.
I think the best thing that anyone can do, is try to figure out how to peel behind the curtain of the people they're inspired by and try to figure out what did they do to succeed that they're not talking about.
What are like the less flashy, less visible parts of success. How do people get started in the early days, the first steps they took that nobody sees? Hopefully, this podcast is doing some good work to help people uncover these steps.
Then there's another thing. I'm so happy to see this becoming less of a problem and more people actually looking into this. That is a stereotype that engineering people or people from a technical background are not good people.
Everybody told me when I was studying computer science at university, you're a geek. You're a nerd. Just try not to talk to people too much. Or even when I was actually employed as a software engineer in companies, they would try to get every visitor to the office as far away from the engineers so that we better not get the opportunity to talk to them, scare them away.
As long as this notion still exists in our lines that as a technical person, we shouldn't be talking to people, we're gonna have a really hard time talking to people before we start our technical work. We will never be able to go to our potential customers, go to our prospective audience members of the future and ask them, I'm just really interested in what you're doing. Can you explain to me how a day looks like in your life,? Or this seems to be a problem that you have encountered in the past. How are you currently solving this?
We are not asking these questions because we're afraid that they're going to think, oh, the nerd is talking to us. Let's not talk to them anymore.
It's kind of funny, but it makes me super sad because I see all these super talented engineers limiting themselves because they think that this is actually true. I used to think I'm an introvert, just trying to make this clear here. I used to think that I'm introverted because I didn't like parties.
I don't like hanging out with people to talk about stuff that I don't really relate to. Put me in front of people that actually care about the same things that I care about, I'm extremely extroverted because there's a resonance between those people and me.
If you care about what problems people have, don't they don't have to be software engineers like you; they can be any particular audience out there. If you want to solve their problem, you'll have this resonance with those people.
Don't limit yourself to thinking that you shouldn't talk to people, you should just code. Coding is like the fourth step in building a business. The first one is figuring out who to serve. What do you need to serve them with? Then how you can actually serve them in the way that fits into their lives? And then what can you serve them with? Then you start coding
But that's weeks or months into this whole process. I would love to see more people doing this. Michelle Hanson, or you had her on the podcast, too. She's currently writing a book called “Deploy Empathy.”
She's working on this whole idea of being able to talk to customers and how to do it right. She's been recently very active in sharing sources on Twitter about how this whole notion of engineers not knowing how to talk to people is actually crap.
It's not right. It's wrong. It's actually reversed of that. Engineers are usually so problem minded that if you let them talk to people with the right guidelines and frameworks, they're going to be much more effective at actually sourcing information from them.
Well, I have a million questions to ask you about that and about your book in general. Why write a book? How much money can I book? What is the sort of right approach to launching a book? How do you choose what goes into your book?
The very beginning of your book, actually the very first couple of pages, you start off with a dedication. You say, “For my grandmother Brigetta, thank you for teaching me empathy and how to listen.”
Then right after that, you've got a quote from Naval Ravikant, which says, “Most of life is a search for who and what needs you the most.” Why did you put these two things in the beginning of your book and what did you learn from your grandmother about empathy and listening that most people don't understand?
The initial name of the book was “Audience First.” That was the project name that I had in mind when I started the whole thing. I changed the name later because people were kind of confused by what that means cause they had the notion of audience versus I didn't have. I kind of battled it out on Twitter.
I wanted my audience to determine what the book should be about and everything about the book. So, when they said, hey, this title doesn't resonate with what you're actually writing about. I have a different understanding of that. Then I changed the title.
Obviously, it's an audience-first book, and if my audience tells me “Audience First” is not the right title for this, well, I'm going to change it. It was a very clear moment for me, where I thought, okay, I'm not going to fight the people who are going to buy my book and going to read my book. I'm going to go with them.
That was something that was a big and strong thing in my family always. My grandma and my grandpa, they were entrepreneurs as well. They had a little, they have had been working official functions all their life. Then they were in east Germany. East Germany kind of collapsed and the whole new system came up.
They retired earlier then they should have or would have needed to. They started a little business selling crystal vases and crystal glass and all these kinds of things to people at Christmas markets.
That was when I was really young and they took me to those markets and put me in the booth. I was the only person, I think, at age eight or nine that spoke a little bit of English. A bit, tiny phrases back then. I was a really small kid, maybe. Yeah, 10ish, 11ish or something.
I was in the booth and I was trying to commute to these Japanese tourists that this vase is like $10 or something. It was pretty hilarious. They just had involved, had me involved in the business and they taught me to listen to people and to interact with people in a graceful way, trying to put myself in their shoes when they talk to me, when they get upset about something and try to figure out how you can make this a win-win situation for each other.
There's countless other examples in my personal life on how my grandma was always there for everybody in the family, listening, observing what they needed and only then acting later. That was the impetus behind the book.
The Naval quote goes into the same direction. There are people out there who are uniquely suited for your intersection of skills and experiences. You have something in your life that is so uniquely yours, that is perfect for them if you go to them and help them with something.
I believe that it's much better to find the people first and figure out how you can match their needs than to build something and try to find somebody who you could stuff it into. Maybe to answer the question, why write a book? Because I like it.
Honestly, writing a book is the most liberating and enjoyable thing that I've ever done. Also, there's no deadlines because I'm self-publishing and I'm writing for an audience that is appreciative no matter when I release.
I wanted to have freedom in my life. We sold a company to get to financial security and to scheduling security. I didn't want to have anybody tell me what to put in my calendar anymore. I wanted to be the only person that has control over my calendar.
I have that by writing. I write when I write. I write when I feel like it. I write when I find inspiration and when I don't find inspiration, then I don't write. I'm my own boss in that regard.
That's why I wanted to continue doing this. I saw people really enjoyed my first book. I thought if they enjoyed that, it seems to be good enough to continue using this particular medium as the medium of expression for what I had to say.
I was talking to Rob Fitzpatrick, he wrote the mom test, which is such a useful sort of guide and handbook for learning how to interview customers. Because it's so easy when you're asking people, what do you think about my idea to ask the wrong question and everyone's like, yeah, I think it's great.
Then you spend a bunch of time building it and they don't use it. His book has done super well because you know that if you have that particular problem, you need to interview customers about your idea, that's the right handbook to give to you. It's going to tell you exactly what to do. It's nice. It's compact.
He's done really well. I was talking to him the other day, I think he’s sold a hundred thousand copies and made $500,000 in royalties. People kind of underestimate how successful you can be with the book.
I think your book, the way you've structured it is kind of the same. You basically say in your book, this is not something to necessarily convince you that you need to build an audience. Rather, it's something to serve as the guidebook, the handbook, to tell you exactly how to go about doing it, depending on what step you’re on.
You've kind of even broken your book down into I think five sections where you say, okay, are you on this step, read this section. If you're further along than this, skip ahead to the section. So, you don't even need to read the book linearly from beginning to end, you can kind of match to where you are.
I think the five sections are number one, you are a brand-new entrepreneur. You have no idea what you want to do and you're looking for a starting point. You've got a section called the audience driven moment, which you kind of talked about, which is just kind of explaining to people that you kind of have to start by finding people to serve. That should be your starting point, not just by building something.
Then step two is kind of discovering the right audience to serve. You know that you want to be an entrepreneur, you know that you want to start with the audience, but how do you figure out which group of people you want to create something for?
Step three is if you already know who you're going to serve, you need to do audience exploration, and figure out okay, what are you going to build for them? et cetera.
Step four is problem discovery. Okay. You already know that you're embedded in this audience and you're a part of that community. How do you know what problems to solve for them? How do you know what solutions to provide?
Step five is, okay, you're already working on a problem that you've already validated this audience needs. How do you build up a following? How do you like build up that mailing list or the Twitter account or the blog or whatever it is, that'll help you communicate with this audience and sell to them and deliver it to them.
I think that's from my memory, it seems to be kind of what the organization of the book is.
I'm blown away by how succinctly you could just summarize this. Thanks so much. That was awesome.
Well, it’s super well-organized. The steps all make sense because they kind of align what I think an entrepreneur should do. So, it's a perfect organization and way to organize your book.
I love books that don't necessarily need to be read cover to cover. I love manuals where I can just flip to it and open it and be like, okay, here's my checklist. I don't have to go from memory, I can read exactly what I need to do cause I'm at this step and my business.
Yeah. That was not really my idea. That's I think the magic of this book is that all of this was extremely driven by the people that actually wanted to read it. I involved people on Twitter from the first day when I tweeted about the fact I want to write a book about this particular topic. What do you want me to write about?
Because here are the couple things that I think are interesting and now you are the people are going to read it, so you might just as well tell me what you associate with this audience first audience building term.
I put a little landing page up and put my outline on there, put a comment field beneath it and said, is something missing, send me something, send me whatever question or topic you want me to put in the book and I'll put it in the outline.
People just, I got bombarded with questions and new things that I didn't even think of ever. The specific questions I had maybe encountered somewhere, but never thought about putting into the book. So, within days and weeks, the outline just grew and grew and grew.
At the same time, I had a little ConvertKit capture their email capture telling people, the moment I'm writing the manuscript, I'm going to involve you. People signed up. I think I had 550 people sign up to my alpha reader list and I involved every single one of them.
I started writing the book on January 1st, 2021. I finished writing the first manuscript on January 31st, 2021. I took a whole month, every single day writing as much as I could because I wanted to get it done. I wanted to get the first manuscript out there so people could actually change it and make it better.
I had a couple of sections that are now not in the book anymore. It had a couple of sections that were much longer than they should have been, and it certainly didn't have skippable chapters. It was different.
Once I was done with the manuscript, I went to… It's great that you mentioned Rob, because Rob also is the co-founder behind helpthisbook.com. That's the thing, if you write a really good book like Rob, and then you write another really good book, like Rob and Devin, they wrote, “The Workshop Survival Guide” together, and that is also a success, a very recommendable book, then you consider, well, maybe we can build the tools for ourselves and others that want to have books with large beta reader audiences.
That's what Rob was doing while he wrote “The Mom Test.” He had people read through the drafts and make them better. That's what Rob and Devin did for “The Workshop Survival Guide.” That's what they're currently doing for a book called “Write Useful Books,” which is in itself the guide to writing books like “The Mom Test” or “The Workshop Survival Guide.”
There's a lot of meta and a lot of recursion whenever it comes to I guess serial entrepreneurs like Rob, who do a thing and they notice something and then they build something for that. Then they notice something and they build something for that. It’s not surprising that he's now writing about writing good books when all he's been doing in the past is writing good books.
They also built Help This Book. That's the platform where you put your manuscript and then you can invite people to it and they can highlight sections. They can put comments in there and all that.
That's what I did. I went to Help This Book. I put my manuscript on there, imported that from a Google Doc, and then it was right there. People could go through it and highlight it. And I have a couple of screenshots on my Twitter where it's just red lines and blue lines and green lights all over the manuscript.
I think there's not a single piece of text that is not highlighted and commented on in some way, because I invited batches of people. There was like 20 people one day, 15 people the next day. Everybody had something to say.
It's such a smart way to write a book in the internet age where it can be collaborative. You probably want to let people in to the behind-the-scenes process. Not only is that going to make them sort of build more trust and affinity for you and want to get the book when it comes out cause they are a part of that, but you're also going to have just a much, much better book at the end of the day, because they're going to point things out that you might've forgotten.
Unlike a blog, or even a podcast episode where you can kind of retroactively come back and fix it. If you want to write a book, once it's out, it's out. You kind of got to get it right the first time. You might as well engage and involve everybody that you can in that process.
I'm talking to a couple of other authors on another podcast. I'm starting with my buddy Julian. Next week we're talking to James Clear who wrote “Atomic Habits” and Mark Manson - he wrote “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” - which combined, I think have made multiple hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. They’re the biggest of the biggest books. They're just on the shelf at every store you could find.
I'm curious, in your estimation, as someone who's written a book, you mentioned some books are very recommended. What do you think makes books super successful? You know, what do you think differentiates a book like “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck,” which is top shelf and a book that, you know, never goes anywhere, nobody reads it. Barely makes, you know, a thousand dollars in sales.
There was an interesting conversation on Twitter a couple of days ago, it was between timely books and timeless books. It was pretty interesting just to see these two different concepts of time.
A timeless book is like “Atomic Habits.” It's something that is always true. No matter if you're coding with PHP or Ruby or, technology or whatever the current big thing du jours, doesn't matter. This book will always be true because humans are always humans, but it's also timely cause it also gives you actionable advice.
There are books out there that are timely yet, not timeless because they are super actionable, but only within the context of some particular technology or fad or something that has a beginning and an end date.
There are lots of books that are specific to a certain topic because the people who wrote them are experts in that specific topic. People like James Clear are one-in-a-million experts because he is an expert on many levels.
He is a generalist and a specialist in many, many fields as well. He's T-shaped, but multiple tees he's like tee tee, tee, tee, tee, tee, tee shaped, or something like that. He's just a really prolific thinker. That's what makes him special. That's why he produces these kinds of books.
Other people are just T-shaped or just I-shaped. They're really, really good at one thing. Then it's hard to find an audience of equally I-shaped or T-shaped people that are fitting this.
I would say, yeah, timeless books are books that are both actionable and mind-blowing because they introduce new paradigms. They introduce new concepts that actually shift public opinion. Seth Godin always says change culture. Those books change culture.
A book on Ruby 3.4 and how to implement, I don't want to diss Ruby books, obviously, they need to be written too, but the scope of impact that these books have is just not as high. That is reflected in sales numbers, rankings, in how they appreciated, by whom they are appreciated.
Every founder I know has James Clear’s book on the shelf, almost every founder. But then there are books that only one of them has. I have books that nobody else owns. You don't need to appeal to everybody, which would also be something that Seth Godin is always talking about.
You want to have your minimum viable audience. It just turns out that if you talk about habits and you are James Clear or Nir Eyal, you get a lot of people that are interested in this topic because they're so fundamental to everything we do.
Right? Cause those books do appeal to everybody.
Everybody thinks about habits. It doesn't matter if you're a founder or if you are, I don't know, stay at home dad. You still think about habits. They still affect your life in some way. You're going to want to read what the foremost expert on habits has to say about that.
Or Mark Manson's book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck,” everybody to some degree, like, wishes they could give less of a fuck about things, wishes they could care a little bit less. It's so hard to write a book that has that mass broad appeal and also have the clout to support it.
If I tried to write a giant book on habits, nobody would read it cause, who am I? Why do they care what I have to say about habits?
What I want to do is make this episode as actionable as possible. I don't want to give away everything in your book, but if you don't mind, we can go through these five sections. I think we’ve covered the first section a lot, so maybe we'll go through the other four sections and try to extract something actionable so I f somebody is trying to build a business can take away something they can do today and get to the next step.
Maybe we'll start with the audience discovery section of your book. You've got a good quote at the top of it, “There are many fish in the sea, but never let a good one swim away.” This section is all about there's lots of different audiences that you could potentially serve. There's lots of different groups of people out there that you might want to work with, that you might want to make your audience. How do you choose the right one? What tribe should you go after?
It's really, it's fairly straightforward. First, you become aware of the people that you could potentially help. You go through your life. You consider, what am I good at professionally? What kind of audiences am I already serving in my job? What audiences am I in contact with my job?
For me, it was I'm a software engineer. I'm a writer. I'm a bootstrap founder. I'm an indie hacker. I'm interested in computers and IT. I'm also a podcaster and I'm a newsletter author. I'm a newsletter sponsorship interests person, you know, there's all these little groups of people that I'm already part of professionally.
Put them in a list. Then you look into your personal life. What hobbies do you have? Are you a coffee aficionado? Do you like certain kinds of beverages more than others? Do you know a lot about that? Are you a sports fan for a particular sport or for a particular team? Do you care about those people? Do you interact with them? Do you have certain pets or they have certain interests? You go into your family. What are the other people in my family doing? Are they butchers? Or is there a plumber in there or a nurse, you know, all these things.
You put them in a list. You just have all these things that you could potentially serve on the list. The whole idea behind this is that it's supposed to be a data driven approach. We want to make smart choices as entrepreneurs that are based on actual data. Well, now let's do this.
Once you have this list of, I don't know, 30, 50 different audiences, you can start ranking them. You can look into four different rankings, one to five each, and then you just add them up and you get a final ranking.
The first one is affinity. How much do I like those people? Because I noticed one thing when I did my list, on my list were tax advisers and lawyers and notaries. As much as I know that they have a lot of money to spend on stuff, bureaucracy is just not my thing. I don't want to spend time with people who are so holed up in bureaucracy for the next five to 10 years, because that's how long businesses usually take to be successful. I don't want to spend my time with lawyers for 10 years, and I'm sorry to every single lawyer that's listening right now. I love you, but I just don't want to build something for you.
There are people out there who do want to build for lawyers who love the bureaucracy and the laws and the regulations. You should not start that business if that's not your thing. Like you said, you're going to be working on this business probably for five or 10 years, if it goes well.
In my experience, the thing that controls your happiness the most as a founder is exactly what you're saying, affinity. Do you actually like the people that are your customers? Because if you don't, you're going to build a business that you really don't like running. If you do, you're going to build a business that's an absolute joy to run, even if you're not making that much money.
Yeah, exactly. But you will make a lot of interesting connections. You will find a lot of friends along the way and make partnerships that will last you way beyond this actual business experience. That's what affinity does.
What affinity does once you rank is it obviously cuts out a couple of these audiences already. There's some that have just a zero out of five, or one out of five. No matter how much opportunity is in there, no matter how much budget and how big that market is, I’m not going to build anything for that.
They're always going to rank low. I either cut them off or just continue ranking it. It's a game of just trying to feel how you resonate with the audience. Once you've done that, you go into an opportunity, which is really looking into each of these particular audiences, these potential industries, and just see what's going on there.
Are there interesting problems? Are there a lot of SaaS businesses, if you want to build a SaaS business? Are there a lot of info products and they're already where you can see that there's a certain demand, a certain pool from that market for solutions and you rank from one to five as well.
You just go into each of these communities for like 10, 15 minutes. Look at the things that they already did to be competitors, to be big players and into these communities, check out what are people talking about? Are there recommendations or stuff that people talk about when it comes to the kind of business that you want to build and you rank.
Then you do the same thing for appreciation, which is essentially do people have a budget? If you are a fan of craft beer, you will probably spend a lot of your money on craft beer. It's unlikely that you're going to spend a lot of your money on a craft beer SaaS, or something like that. The appreciation for your product in that market, unless you're brewing a beer, is probably not going to be a five out of five. You go through each of your audiences and should look for appreciation for the existence of budget in the existing audiences.
Then the last step, once you've ranked those, is really look at market size. Is the market big enough to support a business like mine and a couple others? Is it small enough not to immediately invite gigantic competitors? Craft beer, you don't want to go against AB InBev. You don't want to go against Anheuser-Busch, the people behind Bud Light.
They are going to branch out and they have been venturing out into craft beer with subsidiaries already. If you want to create a beer, you really want to be, probably be very local, a beer related product. You want to make it very specific so that you don't fall into competition with these companies.
Let’s recap this audience discovery session, cause it's a super actionable tip. It sounds like a lot, but again, if you're going to spend months or years on a business, this exercise, doesn't need to take that long. Maybe it's even just a few hours of just doing a little bit of planning so that you don't waste years of your life doing the wrong thing.
Step one is awareness. You just look at your personal life and professional life, your hobbies, your interests, your friends’ hobbies and interests, and social groups. You just list all of the different audiences and communities and interests that you have that other people also share with you.
Step two is you just rank these things. You rank them by affinity. How much do you like these people? You ranked them by opportunity. Are these people actually spending money on interesting problems? You rank them by appreciation. Do these people care about these problems enough to actually have a budget and spend a decent amount of money on them? Then by market size. How many people are actually in this audience?
At the end of this process, you'll be able to see, okay, if these are the audiences that not only am I already a part of, or that I really like, but that score high in all these categories. These are the people that I should probably serve with my business.
Then now you've got this audience. You're like, okay, this one's scored higher than everybody else. I'm super jazzed about this audience. Most people at this step, most people will have skipped this first step, they will have just started creating or building something, but let's say they did this.
Now a lot of people are going to have, they’re going to be itching to start building like, okay, I know who my audience is. I'm just gonna start creating something. But for you, it's still too early to do that. You have this extra step that's called audience exploration where you need to actually explore this audience that you've chosen. What does that process look like and why is it important?
The idea is you go into the communities where your audience is already hanging out right now, and then you shut up. That is what I would like people to do because many people go into those communities and immediately start advertising stuff.
That is the worst thing you could do if you've just joined a community somewhere where people are trying to help each other and support each other is to become a marketer. I coined a phrase dwell, don't sell. Just go in there and be there.
Stop promoting because what you want to do is actually observe people, understand them. You want to look into this particular group of people in this community and see first of all what are they doing? What do they care about? How do they communicate about this? What are the things that are problematic to them? What are their problems that they talk about? What are the solutions that they talk about? What tools are they using? What language are they using?
It's not going to be a thing of a couple of days. Maybe that's one of the most important things just to talk about here. This is a long-term project. You're trying to build a business that leads to your financial stability or financial security.
You're not going to get there by spending two days in a community, and you're going to have this light bulb moment and you're going to be a billionaire in a couple of weeks. It’s not going to happen.
So much of this is just, again, it's just patience. You know, if you have the patience to just chill out for at least a few weeks and just learn, you'll go in a much better direction than if you're inpatient. You're like, I've read this forum a bunch of times. I figured out everything I needed to know. I just need to start advertising or I need to start building.
If you can just like take the time to sort of aim where you're going to go, you're going to go, you're going to just basically build a much better business.
What if you already are part of a community though? Let's say you did this audience identification step and you pick comic book nerds as the audience that you're going to serve. It turns out that you've already been a part of the comic book forums and discussion groups and conventions and you've been a part of that for years and years. You already kind of feel like you know the community. Do you still need to do this whole audience exploration?
Well, you’re kind of already doing it. That's the great thing about it. Once you're in the community, you are listening to what people have to say.
If you have been a comic book nerd for the last, I dunno, 20 some years of your life, then you know what the term near mint condition means or stuff like that. You don't need to understand the lingo because you already know it.
The only thing you need to do now is to consciously act on stuff that you wouldn't have consciously thought about before, because now you’re trying to build a business for these people. Now you're not just in there to be part of the community, but you're now actually in there to meaningfully empower this community with, or through, a business.
Before that you might've already empowered people or engaged with people. In some ways you might have, like, I dunno, commented and celebrated with them when they found like a rare edition of a comic book somewhere. You might've organized with them to go to Comic-Con back when we could still go to things.
There's this whole already existing interaction that you have. That is obviously the best situation to start embedded exploration, because you're already more than halfway done. If you join a new community that you've never been part of, you have to go through all these hoops, jump through all these hoops again.
You have to figure out who are the important people that people follow. Who are the influencers in this community? Where are they? How can I find more of them? Where else are people?
If you're in the comic book community, you know the forums that people go to. You know the WhatsApp groups that already exist, the Telegram groups that exist, the Twitter hashtags that people use, the Facebook groups that exist.
You already know that. You have this graph of communities in your mind because you've been in all of them. That is what you have to imagine doing if you are not part of this community. You find a person that you want to help. You ask where do you guys hang out? They tell you, oh yeah, that's this forum over there. You go to the forum, you look into the forum, you see links to other forums, you see links to a Facebook group. You just recursively try to unravel the graph of community in this particular space.
Cool. So, now you've identified the right audience. You've ranked them. You've picked one that you like. You've embedded yourself and explore that audience. You've discovered the right communities, the right lingo, the right influencers. You've just listened. Or as you put it, you started dwelling not selling.
Now it's time for problem discovery, which is kind of a pretty important step in a business. Cause ideally whatever product you're going to build solves a problem that's a really good problem, a really interesting problem. How do you discover what makes for an interesting problem for this audience that you’ve picked?
Again, you listen. You observe. People talk about problems without talking about problems. It’s an interesting thing, but in any community you'll have people complaining about stuff.
Many of these complaints can actually be traced back to an underlying problem that they either are not aware of or they're not explicitly stating. You can look at Eugene Schwartz’s scale, the awareness scale. It's a marketing term, right? The whole idea is how aware are people of the product that I have, or about the problems in the space?
You can kind of rank things along those scale. There's a completely unaware people don't even know they have a problem. They're just confused by why stuff takes so long. Then there's problem aware where people know that there's a problem but they don't know that there's a solution yet. Solution aware, where people know the problem and that there are solutions that just don't know, which is good. Then finally, you have product aware where people know all the solutions in the field and you now only have to get them to most aware where your product is the best product out of the existing products in the field to solve their problem.
That's kind of the scale and along each of these steps of the scale, I found there’s a kind of message that you can find in communities. If people are problem aware, they will ask for help. That is a very clear sign that there is a problem there that people don't even know that there's a solution for.
Then if you go up that ladder and you look at the solution aware people, they are asking for recommendations. What tool do I need to use to solve my problem? They know that there are tools out there and they just ask, like, I need a customer service tool. What's the best little chat bubble?
Then, you go up the next ladder and that's product aware, where that's where people ask for alternative. I've been using Intercom, it's getting too expensive. What's a cheaper version that does everything that I need to do for my customer service?
What's the underlying problem? Apparently the existing incumbent providers are too expensive. Maybe you could build something that is cheaper, has similar functionality, but needs to target a completely different segment of the market that doesn't make as much money. So, all of a sudden new problem, right?
One thing I think people overlook often is that just because people have a problem doesn't necessarily mean they are complaining about it. Sometimes you can just look at what people are doing. Look at the way that they're spending their time, or you look at the way that they're spending their money.
If you sort of worked backwards from there, people generally spend time and money on solutions to problems. A good example would be I had Evan Britton on my podcast a while back. He is the creator of a website called Famousbirthdays.com, which gets untold hundreds of millions of page views every single month.
The problem he's solving is that Gen Z ears really want to know information about their favorite influencers on TikTok and Instagram. They weren't sitting around on forums complaining I want to know more information about my favorite influencer.
They were just Googling it. They're just searching it. They're taking action and spending a lot of their time to look up this information, which he could work backwards from and say, oh, this must be a problem that people can't find this information. I guess it's not on Wikipedia. What if I made a website that had all of this information?
His number one signal is, now that he's made this website, is he just looks at all the data from his search bar. When people go to his website and they'll type in information on this star, a blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Then he knows what to build, not because anybody's complaining about something, but because they're trying to solve a problem and he knows he can build a better website for it.
The final step, we've gone through three steps already. The final step is audience building. This is you have found a problem and you know it belongs to a particular community that you've explored and embedded yourself inside of. You feel very confident about this problem. Okay. Well now how do you actually build an audience for yourself?
What are the steps that you take? What's the most actionable thing people could walk away from this conversation, knowing about this final step of audience building?
This will be a crash course in Twitter because that's where I've been doing this and that's what I can share right now.
The three main things are engagement, empowerment, and valuable content. That's the three pillars that I have to any kind of audience growth, because what you want to do is you want to build a personal reputation as somebody who is really, really helpful in the community.
At the same time, you want to build a professional reputation as having built a product that is extremely useful to people who needs their problem solved. So, this happens through building an audience around yourself as a founder and around your professional, whatever you're building, be it an info product or a SaaS or an e-commerce platform, whatever. That thing is to professional brand and you have a personal brand.
They intermingle and it's I think the best for us indie hackers to have a lot of connection between the two. If we build, if we solopreneur a product, we are the products and our brand and the products brands’ are really intertwined.
That's a good thing because if you build in public, for example, that creates a certain kind of leverage, a certain level of trust where one brand, your personal founder brand, kind of colors the brand of the product as well.
If the founder is reliable so will the product be, right? If the founder is smart, probably going to get a good product. There's a lot of back and forth between those two. How do you build a brand?
Like I said, engagement, empowerment, and valuable content. In this order I find a lot of people who are on Twitter and they start posting stuff. They write articles, they tweet. And nobody listens to them. It's not surprising they don't have an audience, nobody sees it. Nobody gets to see it.
Content is the third most important thing when it comes to Twitter. The most important thing is to actually go where people already are. That's one thing that I've been doing when I started out with not many followers. That's what I see the most successful people who are building an audience and a community on Twitter doing. They go to where people are already having a conversation.
They follow influencers in the field. They go, they turn on notifications for something and figure out an influencer posts something, there’s probably going to be something happening there. Let me go there too and see how I can contribute meaningful to this conversation.
If you do that enough, you're essentially doing what I call the audience audition. You go to somebody else's audience and you audition for their attention by being helpful by asking interesting questions, by giving your first set account of certain experiences, or by sharing something that you know. You don't need to write an article in something you can just be on Twitter and ask somebody, have you thought about this?
That is content enough. And that's where it starts.
I like to think of sometimes the online landscape as analogous to a real-world location. Sometimes when you're online, it's easy to just tweet into the void and be like, why is nobody responding or listening to me?
It's kind of like going to a party and then finding a corner where nobody's listening and nobody is, and then just talking and be like, why is no one listening to me? Well, you just went to the empty part of the room.
But if you imagine Twitter as a party, go to Paul Graham’s account where there's like a hundred thousand people all gathered around him talking about different things. If you’re responding to his tweets or making thoughtful comments, a lot more people are going to see and engage with them.
Those are the people that you want to actually talk to, right? Particularly if you look at people following other indie hackers that are actively building products, those are very likely the same people that if you build a product for indie hackers or for software developers, they would like to follow you because you're on a similar journey and you have something meaningful to contribute similar to what the other people are saying, but uniquely colored by your own experiences.
If we go to those people and audition for their audiences, the likelihood of them converting, and I don't really like to use marketing terms here because it's really about building relationships with people, but about them wanting to have a relationship with you is so much higher than if you just yell into the void or even worse, pay money for this thing to be distributed to be other people, right?
You don't do paid ads when you want to build an audience. This comes through organic interaction between real human beings talking about real things.
Again, I've said this three or four times now, but this is all kind of patience, right? All the things you're talking about right now, you're going to be able to do these things well on Twitter or any other social network, because you were patient enough to do the beginning steps.
If you want to go to where people already are, that means you have to know where people already are, which means you have to know who's an influencer in the space and what they have to say, which means you have to have done the earlier steps.
I've seen so many things… if you want to do the empowerment thing, for example, if you want to help people and actually just sort of give before you get, you have to know how to help people, which means you have to have done a bunch of research about what the audience wants. Again, you had to have started at the earlier steps.
I've seen so many people on Twitter who are doing exactly what you're saying. They're just helpful. Some of the things I've seen that work really well are recommended follow lists where somebody will make a tweet, here are 10 people I really recommend that you follow on Twitter.
For every single tweet in that thread will be a person and a really warm description of why that person's awesome and maybe a link to one of the person's great tweets. It will be a thread of like 10 or 15 people they recommend that you follow.
Then every one of those people will be like, feel so great you made this thread recommending that people follow them and they'll probably follow you back or maybe even retweet it, et cetera. You're helping your audience because you're telling them who to follow and where to get good content on Twitter.
That's just giving and getting in return. Or what you're saying, re-tweeting, especially if you retweet somethings, somebody tweet sort of a quote at the top with their own thoughts. Almost everybody I know who tweets anything, no matter how big their account is, they look at all the retweets and everything that people said about their tweet. They're going to notice it if you're consistently saying good things about their tweets.
One thing I did in the early days of Indie Hackers is if somebody said something smart, like if Amy Hoy had a really good quote in a blog post or something, I would make a tweet and I would just kind of Photoshop her quote. Then I would tweet it from the Indie Hackers account and just talk about it.
Then her or whoever had the quote would always engage with that and feel so flattered that we're talking about their ideas, et cetera. There's just so much you can do to connect with people who have bigger audiences than you and show them that you're engaged and help your followers in the same breath.
Yeah, it all boils down to supporting other people. That's really the main thing here. If you want to build an audience, you just help people help themselves, or help people succeed, or help people find whatever they need. It doesn't mean you matter. It's just help them, support them, be there for them and be a voice for them.
This is a lot of stuff. I mean, we've barely scratched the surface of your book. You go into so much detail about each of these steps. There's a ton of actionable sub steps. I think for a lot of people who want to get started, they can feel overwhelmed. Like, oh God, this is so much to work on.
My advice for people who feel that way is that's why the first step is the most important. Pick an audience, a group of people that you really, really like, where it doesn't feel like work to be part of that community and to engage with influencers where you feel lucky and kind of privileged to be able to do it and it makes you feel good about yourself.
Then none of this feels like work. It doesn't feel like work to me to talk to people like you or talk to other founders or go to events with founders, and tweet this kind of stuff, because it's like, it's just fun. It's the people I naturally want to be around.
So, if you get that step right, all these other steps are actually kind of just like playing. But if you get that step wrong, all these other steps feel like work and it feels like too much stuff to do. You wonder how other people have the energy to do it. It's because they're actually interacting with people that they love and they want to be around.
That's why I put affinity as the first step in the guide initially, because if that's not right, everything else will not be right as well. Once you've found those people, and I'm lucky that I have not just one, but multiple audiences, that I feel so strongly connected with, writers, entrepreneurs, software engineers.
I have this connection with a lot of people and it's great because at the intersection of that are ex-engineers who write books and also have businesses. There is a couple of those and that's even cooler. It's people like me, I get to talk to them, and it's just such an enjoyable thing.
Like I said earlier, I want a life completely devoid of things on my calendar. Today's an exception because I get to talk to you. You know, this is something that I want on my calendar and I get it.
I love it. Well, listen, Arvid, this is also the only thing on my calendar for today. So, I can easily talk to you for like three hours, but then we would give away every single thing in your book.
You've been through a lot. You've built a bunch of different products and companies. You built Feedback Panda, which is a huge success. You built a huge audience for yourself. You're spending your years helping people, you've written multiple books. What do you think is the lesson that new indie hackers, or even experienced indie hackers can take away from your journey overall?
I think one of the core lessons that I didn't understand until recently is this concept of involuntary reciprocity. The fact that if you give enough for free to people, if you just spend enough of your time to help them and to make their lives easier to solve the problems for, and with them without asking for anything in return, they cannot help but helping you back at some later point.
The human psychology is we need to get even in the best and the worst ways. If you help, help, help, help, they want to get even by helping, helping, helping you back. If you do this at scale in the community, in building an audience or just in the community where you’re already at, people will eventually come back to you.
If you do this over time, the cumulative effects of that are staggering. You have to trust that by giving without asking, you're inviting these opportunities in the future, because it will always look bleak when you start.
Nobody's listening to me, nobody cares. I don't know what I'm doing. Nobody knows what I'm doing. That's right. That's actually true. And that's fine, so just continue. You're going to do more the next day and you're going to do more the day after.
Over time, your advantages to possibilities and the opportunities will accumulate into something meaningful that will have life changing effects for you. You have to trust that. I think if you understand this involuntary reciprocity as a basic concept of human nature, you’ll be fine. Just give and help and support.
I love it, involuntary reciprocity. Keep giving and trust that it'll come back to you. Honestly, you don't have to be that much of an expert to give. You spend hour a week learning something, guaranteed there's millions of people out there who have not spent that hour who would love to know what you learned.
Arvid, thanks a ton for coming on the show, dispensing a ton of wisdom. I know this is one of those episodes that people are going to listen to, pause and go back and take notes and write down stuff.
But instead, they could just buy your book, “The Embedded Entrepreneur,” where can people go to find more about your book and about you and you’re writing and everything you're working on?
If you want to learn more about the book, just go to embeddedentrepreneur.com, we have a cute little lending page set up. Honestly, if you just want to check out what I'm doing, go to my Twitter, @arvidkahl. That's where I'm every single day, every minute of every single day, interacting with people. Cause that's where my people are, so I want to be there.
I have a blog and a newsletter and a podcast called The Bootstrapped Founder. It's on thebootstrappedfounder.com. You can check that out too. I write something about bootstrapping SaaS or selling businesses or audience building every single week. You'll find something cool there as well.
Come to my Twitter. DMS are open. So come at me. I can take it. If you have a question, though, if you have anything that you want to share with me, I'll be there and I'll respond to it. I love to hear from founders and people who are in this field and want to make something meaningful happens. That's where I am.
All right. Thanks again, Arvid, for coming back on the show for a second time.
Thanks so much, Courtland. It was awesome.
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