Product Development September 22, 2020

Who else thinks a content-driven business is a nightmare?

Marcus Stenbeck @marcusstenbeck

"Build an audience" must be one of the most common pieces of advice out there. It's so exhausting. Being a YouTuber, a blogger or course-creator sounds to me like a nightmare.

I don't enjoy writing content. It's one of the least enjoyable things I've attempted. And the worst thing about it is that writing content builds a community that needs maintenance. Moderating a community isn't why I'm indie hacking. I like making tools for people who want to get from point A to point B. I especially doing this for people working in creative industries.

The developer in me enjoys solving pain points with systems. Producing content on a schedule isn't that. I've "produced" content that people have found really valuable, and still... it doesn't feel rewarding.

Don't get me wrong. I don't dislike interacting with people. Customer support is something that I really enjoy. Solving someone's problems together with them is a really good feeling.

Maybe it's that a content-driven, community or productized service is so heavily tied to the founder in delivering value to the customer.

Who else feels similar to this?

  1. 29

    Remember that most of the advice you find out there is written by people who... write things. Do you think they might have a bias towards content creation and audience-building?

    I've been designing and building things for businesses large and small for fifteen years and let me tell you, there are a lot of very successful ventures out there started by people with zero audience and no content-creation talent. Building an audience is one way to do it. There are many others.

    1. 11

      This comment nails it.

      Think of every successful business in the world and the subset of those that rely on the founder having an “audience” are probably minuscule.

      One of the best things I heard about this was in a Tim Ferris podcast. He was driving through - Arizona I believe it was and when passing some huge huge mega ranch / estate he asked who it belonged to. Now the context here was that every estate in this part of Arizona belonged to some mega rich multi millionaire, but this one was so spectacular it even stood out from the others.

      His friend said “you know the little metal things at the end of aeroplane wings? He invented them”.

      What I took from that and I think the point Tim was making was that there is opportunity EVERYWHERE and you don’t need to fit a certain type of mold to be successful.

      If you want build a personal brand (🤮) and monetise that then great. However if you want to solve a problem and make people’s lives easier to live then also great. Probably a dozen other ways to do it as well.

      1. 1

        Haha, I love the use of emoji mid sentence there. I notice you always put thought into answering stuff here on IH. Thanks. What you're saying makes sense... I wish those stories would be told more since I can relate to them.

        1. 2

          Thanks for the kind words. Truly appreciated 🙏

    2. 3

      I would go one step further and say that if you aren't already a good writer / video producer / etc., and you aren't interested and excited about becoming good at those things, then focusing on audience-building is probably a waste of your time.

      Instead, focus on the things you're good at or want to become good at, and find people to help you with the things you need but aren't doing yourself.

      Just remember that customers have to find out about your product somehow. There are lots of ways to do that, but you have to do at least some of them.

      1. 2

        I'm often encouraged because I have an aptitude for presenting/writing/video... and I end up being asked to do more of it. It usually ends up with a polite no thank you or forward a referral so I can go back to doing more "interesting" things. :)

    3. 1

      You're completely right. It is obvious when you think about it that successful content focused people will attribute much of their success to the content they create. And rightfully so. It'd be lovely to hear more stories from the non-content focused people.

      Thanks for lifting the insight!

    4. 1

      Great comment, I've never seen it from that point of view

  2. 18

    I thought the same thing before I started IH. I specifically remember being an early subscriber to @NathanBarry's newsletter many years ago, and watching him crank out emails and ebooks, and thinking to myself, "That looks exhausting. You couldn't pay me enough to do that. I just want to code."

    Then some years later I started IH, and in the early days content was my full-time job. If I wasn't interviewing people, I was sending newsletters or writing tweets. Surprisingly, it wasn't bad. (Well, the newsletter emails were stressful, but they kept me accountable to making progress each week in the early days.)

    I thought about it and concluded two things.

    First, not all content is the same. When dealing with uncertainty, people find comfort in copying everyone else. So in a digital landscape where we should be seeing an explosion of many different varieties and types of content, what we instead get is everybody putting out courses and ebooks and thought leadership blogs and Substacks.

    If I was doing any of that, I would have been very unhappy. Luckily, instead of just copying what everyone thought a content product should look like, I worked backwards from my customers' needs and my own personal interests. The result was spending lots of time talking to really cool people and then just writing down what they said, which was surprisingly pleasant and easy for me to do.

    My second conclusion was that every business has many parts to it. If you only work on the parts that you like, and if those parts are only a subset of what's necessary for business success, then your business will fail. In fact there's a word for that kind of endeavor, and we call it a hobby. I've had plenty of businesses fail because I treated them as a hobby before.

    This doesn't necessarily mean that you need to start a content business. But you do need to figure out distribution. If you're a developer, distribution is a bigger challenge for you than code, so it makes sense to prioritize figuring it out early on. And if you have trouble forcing yourself to prioritize, rather than fighting a battle against your very nature, it helps to narrow your focus so you have literally nothing else to do. So there is no choice.

    I spent maybe 3-4 days coding in the beginning of IH, and then I ran out of stuff to build. So there was nothing left to do besides thinking about distribution. That lack of choice forced me to do what I'd always procrastinated doing... and then it turned out it wasn't so bad after all once I settled into it. Maybe that's content for you, or maybe it's something else. but you have to find a way to force yourself to wear all the hats necessary as a founder.

    Either that, hire people, or bring on a co-founder, tasks which many people avoid for similar reasons (developers often abhor delegation just as much as writing and marketing).

    The good thing is that businesses evolve. The beginning is usually when you have to do the most grindy work that doesn't scale, just to get the ball moving. The hardest step is always the first one. But once you have momentum, it's like a wind at your back, and things get easier. You can build on the advantages that you accumulate over time.

    Nowadays my job consists primarily of writing code and designing features for a social network used by many thousands of people, which I find very pleasant. But I wouldn't have gotten here without finding a way to transition from a hobbyist to a founder.

    1. 3

      This is great and reminds me of:

      Do Things That Don't Scale - by Paul Graham
      http://paulgraham.com/ds.html

      1. 2

        I think about that catch phrase quite often.

        "How can I do this today in a way that doesn't scale?"

        I'm doing it right now by making video animations manually at my current side-thing (https://superclip.io)

        1. 2

          It's a great idea. As more non-technical people make their own content they will come to value your service.

          Keep pushing through the "nightmare".

          1. 1

            Thanks, maybe one day I'll wake up! 😄

    2. 1

      Thanks Courtland. I think the main issue I take is that the natural order of the universe dictates that content-driven people and businesses will dominate the stories out there. Sometimes it feels lonely being part of a less vocal part of the indie hacking community. I love when a podcast episode or founder interview surfaces where building an audience or producing tons of content wasn't a big part of the play.

      I guess we're not going to see the @csallen masterclass anytime soon then? ;)

      Thanks for your awesome hustle and for building this awesome internet watering hole.

    3. 1

      I've had plenty of businesses fail because I treated them as a hobby before.

      This is soo true!

    4. 1

      These are some valuable lessons!

  3. 6

    What advice you get largely depends on the echo chamber you hang in.

    For instance, most people over here would recommend building community and getting traction.
    If you join any of the FB eCommerce groups, they will advise you to pour money on FB ads.
    And so on.

    The right advice is to throw everything on the wall and see what sticks.

    1. 1

      Super true! My favorite is combing the internet for pockets of people that seem like they're in need and then engaging directly with them. I guess some might call this "content producing", but I see it more as "forced customer support". Haha!

  4. 3

    There's no silver bullet. If you don't enjoy to write content, you don't have to do it at all or you can delegate it, if you feel like you need to.

    BTW Take a look at the discussion under @robwalling tweet about the 'build the audience first' approach:
    https://twitter.com/robwalling/status/1306591312498405376

    1. 1

      Wow! That's so timely. Thanks for sharing the tweet. I like that it seems kinda controversial to challenge the "build an audience" notion. The response he gets and the amount of attention in this topic seems to prove that there's a lot of feelings involved!

      1. 1

        Yeah, definitely the topic seems to be hot 🔥

        At this point, what's worth mentioning - Rob has clearly separated the 'content creation' and the 'audience building' things.

        The former may help your business if done right, the latter is just not mandatory for a SaaS product.

        1. 2

          [Content creation/content marketing] may help your business if done right, [audience building] is just not mandatory for a SaaS product.

          Exactly, and this is what I believe. I'd love to see more stories of $5-10k MRR businesses that don't have a heavy audience/content play.

  5. 3

    This narrative is missing the word "bootstrapped." Community is the best free way of getting traction and selling. Ads and delegation is the best actual way of getting traction and selling. Unfortunately, if you don't have anything to invest, you are out of luck.

    1. 1

      I hear you. I know you're talking about "free" as in money here, but producing content and managing an audience or community is by no means free when thinking about the time, focus and attention required to execute well with a content/community strategy.

      I think your first point is spot on if the disposable resource you have most of is time.

    2. 1

      This comment was deleted 4 days ago.

  6. 2

    I can relate. I simply can't create content on regular basis. I can easily write thousands lines of code, but 2000 symbols article? No, thank you.

    I spent entire last week building video presentation for a new landing page and that's only a draft - I will pass it to freelancer to write meaningful copy and make a voiceover of it.

    Sure I switched a lot of contexts to care about other things, but overall I'm not happy with this performance at all.

    Maybe I'm empty inside and have nothing to say, idk :)

    1. 1

      I feel you. Building a landing page with good content is one of the things I actually find worthwhile. For those times when I really need to make something like that I like outlining with bullet points (or using mindmapping software).

      Hope you're no longer feeling empty inside!

  7. 2

    I agree with you, in fact this has prompted me to think to sell my newsletter.

    Is a pain,..exhausting and having other projects, even more,.....and going solo gets worst...

    1. 1

      Amen! Best of luck in leapfrogging into something fruitful that you enjoy more. :)

  8. 2

    Good post.

    Ya this "Build an audience" is the newest thing in the more influencer side of entrepreneurship. However I agree with you and would argue it's not something most people should be bothering with.

    I've been testing out a bunch of content creation for my current project, mainly because I'm not a developer and the developing has taken ages, so I haven't had anything better to do. It's really hard. You don't just make something then see it get shared. You make something, tweak it, post something the next day, tweak it. And you do that for quite possibly months and months without much feedback.

    1. 1

      I hear you. I hope it gets better for you, or you figure out something that works. What's your project?

      1. 1

        www.BuyLocalized.com

        It's a Chrome extension that functions as a Made in USA filter for Amazon.

        We've tried a few things. A few different styles of blog posts, infographics, tweets.

        I'm not particularly good at it, and I don't love doing it. With us it's just a customer acquisition model. We have gained all this knowledge as we build our project and figured we could hit 2 birds with one stone by finding a way to present that knowledge in a way people liked. We could both get new customers and really demonstrate we know what we are talking about.

        The problem is I guess that it feels like pandering. Most of the work we do is hearing about a company that manufactures in the USA, calling them and explaining our standards and then adding them to our directory. The articles that people seem to want are like company profiles. But we don't really know much about these companies, other than the checks we do to ensure they aren't lying to us. We also go through dozens every day. The other thing that seems natural is reports on product categories. We could write about wrenches for example, touching on the average review score, price difference and selection between domestic and foreign made. We only did one or two of that second type of article though. We've got some huge advantages, as we are some of the only people in the world with the information already loosely collected, but we still found it very time consuming to make those articles and they were very far from working on their own. The first type of article is way less involved with our core product than the second, but it's way easier to get made.

        However it ended up being really hard to make stuff people responded to, and when I looked at the time spent on each article versus amount of signups we would have needed to justify them, they needed perform way way better eventually.

        What we are still doing is making infographics, like: https://web.facebook.com/BuyLocalized/posts/173901500896203

        These are very cheap to get made and are easy shareable content. They also serve to show we know what we are talking about, plus our current plan involves a lot of Facebook advertising and having more content on your page helps with that. All those factors together justify continuing to post these, though I haven't been able to attribute many installs to them at all.

  9. 2

    I would stick to SAAS in that case.

    Lots of people without big audiences can make it - don't get sucked into vanity metrics.

    What is important for a blog (audience) isn't necessarily for SAAS.

    1. 1

      I sure hope so! Thanks for sharing.

  10. 2

    I’m more or less in line with you’re thinking. I also just absolutely hate writing.

    However, lately I’ve been writing my thought process down just for myself. I work alone on my own SaaS project, and I found that my thinking becomes clearer when I just type out what I’m thinking. Kind of like talking to myself. It’s all grammatically wrong, mostly bullet points, has no structure, and I think it serves no purpose usually.

    But then I start going back through my notes and I see my ideas crystallizing in front of me. They start to make more sense...to me, at least. And they help me get out of a rut and make better decisions, both big and small.

    And then I think, if these ideas make sense to me, maybe they’d make sense to others too. Is this perhaps...worth publishing?

    ...sure, why not. What’s the harm?

    1. 1

      I've also had an amazing experience with journaling in periods. Whenever I need to solve something I'll write, and it'll be for myself. It helps with so much. For this purpose writing is awesome. Keep doing it!

  11. 2

    Its a paid, but it needs to be done. Its your moat and what'll make you defensible. Someone else needs to write as much or more to catch up

    1. 1

      Do you believe this is true for all types of indie hacking projects?

  12. 2

    "Build an audience" must be one of the most common pieces of advice out there. It's so exhausting.

    I think your discomfort comes from how you perceive the advice. If you step back and accept that “build an audience” may be a hugely common piece of advice but that does not elevate it to the level of being gospel—the One True Way, then it is easy to come to terms with yourself that you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.

    You are entirely free to chart your own path—do what you think works best for you.

    1. 1

      Thanks, I hope my path works out. I'd hate to walk someone else's journey. Hope yours is working out well for you! :)

      1. 1

        Heh, just starting out myself 😛.

        The IH community is a great source of daily motivation for building a micro-startup solo, but if I’m being honest, I kinda like the vibe of the WIP community better.

        Perhaps because it is a much much smaller community relative to IH and also because it has the inimitable Pieter Levels of levels.io fame building in public ... 😎

        1. 1

          I've eyeballed wip.chat before. Do you think it's worth the price of admission and what is it that you like about it?

          1. 1

            Worth it? Maybe.

            For me, the UI is not nearly as dense as IH, though I dislike their use of infinite scrolling.

  13. 2

    I get this!

    Content that naturally flows out of what you do or from notes your already taking creates less overhead and is less painful.

    The benefits of forming a community over an audience is that people in the community produce content for each other - without any dependence on you.

    If you can see the benefits, but you just don't like doing it, maybe find someone who can help you / outsource it?

    1. 1

      I definitely see the benefits, and I have in the past "commanded" an audience that grew out of me following my passion (not in the online/indie hacking space). It is no doubt a useful tool if you have it.

      With that said... for what I'm doing it probably ends up being more of a nice-to-have that a must-have.

      Are you on a journey that involves creating a steady stream of content?

      1. 1

        Fair, there are many routes to growth, content-driven marketing has benefits, especially in the bootstrapped world, but it's not the only way. That said, you can't neglect distribution entirely just because it's not your thing. Otherwise, you'll fail.

        I'm currently audience building on the socials, in anticipation of a future venture that I'm currently scoping out, also about to start putting out content via my newsletter.

        1. 1

          I completely agree that distribution is key. I still get inbound from an old app that I promoted by being active on a bunch of forums, and that ended up getting promoted organically through reviews and youtube. The app is since long dead, but people refuse to stop showing interest.

          Distribution can be newsletters, blog posts and tweeting. But that's not for me... I'd rather hunt for the pockets of potential customers hiding in forums and facebook groups. :)

          (btw your link is broken)

          1. 2

            And that's perfectly fine! As long as you have a way to reach your target audience, there's no problem.

            (Fixed the link, thanks!)

  14. 2

    I've analyzed hundreds of founder interviews and the nice thing with your own product is that you have so many acquisition channel opportunities (like partnering up with other people who create content).

    So it's not like "create content or go bankrupt". You're probably read about product-market-FOUNDER fit, and this is where you come in. If you enjoy creating your product and starting from there, then go for it!

    1. 1

      I am going for it! Thanks!

      I wish I saw more stories from the "content-averse" crowd. They're probably busy not producing content that I can read. ;)

  15. 1

    Most of the advice on the internet is highly biased and generally should be ignored. Carve your own path, experiment with suggestions but never take it at a face value. Basically trial & error just trumps everything.

  16. 1

    I can relate to this. When I was building and operating FeedbackPanda, I had no time or inclination to write, and content was something that neither I nor my co-founder liked to produce. It definitely depends on what business you run, and what parts of running it you find enjoyable. We solved this by recruiting people from within our audience who enjoyed writing and had them create relatable content for us as contractors.

    I don't believe you should force yourself into "building an audience" (which to me would be better described by "building a following".) You don't need that to succeed. What you need is a clear and firm understanding of your customers. THAT is the audience that matter. The people who should care about what you offer. Not the people who like your blog.

    Right now, I am running a content business. I'm writing a newsletter, I published a book and am working on another, and I release a weekly podcast. But that is by choice, because I want to teach. This should not be required of every founder, and I believe you can learn sufficiently by listening and observing. No need to strain yourself to "produce content" that someone else could write better and with more joy.

  17. 1

    You may not yet have the requisite level of understanding your customer (empathy about their needs + how your offering relates to those needs) that makes it enjoyable. If you knew exactly how your thing would change their life, you'd enjoy being the guy who gets to make that happen.

    It's that in a nutshell. It isn't about the difficulty of making the blog post or video.

    1. 1

      I’m not sure I understand your point. Is it that understanding customers will make content creation more interesting?

      Would you say that producing content is required regardless of type of business?

      1. 1

        No, making content is not required. I have worked as a consultant for 15 years without ever making content to support myself in that.

        And yes, understanding the value that you bring to your customers is a key ingredient in 1) making valuable content and 2) making that process enjoyable for yourself. If you know you are changing someone's life with the thing you make, then making content feels like shouting your gospel from the mountaintops. You're the hero in your own hero's journey, and the mentor in the journey of your customers. Double thrill. Life-affirming.

        Without that, you are just grinding.

        1. 1

          I think I understand your point. I just don't agree that understanding someone else's need then creating content all of a sudden becomes enjoyable. It becomes easier to figure out what's relevant, but creating content will most likely have the effect of attracting people who want the content to keep coming. I'd rather grind than be handcuffed to that. :)

          1. 1

            Well, sounds like you've identified the neurosis that is sucking joy from you.

              1. 1

                An irrational complex that prevents you from thriving.

                1. 1

                  Which part of my thinking do you consider irrational?

                  1. 1

                    The goal of content is to attract the attention of users. There is no point to making content for your product/business if it doesn't serve this purpose. Yet that is precisely what you identified as the outcome to avoid.

                    So there is an irrationality in going about a pursuit which you do not want to succeed at its inherent goal.

                    Also - your assumption that you will be "handcuffed" to anything at all is irrational.

                    Who decides what you do, if not you?

                    Why would it be random users on the internet?

                    Why would you be beholden to the desires of these people, which you may or may not be correct about?

                    How can you be certain that that is what they'd want? (You aren't certain. You can't predict the future. Thus, it's must be projection.)

                    Why do you assume that they'd want more content and not simply to convert to using your product... which is the reason you make the content to begin with?

                    Especially if the content is explaining clearly why your product/offerring is something they need in their lives... why would they want the content as opposed to the offering?

                    If anything, creating content that addresses this point clearly decreases the probability of your nightmare scenario and increases the demand for your actual offering.

                    1. 1

                      The goal of content is to attract the attention of users. There is no point to making content for your product/business if it doesn't serve this purpose.

                      Exactly. Content marketing ("creating content") is one strategy among many. It's a very visible strategy, so it gets a lot of attention.

                      Yet [attracting the attention of users] is precisely what you identified as the outcome to avoid.

                      No. The outcome I wish for me and others like me is to build businesses that don't rely on content marketing or audience building to become successful.

                      Not doing content marketing ("creating content") or building an audience won't prevent anyone from thriving—unless "thriving" strictly means having an audience or blog traffic.

                      There are indie hacking businesses out there who thrive without.

                      I'm happy that you've found your tribe, and that, as you put it, "the gospel" of content marketing resonates with you.

  18. 1

    passion economy.
    make it a masterclass
    or build one.

      1. 2

        i'm concern about this as well.
        I wrote a short poem to myself

        "content is king
        consistent is queen
        growth is prince
        scale is princess
        you are the knight"

        Ends with, good night! 🤣💯💫

        So I make everything micro:
        https://www.indiehackers.com/post/micro-everything-3951fbeeaf

        1. 1

          Good night and good morning, sir! :)

  19. 1

    Hey @marcusstenbeck,

    Since content isn't something you enjoy, it sounds like a good thing for you to outsource. Have you thought about this at all? Some ideas:

    • You could hire a content writer who can turn your ideas into content. You have editorial oversight and creative say and can decide what to keep/what not to keep. Have them interview you once a month and turn those interviews into themed blog posts.
    • Another alternative to this would be to record yourself talking about a topic, getting it transcribed (rev.com for human translation or otter.ai for AI translation), and hiring someone to turn it from a transcript into a post.

    Since this is your goal:

    I like making tools for people who want to get from point A to point B. I especially doing this for people working in creative industries.

    ...outsourcing content creation will help you get someone to write the "why" behind your goal while you focus on the "what": building :).

    Best of luck!

    1. 2

      I wonder how feasible it is to outsource content creation at the beginning of a startup. I mean there is going to be so much testing and iteration, and it will be very hard to get someone who will do that. Certainly you can get a writer, but identifying the specific subjects, length, tone and vocabulary is not easy, and will be hard to outsource.

      I've hired hundreds of freelancers, and I wouldn't hire for this unless I had a personal recommendation. It's so much easier to get someone to follow a script of what works, finding someone who can do the exploring and figure it out is much more difficult and I've been burned so many times trying to hire it out.

    2. 1

      Like @PayOffWizard goes through I doubt that having someone else create content would be so much better. Maybe, maybe not, and I could possibly be a perfectionist.

      I'm just not sure "content for content's sake" is necessarily always needed. And if it's needed then it's probably a bad idea to outsource it in the beginning. That's just the craftsman in me speaking...

      But thanks for the suggestion.

      1. 2

        Hey @marcusstenbeck and @PayOffWizard thanks for the reply!

        I hear you and I'm happy to clarify. I'm not recommending "content for content's sake" as in hiring someone to create articles solely for SEO reasons. I'm recommending outsourcing the writing aspect of content you would want to create if you had the time/interest in writing. For example, you may want to talk about your process or write something about your product. Or you may find that prospective customers would like a case study, but you dislike the writing part. At that point, the options I outlined may be useful–you could record yourself talking about the thing and having someone transcribe/edit, and there's a blog post/case study. In short, I'm suggesting outsourcing the content creation needs when your business calls for it.

        Hope that helps and best of luck either way.

        1. 1

          If someone is struggling with creating content in a business where content really makes a difference these are some great suggestions. Hopefully this reaches someone who needs to hear it. Thanks Stephanie!

          1. 2

            You're welcome, and thank you for sparking this discussion!

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