A Blog Is a Mini-startup

Launching a new blog isn’t dissimilar to launching a startup. In fact, the difficulties in launching a blog are effectively a sub-set of the key problems to solve when creating a startup. Specifically, building a new blog requires you to figure out the following questions:

  • Who are your potential readers?
  • How will those readers find your blog?
  • Will those readers subscribe, share, comment, or otherwise engage with your content?
  • What do you expect from a “successful” blog?

If these questions sound familiar, that’s because they are fundamental to the first two steps in Steve Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany, namely “Customer Discovery” and “Customer Validation”. Creating and marketing a blog is a great way to practice the customer development skills necessary for an early startup, without having to worry about the parallel challenge of product development.

Customer Discovery

Discovery is a fairly obvious requirement for a new blog. I don’t believe many folks start a blog without at least intending to find readers. Fortunately, the process of finding readers for a blog is far more straightforward than discovering potential customers for a startup. There’s already a large market of people who read other blogs, you just need to convince them that yours is at least worth a cursory skim. And there’s already an established base of communities like hacker news and reddit that exist primarily for readers to discover, share, and discuss new content. Marketing your blog is almost entirely a problem of execution: you don’t need a clever new strategy, you just need to get out there and hustle. This is far easier than discovering customers for a new product category.

More importantly, by accepting that building a readership just requires some honest labor, you can avoid a common pitfall. Smart people (particularly developers) enjoy thinking about ways to do their jobs more efficiently. When building a startup, it’s tempting to spend so much time thinking about ways to reach new customers that you never actually get around to speaking to any. This is obviously absurd in the context of building a blog’s readership. Working on developing your blog’s reach is a great way to develop a habit of doing instead of just planning.

Customer Validation

Validation requires a little more thought. For a commercial startup, validation usually revolves around assessing willingness to pay. A blog doesn’t have to become a revenue stream to be successful, but it is important to identify some possible benefits, consider how feasible they are, and figure out what sort of readers you want. It’s not necessary for your readers to pay you directly, but it is important to identify some sort of desired action you want to encourage.

In particular, some plausible motivations for blogging are to:

  • Articulate and develop your own thoughts: Thinking is easy; writing is hard. Ideas are tough to nail down. Something that sounds wonderful bouncing around in your head can look outright preposterous once it finds its way to paper. Writing things down and sharing them is a straightforward way to develop intellectual honesty. You can get some benefits from writing even without a readership, but ideally, you’ll want to find thoughtful readers who are interested in discussing your ideas and challenging your assumptions. If you happen to build up a large pool of readers who never comment or engage with you, then you haven’t found the right readers and should re-consider your discovery efforts.
  • Establish some bona fides. Perhaps you’ve been reading this blog and thought to yourself, “That chap seems to know what’s up.” Validation for this goal can be as simple as collecting points. Unlike the above, silent readers are okay for this goal, provided that they’re willing to up vote your content on social media sites.
  • Direct some traffic to another project, such as my current startup. This is starting to get more difficult, but is still pretty reasonable. Readers of this blog probably like startups, I’ve got one, so perhaps you’d like to take a look at mine? This thought process quickly breaks down if there isn’t a straightforward connection between the blog’s content and the project in question. A photo-blog of cat cartoons is odd marketing for an enterprise software company, but might work out if done right. The key metric here is simple: you want to review the conversation funnel for your other project and compare traffic from your blog with other traffic sources.

Practice the hard stuff

Startups are hard. There’s no way around that. You’re unlikely to find immediate success regardless, but you can improve your chances by developing relevant skills. Software developers are often tempted to focus on becoming better developers. Product development is certainly relevant to any startup, but the challenge for most early startups is finding customers. Learning the latest web framework won’t help you validate a business model, but finding readers for a new blog is a great way to learn and practice customer development.