Settling on a Business Model

This is the second of several posts where I am revisiting CommonsWare, my long-time business and current “hobby with a logo”. I thought it might be useful to some to see how all that came about, the decisions I made, and so on.

The series:

One of the things I learned in my early entrepreneurial ventures is that I have zero marketing sense. That’s a slight problem for many businesses. I “kept my ear to the ground”, trying to identify some approach to business that might work despite my shortcomings.

In March 2008 — as I was deciding whether to try to do something with iPhone or Android — Kevin Kelly published his 1000 True Fans post. He rightfully points out that many markets have a long-tail distribution, where the majority of success goes to a handful of participants. However, he posited that those in the long tail could still enjoy success, by focusing on wide reach and upsells to interested parties (the 1,000 “true fans”). He wrote in terms of the music industry, arguing that musicians ought to worry less about music piracy (a big concern in 2008). Instead, they should embrace free music distribution, simply to try to have wide enough reach to get enough “true fans” who would be willing to purchase stuff in furtherance of their fandom.

In May 2010 — after CommonsWare was already underway — Mike Masnick expanded on this approach with his “connect with fans / reason to buy” model. (or “CwF+RtB” for short). Still, it’s the same basic idea: cast as wide a net as possible, and have opportunities for enthusiasts to expand their experience for a fee.

Nowadays, this approach is well-known. Many people blog, do podcasts, or answer questions as a way of becoming well-known in a space, then use that reach to convince some subset of their audience to pay for books, training, consulting, etc. The “influencer” model is the epitome of this: their reach is so broad that they are pure promotion engines for products and services from other parties.

But, 10-15 years ago, this was all brand-new.

For me, it neatly partitioned my problem into two smaller problems:

  • How could I get my 1000-ish true fans?

  • What could I offer them that would be interesting for them yet profitable for me?

Finding the fans was all about reach. In particular, for somebody like me, it was all about reach to people in a particular interest area. Since I was considering doing something for iPhone or Android, I would need a way to reach people interested in iPhone or Android. I would need to be able to offer that audience something free, to get my name out there. And, at the same time, since I suck at marketing, it would need to be powered by “word of mouth” more than banner ads or other forms of online marketing of that era. That took a bit to get established.

Fortunately, by this point, I already had a plan in mind for the second bullet, which I will touch on in next week’s installment.