I recently got an email from someone who was starting a business, including a website. He asked me for some very specific technical advice around modifying his WordPress theme to improve SEO. I feel like the advice I gave him was pretty useful, so I’m reposting it here.
First, my quick response to his technical questions about his blog software:
- Stop worrying what your blog looks like. Really. No one is going to see if for a long time because it takes time to build meaningful traffic. As long as it doesn’t look atrocious, it’s good enough for now
- Spend $25 to join Mixergy Premium and take the courses on traffic generation. Specifically, “Blogging for Business”, “SEO for WordPress”, and “Startup SEO”
- Buy the book Start Small Stay Small and read the first couple chapters, specifically the part about gauging demand by queries, etc.
Then, after I learned more about the business (independent auditing of buildings’ energy use), I told him the following. (Even if you’re not auditing energy, pretend like I’m talking about your idea instead. It’s very generally applicable)
1) Doing energy audits: have you actually done any of these audits? Who did you do them for? How did you find those people? Why did they choose you? Why did they care about energy audits? Most of success in business comes from having a good mental model of your customers. This lets you figure out how to give them things they value. If you can’t answer all those questions, all the other effort you spend on anything else is probably going to be misdirected and ineffectual.
2) If you haven’t done any energy audits, YOU MUST GO DO SOME! If you can’t find anyone who wants to let you audit them, then it’s either not a good idea, you’re not a good salesman, you don’t care that much, or you’re missing something about the it. If you talk to households and/or businesses and they say no, try to find out why. Try to find something they do value. Note that right now you don’t have to have people pay you for the audit – what you need more than money is market understanding.
3) When you have done a few, go over what you learned. What common problems did people have? Did people know about the problems? Did people know about possible solutions? If so, why didn’t they implement them? Do they lack of confidence in their ability to implement a solution? Do they perceive the benefit as too small? Are the solutions too much work and/or cost even if the benefit is valuable? Everything you find will help you shape your message when selling and presenting your audit findings, and give you fodder for writing on the website.
4) Once you have some patterns in the information you learned, THEN you can work on your website, both in your main marketing message and your specific content you create. Web businesses are attractive because you don’t have to take time with every customer, but that also means that you can’t give any personalized attention to any customer. That means that a website, especially one that drives business to real world work, has to be LASER focused at addressing a specific pain point for a specific audience.
There’s a finance blogger named Ramit Sethi who writes a lot of great stuff about the psychology of success. He told a story about one of his students (I think it was in this 90 min video of Chase Jarvis Live) who was trying to sell music lessons. She started with typically generic “music lessons” and made little money and had few customers. But while taking Ramit’s course, she talked to her customers and found out some specific things. First, her customers were almost exclusively Asian and Jewish mothers. Second, they didn’t particularly care about music, but they believed that playing the violin (always the violin) would help their kids get into Harvard. So she changed her generic music lesson flyers to say something like “Playing a musical instrument helps your kid get a great education” and had a picture of a girl in a cap and gown holding up a violin. She proceeded to make $80,000 in the next few months.
You might find something different when you talk to people, but this is my guess about who your golden customers would be: businesses (b/c they’re better at valuing investment in savings) that consume a lot of electricity that are inefficient in non-obvious ways (old uninsulated pipes, rental buildings where tenants pay electric, etc). Once you find your “Asian and Jewish mothers” then customer acquisition, content creation, SEO, ad buying, etc all get a jillion times earlier.
A final note, since your first instinct was to customize your blog theme, odds are that doing steps 1-3 will probably not be fun. They might really stink. That might mean you should do something else, but this kind of groundwork to verify demand and marketing is necessary whatever you do. Best selling books like The Lean Startup, and business classes like the Micropreneur Academy and the Software Roundtable all say start with identifying demand before you work on the solution. It’s just part of success. It’s the real hard work, not the busy work like picking business cards that people love to start with.