One of the biggest challenges facing start-up brands is gaining attention and awareness. This is particularly true for a new e-commerce business. The Internet is the great equalizer that allows a founder to reach a vast audience, but when you’re just getting started, trying to get attention on the Internet can sometimes feel like getting dumped into the ocean without a life vest. It’s easy to thrash about without anyone noticing.
It can take months, sometimes years, to launch a new product or collection of products. That’s the time required to perfect your product and create business systems, yes, but it’s also time to build awareness, build an email list, and build excitement among your audience about what’s to come. That’s why it’s important for a new business to launch its story before it launches its product.
Show Your Work
At the time my wife and I were formulating the idea for our new business (an apparel brand called Life and Whim for active families that love the great outdoors) I was in the midst of reading a book by Austin Kleon called Show Your Work.
In the book, Kleon urges writers, artists, and musicians to continuously share their work process, before the work product itself is perfected or finished. The idea is to pull back the curtain on the creative process in order to create a deep, lasting bond between artist and patron.
“By letting go of our egos and sharing our process,” Kleon writes, “We allow for the possibility of people having an ongoing connection with us and our work, which helps us move even more of our product.”
After reading the book, my instinct was that applying the “show you work” principle would also pay dividends for a new apparel brand. After digging deeper, I learned that others were already putting the principle into practice.
For example, Jeff Sheldon of Ugmonk is extremely open and honest about his creative process and what goes into the creation of each of his products. He shares sketches, tools, resources, and challenges he faces in bringing new designs to market on Ugmonk’s Journal. I, for one, feel indebted and loyal to the Ugmonk brand because of how freely Sheldon shares his process. Given the stunning success of Ugmonk’s recent Kickstarter campaign for its new Gather product, brand loyalty runs deep and wide. Not coincidentally, Sheldon dove deep into his creative process for Gather to promote the Kickstarter campaign.
Shinola is another good example of a brand that shows its work. From its inception, much of its content has focused on what it calls the “Making” that takes place within its factory walls.
Tell Your Story
Several months before we launched our new business, we began publishing a bi-weekly blog post series called the “Traverse City Startup Story” (Traverse City is the small northern Michigan town where we’re based). Through this series, we openly and transparently shared the trials, tribulations, and triumphs we experienced as we worked our way toward the launch of our new brand.
Much of the content was focused on the process of working with the small batch cut and sew manufacturer (found on Maker’s Row) that we enlisted to create one of our signature products, a cape for girls that my wife designed. This was our first foray into creating an apparel product, and so we had a lot to learn! By sharing this process, we figured we could not only create awareness for the product but also provide some helpful insights for other newbie makers as well.
The results of our Startup Story initiative were strong. We created lots of brand awareness and were able to grow our email list and social media following. Instead of launching into an abyss, we launched to a community of people who had been with us behind the scenes and were excited to see the final products we had been previewing.
We began our blog before we had the idea for our new products, so by telling our Startup Story, we were also able to smooth the transition from content to product sales for many of our long-term readers. Otherwise, it may have been a bit jarring to launch a bunch of products to those only accustomed to our free content. We eased them into the idea by bringing them along on our journey.
The process also allowed us to gather helpful feedback from potential customers. We previewed designs, both online and in-person, that enabled us to refine them and incorporate people’s preferences, which made customers more invested in the final products.
Finally, it kept us on track. It’s easy to delay a launch when no one knows it’s coming. By putting our launch date out there, we were committed to meeting it.
Three Tips to Build Excitement and Anticipation for Your Launch
There’s so much to do to get a new brand and product launched that it’s easy to put aside marketing until after you’ve hit the marketplace. But showing your work and telling your story doesn’t need to be a stressful or cumbersome endeavor. Your story doesn’t need to be perfect or dazzling – just authentic. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
1. Document, Don’t Create
Marketing expert Gary Vaynerchuk often talks about prioritizing “documenting over creating.” His point is that many people fail to put out any content because they think they have to put out perfect content.
The goal should not be perfection, it should be consistency and authenticity. As Austin Kleon writes in Show Your Work, “Forget about being an expert or a professional and wear your amateurism (your heart, your love) on your sleeve. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.”
2. Any Channel Works
We chose to tell our Startup Story primarily on our blog and on Facebook. But choosing the “right” platform is far less important than the content itself. Potential customers are consuming content across many platforms, so pick one – blog, video, podcast…whatever – that works well for your persona and start documenting.
One of the most successful contemporary examples of a business showing its work is the first season of the “Startup” podcast, in which Gimlet Media founder Alex Blumberg created wildly popular audio content about his own start-up journey. It was full of endearing, authentic moments that documented the humbling experience of starting a new business.
3. Dance with the Fear
Fear is what stops many makers from showing their work – especially before it’s done. But fear never goes away. According to Seth Godin, “The only way to get rid of the fear is to stop doing things that might not work, to stop putting yourself out there, to stop doing work that matters.” Godin suggests, instead, learning to “dance with the fear.”
Sure, there may be someone, maybe even a few people, who criticize and critique the behind the scenes look at your business. We definitely experienced that. But we learned that for every one detractor there were ten strong supporters who helped push us toward our launch. Fear of what other may say should never stop you from telling your story. Again, from Kleon, “The worst troll is the one that lives in your head.”
Showing our work and telling our story was one of the best decisions we made as a new business. It wasn’t easy, but the fans and followers we attracted during this process gave us the momentum needed for a liftoff, rather than launching like a lead balloon.
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