This chapter is a free excerpt from Make Something People Love: Lessons From a Startup Guy.
Our most successful product to date is xkcd: volume 0, the first book from Randall Munroe of xkcd. What I learned from this experience is that webcomic artists are great role-models for startup founders. Their major goal is to make a webcomic people want (sound familiar?). Beyond that, when it comes to appreciating one’s fans and early supporters, the men and women who make their living as webcomic artists know better than most. They go above and beyond to make sure that their fans are happy, to make a connection with them, to give them something that they’ll remember for hopefully at least a few months after the fact, if not for the rest of their lives.
At one book signing event in Mountain View, I saw Randall Munroe of xkcd stay until 2 a.m. to sign every single attendees’ book. He even signed a book for a robot! Maybe it was insurance for when they achieve sentience, but if Randy can make a connection with a forefather of Skynet, why can’t you connect with your customers?
It doesn’t hurt to be friends with a few robotsWe donated the unsustainable profits from the xkcd book to Room to Read, we took the lessons we learned from our favorite webcomic artists, and applied them to how we at Breadpig make the world suck less.
We started with the story of a school in rural Laos, and published photos of the original, dilapidated school and announced that it would cost $32,000 to build, fund, and staff a new school. We explained that if you bought the xkcd book, the unsustainable profits from those funds would be donated to Room to Read for the school project. Every building constructed would also get a plaque in both English and the local language with a message from the donor.
Every step of the way, we shared photos and told the stories of the kids at this school in Laos. We live in an age where we can see what someone anywhere in the world had for breakfast on Twitter—why can’t we see where our donation dollars are going? It’s a simple thing that makes a huge difference because it connects our customers with something that’s happening across the globe. They’re not only aware of the process, they’re part of it.
Over the years we’ve not only gotten to show our customers the projects they’re supporting as they’ve been built, we’ve also had the opportunity to visit them ourselves. In 2010, one of my employees, Christina Xu, and I went to see the school in Laos that had been built from sales of the xkcd book. It was great to have some confirmation that by connecting people with good products and good causes that we could contribute to some tangible good.
Schoolchildren in an awkward photo-op (not our idea)We took some photos and put them on the blog, and these photos of bewildered Laotian children got the xkcd community excited, and we saw something we hadn’t expected. Halfway around the world in Midlothian, Virginia, people were inspired to make their own connection with the students in Laos. A bunch of kids in Midlothian decided to hold a pancake fundraiser to buy school supplies for the new school in Laos.
As evidenced by this young baller, Riley, they managed to raise some quality scratchThey did this without any prodding from us, encouraged just by the connection they felt based on those photos and stories we posted on our blog. This is the reality of the world we live in: we can have kids in Virginia connecting with kids in rural Laos through some photos and stories posted by a guy who sells books of stick figures.
Here’s another example of the power of connectivity:
This is a photo from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. If you look really closely, you’ll see that one of our fans (@mituk) put a Breadpig sticker on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. That is insane. We didn’t pay her for that. We didn’t ask her for that. She just did it because she felt the connection with the work we were doing through, again, photos and stories. And when the cost of producing this is trivial and the cost of publishing is trivial, you have no reason not to do it and create a connection between what you’re doing and your users.
Here’s one more example, just to prove that making this kind of connection is also very, very relevant even in the for-profit world. Consider the company Wufoo. They make form-building software. Now if you have ever done any HTML and tried to build a form, you know it is a terrible, awful process—like, why do you hate me, my eyes are bleeding bad. But these guys have found a way to make form-building process wonderful, easy, simple. Now, think about this a minute. How on earth do you build a connection with your users when your business is making it easy to create form fields? Well, they’ve done it. Every week Wufoo sits down as a company and writes thank you notes by hand to all of their paying customers.
Not only is this a great opportunity for employees to get to know the people who are paying their salary, it’s an opportunity for customers to be surprised and delighted by the fact that a form-building company is actually sending them handwritten thank you notes. And now I’m telling you all about them, and I’m happy to give them this free plug, because I believe in what they’re doing. Furthermore, it’s a way, way better exercise than doing trust falls when it comes to building a strong organization. They accomplish all these things by sitting down together and writing thank you notes every week. Now, if that’s something a form-building software company can do, I’m sure your company can as well.
Via Javieros on FlickrOne other thing to keep in mind: I didn’t ask anybody at Wufoo for this image. How’d I find this? Through Flickr of course. One of their surprised and delighted customers was so taken with his handwritten thank you note that he uploaded it to Flickr and shared it with everyone he knew. You can’t buy that kind of love. And it’s never been easier to share these kinds of connections. That gives you an opportunity to treat your users like people, like humans. Actually, don’t just treat them like humans—treat them like friends. Have everyone in your company treat them that way, and you’ll find that the dividends are paid over the long-term in ways you won’t even expect.
It turns out if you treat your users like adults, the vast majority will treat you like adults right back. You are going to have lots of great things happen in your company but you’ll probably have some screw ups too. In fact if I think back, it’s the screw ups I remember most clearly. What matters, though, is that we handled every one of those fails, even the most epic ones, with candor, and every single time, our community responded with incredible understanding and patience and tolerance. That was because we approached them from the standpoint of honesty and respect. That means we were able to take something every startup fears (screwing up) and make it into an opportunity to connect with our users by demonstrating that we knew when we had screwed up and wanted their help in making it better.
Think about some kind of technical snafu. In fact, if you are a non-technical person reading this, just imagine it’s a technical snafu you don’t even understand. How would you go about telling everyone what happened? What kind of language would you use? Imagine your site just went down for the last twelve hours. How would you address your community? Write that blog post, write that email. However you think it would be best to most candidly and genuinely respond to this problem. Do it. And don’t let any PR flack anywhere near what you write.
I’ve talked about a few ways you can make something that people want in order to make something that people love. You’re building a community, you’re making the connections, and you’re perfecting your design. Now it’s time to apply those same lessons to the way you promote your product and your brand. So, rather than focusing on making content designed to make more money, focus on creating content that people would actually want to read or look at.
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