Quora Question: How can a hyper-local online classified startup gain initial traction for getting listings from customers (C2C)?

I’ve been having a bit of fun on Quora, and I thought this a particularly compelling question and, my answer particularly thorough…

I have worked with several startups and small companies who want to build that initial momentum in market contexts that might be similar to yours. They have built a product that they feel has a place in the market, but it is a recursive success product – like Craigslist – one where success depends on a critical mass… of success. Let me indulge in a kind of long answer – but if you don’t get through it the takeaway is this: We’re beyond Craigslist, you need to know your place in the market space and play it up.

A lot of entrepreneurs find a kind of comfort in the belief that they would have been Newmark or Zuckerberg had they been first-to-market, especially with customer-push content. This is a logical fallacy, because neither of these or most great (or even lucky) leaders were first to market. It is correct, however, to understand that they both started off in ways that you simply cannot hope to. Understand that Newmark was first and foremost a user, a guy new to the city who sent out an increasingly interesting email list to friends that grew based on its usefulness and the particular chemistry of his friend-group. He wanted to share events and opportunities because he wanted to share in them himself. Zuckerberg, in contrast, saw a gaping market-space that was reflected in his somewhat insular private college in a way that wasn’t being served and did a decent job doing so. Jim Collins would (I presume) look at both of these examples as similar insofar as the company (or leader) took their strengths and core mission to heart and the market was open to it.

I said above that we’re beyond Craigslist, and what I mean is that the way he started relied on technology and normatives that are no longer relevant. To how many mailing lists do you subscribe? What is the likelihood that you can dig up content that isn’t currently online already and send it out to people in a way that would add value to their lives? In fact, the question that underlies this discussion is the ultimate you question – which is, what do you bring to the market space that is unique and valuable? Imagine Newmark’s extended friend group getting news they’d never gotten in their inbox about local SF happenings – the list being so intriguing and fresh that they read through it every time a new one came. What does your company offer that is so compelling? What is the core competency that you bring to the table that makes your data or your postings so important?

I have had this very conversation – down to the Newmark biographical references – with many clients, some of whom have already invested in or sold the idea we were discussing. My client looks at me, a little crestfallen, a lot frustrated, and says, okay, so what, then? And while part of me thinks, well, I’ll be glad to bring your shiny new business cards to the recycling center, the rest of me says, okay, well the market can support fifty brands of yogurt, let’s give this guy a plan. And the plan is very simple. We get a laser focus on what makes you unique and we go to non-conventional and sometimes dramatic lengths to capitalize on that. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Jansen’s post (especially as it might pose IP – intellectual property – issues) – if your site has a raison d’ĂȘtre, it certainly is not to feed other people’s content. Rather, I recommend the following:

1. Discover your Focus: The words I latched onto in your post were, Hyper Local. I hear hyper-local and I think of my apartment building’s classifieds (so local, everything you get or give there is just an elevator ride away!). Hyper local might not be a new idea, but it’s not a bad one. Hyper-local classified might be done and over done, but is there something about the location in question? Something about the population that is unique? Something about the climate? Or, is it something about your model that might be uniquely functional for many specific localities (a special kind of delivery enabler, a unique revolving credit system, etc.). Once you have discovered your focus, you can move forward. And, professional advice for free here, if at the end of the day you want to move forward without a real differentiator, you can bully you way into a market, but you will have accomplished nothing of real value.

2. Get Boots on the Ground: One of the biggest fallacies of internet commerce is that people can be successful from their living rooms. Newmark built his base from information he got on the street. Zuckerberg built a database akin to a physical book that was common at his and many other colleges, and he went out and sold a very simple idea – hey, it’s like the book we have, only online and you can talk to each other. Whatever your focus is, it must have a real-world component that you can track to. Is your focus music? Get into local shows, venues, etc. Is your community particularly old? Visit the Denny’s. Be a user and you will see what your users want. Then, get those boots on the ground and give it to them. Free drink at the venue for posting, weekly gathering at the Denny’s for your customers. Get your boots on the ground in your hyper-local community or communities, laptops in hand, and you’ll get people in spurts of ten and twenty a day. And that’s something over a month – if your sauce is as tasty as you think it is, they’ll keep coming and you’ll have a critical mass.

3. Seed Judiciously: I had a client who wanted to start a social network for users of their product. They were launching it at a trade show (that’s steps 1 and 2 – their focus was the product, their boots on the ground was the booth) and they had a solid following so they got around 500 signups. A few weeks later it didn’t crack 700, and the activity was stagnant. Then, one day I look at their stats and see that they’ve made it to just under 4,000 signups. When the dust had settled, we realized that an influential blogger (in their area) had posted. From then on, I started the conversation with, Okay, I want a list of the thought leaders in your field. The bloggers, the actual journalists, the super-stars. Seed with them – give them a fancy spot or a check or a burger – but they can take you from zero to being chased by the troopers in no time.

Your case isn’t hopeless, and you might have but not have shared a very compelling differentiator. If you do, the rest is just easy. If you don’t, take some time, talk to some people, and wait by the side of the road for at least a little while for a big idea to come by. Just don’t be lulled into the idea that this is easy, or that you somehow will just build it and they will come. Even if in history this has happened, it would be silly to wait for it. Get out there and sell until your throat is sore.

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