A successful entrepreneur shares her thoughts on business success and failure.

Is Your Business Barking Up the Wrong Tree?

barking up the wrong tree “What do you think of this idea for my new startup?”
“Eh, yeah, it sounds pretty interesting.”

Ever heard this before? If you have, your startup may be barking up the wrong tree.

That’s exactly what I heard when I formed my last startup, Best Blogs. My target audience was bloggers who wanted to discover, connect and compete with other bloggers in their niche. We had three ways to monetize the site, and an exact match domain for a Google search that gets thousands of exact queries per month. I’d hired a programmer to build out the site, which was starting to look pretty good.

But it was the feedback that stymied me. Every time I’d talk to other bloggers about it, they would say “Sure, I’d be happy to take a look at it once you’re ready for users.” But what got me was that it wasn’t a need for them. It was dawning on me that the trickiest part of the site would be getting users to stick around. The biggest battle we would face was against indifference.

Indifference vs. Passion

This, honestly, wasn’t a problem I had faced before. When I set up my web hosting company back in 2001, I quickly learned that people fell into three groups:

  1. I already have a web hosting company I’m happy with. (About 20%)
  2. I need a new web hosting company. My last/current company…[insert horror story here] (30%)
  3. I have no idea how web hosting works. I’d have to ask my “tech person” that. (50%)

I developed built-in responses to the three groups. My response to the first group was “Thank you for your time.” I’d even ask which company they were hosted with, and check out that company’s website to see if there were any elements I could incorporate into my own pitch.

#2 was easy, too. “Hey, maybe I can help.” Followed by asking them what happened and what type of hosting they were looking for. Often, I’d offer to have our staff migrate their site to our service, and they would sign a contract pretty quickly.

#3 was straightforward: I would ask who their tech person was and ask their permission to contact that person. Sometimes their tech person ran his or her own hosting company, so that was a dead end, but often that person ran a web design consultancy or another company that didn’t want to deal with hosting, so I’d pitch them. They fell back into a similar pattern, with most saying they were happy with their current hosting company but some looking for a new company. I pitched the second group and we closed some of them.

What I didn’t notice was anyone who just didn’t care. Most people had an opinion about web hosting and other web hosting companies. I encouraged them to talk it out and would often calmly sit and listen for 15-20 minutes without mentioning our company at all. And the more impassioned they got–especially if it was hatred of their current web hosting company–the easier it was to get them to sign the contract and move over to us…even if I hadn’t said a word about my own business!

We became the “good guys”; the “heroes”…the salvation to their bad situation. That bitter emotion they had helped me close a whole lot of sales. (And, of course, we followed up by keeping our promises and having good customer support!)

Dissatisfied Customers = Opportunity

In an industry where there is a constant churn of dissatisfied customers, there is a huge opportunity to become the “good guys”. It may be challenging to acquire new customers, but once you prove your worth–often by going above and beyond–you get very “sticky”, valuable customers.

The most dangerous type of business to start is one where people just don’t care. They could take or leave your business–it doesn’t matter to them. It’s not life-saving or helping their business grow or helping them make a change they really need to make.

That’s exactly where I ended up with Best Blogs. There were people who were interested, but it just wasn’t an “I need this!” situation. The emotion, the passion just wasn’t there.

In the meantime, I was promoting Profit Instruments on this blog. One part of Profit Instruments, buried in Module 4, changed my life–and I say that in no uncertain terms.

The module, called “Promotion”, mentioned a little-known way to get your site to rank higher in the search engines by creating profiles on websites and linking those profiles back to your site. At first, it sounded weird to me. But I figured I had nothing to lose, so I used one of my other sites (on a different IP address than erica.biz, in case Google was looking for these types of links) and hired an outsourcer via oDesk to build links to it.

It took a few weeks to take effect, but I watched in amazement as my site rose steadily in the ranks, eventually beating several huge authority blogs and taking the #2 spot for a competitive keyword on Google. (#1 is still held down by Problogger!)

I wasn’t done testing, but I was ready to plow some real money into this. I hired a full-time worker in the Philippines to do this for some of my other sites. Those sites rose steadily, too.

In the meantime, I was tearing through every search engine optimization book and blog I could find. My first “Internet job” was actually with a search engine optimization firm back in 1997, but obviously things had changed in the past 13 years. I read the entire original document on how Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google. I bought a whole bunch of ebooks and subscribed to several SEO blogs.

What I found out is that Google can’t penalize you for backlinks (links from other sites on the Internet) because they are, by definition, on other sites. If Google penalized a site for “creating backlinks too fast” or creating too many backlinks, you could simply carpet-bomb your competitors’ sites with backlinks from sleazy sites and their sites’ rankings would drop.

That’s not how it works. In fact, if you tried this, you would only be helping your competitors!

As soon as I realized how well this worked, I committed to building a company around it and helping other people achieve the same rankings for their websites.

A Night and Day Difference

Once I mentioned what we were doing at Whoosh Traffic–helping small business owners, particularly local business owners, get more traffic to their websites–the reaction was notably different than the reaction I received about Best Blogs. People emailed me and asked to be part of our private beta. They were really interested in the service. I asked for feedback about a couple of different price points and got a lot of feedback that our initial price was too low!

The most important thing was that people were excited about the possibility of Whoosh Traffic. We’re helping small business owners get more traffic to their websites. What’s not to love?

As the feedback grew, I got even more excited about developing Whoosh. Next week, we launch into our private beta and start to get real customer feedback. I haven’t been this excited since I sold my hosting company!

Instead of building a tool very few people wanted, and no one needed, my developer and I are now building a tool that a lot of people want and a whole bunch of small businesses need. It’s a night and day difference.

Are you in the process of figuring out which idea you want to turn into a business? I suggest looking for a market that has a pain point. Don’t just build something that references all the cool buzzwords–build something that has people saying, with passion, “Where has your company been all my life? I really could have used you a few years ago!”

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After selling my online business at age 26 for over $1 million, I created this blog to help you grow your own business quickly.

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