I recently had a great chat with Hiten Shah on my podcast, Product People.

At one point, Hiten brought up an idea I’ve been hearing a lot lately:

One of the key things we’re learning is that you need to build an audience before you build your product. Build your audience not for marketing, but for learning.

Too many of us are building products that don’t have a market. The idea here is that instead of starting with a product, we start with people.

As an example: you’re an Android app developer so you start building an audience of Android app developers. As you get to know these people, you can learn about their pain. It’s these pain points that become the seeds for new products.

I think Hiten is on to something here.

And yet, for anyone who’s never built an audience, this idea is hard to grasp. For one, many of us don’t know where to start:

How do I get started if I can’t even identify the niches that I belong to?

There are practical questions, as well:

How do I get people to follow me on Twitter, my blog, etc…?
How do I know if my niche will be profitable?

There’s also this nagging personal question I’ve had:

Isn’t it self-serving to build an audience, only so you can sell something to them?

Your mindset affects everything

Your mindset is a powerful thing: it has a strong influence over the outcomes you’ll achieve.

If you try to build an audience while you’re focused on yourself you’re going to get bad results. No one’s going to follow someone who’s self-absorbed and desperate.

Don’t build an audience; just help people

Derek Sivers makes a great point in Start Now: No Funding Needed:

Start by teaching someone something this week.

I love this. Instead of trying to build a big audience, or worrying about which niche will be the most profitable, just get started by looking for someone you can help.

This mindset is helping me move from being self-focused to other-focused.

When you focus on the needs of others, “finding your niche” actually takes care of itself.

Derek Sivers was a musician who had more programming knowledge than most musicians. When he started helping artists add a shopping cart to their websites, he “fell into” his niche. He was just trying to help people out, and it turned into a business.

The secret to a big audience

Hiten Shah has a big audience, but that didn’t happen overnight. He’s been focused on helping marketers since 2002. That’s his secret: he started small, 11 years ago. Look at his Twitter stream, look at his blog (where he freely reveals his real Gmail address): this guy is always looking for opportunities to help people.

After 4 years of helping marketers, Hiten and his co-founder Neil Patel saw the need for heatmaps, so they built CrazyEgg. Two years after that, marketers were asking for help managing funnels, so they built Kissmetrics.

We see the big Twitter follower-count, but we don’t see what’s behind that: looking for ways to help people every day.

Start small

Let’s return to our friend Derek Sivers:

Starting small puts 100% of your energy on solving real problems for real people.

Quit thinking about yourself. Seriously: stop focusing on your insecurities, your lack of experience, and your non-existant social network. It’s OK.

Just look for opportunities to help people. When the person in the cubicle next to you is cursing at their computer that’s an opportunity. When you notice a question in a forum with no answers that’s an opportunity. When someone approaches you for advice that’s an opportunity.

Eventually, you’ll stumble on a trend: you’ll notice that a common group of people have a common problem.

Suddenly, you’ll have an audience.

And suddenly, you’ll have an opportunity to help those people with a product.

“The very best thing you can do as a startup founder is to earn a reputation for helping others.” - @spencerfry

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