Ready, fire, aim? Dis­tri­bu­tion is now an en­tre­pre­neur’s tough­est chal­lenge

Get­ting new prod­ucts to buy­ers is now an en­tre­pre­neur’s tough­est chal­lenge

Inc. (USA) - - DEPARTMENTS | CONTENTS - Thomas Goetz

THE DIG­I­TAL AGE HAS MADE so much about en­trepreneur­ship eas­ier. There are ser­vices to take care of ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing hu­man re­sources (Zen­e­fits), of­fice space (WeWork), man­u­fac­tur­ing (Alibaba), and fundrais­ing (In­diegogo). If you have a whim and a wal­let, it’s pos­si­ble to as­sem­ble what­ever you need in a com­pany with­out ac­tu­ally do­ing any leg­work. This trans­for­ma­tion is well doc­u­mented; vir­tual com­pa­nies have ex­ploded since Ama­zon launched cloud ser­vices more than a decade ago.

But is it pos­si­ble that things have got­ten so easy that they have also, para­dox­i­cally, got­ten a lot harder? That seems to be the case. A friend of mine, Jane Metcalfe, re­cently de­cided to start a new busi­ness:, a pub­li­ca­tion ded­i­cated to chron­i­cling new fron­tiers in life sci­ences. If any­one can suc­ceed in what is a very dif­fi­cult in­dus­try, it’s Jane; in the 1990s, she cre­ated Wired with her part­ner Louis Ros­setto. One big dif­fer­ence be­tween then and now is that Wired re­quired some­thing that doesn’t have: pa­per. Then, start­ing a mag­a­zine in­volved dead-tree tech­nol­ogy: print­ing, which has been around since the 15th cen­tury. There sim­ply wasn’t a question about how you would pub­lish (though evolved quickly). To­day, it’s far less ev­i­dent how to ac­tu­ally dis­trib­ute a new pub­li­ca­tion, and it al­most cer­tainly does not in­volve pa­per. There are a mul­ti­tude of op­tions. Do you start a web­site? Build an app? Launch a news­let­ter? Use a plat­form like Medium? The an­swer is not at all ob­vi­ous. In many in­dus­tries, like ap­parel and food, the means of pro­duc­tion have be­come rad­i­cally sim­pler and more ef­fi­cient while the means of dis­tri­bu­tion have be­come more com­plex and less straight­for­ward. It’s one thing to cre­ate a prod­uct us­ing off-the-shelf ser­vices, but it’s quite an­other to get that prod­uct in front of the tar­get au­di­ence. Dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies have so thor­oughly dis­rupted phys­i­cal dis­tri­bu­tion that it’s of­ten a mys­tery just how to con­nect to the flesh-and-blood hu­mans who would buy and use your prod­uct. It may have once been dif­fi­cult to get your prod­uct onto a news­stand or the shelf of a brick-and-mor­tar store, but at least you knew where it was sup­posed to go, and how to get it there. These days, not so much.

This has cer­tainly been ap­par­ent at my startup, Io­dine. Build­ing the prod­uct—a web­site of health in­for­ma­tion for con­sumers—has been a rel­a­tively ob­vi­ous propo­si­tion. But since we launched, the con­stant riddle has been how to get peo­ple to use it. Our traf­fic has grown as we’ve plumbed the num­bers, but what’s driv­ing any given month’s progress can be many lay­ers deep. Like ev­ery­one else, we look to Google An­a­lyt­ics as an or­a­cle, but there’s only so much div­ina­tion you can pull out of a dash­board. And we try to spend our mar­ket­ing dol­lars wisely on Face­book, at­tempt­ing to iden­tify the right de­mo­graphic pro­files for the op­ti­mal click-through rate. But in talk­ing to dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing gu­rus, I’ve been sur­prised—and a lit­tle bit re­lieved—to learn that there is no se­cret rule book for lo­cat­ing your au­di­ence. It’s all grunt work, a con­stant ground game of try­ing to find every pos­si­ble an­gle to get your prod­uct seen by its in­tended users.

This has cre­ated a third tier of ser­vices, af­ter the means of pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion: the means of op­ti­miza­tion, the op­por­tu­nity for (and obli­ga­tion of ) any en­tre­pre­neur to be con­stantly mea­sur­ing and per­fect­ing every vari­able in the com­pany. If every startup is just a stack of ser­vices, each of those ser­vices is a vari­able, made for con­stant tweak­ing and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

Which just proves that start­ing a com­pany is easy. But build­ing one is, in many ways, harder than ever.

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