Ready, fire, aim? Distribution is now an entrepreneur’s toughest challenge
Getting new products to buyers is now an entrepreneur’s toughest challenge
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: Neo.life, 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 Neo.life 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 Wired.com 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.