Startup Autoeroticism

joystick

I was reading a great book the other day about publishing. It was recommended by a friend. In the book, the guy recommended a certain tool. Cool! I go over and purchase the tool.

But wait, there’s more! It’s not just the tool. You can buy three different versions of the tool. Once you purchase, there’s an add-on templating pack — do I want the basic templates, the advanced ones, or the lifetime subscription? Remember, this is my business. Do I really want to risk all of that because I didn’t get the right templates?

I know what’s going on. I realize that the moment I make a purchase decision I’m at my weakest — I am primed and ready to buy most anything. After I decided on the lifetime pack of templates, which I probably do not need, I was pitched several other products — some through some nicely-placed prop web pages (I would consider a product, google it, then land on an extended funnel that consisted of a recommendation followed by a link back to the sales page). Within 5 minutes, no matter what I did to investigate the concept the tool vendor was trying to promote, I was back on his long-form sales page looking at a set of courses for 300 bucks.

Not useful.

Look guys. I know the long-form 300 bucks sales thing. Half of you guys are teaching me long form sales, and then you’re sending me over to your buddies who are trying to sell me with it.

This may come as a news flash, but even with 100 testimonials, there are some products I do not need. It’s also highly-likely that the more sales magic you put on your product, the more people you are separating from their cash who cannot afford it. Your product that is going to triple my conversion rate/sign-up rate/site traffic/penis size is probably not that useful unless I’m already delivering quality content. Clicking a few times and providing a Visa number does not make a business.

But damn, I want to believe it does. I want to believe I can buy a brand-new shiny 47-button joystick and pilot my startup like an F-16 shooting vertically off the end of the runway in Flight Simulator X. Just show me where to click.

I’ve noticed a habit in startup circles. The internet seems a fickle place, and its not unusual for a friend to come up with an idea and use it to rocket to success. They’ll have an app, or an idea for teaching, hit the right leverage spot in regards to publicity, and suddenly they’re in gravy.

For a while.

But then the numbers drop. Attrition starts taking its toll. The old methods of priming the pump don’t work. The cool kids don’t do things that way any more. And, like good startup folks, they go out and talk to their audience to find out what they want. Make the lightning strike again.

And this is where it gets interesting. Because the more my friends engage with the community, the more they look for common things people want that they can provide, they always end up somewhere on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Who doesn’t want food? Shelter? Money? And so on. It’s perfect! They’ve found the ideal niche!

So over time, each year around the world you get several hundred folks hitting the big time with DinoWidget 2.0, then the next year they’re giving out classes for using DinoWidget to self-actualize, or make more money. A year or two after that they’re doing high-pressure sales about some primitive need that we all have. Repeat that for ten years, and you’ve got an internet full of folks looking to separate you from your money. Each person may be acting in what they consider to be a moral and upstanding way, but in the aggregate? It’s a cesspool.

Just to be clear, I do not feel that most of these folks are trying to trick me in any way. But their idea of an honest description of a product and the actual impact it has on startup founders are two different things. This, also, is a natural thing. In their mind I’m the struggling business guy who just needs this one push that they can provide to hit it. This is their fantasy. We all have them.

The problem is, as a single-founder, it’s tough out there. I have limited resources and time. Most of the important stuff, like finding a product-market fit or building relationships with key thought leaders, ain’t happening with a tool. But any kind of marketing and sales system does something very subtle: it tells you a story about how awesome you are going to be once you make this purchase.

We are all very eager to buy into a narrative about ourselves where we overcome some of life’s really tough problems by making simple (and heroic) choices. Testimonials, which everybody and their brother uses today, tell us a story about folks just like us who were just where we are right now, and by making a simple yet brave choice to change their life and spend a few bucks, the clouds opened up and it was all broad sunlit uplands.

We love this. We love putting ourselves in the place of others and living their lives and making choices vicariously. Dreaming about how we could solve big problems. It’s a natural human channel for instruction and manipulation. Hell, it’s the basis of all fiction. But we can easily confuse stimulation — the absorbing of outside useful ideas — with self-stimulation — living in a world where we can solve tough problems with PayPal purchases.

Startup founders are in a particularly weak and vulnerable position. A story about making a purchase and having lots of extra income? They can buy into this. Very easily. Hell, most of the time to be a good founder you have to have an unrealistic expectation of your chances anyway. Having some long form sales page give you a hundred reasons why you’re going to make a couple decisions today and nail your sales figures is something you’re all too-willing to believe. This narrative speaks to you — and it’s a dangerous story to believe.

I don’t want to leave this on a negative note, so here are the rules I’m applying to my economic decisions:

  • I don’t buy things where the process is initiated by others. If it’s an ad or a tweet, I’m simply observing.
  • I research things people tell me about in person to see if they might be useful.
  • I never buy from a long-form sales page. The entire thing is manipulative. I might click there if that’s the only place, but I don’t consume content and don’t linger
  • As an early-stage founder, I’m concentrating on conversations with people, not metrics, not flash, not systems, nothing else. If it helps me have conversations, I’m liking it.
  • I am starting to discount advice given to me about how to build a startup by anybody who also sells tools to help startups. It’s not that the advice isn’t good. Heck, it’s probably the best advice around. It’s that I can’t trust the speaker to help me make the cold economic decisions necessary. I also think it’s very easy for these folks to get into a mindset of “when you’re a hammer, the world is a nail”

The startup community is eating itself. Great folks start out with awesome products, pivot a few times, then end up pitching other startup guys stuff. Why? Which audience do they know best? Startup folks, of course! It’s not a terrible thing, but it can have very evil effects. You can lose your shirt and not have a damn thing to show for it if you’re not very careful.

Be careful.

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