Fred Wilson, one of my favorite startup bloggers/VCs, wrote a great piece advocating for startups to focus on building users first, and then establishing relationships with brands:
When you are building your product and thinking about your go to market strategy, you need to decide who your first users will be and how they will take your product into the market. You can focus on getting everyday internet users first. Or you can focus on getting brands first and working with them to get users.
While some parts of that may sound like MBA gobbly-gook, his basic point is that consumer startups need to decide if they’re going to get early users by leveraging relationships with brands, or by building a product that attracts users on its own.
The same basic choice faces many organizations in the progressive movement as they think about building power: do you focus on engaging more people, or do you leverage existing external assets (coalition partners, access to elected officials, media coverage, etc)?
For the last few decades, too much of the progressive movement has focused on building power through leveraging external assets, instead of engaging members.
I still remember my first campaigns as an organizer often revolved around cold calling churches, unions and other membership groups, to get them to sign onto a coalition letter. After I got a dozen, I’d deliver the letter to a member of Congress’s office and tell them that the people had spoken—they needed to vote the right way on whatever bill we were working on.
Politicians occasionally listen to organized groups of constituents, so that worked sometimes. But it’s not building power. It’s just attempting to leverage power that others have built.
Here’s how Fred puts the problem with this approach:
The biggest problem with a Brands First, Users Second approach is you can get caught up in product development efforts to satisfy the brands and as a result you can’t put enough energy into satisfying the users. And if that happens too much, you end up servicing the needs of the brands over the needs of the users and then you are a service business not a platform.
Non-MBA translation: If you start with brands, you have to spend all your time catering to their needs, not growing your company.
Or in political terms, if you don’t start with building your own base of engaged members, you’re dependent on others for power—and that’s a place any of us want to be in.