What Indie Startups and Content Creation have in Common (and why you should care)

Published on September 21, 2021

Table of Contents

Hello and welcome to the first real edition of this newsletter!

Avoid-at-all-Costs lists

Due to personal reasons, this monthly-ish edition leans heavily on the ish. No apologies here: this is a planned feature, not a bug. When I decided to add another side-hustle to my neverending list, someone introduced me to the cautionary concept of an “Avoid-at-all-Cost list”. At the risk of sounding like a #ProductivityAsALifestyle column—they love to feature this particular story— here’s how the advice was given:

  1. List the top 25 goals you want to achieve in the future.
  2. Of these, choose the top 5.
  3. The remaining 20 goals are now your worst enemies—that is, your Avoid-at-all-Costs list.

“Worst enemies” sounds like overblown rhetoric, but it does have an core of truth: you care a lot about these goals (or they wouldn’t be on the initial list), you desperately want to work on them (or they wouldn’t be on the initial list), and you can easily rationalize the time spent on them as “being productive” (or they wouldn’t be on the initial list). Because of all this, entertaining these not-my-top-priority-but-still-cool goals is the easiest way to end up with 20 half-finished projects instead of 5 completed ones, making them—QED—your worst enemies

Now, productivity-at-all-costs advice generallymakes me feel icky. But it’s true that adding a more personal newsletter on top of, well, building a whole social platform from scratch, should be seen as a bit of a danger zone. But not to worry! If I’m doing this, it’s because I’m rationalizing creating this newsletter as an extension and companion to the BobaBoard journey, with well-defined goals and non-goals meant to silence (or at least snooze) the charming lure of overachievement! Even further, I’ve added a new gimmick to the “experimental part” of this newsletter: each edition won’t take more than 8 hours from start to finish.

Yes, I’m serious. Yes, I’m setting a timer. If typos remain, it is because I literally ran out of time to fix them.

Personal Newsletter Goals

Personal Newsletter Non-Goals

Doing Content Right

This edition originally featured a discussion of “heroic programming”, one of the most underestimated traps in the way of successful software projects, and a UX analysis of Amino Apps, which peddles “authentic mobile Communities for whatever you’re into” but largely fails at providing actual value to BobaBoard’s specific fandom audience. Instead, I’ve decided to do a switcharoo and talk about a book I’ve been reading, featuring “everything [the author] knows about creating, writing, and scaling successful blogs and newsletters to millions of readers” in the internet of 2021: Doing Content Right.

If those topics sounds interesting, don’t worry: I literally don’t have time to waste on shelved content! In particular, the Amino Apps analysis will be out for paying-subscribers-only in the tentatively-near (for some definitions of near) future.

This choice, like many I make, might seem puzzling, so let me introduce it with a quote from the book:

[Y]ou may notice that a lot of the tactics in [this book] mirror approaches that you would take to grow a startup. That is no coincidence. Successful blogs and newsletters serve to deliver value to people, resting on the same mechanics that startups do.

“But Ms. Boba,” you might say, not as excited as I am by this parallel, “why would I want to hear about the mechanics behind building startups?”

Well, dear reader, here’s a few reasons:

  1. A solid grasp of how (online) products are built, marketed, and grown is key to understanding the problems of the modern internet. It’s easy to vaguely complain about “commercialization”, but the real power comes with lifting the veils on its core dynamics.
  2. Most entrepreneurship advice is given-by and geared-towards profit-driven, status-seeking individuals. This makes it harder to stomach for people whose business ethics are incompatible with the current status quo—most often members of marginalized groups or other minorities. Creating accessible, ethical business advice is a fundamental part of changing who’s building succesful products on the internet.
  3. Many ethical/indie projects too hastily discard (or fail to seek) “classic” entrepreneurial wisdom. Even though the goals are often different from mainstream products, indie projects are more likely to succeed by knowingly breaking the rules rather than ignoring them. Building an ethical product without understanding the basis of entrepreneurship is like thinking you only need to understand anatomy if you’re seeking to draw hyper realistic human figures.
  4. I’ll most likely have to keep calling back to these concepts as I move forward with this newsletter. We might as well get them out of the way.

Truth is, when I decided to build BobaBoard I immediately went to learn as much as I could about entrepreneurship, business, and marketing. While this entailed shutting up that part of my brain that went “ew, business stuff, ew, I am a 100% certified free-range ethical engineer, I don’t need to sell things!”, it’s still the best choice I ever made for the project. Even further: I found out that, much to my own chagrin, a lot of this stuff is surprisingly interesting, valuable, and even, you might say, enlightening. After all, as mentioned above, these principles—especially their corruption—influence of our reality on many different levels, online and offline.

So, without further ado, here’s the 3 most important steps in growing a startup—or, according to the book, creating online content:

  1. Find Your Niche (current newsletter)
  2. Know Your Audience (next edition)
  3. Solve a Problem (next edition)

Find Your Niche

Let’s start from the basics: what are niches? While we often think of them as a synonym for a small group, that’s not what “niche” means in marketing or business. Instead, niches are highly specialized segments of the market. In particular, if market is “All The People Who Might One Day Buy Your Stuff™“, market niches are “a subset of potential buyers with goals, lifestyle, and motivations uniform enough to make reasonable assumptions on”.

As an example, let’s consider “people who use the internet” as our market. A niche could be “everyone who reads fanfictions”, but also “die-hard fans of coffee-shop AUs”, “people who haven’t touched anything rated M-or-below since they left middle school”, or even “those who love a classic “We Have Only One Bedroom Left” fic, but only if it takes place in a Marriott”. While there’ll always be some level of variance between individuals in these groups, the more we tighten our niche, the more details about the people that make it up we can reasonably infer: for example, we can say that “fanfiction readers” will be more likely to regularly use websites like AO3, WattPad, or fanfiction.net than the general internet population; we can also imagine that, in addition to the previous assumption, “die-hard M-Raters” are likely to resonate with the pricinples behind sex positivity and have a stronger anti-censorship stance; or even, in “the Mariott case”, we can imagine our very-specialized subgroup to be primed for a high degree of brand loyalty.

Niches, as you can see, exist at different levels of “specialization”. The more specialized the niche, the easier it will be to specifically cater to it. This specialization, of course, also directly correlates with the overall size of the niche. But specialization doesn’t necessarily imply that the resulting niche is small: after all, while we know not everyone likes Jenses Ackles/Jared Padalecki A/B/O fanfiction, we know there’s enough of them to effectively champion one of the most famous tropes in the fanfiction world.

The reason understanding niches is fundamental is that, as entrepreneurship wisdom goes, focusing on a specific niche is how small, emerging businesses succeed over big, established ones. While this might seem counterintuitive—and most indie projects do indeed get this wrong—the reasoning is fairly straightforward.

Let’s set the scene with some numbers:

  1. In May 2019 2.8 millions new Tumblr blogs saw the light of day.
  2. In May 2020, AO3 announced reaching 2.5 millions total registered users.

While there is not a 1:1 relationship between Tumblr blogs and number of users, knowing that more Tumblr blogs were created in the single month of May 2019 than the overall number of AO3 users existing in May 2020 helps us understand the magnitude of the gap between their respective target markets.

Now, let’s ask ourselves some questions: what were these 2.8 million new Tumblr blogs about? Which topics did they prominently feature? Who are the people that created them? What need were they seeking to fill by creating their blog? There are no easy, straightforward answers to these questions. Indeed, if you randomly select two of these blogs, their creators are likely be very different people.

In comparision, we can make stronger assumptions about the 2.5 million AO3 users: while we might not know whether they’re gen fans or hardcore shippers, they’re likely to be invested consumers of popular media; we can also assume that, because they signed up to AO3 over (or in addition to) Fanfiction.net or WattPad, they value the ability to filter their search according to specific tropes, characters or ship, and might dislike seeing ads alongside fanworks; even further, while this won’t be true for everyone, we can imagine many of them to be aligned with the goals and principles at the core of the OTW. Because of this higher degree of uniformity and specialization across its niche, AO3 can prioritize working on aspects of its user experience that most other websites will instead see as secondary.

As a practical example, let’s take AO3’s popular tagging system: at its core, the reasons so much effort is put into it, is that discoverability—and recall!—is really important to the transformative fandom niche. AO3’s tagging system is a big differentiator over other similar offerings in the space, and one of the prime reasons people keep coming back and donating to the archive. In comparison, Tumblr’s search system is far from being a core offering. And while it’s possible that some level of improvement might be welcome by its audience, the truth of the matter is that most people who made those 2.8 millions new Tumblr blogs don’t actually care that much—or, at the very least, not as much as AO3 users. This means that, technical and practical issues aside, Tumblr might never be able to justify investing in a similar system. After all, for all we know, most of its users are perfectly content finding new blogs through word of mouth, algorithmic suggestions, or external search engines.

Indie Projects and Market Niches

What niches mean for indie projects like BobaBoard is that, while they’re unlikely to ever have the resources to win over all of Tumblr’s public, they can “capture” a highly-specialized segment of it by providing a specialized experience that no big social will be able to match. By having a well-defined, very-specific target audience a product like BobaBoard can avoid spending resources on the features its public doesn’t value, and focus on things like building an advanced tagging system, supporting different types of content display, and making it easy to find the content people seek and ignore the ones they’d rather avoid.

But here’s the catch: as discussed earlier, the distinction between “niche” as a specialized segment of the market vs a small segment of the market is fundamental. After all, while highly-specialized segments of a market might be willing to pay and support services catering to their specific needs, the hard truth is that there still need to be enough people in the target segment to eventually pay the bills.

This is one of the reasons that, while many products start by targeting a niche, they eventually move on to capture additional segments. While this sometimes—not always!—results in a betrayal of the original audience (as sex workers, people of color, and even fandom very well know), there’s no way around some degree of it: in order not to fail, even the most ethical of businesses will be forced to expand its market until it finds its Minimum Viable Audience.

At the very beginning, BobaBoard’s target niche was “people who think dressing your favorite character as the Onceler is peak comedy”. With Realms, we’ve now expanded to include “those who think an iron throne made of yaoi paddles is (and might even want one as a sticker)“.

Going further, when—or, better said, if—a business reaches an eventual equilibrium between costs and earnings, it will still be faced with a similar choice:

  1. It can keep expanding its reach, using its new-found cash flow and position in the market to target new segments and broaden its offering;
  2. or it can leverage its steady revenue stream to keep delivering greater value to its existing userbase, without investing in further expansion.

When the needs of the existing userbase remain in focus, no option is necessarily superior to the other. After all, while the first road might take take some energy away from catering to the original segment, it might still end up providing it more overall value than the second one ever will. If the goals and principles of the business are solid, expansion doesn’t have to equate betrayal. It’s when business expansions—if not total market dominance!—becomes the goal in and of itself, when unprofitable businesses are artificially propped up by large investors to seek unfettered growth while operating at a loss for years, that the whole system quickly falls apart.

But that, dear reader, is a topic for another day.

The Last Month+ of BobaBoard

Since time is running out, it’s time to cheat delegate! Without further ado, head to our separate article on The Last Month+ of BobaBoard to follow all the latest development under the expert guide of our guest author: my amazing volunteer-assistant, Michelle.

Final Stats

Hours Budgeted: 8
Hours Used: …more like 20… plus
there was an attempt star