You've started a business. You've built a great product. Now you're trying to get the word out. You don't have the budget to buy ads or to retain a PR agency. You'd like to hire a salesperson, but the experienced salespeople are smart enough not to work for you.
Well, there's always blogging.
These days, it seems like just about every start-up founder has a blog, and 99 percent of these bloggers are doing it wrong. The problem? They make the blog about themselves, filling it with posts announcing new hires, touting new products, and sharing pictures from the company picnic. That's lovely, darling -- I'm sure your mom cares. Too bad nobody else does. Most company blogs have almost no readers, no traffic, and no impact on sales. Over time, the updates become few and far between (especially if responsibility for the blog is shared among several staff members), and the whole thing ceases to become an important source of leads or traffic.
There were far fewer blogs when I set up mine, Joel on Software, 10 years ago (even before I started my company). The site quickly became a popular hub for programmers who wanted to discuss all sorts of things -- how to write elegant code, how to deal with unreasonable deadlines, how to get paid more. As the blog grew -- eventually, it surpassed one million unique visitors a month in traffic -- it also drove interest in my start-up, Fog Creek Software, and our products.
So, what's the formula for a blog that actually generates leads, sales, and business success? I didn't even understand it myself until last year at the Business of Software conference, when one of the speakers, a well-known game developer and author named Kathy Sierra, blew me away with an incredibly simple idea that explains why my blog successfully promoted my company while so many other blogging founders foundered.
To really work, Sierra observed, an entrepreneur's blog has to be about something bigger than his or her company and his or her product. This sounds simple, but it isn't. It takes real discipline to not talk about yourself and your company. Blogging as a medium seems so personal, and often it is. But when you're using a blog to promote a business, that blog can't be about you, Sierra said. It has to be about your readers, who will, it's hoped, become your customers. It has to be about making them awesome.
So, for example, if you're selling a clever attachment to a camera that diffuses harsh flash light, don't talk about the technical features or about your holiday sale (10 percent off!). Make a list of 10 tips for being a better photographer.
If you're opening a restaurant, don't blog about your menu. Blog about great food. You'll attract foodies who don't care about your restaurant yet.
If you make superior, single-source chocolate, don't write about that great trip you took to the Dominican Republic to source cocoa beans. That's all about you. Instead, write the definitive article about making chocolate-covered strawberries. For the next 10 years, whenever a gourmand or a baker searches Google for a recipe on how to make chocolate-covered strawberries, he or she will find your post. Helping your users make awesome chocolate-based confections is likely to attract readers who might buy fancy chocolate, and that's the point of a successful blog. Writing about trips to the Dominican Republic is going to attract only people who might want to travel to the Dominican Republic. Unless you're selling that, you shouldn't be blogging about it.
In retrospect, Joel on Software was essentially a small, perfectly targeted magazine for programmers with a certain pragmatic philosophy toward software development. It was also free advertising for my company, but the advertising actually looked a lot more like editorial content than anything else; the most popular post I ever wrote, for example, was about how technology companies should never, ever rewrite their code from scratch.
Once I had built an audience among programmers, enough of them turned into customers that I was able to get my bootstrapped company off the ground. The audience was so precisely defined that products we tried to make that weren't specifically for programmers pretty much flopped. They were great products, but they just weren't for programmers, and we didn't have a way to market them effectively to nonprogrammers.
Of course, blogging took a ton of my time: It is a manual, labor-intensive, homemade way to reach customers. All told, the work I've put into the website and related books, training videos, conferences, and even this column has probably accounted for about a third of the total work I've put into Fog Creek Software over the past decade. That's three or four years of my work life.
Was it worth it? Should you blog?
Well, it worked brilliantly for me, but the more I've looked around, the more I've noticed that plenty of start-ups have managed to get customers and grow nicely without devoting a huge chunk of their early years to building a cool blog.
What's more, I have trouble pointing to other successful entrepreneurs who have used the same formula and reaped the same dividends I have.
The big-hit technology companies from the past 10 years tend to have pathetic blogs. Twitter's blog, like Facebook's and Google's, is full of utterly boring press releases rewritten to sound a little bit less stuffy. Apple's employees produce virtually no blogs, even though the company has introduced several game-changing new products in the past decade. Meanwhile, hundreds of Microsoft's employees have amazing blogs, but these have done nothing to stave off that company's slide into stodginess.
So, having become an Internet celebrity in the narrow, niche world of programming, I've decided that it's time to retire from blogging. March 17, the 10th anniversary of Joel on Software, will mark my last major post. This also will be my last column for Inc. For the most part, I will also quit podcasting and public speaking. Twitter? "Awful, evil, must die, CB radio, sorry with only 140 chars I can't tell you why."
The truth is, as much as I've enjoyed it, blogging has become increasingly impossible to do the way I want to as Fog Creek has become a larger company. We now have 32 employees and at least six substantial product lines. We have so many customers that I can't always write freely without inadvertently insulting one of them. And my daily duties now take so much time that it has become a major effort to post something thoughtful even once or twice a month.
The best evidence also suggests that there are many other effective ways to market Fog Creek's products -- and that our historical overreliance on blogging as a marketing channel has meant that we've ignored them. I realize now that blogging made me, and Fog Creek, a big fish in a very small pond. As a result, we have the undisputed No. 1 product among the 5 percent to 10 percent of programmers who regularly read blogs about programming. Meanwhile, we're almost unknown in every other demographic.
My hope is that giving up blogging and the rest of it will be the equivalent of making a cross-eyed kid wear an eye patch on his good eye for a while: The weaker eye will grow stronger. My company needs to get better at what every other company already knows -- how to promote and market products without depending on one single channel. We've completely saturated a small slice of the target market, and now we have to go after a much larger group of potential customers.
To my readers: Thank you for your attention over the past 10 years. I couldn't have done it without you, and the nice e-mails, comments, tweets, and blog replies have made it a joyous journey. I enjoyed meeting you virtually, and I look forward to meeting many of you in person in the next phase of my company's life.
Joel Spolsky is the co-founder and CEO of Fog Creek Software in New York City. He was until this month the host of the popular blog Joel on Software. For an archive of his columns, go to www.inc.com/author/joel-spolsky.