Many entrepreneurs who subscribe to lean startup methodologies would say that you need to develop a product that resonates with your target audience. In other words, you are constantly searching for product-market-fit. You spend all your time going through the product development lifecycle yet until you have achieved “product market fit” yet most entrepreneurs going through this cycle fail to build a lasting audience. That’s where the minimum viable community comes in to play. A minimum viable community presents you with a platform for testing and launching products almost indefinitely.

Sound interesting? Let me briefly explain why this model is so incredibly powerful.

What is a minimum viable community?

The source of inspiration for minimum viable communities is that developing a brand requires repetition of your core message with the people who will eventually become your customers. That message will help define how people connect to your brand, and more importantly, whether or not they do. If you find a message that resonates with your audience, you have the capacity to build a community around that message, over time offering products and services that fit your core message. Let me provide a few examples.

Probably one of the most recognized brands in the world began with a product that was not targeted at mass consumers. As Wikipedia writes, “Apple was established on April 1, 1976 by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne, to sell the Apple I personal computer kit. They were hand-built by Wozniak and first shown to the public at the Homebrew Computer Club. The Apple I was sold as a motherboard (with CPU, RAM, and basic textual-video chips)—less than what is today considered a complete personal computer.”

In other words, Apple had identified their target community, the Homebrew Computer Club, and developed a product that would resonate with those who enjoyed customizing their own computer. In the case of Apple, I should emphasize the fact that their community already existed. They weren’t forced to build their own community. This is obviously a great way to get going quickly: find a community that already exists and try to get your brand to resonate within it.

A more fitting example is Etsy, one company that has built a massive community of people who create handmade crafts. While their market has also become an incredibly lucrative business, the community is one of the core (if not the key) components of the company’s success. Building a community has enabled them to test various products and more importantly, survive through the challenges that any fast-growing company experiences.

This one is obviously a bit self-serving, but when I started building AllFacebook years ago, I had no idea how I was going to build a business from it. I simply built a community of Facebook developers and marketers and tested various products and services with them. Some were successful, others were not. Yet beyond each product launch, I was able to keep a connection to the audience that had already been built. There are countless other brands that have taken similar approaches but a couple of related ones are Copyblogger and Problogger.

So those are just a few diverse examples (both in size and impact). So why should you consider building a minimum viable community?

Requires little technical experience

How many people have you seen running around looking for a technical co-founder to help get their idea off the ground? If you live anywhere near an entrepreneurial hub, there’s a good chance you’ve met countless people like this. It’s a sad state of affairs for multiple reasons, but the irony in all this is that you can attract top talent through developing a minimum viable community. Just imagine being able to tell a technical co-founder, or even an investor for that matter, that you have an audience of tens or hundreds of thousands of people that are coming to you regularly.

Costs nothing but your time

Developing a product can be pretty expensive and time consuming, but worst of all, your effort most likely will result in failure. The result is that you invest a lot of time in learning but very little time in connecting. You’ll know everything that doesn’t work, but if you spend more time connecting with your target audience you’ll have a better feel for what they need. The only expense is your time. Yes, time is costly, but you can save yourself a ton of expenses in the short-term by building up a name that becomes synonymous with your audience. Best of all, anybody who knows how to read and write can do this.

It Takes 27 Times

I don’t remember where I heard this but it supposedly takes something like 27 times of a person to hear about your brand before they purchase your product. So how on earth are you going to generate that many interactions with your customer pre-sale? I can tell you one way not to generate a connection: spend all your time building things in your startup laboratory. Your audience will be walking around getting bombarded with messages from people other than you.

Builds your personal brand

One of the greatest benefits of building a minimum viable community is that you can’t lose anything from doing it. Your audience will become not only connected with your brand, but connected with you. Even if your product fails (whenever it launches), you’ll have a relationship with your community that will last beyond your initial product launch. Which brings me to my next point!

Brings you closer to your customer

Your customer will know who you are! Imagine someone random running up to you in the street and shoving something in your face asking you to take a look. While I’m sure you’re far more delicate at introducing products to the market, this is effectively what you are doing when you start out. If you don’t build an audience, you’re nothing more than a random person. Now imagine this alternative situation: Your best friend comes up to you and says “Hey [insert your name here], I’ve been working on this project for a few months, can you take a look and let me know what you think?”

If you’re a good friend, you’re going to take a look. You’re going to let them know what sucks and what’s great, and you’re already much more likely to give the product a whirl. That’s what it’s like when you build a minimum viable community.

The One Downside

Let me be clear: a minimum viable community is not made for everybody. If you want to build a mass consumer product from the get go, a minimum viable community doesn’t necessarily work. Yet the odds of you successfully launching a mass consumer product is next to nothing. With a community and a product that grows out of that community, you have a much greater chance at making it over the long haul. One other downside is that the time you spend building your targeted community is time you could have spent making your product better.

Despite the downsides, having a personal brand and an audience can jumpstart any product you launch now or in the future. As someone who has built a personal brand, I can tell you the power that it has. When we first launched Holler last year, we were able to attract over 6,000 people in a month for a product that wasn’t necessarily targeted at my core audience. Yet our audience helped build buzz that made us competitive in an overly saturated market.

I tried it further a couple weeks ago when we ran a trial at StartupStats to see how much traffic we could generate within our target audience (which also happens to be perfectly aligned with my core audience). The result was over 40,000 people in in a week and a half. This is the power of developing a minium viable community. We now have a broad community of people we can collaborate and develop product and services with.

While I won’t outline the entire process of developing a minimum viable community in this post, you can learn more over the coming weeks and months by subscribing to my email newsletter in the box to the right (if you can’t see the box, click here). I’d also love to hear your thoughts on minimum viable communities in the comments below!!