Patrick McKenzie on the discovery process for his online brand
Patrick McKenzie on how he started writing online — and also what are attributes he looks for in a niche:
The selection of topics from my first several years of writing online is basically, “I‘m just going to blog about whatever is on top of my mind today”. And so in a day where I did a lot of accounting, I would write about accounting. In a day where I did a lot of optimization of the performance of my Java Swing app, I would write about the performance of a Java swing app, etc, etc.
It was sort of scatter shot, there was no rhyme or reason other than, “Well, if you enjoy my story, then here‘s the next update on it”. But if you weren‘t I bought into the patio11 story, then there was no particular reason to come into my blog on any given day. (Well, aside for maybe like you enjoy just the consumption of things that I write in my voice.)
After a couple of years, when I was looking back at both of my stats and what people were telling me — “This is clearly our best work” — I realized that I have a comparative advantage on the intersection between marketing and engineering.
I am a much better engineer than virtually all marketers. I am a much better marketer than virtually all engineers. And I wrote about that intersection very well. The more I wrote about things in that intersection, the better it did. The better I wrote long, meaty, detail-heavy posts in that intersection, the better they did.
That vs. the 200 words, “Well, I‘m trying to keep up my streak. So, I might as well write something today to say that I wrote something on Thursday.”
After I started operationalizing that and saying, “OK, I don‘t have a boss per se for my blog, I can still write about anything I want to write about. But when I‘m thinking of things to write about, I should probably be covering stuff that‘s in my ‘beat’ or adjacent to it.” And I should probably be writing in form factors that work for me — which tend to be 8000-word-effort posts.
Then, people started liking the output more. I started getting better at that variety of output. There was a compounding goodness to it. I had more of “brand developing” for myself, that is not “scare”. There was a virtuous cycle there. A tighter brand for my work caused more people to like it, cause them to come back more often and to recommend it to people. Cause them to, if things adjacent to that brand were discussed online, people would inject me into the conversation even without me being in that room, which gave me more opportunities to write, which gave me more… Circle all the way around.
I don‘t specifically regret spending a couple of years just in that experimental phase of throwing stuff to the wall on the Internet and seeing what sticks. But if I got to do over, I would probably have been actively looking for:
- What is working?
- What do I enjoy writing?
- What fills a need? — What fills a hole in the Internet?
There are holes in the Internet, but there are some that are more valuable than others. It is extremely useful to me that the thing that happened to be my intersection is extremely commercializable for well heeled companies. Software companies, in particular. Companies that aren‘t going to run out of money to throw at the question of engineering plus marketing software anytime soon.
So, if I got to do over, I would be looking at: What are the opportunities that hit both my interests and my ability to write something well, and the expressed, known needs of relatively well heeled participants of the economy.
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