“Guns don’t kill startups, indifference kills startups,” says @martinvars

As David Sacks of Yammer said recently in a lecture, the single most important thing for startups is to think about distribution. How will you convince your market that they should adopt your product? [I can relate to this, as a content startup: my content is free! I worked 12 years as a reporter for the biggest cash cow in Belgian publishing. Now I give all my work away FOR FREE, and yet it's very hard to attract traffic.]

Sacks introduced a concept that he called “transactional virality”, which basically means: you should find a compelling reason for using your product, preferably a reason that includes a transaction with other people, who will then be forced to also use your product – think WeTransfer, or DropBox.

When I tell this to entrepreneurs who are about to launch their business, you can see them think – yeah, but no, our product will distribute itself. They are probably too polite to tell me that the problem is more likely to be my site than anything else if my articles don’t spread like wildfire. I don’t blame them, and it might even be true (some articles did spread like wildfire – a bit). It’s just hard to imagine that it’s this hard when you haven’t been there.


Martin Varsavsky, founder of FON

Martin Varsavsky, founder of FON

To hammer home how important distribution really is, Martin Varsavsky of Fon wrote a great blog post today that illustrates Sacks’ point: it tells the story of how he was literally GIVING away free WiFi to people – or better: trying to give it away. Because nobody wanted it: 

The majority of start ups are not competing against other start ups.  They are competing against the indifference of consumers, many of which couldn’t care less about their innovation.

Fon was a consumer company who gave away or sold WiFi routers that shared WiFI and we almost failed as a consumer company.  When we asked consumers to share a little WiFi at home and roam the world for free connecting to other Foneros or WiFI sharing members we only got 300K people around the world to do this.

But when we pivoted and we started working together with telecom companies like BT, Belgacom, SFR, Zon and others. They made Fon a standard feature of their DSL or cable services, meaning that people became Foneros by default.

So the paradox: if people are asked to do something to have a big benefit, they don’t do it. But if it’s given to them without asking, almost everyone wants to stay in.  This “opt in vs opt out” paradox symbolizes the struggle of start ups, even those who have truly innovative and beneficial products such as Fon.

How can you overcome this? Here’s Martin’s advice:

your role as CEO is to fight this indifference, to evangelize, to reach people in the best possible ways so they finally find themselves using your innovation and liking it.  Your most important role is to fight indifference through whatever channel works best to promote your innovation.

Read more here: The biggest threat to your start up is… indifference | LinkedIn.

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).