Don’t Build a Startup, Build a Movement

As a startup marketer, spending my lunch break arguing with developers is not my favorite part of the job.

“That’s bullshit,” our CTO replies. “MailChimp’s product isn’t any better than the rest; it’s just another tool to send your newsletters. Why spend $200/month when their competitors offer the same thing for a few bucks?”

I want to convince him that MailChimp ensures our email campaigns hit customers’ inboxes, not their spam folders.

But he keeps beating me back with technical explanations I don’t fully get.

“Look, we can even build our own email bot that does the exact same thing,” he adds. “You’re just sold on their brand.”

Well, he’s partly right.

Over the last years, MailChimp has built an iconic brand with its design-centric approach and unconventional marketing campaigns.

Monkey mascot billboards with no mention of their name … “MailKimp” and other name-teasing campaigns that reached 334 million people … design-centric annual reports that came with style …

MailChimp’s giveaways were unconventional, too. Free monkey hats for cats were delighting their superfans like me who were ready to pay more.

In a world where anyone can copy your product overnight, instead of knitting monkey hats for cats, MailChimp could very well have chosen to get into an arms race on building more features.

After all, the company was even receiving open letters and warnings from some big customers threatening to shift to the competition if they didn’t build more advanced features.

MailChimp’s answer?

Focus on building a brand customers love.

As we near the end of 2017, the email startup that never took a single dime in outside funding is preparing to close the year with a mind-blowing 15 million customers.

But enough with the monkey business.

Let’s look at the big picture to understand what this means for startups trying to succeed in today’s cluttered world:

  1. You don’t have to disrupt an entire industry: While many entrepreneurs are busy trying to build the next Uber or Facebook, this is a myth we need to dispel. MailChimp didn’t disrupt any industry, yet it managed to build its monkey empire in a market that was becoming increasingly crowded.
  2. If you aren’t disrupting or creating an entirely new market, you can still build an empire in a highly competitive space: And it involves growing superfans who religiously follow your movement and spread the word about you even if you charge premium prices or refuse to get into an arms race on building more features.

What is the secret, though?

How do you reach the masses and grow your fan club that enables you to play the game by your own rules, without worrying about the competition?

The options vary, but some of the world’s most successful startups use two powerful strategies:

First is obviously the “MailChimp way”, i.e., marketing your product like a high-quality brand. As their founder Ben Chestnut explains:

“We make apps for business customers, using low-priced parts, then we market the apps like a high-quality, design-centric, lovable B2C brand.”

But a growing breed of thriving startups uses an alternative strategy — one that doesn’t necessarily require a design-centric approach.

It requires influencing people’s thinking instead:

Don’t disrupt an industry, disrupt the thinking

As Mark Bonchek highlights in his widely popular Harvard essay:

“Companies that successfully market and sell innovation are able to shift how people think not only about their product, but about themselves, the market, and the world.

Don’t sell a product, sell a whole new way of thinking.”

Take Drift, one of the rising stars in the tech scene today.

Instead of forcing their product down people’s throats, the “movers” like Drift sell the underlying shift in thinking, the original insight that led to their innovation.

In Drift’s case, the original insight that led to their product was the old, broken way of marketing and sales that still relied on website forms and annoying sales follow-ups.

Thats why, instead of hard selling or flooding their blog with product info, they talk about how today’s marketing and sales techniques are so yesterday, or why marketing automation and email marketing are broken.

“This is different than your value proposition. It’s an assumption (usually unconscious) about how the world works,” adds Bonchek.

The logic is easy to apply to any startup when you think of it as a template:

We champion [insert], and shift the way people think about [insert] to be [insert].

For instance, Drift champions the new way of marketing and sales, and shifts the way people think about marketing and sales to be more conversation-driven, personalized, and human.

Two other iconic companies — Basecamp and Salesforce — are also leading the way in rethinking existing mental models.

  • Basecamp’s founders grow their superfans by championing the “Un-Silicon Valley way” and shifting how people think about management, productivity, time, growth, or the way startups work.
  • Salesforce champions the “no software” mantra and shifts the thinking from packaged, installed software to cloud computing and software-as-a-service.

Building an engine that shifts how people think

Changing people’s current mental model doesn’t happen overnight.

Rather, you will need a sustainable engine that shows people the new mental model in different contexts and situations, over and over again.

For example, even though Drift’s blog already reaches over +100K people per month, they unlock new channels that reach the audiences they wouldn’t reach otherwise via:

  • Their annual “Hypergrowth” conference, dedicated entirely to discussing the future of marketing and sales;
  • Their “Seeking Wisdom” podcast, where they spread their message through audio conversations.

Like Drift, Basecamp’s founders build a multi-channel engine that helps them reach new pockets of people through their best-selling books like ‘Rework’, their popular blog, and podcasts.

Building an engine to educate people on the new way of thinking isn’t reserved for startups, though.

Giant corporations like GE have already recognized the importance of what they call “mindshare before market share.

GE’s CMO Beth Comstock explains why they heavily invest in their content engine:

“The really good innovations need to be explained before they’re accepted… It has meant becoming a content factory — telling stories across media and methods from data to videos to social media.”

The MailChimp way, the Drift way, or your way

From bloggers to startup founders, today’s makers share a growing concern:

“So much noise, so much competition.”

Spaces like SaaS are becoming increasingly competitive, where companies feel they are almost selling a commodity or that their product could be copied overnight.

That’s why, in today’s most cluttered marketplace in history, building a movement is more important than ever.

Build it the MailChimp way, the Drift way, or your way. No matter what route you take, there is one element that is consistent across businesses that distinguish themselves: being true to yourself.

For MailChimp, it means launching unconventional marketing campaigns that intentionally mispronounce their name:

“We believe the best way to build relationships with customers is to be yourself.

For us, that means having some fun with our name.”

For Drift, it means hosting an honest chat between their CMO and CEO. While the world is full of podcasts that pretend to look professional, Drift’s informal podcast style is one of the reasons that “Seeking Wisdom” has legions of loyal fans.

As Basecamp’s founders note, pouring yourself into your product is a powerful way to stand out from the crowd:

“If you’re successful, people will try to copy what you do. But there’s a great way to protect yourself from copycats:

Make you part of your product or service. Inject what’s unique about the way you think into what you sell.

Pour yourself into your product and everything around your product too: how you sell it, how you support it, how you explain it, and how you deliver it.

Competitors can never copy the you in your product.”

And it’s good for business.

Don’t build a startup, build a movement — right from day one.

And if you do it right, super fans like me might voluntarily spend their lunch breaks arguing on behalf of your awesome solution.

Finding side project ideas



That’s the percentage of Crew’s revenue driven by our side projects last week alone following the launch of one of our latest tools.

Every time I see such high ROI on our side project marketing efforts, I feel this urgent need to convince every single one of my startup friends to stop wasting their money on ads or writing those sad listicles to grab more eyeballs.

Side projects help your business connect with only those that matter by creating lasting value instead of renting their short-term attention using aggressive shortcuts.

In a previous essay, I tried to explain why side project marketing is taking over the world and made a further analysis in the first lesson of Make This Year.

In this post, I want to share a practical approach to how to come up with side project ideas.

Before we start, allow me to quickly recap three things about side project marketing:

  • Taking time and effort away from building your business to work on a side project is a big choice and one that isn’t for everyone. It’s a choice that you and your team will have to make on your own.
  • But once you get in the serial making mood, you’ll quickly notice that side projects can be way less distracting than other marketing methods you use to create value for your business. Some side projects take less time and effort to launch than it takes to write a blog post, and they bring higher ROI.
  • Today, there is a free tool for almost everything and you don’t necessarily have to hire a designer or developer to launch your side project. You can always start small and decide later whether to hire some help.

One of the most striking things about side project marketing is to realise how strongly it’s linked to creating value for your audience. The answer to ‘How do I come up with side project ideas?’ is almost the same as to ‘How do I create value for my customers?’.

If you read ‘Side Project Marketing is The New King’, you probably remember I used Brian Clark’s golden rule of marketing to explain the relationship between value creation and sales:

“Give Something Valuable Away in Order to Sell Something Related.”

Remember that the intention here is not to find a sneaky shortcut to make a sale but to create value for others through tools, apps, websites, or software — value that is related to our core business, but built ‘on the side’ without losing our main focus.

Let’s look at some powerful ways to come up with side project ideas. And while there are other options, I tried to cover the processes that’ve helped us ship at least one project a month.

1. Catch key decision breakpoints – (X vs Y)

One of the most valuable side projects you can build is a tool that helps your potential customers decide between different options they face when buying your product or service.

Let me explain with four examples:

1.1. Decision breakpoints: Core product variations

Most products and services usually come with different models or variations that your clients need to choose from, such as deciding whether to buy an iPhone 5 or 6. So ask yourself, can you build a tool that helps them choose the best option for their needs?

Here’s one tool we built which became one of our most successful side projects:


At Crew, we match our clients with the high-quality designers and developers in our network so they can build things like apps, websites, and branding assets. But many potential customers aren’t even sure whether to build a website or an app. So we built — a quick tool that will help you understand which platform your product belongs on just by answering a few simple questions.

The result? The number of people who use such tools might leave you speechless. They also bring impressive amount of search traffic:


Think about how you could apply this to your own business. Are you selling bikes? What different types of bikes do you offer? Mountain bikes? Road bikes? Hybrid, cruiser, folding bikes? What about creating a tool that will help your potential customers choose which option is best for them?

1.2. Decision breakpoints: Core product substitutes

Sometimes it’s not just different models your potential clients are choosing, but rather similar, yet substitutable, products.

For instance, if potential entrepreneur clients decide not to hire a designer or developer through Crew, how else can they build their app?

Well, for one, they can learn to design and code themselves instead of hiring people. So, how about a tool that compares hiring coders vs learning to code? Or a course on how to take a digital product idea from idea to execution?

Let’s think about our bike retailer example again. What other transportation options do people have? Walking? Bus? Subway? Buy a car? How about making a tool comparing all of the alternatives?

1.3. Decision breakpoints: Your competitors

If people don’t buy from you, who else is selling a similar product out there?

Type ‘Buffer’ in Google and first thing you’ll see is an ad from their competitor Hootsuite:


The interesting thing is when you click on it, Hootsuite’s tool is actually helpful to understand the difference between the two companies.

While some might argue the ethics of a move like this (all is fair in love and advertising!), when done in a transparent and honest way it can not only help to steal customers away from your competitors, but also help filter potential users before you spend any time on them at all.

1.4. Decision breakpoints: Related benefits

Your potential customers deal with many other problems that are related to the core problem your product solves. And there’s no better way to keep a happy, returning customer than give them more value than they ever expected (or asked for!)

So what other related problems do they have? And what are the dilemmas they face when trying to solve those problems?

At Crew, the issues our customers have don’t end when they finish building their app or designing their site at Crew. In fact, that’s usually just the beginning for a startup or small business. And while their ‘business transaction’ technically ends when the final product ships, we’ve found that providing value in the period right after the product is ready is a great way to keep people happy.

For example, most of the people we work with are startups or small businesses who work remotely and often asynchronously.

So a huge issue many of them face is keeping up with their communication. To help them decide which app they should use to manage their teams, we built


Don’t constrain yourself to thinking that a side project has to be a tool or website. SlackvsHipchat is almost like a long-form blog post, just displayed in a way that makes it more appealing and exciting for potential customers.

2. Help your customers get better at what they do

Alright. So we’ve seen the opportunities to create side projects based around your customer’s decision breakpoints. But there’s another great well of side project ideas you can pull from: Education.

Creating value starts with putting yourselves in your customer’s shoes and understanding how their problems don’t end when they buy your product.

Instead, they usually have a much bigger problem to solve, and want to get better at solving it. Here’s a couple examples of how you can give them that power.

Frontapp builds a tool that helps companies provide customer support, but a huge part of good support is good communication. So they built — a side project site that offers best-in-class copy examples from great companies to inspire and educate their potential customers.

Similarly, at Crew, our potential clients don’t just want to build an app or a site, they want to build a business. That’s why one of our most successful projects offers them a beginner’s guide to building an online business, while another helps them boost their revenue.

Take a step back and think about all of the ways your customer measures success, not just the one you are directly trying to provide. Creating that level of big picture value creates lifelong customers.

3. Do the legwork

Let’s stay in our customer’s shoes. Every person and business has limited resources, which is why they appreciate it when you make things easier for them.

One of the best ways to do that is to do the legwork for them. Find ways to help them work smarter and break through the constraints they’re currently facing, whether they’re time, financial, physical, or emotional.

Bonsai knows its freelance customers have limited time so, one of their most successful side projects does the legwork of bringing hundreds of useful freelancing tools together into one place.

While the folks at InVision knew their audience of designers would appreciate a free giant package of UI kit.

At Crew, we do the legwork for our customers and creative community with tools like Coffee & Power, which brings together a collection of coffee shops with that unicorn combination of good coffee, good Wi-Fi, and plenty of power plugs. We also know how hard it is for anyone, from designers to writers to founders, to find good photos, so Unsplash brings together tens of thousands of royalty-free photos that don’t suck by the best photographers out there.

What about you? Where can you use your expertise to do the legwork for your community?

4. Free tools for lead generation

While the tools we’ve talked about so far don’t directly focus on attracting prospects, free lead generation tools help you pinpoint high-quality leads by offering something useful to your potential customers.

Here’s a few great examples:

4.1. Offer one or few features of your core product as a standalone product and give it away for free.

Some great examples include Open Site Explorer by Moz or Notifier by Content Marketer.

4.2. Build a tool that solves ‘microproblems’.

For instance, Hubspot sells inbound marketing software but to be successful at inbound marketing (core problem):

  • People need to understand who their ideal customer is (micro problem). So Hubspot offers a side project called Make my Persona, quick and easy buyer persona development for your inbound marketing strategy.
  • People need to understand how their website performs (micro problem). So Hubspot offers a side project called Website Grader, a free online tool that grades your site against key metrics like performance, mobile readiness, SEO, and security.

4.3. Build a tool around things that stop your customers from buying your product.

For instance, at Crew, one of the things that gets in the way of people hiring a creative to build a website or an app is cost. So we offer tools that estimate how much a website, an app, or a logo costs. These tools drive most of our revenue we generate from side project marketing.


It’s not complicated.

Of course there are many other ways you can create value using side project marketing. You can build something totally out of the box, inspire your customers, or create emotional connections.

But the problem isn’t really coming up with side project ideas. It’s the challenge of being able to move away from the self-centered ‘me me me’ marketing trap and focus on building things that are useful to your audience. Nobody cares about your business, they care about how they look in front of their customers. They care about how they can get better at what they do. They care about how to impress their own clients.

And side project marketing helps you to do exactly that—to move away from ‘me-focused’ marketing and start seeing how you can actually help, be useful, and create extreme value for your customers.

This is the third lesson of Make This Year. You can join the community of makers here.