What’s the first thing you do when you hear about something new?
You Google it. It’s an instinct now to grab your phone and look up things that strike your curiosity. When your potential customers hear about you and your business, that’s what they’ll do, too.
This is what makes your online presence one of the most crucial parts of your business.
You’ve poured your heart and soul into turning your idea into reality. Yet a product alone is not enough. You also need an online presence with strong enough content that when someone encounters your product and Googles it, your writing will be what shows up first. That’s your chance to tell your story and frame your product with your viewpoint.
It’s, perhaps, the best reason to blog.
On building brand trust
A name, a logo, a memorable .com, that’s not all that goes into a brand. A brand is your voice, who you are, why you’re building this product, and what you stand for. It’s not enough to throw up a landing page on the internet. People need a reason to care and come back. That’s a brand.
"Tell your stories." — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
When you’re founding a startup, that brand is you. What you say equals what the company says. Your voice is its voice. For better or worse, people will judge your product based on you.
“Trust is one of the most essential forms of capital a leader has,” wrote Frances Frei and Anne Morriss in Harvard Business Review. Today’s customers don’t want just another product. You don’t. You want a craft beverage brewed locally, served in a heritage building, something authentic and connected to the real world, something with a story behind it. We want things “sold by real people that [we] can build a personal connection with,” as another HBR study found.
A website alone won’t do that, without your voice, your stories, your dreams. You have to craft an online presence that connects with visitors and turns your products into something more than just another widget.
Which means it’s time to start writing.
But wait: Why write? Why not start a TikTok, or post photos on Instagram, or print up glossy brochures for your product, or speak about it at conferences?
"Things that seem mundane at first glance can, if you persevere, give birth to an endless array of insights." — Haruki Murakami, Novelist as a Vocation
Because Google. The whole game you’re playing, today, is getting noticed when people search for you and what you’ve built, or search for ideas similar to your own.
People could discover your social media profile or videos via search. They’re far more likely to discover you through the written word, though, because search (today, anyhow) runs off of text. The more you write, the more keywords your articles include, the more chance you end up showing up on someone’s search queries.
The best SEO strategy is to publish great stuff. “My generic SEO strategy for a startup is a) be the best on the Internet for b) as many topics as you possibly can be that c) matter to your paying customers,” says writer and developer Patrick McKenzie.
Search should inform your writing, not direct it. If you have an idea you want to talk about, it’s worth Googling it first to see what others had to say, worth checking Google Trends and tools like Ahrefs to hone your ideas and quantify the writing opportunity.
The best blog posts, though, come from your lived experiences, the things you’re passionate about, the things you’d tell someone over dinner or drinks, the things you’d wish others had written about. Those stories will tell your product and brand’s story better than any keyword-optimized strategy ever could.
“Write the story you want to read,” advises Paul Graham in his essay on How to do great work.
That's where you should start writing. Write things you're passionate about, and your site will start ranking on Google for keywords you could have never imagined if you started out with a search-driven strategy.
Writing your first blog post
So sit down at the keyboard and start typing. It’s going to be arduous, at first, if you haven’t written a blog post in a while (or ever). But “the only way to find your voice is to use it,” as Austin Kleon wrote in Show Your Work. Write and edit and write again, until you get what you want to say written down.
"The only way to find your voice is to use it." — Austin Kleon, Show Your Work
Then publish it. The best place is a blog on your or your product’s domain. Every time you publish a post, every time someone shares what you’ve written, you’re building a bit of brand equity and domain authority in that subject.
But that can be a quiet and lonely way to publish, at least at first. So you could swap it up and publish everywhere. Publish on Medium to reach a wider audience, with a canonical link back to your site. Start a Substack, and build an email list as you write. Share your ideas as long-form posts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Polywork—anywhere you have followers is fair game.
Then start start over and write again. And again. And again.
How to keep writing
You’ll start out strong. You’ve surely got a few things you’d like to tell the world, and those will come easy.
"Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good." — Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
Then you’ll have to keep digging to find what to write next. “Things that seem mundane at first glance can, if you persevere, give birth to an endless array of insights,” says author Haruki Murakami. You’ve dug deep while building your product, and you’re likely in the top 10% of people in the world who’ve thought that much about that category. You’re an expert—at least in your niche.
For “experts are always made, not born,” found University of Chicago professor Benjamin Bloom in a study of talent. It wasn’t that a higher IQ or better physique led directly to success. The only correlating factor was intense practice. You’ve got that, from building your product. Now it’s time to share that experience with the world.
So as you’re working, keep a list of the insights you stumble across, the bugs you encountered and squashed, the shortcuts you found along the way. They may seem mundane, things that surely everyone else already knew. And yet. They’re the things that would have helped you move faster, back when you were starting. Share them today, and you'll build a following of those most inclined to like what you're building.
Your takes and treatises don’t have to be perfect. “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts,” reminds Anne Lammot. And they don't have to get all that many readers. In fact, 99% of what you write won’t be popular, in an extreme version of the Pareto Principle. That’s ok—that’s exactly how it goes, most of the time.
Zapier's top 10 blog posts bring in 27% of their traffic. Buffer's three most popular posts bring in 26% of their traffic. And a fourth of HubSpot's traffic comes from one page.
You never know what’ll make the cut, what’ll take off unexpectedly. So you have to keep putting yourself out there, keep trying, keep publishing until something takes off. Then keep going. The next post will flop; keep writing. Traffic will drop off; keep writing. You’re setting yourself up for serendipity, and one day you’ll write the thing that takes off.
Reaching a larger audience
And then, one day, you’ll have a backlog of ideas to write—and wonder if, perhaps, these ideas wouldn’t be better published elsewhere?
"It’s not enough to be good. In order to be found, you have to be findable." — Austin Kleon, Show Your Work
Your blog, for now at least, is limited to your current audience and the slowly growing number of people who discover your site through Google. Other sites and newsletters have vast audiences today, if only you could reach them.
The more sites that link to your site, the higher your content will rank on Google. But that’s the long-term look. In the short term, if you could write a post for a site with ten thousand followers, that’s ten thousand people who could see your ideas tomorrow. Surely some of them would be interested in what you have to say.
So volunteer. Write for others. Your blog is now your resume, proof you can write well. Some may ask you to write for them; others, you’ll have to ask your way in. But it’s worth asking. Any chance you have to leverage someone else’s distribution is a chance to grow your audience faster. It’s easier to land a conference talk if you’re a Google employee; your employer’s name recognition opens doors.
But you’re starting over, from scratch, with some credit and a top notch brain, to paraphrase Hamilton. It’s not that no one cares about what you’re doing—it’s not that they care all that much about what others are doing, either. It’s that you don’t have the megaphone to make them notice.
So while you’re building your megaphone, borrow others’, too. Write stuff for them that will grow their audience, and they, in turn, yours. It’s a win/win, one you can only land by writing.
You’ll write your way out
Though perhaps I’m biased. My career began with a blog started in university. An early post started getting Google search traffic, another went viral on Hacker News. Then came an email one day, in early 2014, after someone read one of my by-then-numerous blog posts: “Are you interested in any freelance opportunities?” Thus began the next half-decade of my career, building Zapier’s content marketing engine.
Fast forward nine years, and recently another message showed up, this time in LinkedIn. Someone had read an article I’d written at Zapier, then reached out, and became my firm’s latest client. Another message came in on Twitter, referencing a guest post I’d written for another site, with another potential opportunity.
As developer Julia Evans summarized in a recent blog post about blogging myths: Pageviews don’t matter, more material isn’t always better, you don’t need to explain everything, you don’t even need to be an expert or perfectly original. You just need to write. One reader—the right reader—can change everything
It’s not that writing’s magical. You’ll have to do quite a lot of it, and most posts will go quietly into the ether. The posts you pour your heart into, in fact, almost seem to get ignored more than the random, one-off pieces you put out without thinking as much. It’ll take time before you see the payoff, before the small bits of traffic compound and the right people see what you’ve written.
But you’re setting up yourself for these little coincidences, these tiny connections that can happen when someone reads what you wrote and decides it’s interesting.
You’ll never know what could happen, if you never start writing and putting yourself out there. It’s worth a shot.