The smallest viable audience

It’s a stepping-stone, not a compromise.

The media and our culture push us to build something for everyone, to sand off the edges and to invest in infrastructure toward scale.

But it turns out that quality, magic and satisfaction can lie in the other direction. Not because we can’t get bigger, but because we’d rather be better.

One of the three best restaurants in New York only has 14 seats. With the right fan base and technology, that’s enough to allow the chef to build an experience he can be proud of. Down the street is an extraordinary cafe that pays a tiny fraction of the rent that a midtown neighborhood would require. It’s not about getting found by everyone. A focus on experience creates something that (some) people want to look for.

Eliot Peper writes books that his fans can’t get enough of. And the long tail of online bookselling lets him do that without having to get a movie deal or a fancy publisher to thrive.

Junior is able to run a successful appliance repair business without a fancy truck or office, simply by earning a reputation in a very specific lane on a very specific website.

A focus on the SVA can also enable a business to scale. PSAudio doesn’t reach many people… but the team’s focus is precise enough and deep enough that they’ve built one of the largest and most successful operations in their industry.

Or chocolates or software or baked goods or …

The strategy of the smallest viable audience doesn’t let you off the hook–it does the opposite. You don’t get to say, “well, we’ll just wait for the next random person to find us.” Instead, you have to choose your customers–who’s it for and what’s it for. And when you’ve identified them, the opportunity/requirement is to create so much delight and connection that they choose to spread the word to like-minded peers.

Not everyone, but someone. And it turns out that ‘someone’ isn’t as easy as it sounds. When you strip away the alternative mantra of “you can pick anyone, and we’re anyone,” then you have to lean into the obligation of being the sort of provider that people would miss if you were gone. That’s not easy, but people with this sort of focus wouldn’t have it any other way.

Specificity is the way. It has nothing to do with absolute scale and everything to do with being really clear about what hook you want to be on and setting a standard for producing work that people connect to and are changed by.

What could be better?