Helpful beats product

Nathan Barry’s smart move

ConvertKit is part of my Helpful Marketing toolbox. I used it write my two email courses Beginning Customer Development and Helpful Marketing 101. This week Nathan Barry, the founder of ConvertKit, decided to re-launch the product with a focus on eduction.

Why aren’t customers [of ConvertKit] succeeding?

They didn’t know how to best use email to meet their marketing goals… I don’t think ConvertKit customers need just a web app. They need something more. They need hands-on help and training on how to make the most of email marketing and their ConvertKit subscription.
–Nathan Barry, Why you can’t sign up for my SAAS App

Nathan’s problem: ConvertKit as product alone isn’t differentiated enough

This is a very, very smart move by Nathan. Nathan did an incredible job of teaching me the value of drip email courses in his book, Authority. But once I started trying to use ConvertKit I discovered the challenges Nathan describes in the post. I’m able to figure them out myself – but I’m in the minority.

Since writing about drip email courses I received dozens of emails from entrepreneurs asking for advice about ConvertKit vs. alternatives like MailChimp auto-responders. I told most of them that as a product alone ConvertKit wasn’t (yet) highly differentiated.

By shifting his focus towards helping me and solving my problems Nathan has changed everything – now he’s competing against alternatives on his turf.

This is a strategy you can copy.


Most people have a “product” focus

“I’ve got a startup idea…”

We constantly hear about product ideas, think of product ideas, talk about product ideas. And why not? Building a successful product is incredibly fulfilling and one of the fastest ways to rapidly build wealth.

The problem with thinking about products is that we start executing with a product-centric perspective, something like this:


We see a problem and then envision the product that would solve it. Ideally we then try to validate problem and solution viability using Customer Development. Most of the time we’re wrong, but occasionally we see enough evidence to overcome the 3 biggest risks and decide to start building.

Before you head down this path…know what you’re getting into.


Solving problems with product alone is too hard

Our customers are overwhelmed with products and have an extremely hard time differentiating between them. It is pretty rare that I hear about a totally new idea – most of the entrepreneurs I help are working on something I’ve seen dozens of times.

People see so many products and assume they are not hard to build – although products ARE getting easier to build, software development is still brutally hard, tedious work. And what is not getting any easier is solving problems with these products.

And the bar for “solving problems” is indeed quite high for a product.

Of course some startups have the combination of unique idea, talent, money and timing to pull it off. But the other 99.99% of us mortals need to gear up for years of continuously trying ideas, failing, and then trying something else. It takes a long time.


A better way: “helpful” focus

As Nathan Barry is illustrating, there is a better way: focus on solving customer problems and include “the product” as just one part of helping customers solve them.


Suddenly things just got easier. Instead of trying to solve problems with your product alone you have multiple tools to offer a “solution”. You just need to identify the problems your product solves and then offer other solutions.

Best of all: “person-I-want-to-help” focus

Want to give your startup a real head-start? Don’t start with a problem or idea at all. First pick the market you want to serve and then look for problems. Start with a person.

If you decide WHO you want to work for you’re very likely to pick a market you know well. This means it will be a lot easier to know their problems and you’ll enjoy helping them solve them. All of my friends are entrepreneurs and I like to be around them just for fun. Writing these words for you on a Sunday morning feels like play, not work.


Helpful is easier

Once you know who you want to help and you know their problems you have lots of options for helping them.

write a book … host a workshop … organize a meetup … create a course … do consulting … start a newsletter … make video tutorials … record a Soundcloud playlist … host a Hangout … help them 1-on-1 over Skype or Hangout.

Most I do for free – what some people call “marketing”. Others I charge for to support myself and my product development. I do ALL of these things and all of them combined are easier than solving the problems with my product.

Customers are also a lot more forgiving of product shortcomings when your solution is more comprehensive because you help them solve problems – when all you’ve got is product, your product better be really, really good.


Helpful is unique

Out-teach your competition.
—37 Signals

What really p—es us off is that we had a better product than those arrogant guys at 37 Signals. We just couldn’t out-market them, so we had to give up.
—A failed startup I know

Ever wonder what to write in the Unique Value Proposition box of your Lean Canvas? Yeah, me too.


Most of us write down fantasies like “network effects” because products are too easy to copy – you can’t write a single feature in that box that is defensible for more than a month.

It turns out you have an asset that is completely unique, something that can never be copied – you. Your voice, your writing, your point of view. Some people can’t stand Jason Fried and would never give 37 Signals a dime – far more remember some way his writing helped them become a better entrepreneur.

Add “helpful” to you solution and you instantly add uniqueness.


Helpful monetizes faster

Successful products scale incredibly well and practically print money – but it takes a long, long time to get there. Raising money is an option – but that also takes forever and creates as many problems as it solves.

Organize a monthly meetup or workshop and charge for it – you’ll probably make more money on a Tuesday night than you will from the first 6 months of product sales.


Learn about Helpful Marketing

The easiest way to get help is just schedule a call with me – I’ll be thrilled to help you out.  You can also try out SoHelpful yourself.  Here are a few other resources.


Helpful Marketing 101 course

I’ve also created a drip email course I call Helpful Marketing 101. I’ve learned a lot since writing it and will share more in the months to come.


Ebook: How to Get Customers to Call You for Help

If you prefer something portable I’ve written free ebook I call How to Get Customers to Call You for Help. I send a copy to everyone who tries SoHelpful. Although the language is directed at them, you’ll find the promotional strategies relevant to you even if you don’t want to use SoHelpful.



Photo Credit: Hansel and Regrettal via Compfight cc


  1. Ramli John February 2, 2014 at 4:06 am #

    Love it Kevin! Soooo agree with this => “Solving problems with product alone is too hard.” I’m starting to see GREAT content marketing is helpful marketing. If your content (website, videos, workshops, meetups, calls, etc.) isn’t helpful to your customers, then it’s probably shitty content not worth sharing.

    Tweeting this post out 🙂

    • Gale Stafford February 2, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

      Great post Kevin. This gives me so much to think about, and gives me hope I can succeed with my product ideas ultimately. It is so wise to consider the whole package (advice + help + consulting + product) to achieve the differentiation. When you get really close to the customer, the magic starts to happen.

      • kevindewalt February 2, 2014 at 9:59 pm #

        Exactly. Any the books, consulting, etc. is a lot easier to get going than products. Plus after helping people with non-product options you’ll understand the real problems better and bet in a better position to build products.

  2. Shardul Mehta February 2, 2014 at 11:11 am #

    Kevin, good post, and true. My current employer has a 99% client retention rate (seriously) for the very reasons you state. That has made product introductions way easier – they are always receptive to new products we’re working on. It’s also opened new revenue opportunities for us, because they continuously ask us to help them solve problems outside our core. We don’t pursue all of them, but it’s a testament to the value they perceive us providing. And with our products, we go to great lengths to help them setup and get started. It’s “manual”, it’s grunt work, it may increase the operational cost of customer activation in the short-term, but creates massive stickiness and CLTV, especially with early adopters of our products.

    • kevindewalt February 2, 2014 at 9:58 pm #

      that’s great, Shardul. Many startups don’t even think of these options because they only read about product, product, product. A lot of Angles too.

  3. Thomas Pichon February 7, 2014 at 7:53 am #

    Hi Kevin,

    Great post. Again.

    I agree a lot with you.

    “The only sustainable competitive advantage is knowledge of and engagement with customers.” (Forrester)

    And I recently read on CopyBlogger: “Customers want a better understanding of the entire arena of knowledge that surrounds their problem or desire.” This knowledge sharing is a meaningful way to build a competitive advantage.

    It is funny because I was writing a new article about entrepreneurs who do not help enough their customers to reach their long term goals. And I took your startup as a great example: “a tool + a methodology + a community of peers”. I used to think that “” was a bit similar to “” and I am glad to discover each day that your value proposition is much much higher.



    • kevindewalt February 7, 2014 at 7:08 pm #

      Thanks Thomas! You’re doing great, I keep hearing from entrepreneurs that you’re giving them some great advice.

      One of the challenges is that people always ask entrepreneurs, “what does your product do?”

      I’m now answer the question with … “Here is what I try to do for customers”. The product is just one piece of it.

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