Bolt. The brainchild of 35-year-old Dan Pelson. The teenagers love it. "Oh, sure," you're probably thinking, nodding your head. "Bolt. Drink it all the time. Has that extra kick of caffeine."
Um, no. That would be the soft drink, Jolt, which has something of a cult following of its own. This is Bolt, as in Bolt Inc., or, as the teens know it, Bolt.com. And they do know it. Bolt.com is more than a Web site; it's a platform where young adults discuss and dis popular culture, from cars and clothes to Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. There's a Bolt shopping section, with over 450 items, and Bolt provides free e-mail, voice mail, message boards, instant messaging and wireless services. Bolt has more than 3.5 million registered users, with as many as 15,000 young adults signing up every day. And although Bolt withdrew its proposed IPO in November following the dotcom bust, the company still has big-name advertising partners such as AT&T, Procter & Gamble and America Online.
Pelson probably realized he had a cult following when he heard a report come in from the trenches one day. A Bolt sales rep had been strolling through the streets of New York with a bigwig client, and, as they passed a crowd of teens gathered in front of MTV Studios, the bigwig said, "Well, this is your client base-let's see if they've heard of Bolt."
The sales rep looked squeamish, but he waded into the throng anyway and asked the crowd. "Bolt!" the girls exclaimed, adding: "Tag me, tag me!" It's a reference you'd understand if you were a Bolt.com regular. But never mind that. You're likely more interested in how you can achieve the same results with your customers.
If your company doesn't exist yet, identifying a cult-potential product or service is a good first step. "Some products will probably never have a cult following-floor wax [for instance] is not very romantic or exciting," says John Burnett, a professor of marketing at the University of Denver. "So it's important to look for products that have those kinds of components. Food. Beverages. Technology. Sports."
But choosing "food" is pretty broad. "You have to locate a good niche that's not being served in the market," says Burnett.
And that's just what Pelson did by deciding to focus on teens. "The Internet is a tremendous medium for empowering disenfranchised communities," says Pelson. And who feels more disenfranchised than a teenager? With 1 billion of 'em on the earth, Pelson knew he was onto something.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.