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Develop Your Own Cult Following

Know The Rules.And Get A Cult Of Your Own

It took a while for Bolt to catch on. Pelson's company does almost no advertising. As he says, "We don't do Super Bowl ads-and we're not going to, as long as I'm around."

It was a quiet first 18 months at Bolt, and then its registered users started numbering in the thousands. After that, says Pelson, the numbers multiplied exponentially, and the money started pouring in. Thousands of teens spreading the word will do that for a company.

Bolt makes money even if the teens don't buy a thing. For starters, companies that target teens pay Bolt good money for research on teens' interests. And the kids know it, says Pelson. "But they also know we're not selling their names, so they're not getting added to mailing lists. And they understand there's value to this because they're getting a great service, and we have to make money."

Which brings us to a few valuable rules of developing a cult following:

1. Have an honest relationship with your customers. "That's how you create loyal users, because they trust you," says Pelson. "And that's important with any consumer, particularly teens. If they trust you-and they don't really trust us, they just trust the platform-then they reward the business with loyalty, by attracting their friends without us having to tell them to do that. And the end result is the [3.5 million users]."

2. Customers should feel like they belong to an elite club. That's why Bolt doesn't advertise. The more your product is widely known and available, in a sense, the less valuable it becomes. As Burnett notes of Coors, based in Denver: "People used to steal the stuff and take it to other states because it was so high in demand. I remember when I used to teach at Virginia, people would pay $50 for a case of Coors. So that's an example of a company that was a cult, and then they went national, and now they're just another supplier."

3. That elite club should have an interesting image. "Starbucks started out in Seattle, a romantic, interesting city," muses Burnett. "It probably wouldn't have had nearly the same success if it had started out in Newark."

Of course, you can follow all the rules, but if you don't pay attention to your product or service, your cult will be quite small-like, consisting of your mom and a few close friends. Of the aforementioned household-name cults, Burnett notes, "People are willing to pay a premium price because the products are excellent." Now, if you do sell floor wax, all is not lost. You may never convince the general public that floor wax is exotic, or even crucial to their well-being. But you could sell to restaurants, hospitals or any organization that needs a clean tiled floor. You could develop a floor wax just for hospitals and be the cult leader of hospitals everywhere.

It's not as silly as it sounds. Chi Modu, 33, and Steve Proctor, 34, are founders of ephotos in New York City, which has no cult following to speak of. But a company within their company, diverseimages.com, does. Their clientele?

Entertainment editors at magazines and newspapers.
Modu and Proctor, both photographers, co-founded ephotos in 1996, and in 1999, they developed (no pun intended) diverseimages.com, a company that provides photos of minorities, especially celebrities. So diverseimages.com may not have Jennifer Aniston, but they will have Jennifer Lopez. And entertainment editors know this. Newsweek, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, The New York Times-they all use diverseimages.com.

Modu and Proctor could have stuck with ephotos, of course, which will likely have that picture of Jennifer Aniston, but diverseimages.com is easier for a harried editor to remember. "The editors are always under pressure," says Modu. "So if you can bring them relief and keep in mind your job is to bring them relief, you'll know how to get them on your side-because they're always under the gun." Their strategy seems to have worked. In 1999, ephotos brought in $500,000-and 70 percent of that, estimates Proctor, came from diverseimages.com.

As you think about developing a cult following, remember, you can only do your part; your customers have to do the rest. Starbucks' founders and employees, for instance, made their coffee and gave the stores a pleasant atmosphere to sip in-but it was the masses of people, dropping in all day long, that inspired bookstores to implement caf├ęs, coffee bean stores to pop up in malls and You've Got Mail to feature Starbucks in a movie about something that, you could say, has the biggest cult following in the world.

You can't pay your customers to like you that much. But they can pay you.


Geoff Williams isn't much of a coffee drinker, but his newlywed wife almost convinced him to put in the wedding vows, "I will love, honor and buy you Starbucks Frappuccinos for the rest of my life."

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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.

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This article was originally published in the March 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Develop Your Own Cult Following.

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