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If You Build It, They Will Not Come

If You Build It, They Will Not Come
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I am not sure my version of this quote would have worked for Kevin Costner and the movie Field of Dreams, but it would certainly have saved countless entrepreneurs from disappointment and defeat.

There’s no shortage of savvy startups that will never get off the ground or designer duds that won’t grace the catwalk. Just because a product is out there doesn’t guarantee that consumers will come. Great ideas without equally great promotion are as good as non-existent.  

It’s just like the age old question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? The same can be said for great ideas and products. If consumers never discover or buy them, are they still great? I have fallen victim to the false pretense that if I only built something, consumers would come right over and consume it. But my first failed business taught me otherwise.

Related: Seth Godin: 'The Person Who Fails the Most Wins'

At the ripe old age of 21, I managed to convince two successful entrepreneurs -- after multiple pitch meetings and business plan revisions -- to invest in my media company, despite the fact that I knew nearly nothing about media.

What I wanted was to create the leading online men’s lifestyle magazine, complete with highlights on where to eat, what to wear, where to travel -- and I called it Debonair. The idea was much more novel in the early 2000’s before the flood of publications now devoted to gents -- and the idea was good (Thrillist and Urban Daddy launched similarly oriented sites shortly after to much success).

They wrote me a check for $100,000 and just like that I was in business. But contrary to my mistaken notion, it wasn’t as simple as having the seed money, building the site and just watching everything fall into place. I wasn’t popping champagne and toasting with the big boys like I thought I’d be. Not even close. The next two years were trying times, and I was swimming in a sea of startups that knew more than I did.

I poured every dollar I had into a fancy website with what I believed were all the right bells and whistles and pricey photography that had made glossy magazines so sought after and I figured that was all it would take. When the traffic didn’t come, I blamed it on the site design, the logo, the font, the layout, the photos. I became victim to the “better is the enemy of best” syndrome, redoing the same thing over and over and over again trying to perfect it for the public. By the time I bypassed the fluff changes and figured out search engine optimization, pay-per-click, buying lists and marketing -- it was too late.

I lost every last cent of my seed money, and Debonair flopped. I built it, and they did not come.

In hindsight, it wasn’t for lack of vision or a flawed concept, it was a lack of distribution.

Related: 10 People Who Became Wildly Successful After Facing Rejection

Five years later, I tried again. This time with Sourcing Journal, a trade publication for sourcing and supply chain executives in the apparel and textile sector. And this time, instead of dumping scads of cash into beautifying the site and hiring the best of the best for web design and photography, I made the website myself watching YouTube Wordpress tutorials, designed the logo in Photoshop and started aggregating news from international newspapers.

The key was to first prove the concept and then scale it.

I reached out to everyone I knew, sending them a link to the site’s news and assessing their opinions of it. Within six months, I had 20,000 executives on my mailing list.

So I started hiring freelancers for proprietary content. Then I started selling advertising at nominal rates to monetize the business. I invested all the money I had and borrowed the rest from credit cards. When those bills got too high, I revisited the gentlemen who backed my first venture seeking aid. And would you believe they backed me again? This time, though, they were supporting an idea with proven traction, not a concept in the clouds.

Today that startup media company, Hertzman Media, has three trade publications, Sourcing Journal, Rivet for denim and Vamp for footwear. And with a reach of more than 100,000 executives, we’ve secured our spot as the second largest trade media company in the sector.

What was the major difference this time around?

For one, I created a product people actually needed, not one they wanted to need. And most importantly, I didn’t wait for them to come. I brought my product to them. And they not only thanked me for doing so, they spread the word. If I worried about the logo and what gradient my navigation bar was going to be, I’d probably still be in my bedroom aggregating other people’s news and waiting for my break.

In addition to my media business, I am also a partner in a private label apparel and sourcing company. Fashion brands now consult with me on ways to better their business, improve their supply chains and sometimes to seek investment. I always give it to them straight:

Unless your jeans have three legs, it isn’t a new idea. If you want to build a brand, build it. Forget the wealthy heirs to family businesses or those who get large venture capital funding. If that isn’t you, like it wasn’t me, you will have to be a doer and figure it out. Go get some orders, no matter what product you have. Borrow money for purchase order financing to produce the product and pay the too-high rates if need be. Be scrappy, be an entrepreneur, make it happen.

Focus on distribution. Technology has changed the game, so use it to help get the word out there, build hype and sell, sell, sell. Do not wait for the people to come because you could be waiting a long time. Knock down the proverbial door and keep going. And when you get that order from Barneys, or Macy’s or Bed Bath and Beyond, call me. I’d be happy to make that product for you.

Not because you built it, but because you got them to come.

Related: Push Your Product, Not the Promotion