Communities, Part 3: Finding My Place without Losing My Voice

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I write these posts, not as an aspiring small business coach or even as simply a concerned consumer, but as a person who is actually starting a specific small business, a small American handbag brand specializing in ethically produced, timeless pieces. So, to wrap up this three-part series on how the Internet has helped us to find our way into communities that cater to our particular needs and desires, I’ll discuss the specific marketing challenges that face small businesses, and how I’m working to address those challenges for my business in particular.

The first challenge I face is to deeply understand the small (but hopefully not too small) group of people who have a need for something I am able to offer. I wrote that sentence in vague business-speak because I’m learning that the process of figuring that out—what exactly I’m selling and to whom—is a dialogue you don’t quite know the specifics of when you start. It’s only once this first task is well underway that I can begin the second challenge of developing a product that resonates with that small group of people. It’s pretty natural to try to do these two tasks in backwards order, which of course is what I did when I started.

In the early days of my business, I made things that I personally thought were cool, and then, only then, set about trying to find the people who would want to buy them. Friends, that is a hard way to go. In a world of nearly eight billion people and millions upon millions of products competing for their attention, how can you find enough individual people to sustain your business, people who will buy your product over countless alternatives in the market? Yet, even though I faced these long odds, I was very resistant to changing my approach. When a mentor gently introduced me to the idea that I needed to tune into the needs and desires of a specific type of customer, I bristled. I didn’t want to lose my unique voice, to end up doing what everyone else was doing. If I wasn’t expressing my personal creative vision, then why bother?

I didn’t want to lose my unique voice, to end up doing what everyone else was doing.

It has taken me some time to understand that there is a third possibility, separate from 1) shouting into the void about your one-of-a-kind product and 2) offering something that’s not that different from products that already have an established audience in the hopes of catching a ride on the back of someone else’s marketing efforts. And this third way is the best way, but it takes a lot of work: You have to tune in so fully to the community you’re trying to serve so that your unique work naturally evolves to speak to them, while remaining original and true to you.

A community, as I described in the first part of this series, is a complex thing. Its borders are fuzzy, and there’s plenty of variety within it. But if you start paying attention, defining characteristics emerge, the things that make it a community. In trying to find where my own brand fits in, I’ve uncovered a constellation of complimentary brands, boutiques, and bloggers that reinforce the voices, aesthetics, and philosophies of all the others. One brand can become a signifier for a collection of other brands, even though each one is unique. Together, they create a landscape that a particular collection of people see themselves fitting into.

And I should clarify that a community isn’t just a collection of people with similar shopping habits. The characteristics of a community are as rich as the human beings within it. It can be defined by a certain political perspective, set of values for living, sense of humor, and way of communicating. When you’re in a community, it can be hard to see how things could be otherwise, but therein lies its power. You identify with it so strongly you don’t even realize you’re in it.

When you’re in a community, it can be hard to see how things could be otherwise, but therein lies its power. You identify with it so strongly you don’t even realize you’re in it.

So where does my brand fit in all this? What is the community that my work needs to speak to? Y’all, I’m still figuring this out. I know that my brand is a strong reflection of myself and my own values, so a lot of the work I’m doing is sharing what I care about in an honest way in the hopes of reaching people who feel similarly. I’m learning that folks want to see more of my process, whether it’s the work of actually designing and making the bags, or figuring out how to build a whole business around that. I think the people I’m trying to speak to are curious. They’re sophisticated and discerning. But they’re also kind, and genuine, and funny. They’re engaged with and concerned about this crazy world we live in, but they also want to find refuge and beauty in it.

Basically, I’m operating under the idea that if I keep putting myself out there in a genuine way while also listening, listening, listening, we will find each other.

PS: In just a few days I’m off to handbag school in Italy! I’ll keep sharing on the blog, and will have some extra tidbits for newsletter subscribers. Buon viaggio to me!