Good starting point for any new venture: Following your customers

Jon Dube has collected a dozen useful tips from Silicon Alley’s Startup2011 conference, but I find Tips Number 8 and 9 especially relevant:

8. “Find out who your users are and religiously, passionately follow your users,” (BetaWorks CEO John) Borthwick says. One thing we do wrong, he says, is try to figure out a business model first before we figure out what our users want. To be truly successful, follow your users.

9. Focus on your product, what you can control and how to “delight your customers.” - serial entrepreneur Gina Bianchini

Those ideas got me thinking about a side project I’ve been working on with friends over the past year aimed at creating a new sort of news operation in Detroit.

The initiative is focused on the reshaping the 143 square miles of land and water of a city that was originally planned for 2 million people but has a current population of only about 700,000. The project, called Detroit143, didn’t survive the second round of the Knight Challenge grant but we’re seeking other sources of funding.

We’ve given a lot of thought to our potential audiences (city residents, business owners, elected officials), and we put together a day-long conference last year to encourage community learning and discussion of the roots of Detroit’s problems — and what stories need telling next.

But that’s just a start on the listening we need to institutionalize going forward, and Borthwick’s charge to “passionately follow your users” really hit home.

Rachel Davis Mersey, author of Can Journalism Be Saved?, gave me some good ideas the other day about understanding the psychological needs underlying an audience’s media needs.

In the context of Detroit143, that means not only providing content relevant to reshaping the city, but gaining a more visceral feel for what our various constituencies might most appreciate from an operation like ours.

All of which leads us to tip Number 9 from Gina Bianchini: Figuring out ways we can “delight” these audiences. A tall order, but just the right focus.

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