Startups try to do this. Companies wish they could do this. But it eludes almost everyone. When you get so good at marketing that it no longer feels like marketing.
Sure, it is only popular among the people who follow tech. Yes, it may never get mass adoption. But that’s not the goal for them.
The fact that they have so many people talking about it and waiting to buy an email app (which is an understatement) at $99/year when you could get most of the same stuff for free (if you don’t mind targeted ads) is a success.
How do they do this?
From following both DHH and Jason Fried over the past few years, I think it boils down to this:
Find your core principles. Be vocal about it every day.
Do this long enough and you will build a following who strongly agree with you.
You will know that DHH and Jason Fried have few core principles if you follow them on Twitter or read their blogs/podcasts/interviews:
1. Remote work is the way forward
2. Hustle culture is toxic
3. Privacy is the most important
4. No company should have too much power
5. VCs are bad
They talk about these in some way constantly. Now, take a look at some of their products and actions:
1. A book on remote work and a remote jobs portal (WeWorkRemotely)
2. A book about how “It doesn’t have to be crazy at work”
3. Hey is a lot of things but before they spoke about any feature, they spoke about the privacy concerns with Gmail
4. They go against Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. DHH even testified in front of Congress. They can afford to do this because they are hugely profitable, are very influential in the tech community and are not backed by any VC (which VCs hate).
So when they constantly talk about monopolies and privacy concerns, they build a huge following. When they hate on VC, they get lot of criticism from VC people and startup community in general. But they also get passionate fans who agree with them.
When they build products, it is usually an extension of what they have always spoken about.
Lot of people (especially the startup community) feel they intentionally hate on things so they can market whatever they are selling. Paul Graham calls it “beef-as marketing”. Paul Graham calls it “beef-as-marketing”: https://twitter.com/paulg/status/1273233413261209600
I feel they are really passionate about what they believe in. If you intend to do something just to market your product, you cannot do it consistenly.
Whether we can agree on that or not, it is clear that this strategy works for them. At the end of the day, it is marketing. But it is marketing that doesn’t feel like marketing. And it takes lot of work.