On Selling To Everyone...

guy in beanie

One of the biggest ‘marketing’ mistakes companies make is selling to everyone.*1

They see Apple, they see Nike and they think: ‘We’ll just do what the big dogs do’.

Except, Apple’s first users were friends at the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo, California. That tiny handful of early users are the ones who helped them iterate on what became the Apple 1. *2

Their first customer was the local computer store, the BYTE shop in Mountain View, California that Jobs sold a 25K order to (for 50 computers at $500).

In a similar vein, Nike didn’t sell to everyone as well.

Just like Apple, they started really specific with Phil Knight selling the first shoes out of the trunk of his car to people at tracks.

My sales strategy was simple and I thought rather brilliant. After being rejected by a couple of sporting good stores (‘’Kid, what this world does not need is another track shoe!’’), I drove all over the Pacific Northwest, to various track meets. Between races, I’d chat up the coaches, the runners, the fans and show them my wares. The response was always the same. I couldn’t write orders fast enough.

(Knight, 2016)

I could quote the entire book (Shoe Dog, info in reference) because right after what I quoted, he goes into an explanation about how he wasn’t able to sell mutual funds, encyclopedias and other things but his shoes were selling like hotcakes.

He came to the conclusion that it was because of his deep belief in the product.

I think he’s partly right. Belief can absolutely be contagious. However, that entire section to me read like finding product/market fit. He had found that connection between a great value proposition for the exact, right audience. When people are lining up and cold calling you for your product, you’re onto something. If they aren’t, I deeply believe you shouldn’t plow through but instead go back to the drawing board until it is.

So if the biggest companies didn’t even start that way, why would you?

I actually don’t think it’s arrogance but rather it’s ignorance.

It’s something you see very often even among people who claim to know better. (Like yours truly haha).

There’s something hard about choosing a specific group of people because it means excluding other potential buyers.

But you can’t market to everyone. You don’t have the time and the budget.

And even if you had, your messaging would suffer.

You can’t style yourself in a way that attracts everyone. Being edgy or looking formal are mutually exclusive and will vibe with certain people and repel others. (Which is why you should be authentic IMO)

It’s like trying to make 1 condiment that everyone likes.

You’ll end up with something that everyone tolerates but doesn’t really blow anyone’s mind.

Instead, you should make those four or five condiments which cover 80% of the marketplace in the normal distribution.

I cover this in Why Do You Want A Faster Horse?, where we talk about how Alfred Sloan turned GM around by essentially doing just that. He implemented the strategy to make multiple cars for multiple different segments directly contrasting Henry Ford’s strategy which was to make 1 car (in one color) for everyone. Ford’s strategy was the exact right strategy initially to get many cars into the hands of users quickly.

But his mistake was to refuse to adapt to the market and to keep adhering to that strategy even when the market indicated that they wanted optionality. A wonderful example of how psychological economic value creation (different cars, in different colors) beat technological economic value creation ( cheaper version of the same car) and a good reminder that we don’t get to decide what better means… our users do.

And in this analogy, our condiments represent our messaging catered to the right people.

Alternatively, another good approach is to start a few standard deviations from the mean and make something for that tiny group of outliers. Then you can use their passion for your product to slowly creep your way into bigger and bigger markets. Geoffrey Moore talks about going from early adopters to the masses in Crossing the Chasm.

So who’s it for?

What kind of person are they?

What language do they use?

And how can you make their lives better?

You get to choose all this. You get to choose who you serve.

So serve those people who have the problem you want to solve, who have the ability to pay you what you’d like to be paid and then keep the promises you’ve made. More on this in: Direct Marketing vs. Tribe Building.


*1 Many of you know that Younlings view marketing as pragmatic, behavioral psychology (PBP). The art and science of influencing human behavior to reach a specific goal. An attempt to find a creative instead of a technological solution to a problem.

Viewed through that lens, it immediately becomes apparent that marketing isn’t an ingredient sprinkled on top of the sundae when it’s done. It’s not that the product is inherently valuable and the marketing adds a little fairy dust on top of that. Instead, marketing or rather PBP is an essential part of the value creation and should be present in the ideation room from day 1. That way you can prevent building a structure on a terrible foundation and expecting a PBPist to fix it.. which might not be possible.

*2 ‘’ On March 5, 1975, Steve Wozniak attended the first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in Gordon French’s garage. He was so inspired that he immediately set to work on what would become the Apple I computer. After building it for himself and showing it at the Club, he and Steve Jobs gave out schematics (technical designs) for the computer to interested club members and even helped some of them build and test out copies.

Then, Steve Jobs suggested that they design and sell a single etched and silkscreened circuit board — just the bare board, with no electronic parts — that people could use to build the computers. Wozniak calculated that having the board design laid out would cost $1,000 and manufacturing would cost another $20 per board; he hoped to recoup his costs if 50 people bought the boards for $40 each. To fund this small venture — their first company — Jobs sold his van and Wozniak sold his HP-65 calculator.

Very soon after, Steve Jobs arranged to sell “something like 50” completely built computers to the Byte Shop (a computer store in Mountain View, California) at $500 each. To fulfill the $25,000 order, they obtained $20,000 in parts at 30 days net and delivered the finished product in 10 days. The Apple I went on sale in July 1976 at a price of US$666.66, because Wozniak “liked repeating digits” and because of a one-third markup on the $500 wholesale price.’’


Apple I. (2019). Retrieved 17 September 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_I

Williams, G. & Moore, R. (December, 1984). The Apple Story / Part 1: Early History. BYTE (interview). pp. A67. Retrieved 17 September 2019, from https://archive.org/stream/byte-magazine-1984-12/1984_12_BYTE_09-13_Communications#page/n461/mode/2up

Knight, P. (2016). Shoe Dog (1st ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster. Retrieved 17 September 2019, from https://bit.ly/2mmg04l

RJ Youngling