Entrepreneur Dylan Ogline spills the beans on how to get people to tell you how to sell to them.
“Let me tell ya, if I had three wishes, I would use all three of them to get my students to stop building businesses before they have talked to a single one of their target customers,” Dylan Ogline said.
The students in question are aspiring entrepreneurs, who signed up for Ogline’s coaching program Agency 2.0 in hopes of catching some of the fairy dust that led Ogline to become the founder of a seven-figure digital marketing agency by the time was 30.
“Nearly all of them come to me with some product halfway through the ideation phase,” he said, “or half a website for a niche service. They’re usually very excited about it, and they’ve devoted months to it. Sometimes years.”
“I always ask them ‘How do you know people will buy that?’ They launch into some long rationale, but I stop them and say ‘Have you asked them?’ Meaning, their target market. Have they even asked one of the people they want to sell their thing to? Usually, the answer is ‘no.’”
Running to Stand Still
To Ogline, this is the definition of putting the cart before the horse. “Why would you spend five seconds developing a product before you know someone — anyone — is chomping at the bit to buy it?”
Ogline learned this lesson the same way most entrepreneurs learn most lessons — the hard way. As one of a series of failed businesses before he struck paydirt with his agency Ogline Digital, Ogline spent months developing a jobs posting website, only to discover that the market wasn’t crying out for a new jobs posting website.
“I could have saved myself some time if I had asked even one job hunter,” Ogline said. “Or one hiring manager.”
“But I was in love with my idea,” he continued. “At the end of the day, I think I was scared to be told that my idea was no good.”
“But I found out eventually. The market eventually tells you, one way or another. The only question is, ‘How much time and money do you want to expend learning that lesson?’”
When The Heater Breaks
The story of Ogline Digital, not surprisingly, is very different. It begins with a broken heater.
Freezing in his basement office in rural Pennsylvania, Ogline needed an HVAC repairman so he could continue cobbling together his businesses without succumbing to hypothermia. Ogline marveled at the competence of the technician who quickly showed up and got his heater working again.
“I bet he never burned months designing a jobs-posting website before he built a successful business,” Ogline joked.
Impressed by his work and demeanor, Ogline invited the HVAC technician out for a beer afterward. At the bar, the tech dropped the key insight — “I don’t mind doing repairs, but I wish I had more install jobs. It’s a lot more money considering the amount of work I have to put in.”
Successful businesses solve problems. That’s what people pay them for — not the product or service for its own sake, but the solution to a problem. Over a beer, this HVAC tech had just dropped a huge problem in Dylan’s lap — one that he could solve.
“Forget digital marketing,” Dylan said. “If I could figure out how to get this guy more install jobs — more of the kinds of jobs he actually wanted — he would be a client for life. If I could then get ten more HVAC companies and do the same for them, I would be set for life. Sure that’s oversimplifying but I knew I was on to something.”
The Importance of Product-Market Fit
Product-market fit. It’s something of a mantra at Agency 2.0. “I want my students building products and services that people already want to buy, and that starts with finding problems to solve.”
But how do you know if someone will buy a product before you build it?
“Get out of the workshop and ask them!” Ogline said. “It’s not rocket science. I found out about the heater repairman and getting more install jobs by talking to him. By taking an interest. You have to get curious about your target market, and not be afraid to talk to them.”
It’s actually better if you don’t have an “idea for a business,” Ogline said. That way, your mind isn’t tainted by biases and ego investments.
“If a student comes to me and says ‘I have no idea what kind of business I want to start,’” Ogline said, “I say ‘Good! Now you can start looking for problems to solve instead.”
In fact, Ogline is a fan of selling a product before it has even been designed yet.
“Some of my students think it’s unethical to sell something that doesn’t exist yet,” Ogline said. “But if you are willing and able to create it, it isn’t unethical at all. It’s just payment in advance. A presale. Bottom line — if someone wants to buy it now, before you even develop it, you know you have product-market fit. Then it is well worth the time and money it would take to develop the product!”
Becoming a Problem-Solver
So what if your heater doesn’t break? How do you get to talking about people?
“Life may drop an opportunity in your lap like it did for me, with my broken heater,” Ogline said. “You just have to open up your ears and learn to hear it. But if you don’t want to wait for life, go out into the world and start asking questions.”
In other words, pick a niche you enjoy and start asking people in that niche what problems they need solved. Cold outreach can work, but warm outreach is better. Ask friends and family for referrals. Join networking groups. Try to get an introduction — people tend to answer cold emails where you name-drop the person who referred you, because then they know that ignoring you might blow back on them.
Most importantly, get people talking about their problems, and look for one you can solve.
“Your new favorite question should be ‘What’s the most annoying part of your day?’ Or ‘What’s your least-favorite thing about your job?’ Multimillion-dollar businesses are hiding in the answers to those questions.”