Four Lessons Learned Creating Content for a Failed Startup

“Failure is success if we learn from it.” – Malcolm Forbes


It is now common knowledge that ninety percent of startups fail. That is a particularly harrowing statistic for me as a freelance writer who specialises in working with new companies. It means that nine out of ten of the clients I work with are doomed to failure.

I hadn’t really considered that until recently – when a startup venture I was part of went the way of the ninety percent.

Now, the experience of failure is not alien to me. Far from it, in fact. I have had to resign more than a few of my business attempts to the scrapheap. But, my none of my personal failures affected me quite as much as being part of someone else’s failure did. Oddly, the latter felt much more personal.

Creating content for a failed startup taught me several lessons that have made me a better content writer. These lessons, I am sure, could also help you to steer your new venture clear of the startup graveyard.


Lesson 1 – Content Marketing Strategies Are Not Universal


High on the success of his business in Japan, my client came to me with plans for replicating that formula for an international audience. The strategy was simple – create content for an English speaking audience on topics that will give them a “happy life.”

Topics included technology, fashion, health & fitness, travel, dating, and making money. It was a bold attempt to cover practically every topic that a Westerner might have an interest in.

I spotted some problems with this plan right away, but the client had already experienced success with this method and he was convinced that it would replicate in English-speaking countries. Unfortunately, the very same method that resulted in success in Japan meant failure for the international venture.

Despite three great content writers working daily to fill the site with awesome content, hardly anyone else saw what was produced. We attempted to write for everyone and ultimately reached no one.


“If you sell to everyone, you actually sell to no one” – NewsCred


I feel especially guilty here because I should, perhaps, have been more insistent that the client tried to adopt a more focused approach. I already knew the perils of trying to serve everyone thanks to books I’d read and my previous attempts at business. But I was persuaded by the fact that the client already had a successful venture based on the same premise.

Needless to say, there are so many lessons to take from this. The main lesson being that content marketing strategies are not universal: be that across border, demographic, or language. It is important to study each new audience to figure out what strategy will work best for them.


Lesson 2 – Great Content is Not Enough


In the beginning, the message was to create content and lots of it. Then came word that churning out tonnes of content won’t cut it – the focus should be on producing “great” content. If you could produce tonnes of amazing content, all the better.

Great content is, of course, subjective, but providing you know what your audience deems great, you should most certainly be focusing on giving them that. But, producing fantastic content will not be enough. Why? Because consumers are already spoilt for choice in that regard.

Your competitors are likely focused on winning the content production battle and as a result, your target market is probably feeling the strain from content overload – if they aren’t yet, they soon will be. That doesn’t mean consumers no longer need content; it means they won’t necessarily come searching for it.

As Jonathon Perelman said, “Content is king, but distribution is queen and she wears the pants.” That means distribution plays a big role in content marketing. It is just as important as the content creation. I wrote an article about this recently, entitle “With Great Content, Comes Great Responsibility.”

That article, in a nutshell, suggested that creating great content is the first step towards establishing your brand. Content creation itself will not achieve much, though. You need a solid content distribution strategy to succeed in today’s competitive environment.

The distribution includes going to where your target audience is and delivering the content directly to them. One of the most powerful tools for distribution is social media, but you can also consider other mediums such as video and podcasts.

One of the primary reasons for the failure of my client’s venture was poor distribution strategy. Most of the budget went towards content production and virtually nothing reserved for distribution.

There were social media accounts set up, but they were used improperly; content was shared but no audience was targeted. All of which meant the site languished in obscurity with only a few visitors ever seeing the great content I, and the other writers, created.


Lesson 3 – Imaginative Images Ignite Content


Ah, pictures; those brilliant painters of a thousand words. As a content writer, I have long since understood the importance of images in written content: They help to break up the text, adds visual context to the writing, and has some SEO benefits.

My client was also aware that images would play a key role in the content production. He had procured a membership package with Adobe stock images. It meant that we, the content creators, could get access to a range of images for each of our pieces.

That seemed like a great idea at first, but then something odd happened. As the site became populated with content, it took on a rather faked look. All the featured images were stock images, and most of them looked exactly like stock images.

As a writer, I shouldn’t admit to this, but the appearance of all those featured stock images on a website is indescribable. Suffice to say the images did nothing to ignite the content.

That isn’t to say that stock images are out of the picture, so to speak. It just means that extra care needs to be taken when choosing images. It is important to choose stock images that do not look like stock images at all. That, like everything else associated with content production is a fine art that can be learnt.


Lesson 4 – Titles Will Make or Break Content


When I first started writing, titles were mostly an after-thought. The focus was primarily on the content. I figured that if the content were good enough, no one would care about the title. In fact, the opposite might be true. A good title dictates everything. Whatever your views of sites like Buzzfeed, with their aggrandized titles, there is no denying the success.

Not everyone understands the importance of titles. I dare say, I didn’t grasp the full importance before working on the recently failed project. The topics we were covering were amongst the most competitive in the world. Regardless of the subject angle, I wanted to cover there were already a dozen other articles published.

I quickly realised that the only thing that could entice a reader to my article would be a more compelling title than the competition. That is not necessarily an easy feat without succumbing to the temptation of following in Buzzfeed’s footstep.

Overall, I don’t think enough attention was paid to titles for the content on my client’s website. That was not the main reason for the failure, but it was an important factor.

Readers decide whether to click on an article and read or skip to the next on their list solely based on the title. It doesn’t get more important than that.

I, like most people, hate to fail. I will always avoid it as best as I can. However, there is no denying the powerful learning potential that accompanies failure. If you have the opportunity to let someone else’s failure be your teacher, all the better.