John Caplan: Entrepreneurs (and their companies) need apostles, not search results

ImageBy John Caplan, CEO and Founder, OpenSky

Entrepreneurs (and their companies) need apostles not search results

Amazon and Google want to own all of search. Entrepreneurs initially viewed search as helpful, eagerly spending time getting into Amazon’s marketplace and optimizing to be found in Google’s search engine. But these engines turn merchants into anonymous vendors, there only to ship goods and compete with the lowest price when a consumer has specific shopping intent. Why? A search engine reduces every brand’s personality into nothing but a series of numbers. Units of data, a commodity. This is a threat to entrepreneurs and their emerging brands. To be found in a search engine, a business needs to be “on the first page” of search results.  To get on page one merchants need to either buy advertising or already be very popular as the search algorithm favors the most popular. This means that the small brand is boxed out by the big, wealthy and well-established. What they initially thought would help them, could put the small business out of business.

I believe that shopping is a personal, relationship-based experience and that online shopping experiences must be human–emotional, connection-driven, and built around relationships.  This is the foundation and basis for all commerce: people interacting with one another. It’s has worked for generations, globally. 

Whether you’re walking on Main Street in the Midwest or exploring the Marketplace in Morocco, the interaction between people is the essence of trade. People discover one another, establish trust, and engage with one another. Throughout the globe, successful merchants invest in building relationships with consumers. Rather than viewing every interaction as a transaction, they look at their network, how engaged it is, and if that network is helping them grow their business. They are investing in relationships and community. Every relationship is the atomic unit of an emerging brand. It is the difference between growth and stagnation.  With OpenSky, merchants focus on growing and engaging their followers. The more followers merchants have, the more goods they sell.  Merchants aren’t commodities at all.  They are growing their business in the way that is as old as commerce itself.  OpenSky’s August sales were up 37% over July. In August follows grew by 97% over July. Crazy Dog T-Shirts (a merchant on OpenSky) already has a $100,000+ business and 3,000+ followers and has achieved that by sharing funny photos and videos. Accessory brand YasuJutaro in less than four months on OpenSky already has more followers there than on Facebook.  Pam Gillie, YasuJutaro founder, engages with each follower individually, answering questions, creating custom pieces, and growing her business by turning followers into shoppers.  The Buttermilk Truck, maker of the best red velvet pancake mix on the planet, is engaging a national audience of followers, building their brand from their food truck parked on the streets of Los Angeles. 

As entrepreneurs we have little time and have to choose where we spend it.   I recommend you build a community of passionate advocates. 


1.  Have a brand personality and be willing to share it

2.  Create a newsletter, rich with content using MadMimi or MailChimp, sending out content weekly. 

3.  Create a tumblr and share stories and videos. 

4.  Share photos and build a community on Instagram. 

5.  Participate in regular MeetUps in your local community. 

6.  Join an entrepreneur’s community like TinShingle.   

None of these will create instant results, but they will help you build a community of passionate followers.

Across America, one experience that is free of big box stores and search are the green markets.  They flourish because big box can’t efficiently offer the local goods and crafts.  Similarly, the Shop Local movement flourishes because local businesses are our friends. The human shopping experience is quietly thriving. People want to interact and know the people who they buy from. They want to help those businesses grow.  Consumers prefer to interact with merchants.  They prefer relationships to search.  Just like on Main Street when you get to know a merchant who is behind the counter of a store you enter. A real person, there to help you.  Consumers want a relationship–not a search experience that has about as much romance as a vending machine.

Our economy has experienced an amazing 50 years of industrialization.  Goods move from the factory to the retail floor and into your home with little or no human interaction.  The largest online retailers are search engines and are as impersonal as the big box stores.  But next time you buy something from a search engine, ask yourself, “Is this the best shopping has to offer?”  For me, it’s not. 


3 thoughts on “John Caplan: Entrepreneurs (and their companies) need apostles, not search results

  1. We are ecstatic to be a part of OpenSky precisely because of the opportunity it presents for us to get to know our customers personally and share our story, our personality and our customer service in a more intimate setting. You are correct that small brands get lost in the crowd in google search results. We don’t have the advertising budget or staff to compete in that environment. Even if we did, it would not allow for the personal interaction that is so much a part of the OpenSky experience.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s