In the late 1930s a new word entered American English: Dumpster. It was a shortened form of the name of a large trash container called the Dumpmaster, made by the Dempster Brothers manufacturing company in Tennessee. Dumpsters soon became the almost universal way of collecting large amounts of waste, and somewhere along the way the redistribution of that waste became known as ‘Dumpster Diving’. Yes, people would walk past a dumpster and see a perfectly good chair in there, climb in and reclaim it. Or books, or lamps, or anything. Now in cities around the world, dumpster diving is the way many street people get their daily meals.
Also along the way, journalists, private detectives and anyone interested in exposing secrets, learned that dumpster diving was also a prime source of useful collateral. Offices would throw out files of private client information, and the trash of Hollywood stars would be raked through for interesting correspondence to sell to the tabloid newspapers. Dumpster diving could be pretty profitable, if you didn’t mind getting your hands dirty doing it. And incidentally – just to demonstrate that for every problem there will be a solution – a new industry sprang up, of making paper shredders!
And then… and then we got digital. Files of private information now rarely get thrown in the dumpster, and we have all become very careful about our passwords and access to the myriad of sites and services we use. We think of our personal computers as castles which must be protected from attack by the barbarians at the gates.
But at the same time we give away an absolute ton of data about ourselves. Completely willingly, and for free. Does it make sense? No. Can it be useful to those of us who want to get to know our audience better? Yes, absolutely.
All of the social media giants which most of us engage with daily ‘know’ a vast amount about each of us. Mostly this is not a conscious knowing, but a vast database exists of every step we take, every day. This is even literally true: when I go for a jog, the health app on my smartphone tracks every step and draws me a map. When I rent a car in a city I visit, I will receive recommendations for restaurants and hotels, and in the next city on the other side of the country, I’ll get a reminder to rent another car from my preferred company. All of this has become the new normal, and we’re no longer even surprised to find suggestions such as Amazon’s, ‘If you liked that book, you’ll love this one’. We know that our digital trace is very strong, and very deep. Our trust of the tech giants also runs strong and deep, and when they offer to remember our passwords, bank account numbers and so on, we often say ‘OK thanks’, because writing on a post-it note seems somehow so old-fashioned.
All of these slightly sinister implications turn into huge benefits for startups wishing to really get to know their audience, because the traces their audience leaves in the cyberworld are very strong, and reliable. For example, many investors are subscribers and users of professionally-oriented websites and platforms such as LinkedIn, or users of Telegram. They read or write articles on Medium and will be members of investment clubs or groups which are specifically to do with supporting new businesses. At every one of those touch-points, the investor has recorded their details and preferences. On LinkedIn for example there’s the possibility of describing yourself with great thoroughness, from ‘Background’ to ‘Skills’, through ‘Education’, ‘Projects’, ‘Honors and Awards’, ‘Languages’ and so on. You probably know the score, because you’re likely already on LinkedIn and have followed through the process.
Why do we do this? – Because there are advantages to be gained from having our contact details and skillsets on display in the shop window of the world. We want people to browse through and then network with us. Which is why data diving is so important to startups: Get the name and email address of anyone who has shown a flicker of interest in your project (by having clicked on your link), and you then have the ability to learn vast amounts about them. You want to know vast amounts because you want to communicate with them about your enterprise, and you must speak to them in the appropriate language, that they understand and resonate with. The more you do this, the more you are able to start a dialog with people as individuals. And the more dialog you have, the closer you will get to turning potential investors into real investors.
When I express this kind of logical reasoning to startups, I’m sometimes listened to as if I’m suggesting they go out into an alleyway and start dumpster diving through other people’s trash. It’s not like that: the information is all out there, freely given and freely available, and it’s incredibly valuable to new enterprises. Get data-diving and you will soon discover what a rich resource it is for finding and getting to know exactly the right audience for your business.
And I’m not talking trash.
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