The Bootstrapped Founder

Goodhart's law is powerful and important to remember for every creator: when a measure becomes a target, people tend to optimize their behavior to meet that target, which can lead to unintended consequences. You'll see examples of this law in action, including in education and social media, and learn the negative consequences of over-optimizing for follower count. But I won't let you go without prevention methods and tips for building a quality audience on social media.

00:00:00 Intro
00:01:51 Goodhart's Law
00:03:28 The Pitfalls of Focusing on Follower Count
00:07:32 The Negative Consequences of Over-Optimizing for Follower Count
00:09:18 Prevention Methods
00:12:16 How to Build a Quality Audience on Social Media

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This episode is sponsored by Fathom Analytics.

Creators & Guests

Arvid Kahl
Empowering founders with kindness. Building in Public. Sold my SaaS FeedbackPanda for life-changing $ in 2019, now sharing my journey & what I learned.

What is The Bootstrapped Founder?

Arvid Kahl talks about starting and bootstrapping businesses, how to build an audience, and how to build in public.

[00:00:00] **Arvid:** Hello everyone and welcome to the Bootstrapped Founder. My name is Arvid Kahl, and I talk about bootstrapping, entrepreneurship, and building in public. Before we talk about the risks of focusing too much on follower accounts today, let me talk about our sponsor, fathom Analytics.

[00:00:17] Fathom is the perfect fit for today's episode, really, because their mission is to track only the meaningful and impactful metrics of your website without compromising the privacy of your visitors. As you might know, I run a little software as a service business on the side too called Permanent Link, and I track my visitors there with Fathom as well.

[00:00:35] In fact, even the landing pages for my books and my courses are using Fathom too. So I used it in all my properties and I used to use Google Analytics before. Boo. I know. And it was, impossible to use really, and it was a privacy nightmare, as we all know, by how quickly they reacted to the European privacy changes by pulling their software.

[00:00:57] Fathom is the exact opposite. It's easy to [00:01:00] use, it's simple but powerful and it's privacy first. And I value these things. And it's an indie hacker project as well. A few weeks from now, you will hear one of the two co-founders, Jack Ellis, on this show. We'll chat about how building a privacy first company becomes possible when you have no outside investors to appease.

[00:01:19] And Jack Co-founded Fathom with Paul Jarvis, who is one of my favorite authors in the indie hacker space as well. He wrote Company of one, a book that I recommend a lot. So there you have it. Fathom is the Simple Privacy First Alternative to Google Analytics. I use it, you should use it. So go to

[00:01:38] That's U S E F A T H O M .com. It will be very good for your metrics. And now let's look at the not so good approach to dealing with metrics.

## [00:01:51] Goodhart's Law

[00:01:51] **Arvid:** "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." These are the famous words of economist Charles Goodhart, who [00:02:00] introduced this concept in 1975. The idea is that when a particular metric is used to describe progress towards some goal, people tend to optimize their behavior to meet that target. That itself is not the problem. The issue is that this optimization can turn counterproductive and lead to unintended consequences. A classical example of good Hearts law in action is the education system. In schools, grades are often seen as the most important measure of success.

[00:02:30] It certainly was when I was in school, and as a result, students like myself back in the day, focused their efforts on studying to pass a test rather than learning for their own long-term benefit. And this happens because passing the test is the target, getting the grade not actually learning and understanding the material.

[00:02:48] People have exceptional grades because they study so well, but they understand nothing a couple weeks after the tests are over. I don't think that's the goal of education, but it is the [00:03:00] optimized system that we've put in place. And no wonder people have lost a joy of learning and reading. We made it irrelevant to what it means to be educated.

[00:03:09] And today we see Goodheart's Law in action in the world of social media. On platforms like Instagram or Twitter, people are dreaming of these sizable audience that they're building these follower numbers, massive counts of followers, but when follower accounts become the target, it can lead to undesirable outcomes.

## [00:03:28] The Pitfalls of Focusing on Follower Count

[00:03:28] **Arvid:** For example, people tend to over-optimize for follower accounts in what they do, and that results in many low quality followers. These followers may not actually be interested in the content being produced, but they're merely following in the hopes of receiving like a follow back or something else that benefits them, like winning a contest or getting a free download link.

[00:03:49] Optimizing for follower account alone does not create meaningful relationships. It makes for shallow ones at best, and they end up creating very few opportunities for [00:04:00] growth down the road for anyone involved really. And that means it's a huge mistake to put quantity over quality. Here's why so many people still fall for it.

[00:04:10] While follower counts can be easily measured, the depth of a relationship cannot. But how strong your connection is ends up being way more important than your number of followers. It's the quality of each relationship that matters. It's not how many of them you have. It's just like with real life friendships.

[00:04:28] When you're in trouble, your select few faithful and most loyal friends, well they will be there for you, not the thousands of acquaintances that you made along the way. Humans require meaningful connection in their lives, and they will put in the work to make these relationships valuable if they are reciprocated.

[00:04:47] Don't gloss over the depth of the connections you forged, even if it's just on Twitter, they are still actual relationships. Another factor for over focusing on follow accounts is the loss aversion bias that [00:05:00] we all exhibit in some way, and it's amplified by discreet data. What this means is that the emotional impact of a dip in your follower numbers is extremely noticeable because you track them daily on some dashboard, or you look at Twitter and you figure out how many new people you got in your following every single day.

[00:05:17] And if you see your numbers go down even just a little bit, it hurts. But when we look at real life relationships, we don't have the same problem. There's a natural ebb and flow for that relationships have, and it's much more subtle. Some days people are in a good mood and other days they're not. We expect that to be the case every day, but the moment we see that follower can dip by even just one person, we freak out. So stay off the metrics, or at least measure something that doesn't have discreet real time numbers. It's better to use these unmeasurable factors as the north star of your audience building journey.

[00:05:53] Things like the quality of the relationships you build over time. The size of the opportunity surface that the relationships create [00:06:00] eventually, and the perceived desire for reciprocation between you and your audience. None of them are easy to measure, but they all contribute to a fulfilled audience building journey.

[00:06:10] They're perceived, right? They're not discreet. There's something that you feel: do I feel more engaged. Am I more engaged? You can count it in a way. You can see how much meaningful engagement there is in your day, but it's really hard to measure compared to the simplicity of those follower counts. And that highlights another problem of focusing on just the follower count.

[00:06:30] Other important and more specific measurements are completely neglected. It's never just one number that can describe something as complex as a massive web of interpersonal connections, but people see it and they think it does, and it's also a recursive problem. Because even if you look at other metrics, you might look into something that's way too general.

[00:06:50] For instance, you might want to focus on the frequency of engagement with your audience, and that's good, right? Your engagement and how often you do it well, yeah, but it [00:07:00] also glosses over the actual value that a virtual relationship is supposed to produce for everyone involved. People on the internet yell at each other all the time, and that's the relationship too, but it's not a very useful one.

[00:07:14] That's what you get when you're looking at the frequency of engagement rather than its quality. You end up optimizing for pointlessly overblown exchanges and content that creates outrage and dissent because it drives engagement even though it drives low quality engagement, and that's a net loss for everyone.

## [00:07:32] The Negative Consequences of Over-Optimizing for Follower Count

[00:07:32] **Arvid:** At its worst, this obsession with follow count can lead people to literally buy into the hype: they buy followers, which artificially inflates the numbers. And this is another clear example of how Goodheart's law can be perverted because those followers are not real people. And building an audience is about attracting human beings so they can find you and your work.

[00:07:53] A high follower count might signal credibility, and that's why most shady audience builders [00:08:00] buy followers, but a real person can quickly tell if your audience is legit or not. So you only attract followers who are either bots, machines, or humans with minimal capacity to judge good from bad, and you don't want those people.

[00:08:15] It's a big net loss. You don't wanna perform in front of either of these groups. We've seen the long-term effects of such a kind of optimization play out over the last couple decades, and it's very visible because we use it every day. What I'm talking about is SEO. Because Goodhart's Law is very evident in search engine optimization.

[00:08:36] If you try to find a cooking recipe online, you will come across whole essays leading into what then ends up being just like a two-step recipe with a couple ingredients. This is what happens when we optimize for the Google Page rank algorithm. The content becomes tailored to the algorithm, not to human reading it.

[00:08:56] In our efforts to make our recipes more visible, [00:09:00] we made them less accessible, and then we kicked into a whole other gear. When people thought they understood the secrets of seo, they started bot farms and traded links with each other, all to please the algorithm instead of just creating more interesting websites, the thing that we actually want to find on Google.

## [00:09:18] Prevention Methods

[00:09:18] **Arvid:** So how do we stay clear of this mistake when building an audience? The key is to be aware of Goodhart's Law and to actively work against it. It starts with how well we can isolate our follower counts from our personal identity. Your worth does not rely on followers and the big crowd around you doesn't make you more important.

[00:09:39] What matters is what you do with the people who care about you. For this, frame your emotional reaction to follower counts up or down as something less important than having a good conversation every day. Make your interactions count qualitatively by ensuring one in-depth daily exchange [00:10:00] instead of having 20 shallow ones.

[00:10:03] Don't keep follower numbers visible for the dopamine hit. Loss aversion will kick you in the face should this number ever drop, and it will occasionally drop, particularly as you find more followers. Little anecdote here. I recently hit a hundred thousand followers on Twitter, which still blows my mind, but in the days leading up to it,

[00:10:23] It was like at 99,900, and then one day after, it was at 99,850 or something. I guess Twitter cleared out a couple bots that may have been following me and the number dipped and I felt it. It was like, oh wow. Why did 50 people just leave? I was so close to getting to my goal. It was a totally pointless thought, and I was glad that I caught myself, but that's what happens if you focus on this number. The loss aversion of 50 people was so strong compared to the almost literally hundreds of thousands of people that I've gained over a couple years. It blew my mind when I recognized how limited I was in that moment, how I [00:11:00] was kind of keeping myself from enjoying what I already had.

[00:11:03] So don't check too much and don't get things like the LaMetric time LCD screen, like these displays that show your numbers in real time, that many, many Twitter users like to have.

[00:11:15] They are kind of cool, grant you that, and they're a pleasant diversion and might even be encouraging initially when you see like your first couple hundred people, but hey, they will pull your focus towards the quantity, not the quality of your relationships. And that is never a good thing if you wanna build an audience, particularly in the beginning when you want to be really present for people to engage with you.

[00:11:37] So don't get these screens, don't keep your numbers visible. Also, measure more than just one thing. If you want to track your followers, also track how often you feel intellectually engaged. Every single day, measure something that you can actually personally impact something that doesn't require somebody else to make that move, like following you.

[00:11:57] If you need to track something, just pick [00:12:00] something positive, something practical and empowering that you have agency over, and that is how well you have conversations with people. For example. There are many other things, but engagement is one of these things. Just feeling it and being happy about it.

[00:12:14] That's something you should track.

## [00:12:16] How to Build a Quality Audience on Social Media

[00:12:16] **Arvid:** Tracking, tracking, tracking. I know it's so easy to become fixated on numbers and metrics, you can take a screenshot and post your wins so quickly. On Twitter, we need to remember that these metrics are not and should not be the end goal. Instead, our focus should be on creating meaningful relationships and producing valuable content for the people who choose to pay attention.

[00:12:36] The goal should never be to only amass as many followers as possible because what's the point? What are you gonna do? That's what they will wonder before they hit that follow button. So being in your audience alone already needs to give them something useful. And fortunately that's an area you have control over.

[00:12:53] So focus on building this community of engaged and interested individuals around you. Introduce them to each other. [00:13:00] Celebrate when they are kind and helpful to new followers of yours. And this means creating content that is valuable, informative, and most of all relationship forming, rather than simply trying to game the system by posting controversial or sensational content.

[00:13:16] The relationships coming out of that are haters trolls in your comments. So there's not gonna be much community there, and people won't trust you if you are playing a role on Twitter. If you're a persona. There is a need for authenticity for communities to form in a world where social media can be highly curated and is very selective

[00:13:38] it's essential to be genuine and honest with the audience. People can tell when someone is not being authentic which will lead to a loss of trust and a reduction in engagement, both with you and with each other. Audience building is not this one size fits all approach that some people claim it to be. People use social media differently [00:14:00] within and between the platforms.

[00:14:02] Different tools required different strategies, and what works for one person may not work for another. That's why it's essential to experiment with different approaches and find what works best for you. But successful audience builders have one thing in common. They focus on engagement rather than follower count.

[00:14:19] It's kind of ironic, but you will see this with the accounts that have a lot of followers too. They don't boast about their numbers, they engage with people. They take the time to respond to comments and messages. They engage in conversations with their followers honestly and intentionally on their level, and they create content that encourages engagement and relationship building.

[00:14:42] Remember that building a quality audience just takes time. It's not something that will happen overnight, and it requires constant effort and dedication. You'll have to be patient and persistent and not give up when results don't come quickly because they never will, and they're not easily measured either.

[00:14:59] When it comes to [00:15:00] engaging with people, I have one central rule. You will hear the philosophy nerd at this point coming out. It's a lesser known formulation of Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative from 1785. It's called the Formula of Humanity, and it goes like this.

[00:15:17] "So act that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means." When it comes to making friends online, this rule requires me to always think of the other person's benefit in anything I do. I will ensure that any comment I write doesn't just serve me.

[00:15:40] It has to help them too. They cannot just be an enabler for my own success. They have to succeed from it as well. Anything I post, anything I say, I have to find a way to make it worthwhile for someone else at the same time, and not optimizing for the wrong things is part of following that rule. In the end, Goodhart's [00:16:00] Law is an important concept to keep in mind at all times. It's easy to become fixated on numbers and metrics. We have to remember that these metrics should not be the end goal. Instead, our focus should be on creating valuable content, engaging honestly with our audience, and building a community of interested and engaged individuals around us.

[00:16:21] By keeping these principles in mind, you will create a successful and sustainable social media presence that delivers real value to your audience, that really wants to connect with you.

[00:16:34] And that's it for today. Thank you for listening to the Bootstrapped Founder. You can find me on Twitter at @arvidkahl

[00:16:41] You'll find my books and my Twitter course there as well. If you wanna support me and the show, please subscribe to my YouTube channel and get the podcast in your podcast player of choice. And please leave a rating and the review by going to Any of this will help the show and if you can find the time since you're still [00:17:00] here, that's really nice, please go to Apple Podcasts and give the show a five star rating and a review if you find the time for that. That is extremely helpful cuz that's the platform where most people listen to this show. So thank you very much for listening and have a wonderful day.

[00:17:15] Bye-bye.