polar bear hunting for startups

Polar Bear Hunting to understand your target audience

Tl;dr: A simple analogy to understand who your audience is and how to define them so you can go looking for them effectively. This applies to anything, including finding a cofounder, or looking for sales prospects. I teach this to literally everyone. 

Every single time I’m on a call and they’re wondering about their target audience, or even why things aren’t working, I go to first principals, AKA the basics.

I teach them what I thought was a stupid analogy, but turns out sums up business incredibly simply.

It doesn’t matter if you are a:

  • Looking to find a CTO cofounder
  • VC who has just done your first big deal and want to figure out how to write a thoughtful blog
  • A content creator figuring out why they aren’t growing fast enough
  • A startup figuring out product market fit

This is a framework to figure out what the heck you should do to maximise your efforts.

It’s called Polar Bear Hunting.

How to Polar bear Hunt

There are three parts of the hunt:

  1. Define your Polar Bear
  2. Where does he live?
  3. What does he eat?

Here is how I explain it to people:

  • Firstly, define your Polar Bear
    • He’s 8ft tall. He’s white, cuddly, you want to hug him, but let’s face it, he’ll rip your face off!
  • Next, where does he live?
    • New York is a dumb place to look, so you know you can scratch that. It’s just not their scene.
    • You can find one in a zoo in Sudan but that is a false positive, you don’t want to look there. Yes you know there is one, but it’s just not a good use of time.
    • Now you can look in the north and south pole, whilst both look similar, you’re going to find penguins in one and polar bears in another. So you need to figure that out.
  • Finally, what does he eat?
    • Once you know what it looks like and where it is, how do you bait it to capture it?
    • You know that bears don’t eat Skittles, they don’t want that crap. They want meat. You need to know how to attract your Polar Bear.

Let’s break this down.

Define your Polar Bear

Your customers need to be defined as clearly as possible. Be as explicit as possible and even give them a name.

If you are looking for a CTO that is far from good enough. If you message me with “I’m looking for a CTO” I’m going to ignore you as you’re making me do the thinking for you.

You literally need to go so far as to write a job description. I know most don’t know, but ideally you want to even define the languages you will use. A Java developer is fairly pointless if you are building on PHP.

You HAVE to know what you are hunting for before you can go hunting. Do not underestimate how important this is. Everything else you will do is pointless if you do not know what you are hunting.

Create avatars

This isn’t a marketing blog, and this stuff has been written about extensively.

Here are three places to find customer avatar templates and to learn about how to define your Polar Bear:

There is also Google…

If you know business, and what you’re doing isn’t critical (like who you startup avatars are) you don’t need to make a crazy detailed avatar. Frequently I just do this in my head.

Where does he live?

Once you are absolutely sure you know who you are hunting for, you need to think about where you are going to go hunting.

The location doesn’t just have to be geographic, though that is of course a consideration most of the time. The location can be places such as Reddit, LinkedIN, niche sites, or even types of events.

Do not make the mistake of looking where you would look for you! You need to think like your Polar Bear. “If I was a bear, where would I be?” If you aren’t sure, ask friends, or even make a Facebook post.

If you don’t look in the right place you’re going to find penguins and all the time you expend is as futile as Trump whining about losing an election.

To really drive the point home, think about an endangered species, not just polar bears. Take a black rhino or a Borneo orangutan, you’re going to have to go to exactly the right place, and even then you’re going to be lucky to find one. I know, I’ve been gorilla tracking in Uganda and big game ‘looking’ (don’t want to say hunting, lol) in Kenya. Just because they are there does not mean you’ll even see the animals, let alone recruit them. This is going to be the case if you’re looking for that elusive technical co-founder.

You need to know where to find the people you are looking for if you have any hope of finding them.

Fish in the right pond

You’re a CEO type and you need a CTO cofounder. You hit all the startup events and you just can’t find anyone. Boo-hoo, you whine.

I did a talk at Oxford about ‘Dumb ways to die as a startup‘ and every single kid asked me after “How do I find a cofounder?”.

Firstly you need to fish in the right pond.

Look, I don’t want to stereotype but eh, smoke and fire, right?

Your prototypical geek is not at events that CEO types hang out, AKA any startup event.

They are in ponds that CTO types hang out.

For example, my buddy in Singapore found an uber nerd CTO cofounder on a Haskell forum on Reddit.

I asked the most introverted dev I have ever met what he does on weekends. He goes to Python Meetups (I’m simplifying).

If you know someone who is like your Polar Bear, do a lookalike audience by asking them where they hang out and start there.

What does he eat?

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

If you want to hire or sell to someone, they need to decide to join or buy from you.

  • If you are hiring someone, then why do they want to join you?
  • If you are selling, then what problem do they have to compel them to use your service and pay you?

You need to know what your polar bear cares about, not what you care about. If you don’t understand your audience, then you need to talk to people to understand them and learn.

Let’s say I make an add for my polar bear that lives in Florianopolis and kite surfs. If I write some copy about my winter ski gear you are going to keeping flicking through you feed. It’s not going to hit. You need to know how to speak to your audience whatever you are doing.

Create an interest profile

Once you find your Polar Bear, consider how you are going to approach them? What’s your first message going to be?

When you’re chatting you likely want to build rapport. People like people who are like them. Can you talk their talk? Do you know about contemporary events to chat about?

Do you know why they want to join you or whatever? Do you have something compelling to capture their imagination? It’s all very well to capture attention, but you need to be able to close. Why do they want to be sold?

I recommend doing some reading around the Polar Bear’s world and listing talking points if you need to.

When considering hiring developers, the languages they work on and the nature of the work is more compelling than the fact you are doing carrot delivery. Do they get to work with huge data sets, apply new technologies, are there big names that they will have the opportunity to learn from?

You don’t have to go totally overboard, but fortune favours the prepared mind.


This is not a how to guide for every situation, it’s a mental model to think about what matters in order to figure out your approximate course of action.

There is still a hella lot of work to do in order to achieve your goals. This will help you focus your activities so you waste less time on what will not result in an outcome.

You see it’s one thing to expend a lot of effort on digging for gold. It’s doesn’t matter how far you dig if you are not digging in the right place.

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