It depends how competitive the field is. If there are not many other high profile sites targeting the same topics, you can often get a first page ranking just for having good content. On the other hand, if you're going after a generic topic that has lots of competition, you're going to struggle, no matter what strategies you use, but you'll certainly need to work harder at it.
Also remember that you don't have to build backlinks to get backlinks. I have lots of inbound links pointing to pages on my website that I haven't asked for, because other webmasters have found my site and wanted to link to it because they felt it would help their visitors. Of course, that assumes that your site can be found in the first place, so it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation.