Techniques used by companies such as Dropbox, Framer, and Airbnb.

Jack R. Scott
Aug 30, 2018 · 8 min read

His heart pumped a little harder as he clicked “Send” on the email. He knew they wouldn’t be happy. They had spent the last 3 months executing a massive growth strategy on their new product, and they had heaps of hits. But, the stats were deceiving. Even though they had tones of new users sign up, almost no one was interacting with the app, it was a disaster. Now he had to wait to for his email to reach his investors; sharing the bad news.

User sign-ups don’t count as a sign of startup success, they mean nothing.

Without thoroughly investigating your first users, you may end up building a product which no one wants to use. There may be many reasons why a user may not want to use your product after they have signed up e.g. it’s too confusing to use, it doesn’t solve their problem, it’s too slow, it has a bug, etc.

This article attempts to demonstrate the importance of you first few users, how to find them, and how to find issues with your product by measuring and interviewing your users. By recognising these issues, you can improve your product to a point where it adds sufficient value to the users and achieves product market fit.

☝️ Only Count Active Users

Why having a few engaged users is much better than a large numbers of silent users.

All too often, startup founders mistake user sign-ups as a measure of their startups growth or their success. This is very wrong. Anyone can be convinced into sharing their email and getting logged into a platform they know nothing about. But just because they signed up, doesn’t mean they want to use the platform. To truly count startup success, you must measure your users’ engagement.

Think about how many times you signed up to something, had a look around, and then logged straight back out, never to use the product again.

A much more accurate statistic of user engagement and success are monthly active users (MAU). In summary, a MAU is a user who engages with your app once or more, every month. This is difficult to measure early-on as it requires a few months of data. However, if you want to, you can measure weekly active users (WAU) instead. MAU is the main growth statistic used by some of the biggest tech companies in the world including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

The reason why monthly active users are a better measure of success is because these people have recognised value in your product and are returning to engage with it. Because users see value in your product, they are much more likely to pay for your services.

📈 Don’t Scale too Early

Why it’s better to wait for good user engagement levels before launching massive growth campaigns.

Unless you have amazing developers and the ability to read minds, the first version of your product is unlikely to work well with your first users. There is a high chance something is going to go wrong; the code could break, the users might get confused, the servers might crash, etc. That is why it’s important to make sure you find a good size of early testers and who you can test the product on. These testers understand that the product may break but are willing to help you in order to build a product which solves a problem they have.

Many startups have a “soft launch” of their product where only a limited number of “invited” users are able to use the software. These invited users are your testers and should be used to improve the product. Don’t worry about losing your other users though, create a waiting list which users can sign up to instead of getting immediate access to the product. This is great as it:

  1. Doesn’t give the product to users before it’s ready.
  2. Collects the contact details of users who want a solution to the problem you are solving.
  3. Helps validate the amount of interest there is in your product.

For example, Dropbox did this really well when they created a waiting list for their cloud storage service. This waiting list collected over 75 thousand emails before official release.

If the product was open the public bust wasn’t thoroughly tested by early users, that could have been 75 thousand lost opportunities instead.

Framer X is another good example of an effective way to slowly role the product out to more users. A few weeks before launching, they created a landing page demonstrating the features of the Framer X software and included an “subscribe for updates” which would collect the emails of interested users. They then posted about this landing page in a number of spots where designers would look (their target audience).

After a week or two of collecting emails of users from their target audience, they released the software to only a small batch of those subscribers. By doing this, Framer X were able to watch these users and use their feedback to help shape and improve the product before launching to the general public.

🥇 Getting those First 100 Active Users

Strategies which can be used to find your first 100 users.

Before you can start finding those first 100 active users, you must have a good understanding of exactly who your target audience is. A good example target audience is “American females between the ages of 16 to 26 who go to university and study modern history”. This audience should directly represent the people who struggle the most with the problem your startup is trying to solve.

By understanding exactly who the target audience is, you have a much higher chance of finding them and having success turning them into an active user.

Once you have your audience defined, write down at least 10 different places where you would expect to find those users. By forcing yourself to do at least 10 places, you’ll need to think outside of the box — which are usually the best places to look. Here are some good examples:

  • Product Hunt — developers, designers, entrepreneurs
  • University campus — students, teachers, academics
  • Local coffee shops — coffee drinkers, office workers
  • Facebook groups
  • Popular blogs
  • Craigslist or Gumtree — local people
  • Business workshops — business people, entrepreneurs
  • The gym — active people
  • Forums such as Quora
  • Local news papers — educated people, business people
  • Surf life saving clubs — active people
  • Popular dog walking locations — dog owners, active people

The above options don’t relate to a specific target audience but can be used as inspiration for creating your own list. Try to use as much detail as possible and try to include places that are both online and in real life — a chat with a user in person is 100x more effective than a message over chat or an email.

There are also some good places where you can find other product makers who will be willing to test out your product. However, they may not be exactly the people in your target audience and as such; won’t be as helpful or insightful. Work in Progress is a good example of a small community of product makers who will be willing to provide you insights.

Once you have listed a number of different places where you may be able to approach potential users, try approaching some of them with your product. Be honest and clear as to what you are doing and what you would like from them. If they are interested, collect their contact details so you can get in touch with them to try out your product.

📐 Measuring User Engagement to Improve

Good tips on how to monitor and get feedback from your first users.

After you collect the contact details of a group of people in your target audience, it’s time to share your product with them and see how they react to it. But before you do, you want to make sure that you have the right analytical tools in place so that you can monitor what they did and see if they encountered any problems. It is often not enough to just ask someone what happened or how they felt about the product.

People are too nice, they’ll tell you they like your product and never use it again. Use analytics to gain real insights.

There are a huge range of analytics and feedback tools which you can use. However, at such an early stage, fine tuned quantitative tools are not very effective. You need tools which can help you gain a qualitative perspective on the users. As such, tools such as MixPanel or Amplitude are not as helpful as tools such as FullStory or Lookback. Here is a breakdown of some of the tools you can use to help gain good insights on your users.

FullStory

  • Replay entire user sessions to see exactly what happened and where things went wrong.
  • See heat maps to demonstrate which features are most popular.

Lookback

  • Record users while they use your application.
  • Get meaningful insights as to what was going through the person’s head as they use your app.

Canny

  • Provide a place where your users can request features and provide helpful information.
  • Avoid getting told the same problem twice by putting everything in one place where everyone can see.

For more information on how to effectively read and use analytics, I will be making another post soon.

🔥 Summary

Getting your first customers will always be one of the most difficult part of your startup journey. However, if you focus on the delivering quality value to a specific audience, you’ll be setting yourself up for the best chance at success. In summary, good focus points are:

  1. Acknowledging the importance of finding “active” users.
  2. Understanding why scaling too early can be problematic.
  3. Always measure your audience as they’ll data always easier to read.

If you enjoyed this article, please give it a few claps (you can leave up to 50) or you can comment if you have any questions, I’ll do my best to answer! 🙌

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Thanks!


Jack R. Scott

Written by

🤔 Rethinking how our brain makes decisions 🧠 how we code products 👨‍💻 and how we run startups 🚀 da Vinci, Musk, and Jobs inspire my work..

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