[POD] Instabridge — from Zero to One Million Users without marketing

In this episode we meet up with Niklas Agevik to talk about what Instabridge has done to facilitate their rapid growth, and why he doesn’t like the term “growth-hacking”.

Niklas Agevik is the CEO of Instabridge, the world’s most popular app for finding and auto-connecting free wifi.

MY GROWTH WEEK is a podcast series hosted by HAAARTLAND. We ask marketers and growth hackers how they address practical growth marketing on a weekly basis, and what tools and processes they use.

Take me to the Podcast — From Zero to 1 Million users without Marketing!

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Transcript Interviewer: Welcome, Niklas Agevik to My Growth Week. Niklas: Thank you. Interviewer: So you are a founder of one of the most interesting startups on the Stockholm tech scene today, Instabridge. And you guys have gone from zero to 1 million users. Niklas: Yeah, 1.5. Interviewer: 1.5? Niklas: Yeah. Interviewer: Yeah? Things are going fast. You have rapid growth, and now, you raised $3 million? Niklas: Yep, yeah. Interviewer: And you’re shooting for global dominance? Niklas: That’s the plan, yeah. Interviewer: Tell us a bit about Instabridge. What does the app do and what are the benefits? Niklas: Instabridge is an app that gives you free WiFi wherever you go. And the way that we get WiFi into the app is that it’s crowd-sourced by our community. Basically, if you use one WiFi network, you can add it to Instabridge, and boom; then everybody else who is using Instabridge also gets access to that network. Interviewer: Wow. Niklas: As you mentioned, we have somewhere between…yeah, almost 1.5 million users that are using the app. They can install it, it can run in the background, and it keeps them connected to WiFi. Most our usage is in developing markets like Brazil, Mexico. And they actually use it in their homes. So I think when a lot of people in the Western world may think about WiFi they think about travel. And that is definitely a use case that we support, but it’s not our main target. Our main target is people using it in their homes to get free WiFi. Interviewer: Wow. I think this is really cool. Just my error in the beginning, I thought, like, 1 million because some weeks ago, you just rang the bell. You celebrated 1 million users, and now already, you’re at 1.5 million. So I think there are a lot of listeners who would say “How did they do it?” The purpose of this format that we were just launching, My Growth Week, is to actually look at a week of growth. How are you attacking growth? How are you working with growth during the week? What tools are you using, and maybe mistakes? And some really success stories. How does a week look in Instabridge when you are attacking growth? Niklas: I will start by saying that my role has shifted a bit right now. We’re scaling up the team and so on, so I’m trying to build a product and grow the team around me. So my personal role right now is more about getting the team to work and making sure that we are tracking the right KPIs and such, so they can be effective. But that being said, I was the only person working with marketing, product, and growth at Instabridge for almost two years, right? It’s kind of that process I’m trying to scale up. Can we go even faster if there are more people in that team? But really hard to say what I do on a day to day basis on that. But I think everything starts for me, at least, by asking some really, really tough questions around the product. Like, “Why are people using the product?” Or like, “Do they get what they want out for the product? And do they understand that they get what they want from the product?” For example, I’ll give a great example with Instabridge. A lot of people, they expect to get WiFi passwords from Instabridge. And when you say “Free WiFi,” a lot of people think that that means open WiFi, that that is a same thing. For us, it was a big challenge. You have to communicate properly with users, and then understand that, “Hey, you’re actually getting the WiFi passwords. We are unlocking a new set of networks for you.” That is what it always starts for me, asking really, really tough questions like, “Do people actually want the product?” Like, “Are you building something that users want?” Interviewer: How did you go about? In the early days…it must seem like ages ago. Now, you are at this level of success. But in the early days, when nobody heard of you, just your friends were supporting you, like, people who believed in you, how did you go about testing these hypotheses with an audience? Niklas: I’ll start by saying that when we started out, we were incredibly naive, right? We hadn’t formalized it as such. We expected growth to be something that just would happen. If you were to ask me, I would probably have said, “We’re thinking about growth in this space,” and probably would have had a good answer. But in reality, we hadn’t really worked on this level, and it really seemed like, “What does it take to take a startup to 1 million users?” Right? Interviewer: Yeah. Niklas: There’s nothing wrong with that, in being naive in the beginning. But yeah, I think the past three years has been learning about a lot about growth and what it really, really means for a startup. One thing I will say, when I came into the whole growth scene, or however you should have it, I really started thinking about what growth means for Instabridge two years or three years ago. I saw it more as a Band-Aid, like, something that you do and then you put on some growth at the end. Now, I’m thinking about it in a completely different way. It’s a core part of what everybody in Instabridge does. And yeah, everybody expects growth. It’s not something that you can just tack it on, like build the product and think that, “Oh, now we’re going to grow the product and hire a growth hacker.” I really, really hate the term “growth hacker,” by the way. It’s a weird term. Interviewer: So why do you…Let’s return to some examples on how everybody does growth inside your team, but why do you hate the term “growth hacker?” Because we’ve had other people on the HAAARTLAND Pod who said exactly the same thing. “I detest the term growth hacker.” So why do you don’t like it, or detest it? Niklas: It’s just the term “hacking.” To me, that says that there’s something that you can exploit. Like, there’s a bug in the system, and you can find a bug, and then you can get growth. Like, there’s a…it says that there’s a shortcut to it, and that is what I don’t like. Maybe sometimes, growth is you put on the system where you have invites and boom, it goes wide and everybody invites everybody. But 99 times out of 100, or rather like 99.99999 times out of 100 that is not how it works. And I see that all the time. I think that’s a risk. If you’re talking about growth hacking, you think that there’s this shortcut to get to growth. Interviewer: There is a silver bullet, there is a shortcut. Niklas: Yeah. Interviewer: If you’re just smart or savvy enough, you can get growth to happen without almost any work. Niklas: Yeah, exactly. Interviewer: That is…because it’s often like…if you look at, for example, the thing that comes to mind is 3M when they released the Post-it notes. The official story, a bit like growth hacking, the official story is they invented the product by accident, but then they brought it to market, and boom, it went viral as a physical product. But in reality, they were two weeks from killing the product, which is now like, I think, more than 50% of 3M’s turnover or something like that, don’t know the exact numbers. But it was a long, imperfect road for it to actually happen and there were a lot of people who actually touched the product and dropped the product within 3M. And then suddenly, they came up with something, but it was a lot of hard work. Niklas: Absolutely. Interviewer: If you look at growth being part of everybody’s work within Instabridge, what do you mean? Do you have any examples in that? Niklas: No, I just try to push everybody, especially within my team, to think about what growth means to them. I mean, if you are…let’s say that we are redoing our website right now. What is the purpose of the website? It is to people click that big “Install” button, you know? That is the whole purpose of the website, and you have to have that mindset. And I think sometimes, you get lost. There’s so many interesting things that you can do, that you can show, or that you can push what the team is like, or you can push all of these cool features. But is this actually contributing to growth? Are people going to push that “Install” button? And for engineers, it often means that, yes, speed…often, things have to go fast. Like, the way we work at Instabridge, in the engineering team, I don’t say that you build features. You build experiments. That is the mindset I want them to have. When we’re building something, your goal is to get this out, it should be in Google Play or the App Store, and they want to make sure what happens. Did this work or did this not work? How did this feel when it was in our hands? What did the user testing say? What do we feel when we have it in our hands. They should always expect that if you build something, it might never reach all of our users. Interviewer: Has this been like this from the start, from the early days, for you to get a lot of…because when you say that, I get this kind of big snowball…I mean, you have a lot of users now. You can tweak, you can release experiments, you can be good at measuring, good at understanding the data, or drop experiments or deploy them, or what have you. But how was it at the beginning? What did you do to actually get people to download that? How did you reach out to people, to your audience? Niklas: Well, in the beginning, they didn’t download it, right? That was the core problem. In the beginning we worked a lot of invites. We tried to get people to invite their children and such and use that. But it was tough to get that wheel turning in the beginning. It didn’t turn for a year or one and a half years. Nothing really happened. I was actually going back and looking at our presentations for that when we did the seed funding with Creandum, a Swedish venture capital firm, and some others. And it’s so funny to think that these numbers that we were told were big…I don’t remember the exact number, but let’s say that it said, “We have 1,000 users.” Now, that is what we get in a couple of hours. It’s just so funny to look back on that. But I know. It was a number of things that caused it to work. And I think we were looking for a Band-Aid in the beginning, like a silver bullet to get it working. But the reason it started to work is that we got a little…we started getting a little users…some users were actually using it, they were sharing some WiFi. At the same time, the product was getting a little better. We were becoming a little better at communicating with our target audience. We were starting to get featured in more and more press. We got some blogs starting to write about us. More people retained and started using the app longer because it was actually giving them free WiFi. They invited more of their friends. That gave us more press coverage, and then people invited even more friends, and so on and so on. It was a very, very slow process in the beginning. And then, that wheel started turning faster and faster. Interviewer: But in that case, is it correct to…when you’re telling these stories, correct to say that you invested very heavily in the product? Niklas: Yeah. Interviewer: Did you do outreach to these bloggers, or did they find you? Niklas: No. We never did outreach. They always found us. Maybe at the first launch of Instabridge, we did a lot of outreach, we tried to get in the press and such. But let’s say that it’s 100 of our users today that are from that, so that’s definitely tiny. No, I will say we focused on two things. Initially, we only focused on the product. And secondary, we started focusing more and more on the community or getting WiFi into Instabridge. So that when you did install Instabridge, you did get free Wifi from it. Interviewer: Yep. That’s interesting. Because you really focused at the core and trusted that the product’s superiority or the value proposition of the core was aligned with the user needs. Then you made it easy to share that between…and then invite other users into it. Niklas: Yeah, exactly. But “invite,” when you say “invite,” I think that sometimes, you can misinterpret that. Because you think it’s like a “Share” button, where somebody presses a button and an invite is sent. To me, an invite or like reality, you and me are having a conversation, I’m using this app, and I’m like, “Hey, Niklas. This is an awesome app that I’m using.” I’ll give you a good example of how we trigger that. One common use case for how Instabridge spread is that I’m sitting at a cafe, I’ve got two of my friends. One of them has Instabridge installed. We show a little popup saying “Hey, there’s free WiFi here.” And this is a pretty fun popup. It plays a custom sound that we designed ourselves. We actually got a sound engineer that he has a background in…he’s designed sounds for some of the biggest games in the App Store. He made a custom sound that plays. It is pretty funny. There’s little animation that plays. You actually want to show this animation. You want to show that there’s a popup to your friends, and then they install it. It’s not an invite link, but it’s like I’m telling you about this app and then you install it, and people say “Hey, this looks pretty fun. I want that, too.” Interviewer: That’s really neat. At that point, did it cost you a lot of money to do that with this custom audio? Niklas: No, not a lot. Some of these things…and that’s something I see, you’ll have to stop me if I’m going off on a tangent here. But so many things they are not that expensive. How much does it cost to design a custom sound? If you are a semi-good funded startup you can afford that. Interviewer: Yep. Niklas: Some of the people, especially here in Sweden, we spend so much time in the core product, and we don’t think about, “Let’s get the best designer in Europe to design the app icon.” Because that is what people are going to see 80% or 90% of the time. They’re going to see the icon sitting there. You’re going to show up in the search results on Google Play, and you want a fantastic icon. The big companies understand that. But for a lot of us, I see this great app, they have a great idea, but the final step that they forgot about, and it’s a shitty icon that they bought on 99 designs for $50. Same with the sound. When you think about it, it makes sense. “Of course, we should spend €2,000 on producing a sound that is going to play it a couple of thousand times per day. That can really affect the emotions about Instabridge, but it might not be obvious in the beginning. Interviewer: That’s quite odd. If you look at, for example, the car industry which is really mature, you wouldn’t expect that Volvo or Tesla or any good car maker would actually fiddle around with something and be negligent in designing, for example, any part of the car down to the floor mats. Everything should be magical. And if you look at the hardware of Apple, it’s magical stuff all through the packaging… Niklas: Exactly. Interviewer:…to the plastic they use. And so…yeah, that’s cool. Have you done any really bad mistakes? Niklas: Yes. Of course. Lots of mistakes. I don’t even know where to start. But from a growth perspective, I think that when I talk about this to you…we talk about it now, it seems like this was all very clear from the beginning. And it wasn’t. These are things we figured out as we went along. But on the other hand, I’m kind of glad that I didn’t know it, because if I knew how much work it was and how far away we were from finding growth, then I’m not sure that I would have actually done it. No, I probably would have. I’m exaggerating a bit. But I think that we were always looking at the product from a perspective as, “Okay, can we build this feature? Can we do that? If we do this, will that trigger growth?” I think that was the wrong way to look at it. Now, we look at the product in a much more continuous way. We see it as something that’s always, always progressing. I kind of half-expect everything that we do to not reach users. Like, “This is not actually going to work.” Some of the things we do, they look great on paper, we implement them, and I never released them outside of Instabridge. We might send them to user testing, we might test it on their friends. But we see already then, “No, this was a waste of time,” and that happens all the time. Having that mindset and being able to talk around that mindset and never thinking that the product is done, that is something that took me quite some time to internalize. Because if you’re overthinking in terms like, “Okay, when the product is done, I’m going to do all of these things.” Then you’re always waiting for something to do something new. Now, I don’t think in those terms. I think that, “Okay, we have this continuous process as it’s ongoing. But all of these other things need to happen simultaneously.” Building a great product, I think we really internalized what that means, and what a long process that is. Maybe I can get even better. Maybe somebody should say, “Oh, this shouldn’t take a year to build a great product. You should be able to do that in three months.” I haven’t been able to do that. Interviewer: That really hinges on one of the questions I prepared. Are there any behavioral, any key core behaviors that you think a good growth team should have? And what I sense you saying is you should run experiments. And to be able to run experiments, there has to be a really good dialogue and kind of this realization that…because often, you think you know what the product should be about for the users to pick it up and you feel that it’s self-evident. Other people in the team might think differently, but it doesn’t matter. Because it’s the user that determines what is quality and what is actually what they want to pick up. But what do you think about…Has that always been the case that you have had this experiment behavior or this experiment culture? Or did that come at the later stage? How did you implement that? Niklas: It became part of Instabridge’s core culture as we went along, because we started seeing that some of the things had a great impact and we saw that there were a lot of things that we were doing that didn’t have an impact. It just became part of that culture naturally after a while because that was the way that we were working and then we formalized it. What was I going to say? But yeah. I have to say…I am talking from an Instabridge perspective. There’s no guarantee that this is a culture that fits each and every startup. I think it really depends. We have a lot of challenges that are Instabridge-specific. Like, we have people coming in. Instabridge is not the first app they use. But maybe they’re not that used to using a smartphone, for example. They’ve never heard about Instabridge before, they’ve never seen the brand. They know that they want free WiFi. They know that they want WiFi passwords, they know that they want to be auto-connected. And a lot of our challenges are around, “How do we tell that story?” There’s so much we want to tell them about Instabridge. This is a community, it’s a big app. It’s safe, secure, you’re going to get all of this WiFi. You might have to do this and that to get access to it. And if there isn’t any WiFi, just hang on. It is going to come, right? There’s so much that you want to tell the user. And suddenly you realize, “Oh, they don’t know all of these things.” And that is so, so tough to do. Interviewer: How do you actually communicate that to the users? Is it an internal forum? Do you have videos or do you run that on the blog? How do you actually onboard people to that kind of realization? That this is all possible and this is how the bike works that you’re biking? Niklas: It’s a super-sharp funnel for us. Here’s what happens. Somebody finds Instabridge on Google Play. That’s their first interaction, or on the Apple App Store. And how does that pitch look? On Google Play, it’s like one big promo image. You have maybe one sentence, maybe ten words. Then you see a screenshot, and you see half a screenshot. That’s how Google Play works, right? You have to scroll down to see more. And I would say that maybe 80% of the users, that is what they first see of Instabridge. This half-done page with so little information. And then you really have to think long and hard. What are the key messages you want to tell us? You have the user’s attention for a couple of seconds. What are the key pieces of information you want to convey on that? Then they hit “Install.” They come into Instabridge. They get a little opportunity with a little window and when they’re clicking “Install,” they get bored because it takes them ten seconds to download an app. Because the people switch out– Interviewer: Attention span. Niklas: They go to Facebook. And then when they come back, they’ve probably forgotten what the Instabridge did. And then you have to tell them again. We do a lot of hand-holding. Really trying to minimize the amount of information that we give the user. We are working with a leveling system where we classify users into different levels and they level up. They never see this. But we have our things. “Has the user understood this?” Yes, okay, fine. Then we can start triggering these key new features, we can start showing them that. Of course everything is available and they can use it anyway. But then we sort of highlight that a little more. Interviewer: This gets me really curious. This leveling system, is this something you bought from someone else? Or is it something you invented as part of your product? Niklas: No, it’s part of the product. Interviewer: Yep. It’s not the kind…like, Intercom has this kind of feature and you can classify people. Niklas: No. I’ve never used Intercom. It sounds like a great tool. You can probably do that. But no, we haven’t done it. Interviewer: Then how do you reach them in messaging? Is it within the app you have notifications? How do you work that? Niklas: Telling somebody something…it isn’t just about writing a text, or sending a notification, having a popup in the app. It’s about…sometimes, it’s about auto-user. You stimulate your curiosity to actually tap on something. For example, if we show a screen, the first screen of Instabridge is a map, for example. And there’s a big circle that says, “5 megabits.” We try to zoom in on the WiFi. People are gonna tap on that circle. And when they tap on that circle there comes up more information, and then you learned that a circle, that there’s a WiFi spot. When I tap on it I get more information. And I understand as I say this–and everybody that listens to this will think this is super obvious. “Of course, there’s a map, there’s circles. I can tap on them, I get more information.” But you’d be surprised how many people out there that…you really have to push in this concept, and you get so locked into your own little world, you know everything about your app. You know everything about how it works. But conveying that to somebody out there is a completely different thing. One of my favorite apps to look at is WhatsApp, for example. The simplicity of the app, how clean they kept it, how hard they are on their messaging. You can really see a couple of times during WhatsApp’s lifetime, they changed the messaging, like, what they push. And you can really see how that’s reflected in all parts of the app. They’re really good at that. Somebody, my dad, can pick up WhatsApp. And he will use it, and he will understand it. That’s not true for all apps. Interviewer: I think…as things are moving this fast, probably your parents…if they can do it, that is simple enough. Niklas: Exactly. Interviewer: Yeah. It’s really interesting to hear…because you’re really drilling down on the quality of the product, and because that will then, in itself, create this snowball of users and so on. Returning to the week, how does that…it translates to a lot of meetings, I suppose, and a lot of discussions in front of a whiteboard. Niklas: Yeah. The way we try to run it, we have a design team. It’s just…we have three people, so pretty small. I wouldn’t say that we do it like that today. But what we’re trying to do is run design sprints and this is something that we got from Google Design. Where once a month or every two weeks, we try to get to it quite often. My role is usually to identify the core problem. What things are we not getting across to users? Why are they churning. What are they not understanding? Some of the things that are very hard to fix by design for example, for us is if you install Instabridge in the tiny, tiny town in rural Indiana and there’s no WiFi, it’s very hard for us to retain you and keep you using it because you’re not going to get free WiFi. But that’s fine. We can identify the user. We can identify that this is why they churn. But other times, it is that people churn because they didn’t understand something, they didn’t know how it could work, it was missing a feature that they had. So I see my role, very often, as trying to identify why did they churn? And then they run the design sprints, and we try to think about ways that, “How can we fix this?”

This sounds better when I tell it because we’re not as organized as it sounds. But that is the way that we are trying to do this, at least. We try to identify problems, and then the three of us try to sit down and identify, “What are the different solutions?” Everybody works within their own competence. We try to identify like these are the things we think we can do to solve it. And then we follow up and work on that for a couple of weeks. And then, a couple of those things, they are turned into actual experiments that we run with the engineering team. And, yeah. Sometimes, an experiment can be even without the engineering team. It can be something that I sketched down. I use a couple of tools…now, I never have the time to do it anymore, unfortunately. But I used to use tools like InVision, Sketch, and there’s another really, really good tool called Framer that I love. To really make a functioning prototype and you can show it to people. Yeah.

Then try to make it as functioning as possible, I should also add. We try to think about the copy, what does it say? Not just like write this fake text. Really, how do people perceive it with the actual text that we want?

Interviewer: Cool. You also talked about, in the beginning, KPIs, to figure out the right KPIs. Because now, why are KPIs so important?

Niklas: There is a saying…I don’t remember it now. “What you don’t measure, you can’t change,” something like that. And it’s just about being diligent about what you do. When you release a feature, when you do something, when you do a marketing campaign, what do you expect to change? You expect people to use the app more often. You expect them to use them for a longer time each time. You expect them to churn less. What is the expectation of this? And if you have the right KPIs, you should be able to track the usage or what you’re doing, like marketing-wise or product-wise or whatever towards those KPIs and see if they really, really change.

Interviewer: How often are you looking into KPIs? Is that the weekly thing or biweekly thing?

Niklas: We have a TV in our office that show the KPIs in real time.

Interviewer: All the time?

Niklas: Yeah. It’s a bit…that might not be…I really, really like it that we have it there. Everybody can see. When I come into the office in the morning, I can say “Did we have a good night? Did we get a lot of new users?” But you also have to be a bit careful. You have real time KPIs and they’re affected by so many things, there’s so much noise in it. I’m not sure it’s optimal. It is good for other reasons. But from a product standpoint, you have to look in the more longer-term than that.

Interviewer: Cool. Thank you so much for this discussion. I’m curious. What’s your prediction? Let’s get back to it in a year. Your prediction, in a year, how many users do you have at Instabridge?

Niklas: 10 million, I think.

Interviewer: 10 million? We’ll get back in a year and see if you have beaten 10 million. Thank you so much for your time, Niklas Agevik.

Originally published at blog.haaartland.com on October 20, 2015.