How we grew from zero to one million users, without raising a single dollar in Venture Capital

Aug 21, 2018 · 6 min read

It’s been a few weeks since we reached a major milestone — RocketReach now has well over One Million registered users. For a 2 year old SAAS company started by a bunch of “developers”, we’re pretty stoked about how far we’ve come.

It’s been a crazy ride so far. We did lots of things wrong, but we also got a few things right (sometimes even intentionally).

Ode to the Stapler

It’s late 2015 — Andrew & I have been working in a job which was, at best unmotivating, at worst … much worse. We’d spent 2 years building a product which had been “in stealth”, for essentially, a majority of those 2 years. The product team was operating in a vacuum, without any real world feedback. Product direction was determined primarily on management whim, which wavered pretty frequently.

We knew we wanted to get out of there. Andrew & I spent our lunches brainstorming ideas. There were many ideas — RocketReach wasn’t one of them. We hadn’t really settled on anything yet, but staying on the job was getting unbearably painful. One fine morning… I rage quit. In retrospect, that wasn’t very smart.

I was a 36 year old immigrant, without much of a financial safety net, a mortgage, a 3 year old child, and barely a few months into my green card. We also had no concrete product idea, no direction. Those initial months, where we were unfunded, had no product, no traction, and burning through our meager savings, was probably the most stressful period of my life. I never knew you could be in physical pain from stress. This would have been much easier to do when we were childless, mortgage-less, energetic and in our 20s. But as a legal immigrant, that wasn’t possible (more about that in a future blog post).

At some point we decided we’d start a company called “Panelly” to help product teams recruit user research panels. We even had a cool domain — The plan was to build an MVP (Minimum Viable Product), get traction, and raise money — simple right? VC capital was very appealing. It would take the financial pressure off, and allow us to hire faster and build faster.

Flight of a kakapo

Things, quite unsurprisingly, did not go according to plan. We had some pilot customers, including some prominent ones like 6 months in though, and we’d only made about $15 in revenue. It was time to be honest, and pivot. This, despite how much people talk about it, is always difficult. These conversations can be contentious, and testing, and painful. But the alternative isn’t ever any better.

It would take us many more months of user feedback and testing to build a product that people would actually use. By the time we got any meaningful traction on our product, it’d been about 12–15 months or so.

This meant that for a majority of this period, we operated without any real capital.There were many things we did not have. No swanky office, no free lunches. Most of the time, we worked from an illy cafe down the street. The upside was that it also forced us to be very frugal and very creative. We couldn’t afford to spend 100s of 1000s of dollars on Facebook or Google ads. We couldn’t hire designers. It was 3 of us, and we had to figure out a way to do everything from development, to design, testing, marketing, sales and customer support.

Too cheap to pay $75

As panelly was failing, and we were trying to figure out our next move, we started talking to our existing customers, to potential customers, and pretty much anyone nice enough to talk to us. We also had to figure out a way to test our ideas, without spending any real cash.

What we came up with was a pretty simple hack.

  • We’d put up a simple landing page with two things: A value proposition, and a “sign up” button. E.g. “Face yoga on demand, for $12/month subscription — sign up below”. When they signed up, they’d be told that they were in a waiting list, and they would receive an invite when the product was ready. This way we didn’t have to build an actual product — just a landing page.
  • We needed to attract users to validate these product ideas. This was much harder. We could buy some traffic on google, but again — no money. However, there was a loophole. Google gives you $75 in credits for each new google account. So in theory, if you create 100 accounts, you have $7500 of ad spend on google for free. This is something which I will neither confirm nor deny, that we ever did 😉

And that’s how it started. One of the products we experimented with was called RocketReach.

The google ads were worded:

RocketReach — a look-alike modeling tool that will help you turn your first 5 customers into your next 100 customers.

This product beat out all the other ideas. We had a winner…and also — we had a ready list of potential leads that we could convert to paying customers. That was the genesis of what RocketReach is today. It evolved over time and we realized that most of our users cared much more about contact discovery rather than the look-alike models.

Ask and you shall receive

Around Feb 2016, we decided to focus more on the contact discovery piece. We still had no money. We tried a bunch of tactics/hacks to get traffic. A few of them worked.

There were 3 key things that happened next which laid the foundation for the amazing growth which would follow soon after.

  • Quora was an awesome place for us to find customers when we first started out. One of our employees started answering questions on Quora, which started driving traffic to our site, which slowly turned into paid users.
  • One of those new users was part of 500 Startups. We ended up doing a partnership with 500 Startups, where RocketReach was offered to every 500 Startups portfolio company. This was a pivotal moment as we signed up some amazingly useful and influential customers.
  • One of those customers, unbeknownst to us, “hunted” us on Product Hunt. We got a bunch of upvotes from there, and became a top 10 Product of the day. (Which was awesome!!) But, unfortunately, we were simply not prepared for that kind of traffic, andour site actually went down for a few hours.

That day we signed up around 20K users, and never looked back.

And we’re not slowing down anytime soon! With exciting new features on the horizon you won’t want to miss what comes next for RocketReach! So stay tuned for more updates, best practices, and tricks of the trade that got us to where we are today. Till next time.


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