Chapter 20: Creating Interest

Selling to people who actually want to hear from you is more effective than interrupting strangers who don’t.

Seth Godin

Since deciding to write this book, one of the most common questions that I’ve been asked is, “How did you get your first customers?” Unfortunately, I can’t offer a simple answer. The short version is that I spent years blogging and giving things away. That helped build an interested audience, but even that was only one part of the equation.

In the four years since launching Sifter, we’ve yet to find a silver bullet to reach new customers, but from what I can tell, it’s been some combination of hard work, regular blogging, a bit of advertising, and a lot of luck. We don’t aggressively market Sifter, and I don’t think we ever will. As time goes on, we’re doing relatively less and less advertising.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the answer that people are looking for. One of the most common excuses that I hear is “So and so was able to launch something because they had thousands of Twitter followers — I can’t do that.” That’s a pretty shortsighted way of looking at it. Yes, they have thousands of Twitter followers, but that’s usually after years of work. That doesn’t happen by accident. If you think there’s a chance that you may want to launch something two or three years from now, you should start blogging and sharing today. Contribute to open-source projects. Give away information and build an audience. The rest will take care of itself.

Of course, it doesn’t happen overnight — it takes time, but it’s not impossible. If you don’t want to do that, you should plan on having to spend a significant amount of cash just for your marketing. Depending on the size and quality, I’d guess that an engaged audience amassed through years of blogging could easily stack up against $40,000–$50,000 in advertising. It’s up to you.

Whenever someone asks this question, I get the impression that they’re hoping for a silver bullet like, “We bought a hundred-dollar ad, and we had more customers than we knew what to do with.” Leading up to our launch, I had been blogging on and off for years, had a moderate following on Twitter, and had spent a little bit of cash on generating awareness. I was also blogging specifically about Sifter for about a year before our launch. It wasn’t always captivating reading, but it definitely resonated with some people. Those individuals became the springboard for launching Sifter.

In August I started writing some blog posts about some design concepts for a bug tracker. It was entirely on a whim, and I wasn’t really sure whether I was ever really going to do anything with it. At that point, I had about six thousand subscribers to my blog and about two thousand followers on Twitter. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough.

The blog posts began circulating among the right groups of people, and before I knew it, I was starting to learn just how many people were interested in these mockups. After giving it a lot of thought and after talking with friends, I decided to build Sifter. We put up a placeholder page to collect email addresses from people who were interested, and over the course of about eight months, almost a thousand people signed up for the announcement. That really helped.

On our launch day, about 50 percent of our visits were from people visiting the site directly, and another 17 percent of visitors found the site through retweets of our announcement. A few months after our launch — after having added a few additional features like file uploading and searching — we sponsored the Daring Fireball RSS feed for $2,500, and it brought us another spike almost equivalent to launch day. Within a few months, we were making several thousand dollars a month. It wasn’t mind blowing, but it was more than enough to pay all our bills and still have a fair amount left over.

I hope that I’ve provided some context to help you set your expectations and plan your launch. The short version is that there’s no silver bullet. It takes ongoing effort and planning to reach your first customers. You’ll want to spend time planning how you’re going to reach people throughout the process of building the application. This isn’t Field of Dreams. “If you build it, they will come” is a poor strategy.

Continue to Chapter 21: Paid Advertising

This is a chapter from the first edition of Starting + Sustaining, a book about bootstrapping a successful hosted web application business. The second edition, a massive update, will be out in Spring of 2017. You can subscribe here to be notified when it launches.