Building a Userbase from Scratch
Or how to work hard to achieve reasonable results
After weeks and weeks of furious coding your product is finally ready. Identifying a problem to solve, selecting the right technology, designing your architecture, solving technical problems and squashing bugs. At long last it’s done and ready for your users to enjoy. There is just one problem — you don’t have any users. It’s time for the hard part.
Not knowing where to look you turn to the Internet for help. You read about Social Media campaigns, influencers, and Google Ads — but all of this seems so foreign. Is that it? You throw money at it? Does this really work?
What Is Marketing?
Seth Godin, in his excellent book This Is Marketing tells us that no, it doesn’t anymore:
“How do I get the word out?”
The SEO expert promises that you will be found when people search for you.
The PR professional promises articles and mentions and profiles.
And Don Draper, David Ogilvy, and the rest will trade your money for ads. Beautiful, sexy, effective ads.
All to get the word out. But that’s not marketing, not anymore. And it doesn’t work, not anymore.
He then goes on to explain:
Marketing is the generous act of helping someone solve a problem. Their problem. It’s a chance to change the culture for the better. Marketing involves very little in the way of shouting, hustling, or coercion. It’s a chance to serve, instead.
How Not To Do Marketing?
Entrepreneurs are prey. They are preyed on by a creature called Resistance. One manifestation of Resistance is reading business books and articles about successful startups. You’re psyched up by how Spotify scaled from 1 to 200 million users and can’t wait to solve similar challenges yourself. You feel great, but in reality you’re no better off with this knowledge than you were without it. It’s just an interesting story.
In his article, How We Got 2000+ Customers, Alex Turnbull, CEO of Groove soberly observes:
What are you guys doing for user acquisition?
“Look, I could tell you what we’re doing, but it wouldn’t help you. We have 10,000 customers. You have zero. You need to focus on your first five customers.”
He then goes on to explain that, predictably, he did Things That Don’t Scale. In that legendary article, Paul Graham describes the story of Airbnb:
Airbnb is a classic example of this technique. Marketplaces are so hard to get rolling that you should expect to take heroic measures at first. In Airbnb’s case, these consisted of going door to door in New York, recruiting new users and helping existing ones improve their listings.
Airbnb now seems like an unstoppable juggernaut, but early on it was so fragile that about 30 days of going out and engaging in person with users made the difference between success and failure.
Going door to door might not be the best idea to promote your product, but to get the ball rolling you must exert a similar effort.
How To Get Your First Users
What unscalable things you have to do will depend on your niche. There are 30+ examples of successful companies acquiring their first users in the excellent list Early User Growth. I particularly like the story of Zapier:
Strategy: Looking for users on product forums
Zapier allows people with no knowledge about working with API’s, to connect API’s from their most used tools in order to automate important tasks and save time. Though Zapier is mostly automated today, most of the work was done manually by Wade Foster, Zapier’s CEO. Many online products had their own support forums on which users would ask for integrations with other tools. As most companies would add these integrations to their roadmap for 6 months from now, Wade was able to hop on a quick call with its early users to configure the integration instantly. He would reply to these forum posts explaining that his team was currently working on an integration and added a link to a landing page. Although the pages would only get around 10–15 visits, around 50% would sign up. These forum replies and landing pages also helped in getting traction from the companies they would integrate into their software, which resulted in the first companies signing up to officially launch a Zapier integration.
This is backbreaking work. Is participating in forum discussions and helping users solve their problems something you’re willing to do? And how on earth are you going to find the right discussions, preferably as they happen?
Finding Relevant Discussions
I’m not going to lie, this type of marketing requires systematic, persistent effort on your part. It works, but that’s the price you have to pay. Syften just makes it easier. To find the relevant discussions specify a few filters and the app will find your threads for you. Here are some ideas.
See Who’s Looking For Wordpress Themes
You made your fresh new Wordpress Theme fit for a specific purpose, but nobody has heard about it. Posting it to catalogues barely got you any users. Instead of waiting for users to come to you, you have to come to them. And “they” are the people who are frustrated enough to write and post a Wordpress theme question, plus the thousands who’ll Google it in the months to come.
This filter will pick posts that contain the sentence “wordpress theme” and a question mark, while excluding posts that contain links.
“wordpress theme” `?` NOT `https://`
See Who’s Developing Slack Bots
Are you in the Slack bot business? “Great artists steal”, so see who’s making new Slack bots. Maybe they have some cool ideas you can apply to your tool.
These filters monitor Indie Hackers and Hacker News and select posts by makers who have just released their first beta and want to share the news with the world. It’s best to keep an eye on them…
site:indiehackers.com "slack bot"
site:ycombinator.com title:"show hn: " title:"slack bot"
See Latest GitHub Actions
A new platform or technology emerges and you’re wondering if it’s worth venturing into? See the latest news and listen to what people are complaining about — and maybe you’ll uncover an itch worth scratching.
site:ycombinator.com title:`github action`