Building a Userbase from Scratch

After weeks and weeks of furious coding your product is finally ready. Identifying a problem to solve, selecting the right technology, designing the 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 – nobody knows it exists.

Now it’s time for the hard part.

Internet Wisdom

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 way to promote your product, but to get the ball rolling you must exert a similar amount of effort.

How to get your first users

The things that don’t scale that you’ll have to do depend on your product. There are 30+ examples of successful companies acquiring their first users in the excellent list at 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. Here is how:

With a little practice you can turn this:

Ouch, wouldn't want that. Ouch, wouldn't want that.

Into this:

That's more like it! That's more like it!

An example

A programmer who quits his job to work on his own app is concerned with server costs. This is a recurring pain that I noticed while hanging out on the Indie Hackers forum.

So when I learned how to get $5000 Amazon AWS credits for $49 I wrote an article about it. I configured Syften to notify me when someone complained about their infrastructure costs and waited. Sure enough, one day a “How much does it cost to run your side project?" thread popped up. I replied as soon as I got the notification and watched:

The art of helping others The art of helping others

Note how I provide the solution in the comment itself. The focus is on helping, not promoting. I’m not tricking anyone into visiting my blog. My comment became the most upvoted one in the thread, and the thread reached the “top threads of the month” list. I got 17 upvotes, but did anyone click the link?

Traffic from just that one post Traffic from just that one post

I promoted my blog only once that week, so all of this traffic came from that one comment. I also got five mailing list signups.

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