There are many articles about growth hacking out there, but they tend to focus on startups that already have some level of traction. But what about those really early days when you have no idea where your users are going to come from? How do you get to your first 500 or 1000 users?
Paul Graham famously said you have to “do things that don’t scale” in the early days. Rather than adopt a strategy that works for tens of thousands or millions of people, do something that works for tens or hundreds of people.
My site, The Hawaii Project, is a personalized book discovery engine, created because existing solutions simply don’t work for finding great books to read and keeping track of your favorite authors. However, it violates one of my basic rules for B2C startups — it doesn’t have a daily use case. (Most people don’t look for new books to read every day ). I’m knowingly violating one of my rules because this project is near to my heart, but it makes for tricky customer acquisition!
I built my positioning hypothesis for the product early on, following the sage advice of Michael Troiano. (which goes something like, “For avid readers looking for great books to read, The Hawaii Project recommends high quality, personally relevant books you’d never find on your own because we track hundreds of hand-selected sources of great books and match our findings to your interests.”). Which is too long. But that’s where I started.
Because the books space is interesting and complicated, I build a stakeholder map — everyone who might be interested in what I’m up to. That includes Readers, Book Bloggers, Book Clubs, Authors, Publicists, Publishers, Bookstores, Libraries and Librarians, Literacy non-profits (we donate 10% to them), Journalists and the startup community. I crafted pitches for each of these communities.
I highly recommend Traction, which provides a well-thought out framework for thinking about customer acquisition channels.
Most startups end in failure. Almost every failed startup has a product. What failed startups don’t have is traction — real customer growth. This book introduces startup founders and employees to the “Bullseye Framework,” a five-step process successful companies use to get traction.
With that in mind, here’s my path to 500 users — what tactics worked and what tactics didn’t. By users I mean people who signed up for an account on THP — I don’t count simple site visitors (of which there are many more).
First, let’s look at the chart of user acquisition by date, with the key milestones. As you can see, much of it is “slow and steady” growth — with some occasional spikes.
I started acquiring users before I launched, by running a private beta program. Most of those were people I knew — friends & family. For better or worse, from there I moved to doing a Kickstarter, pre-launch. The Kickstarter did not reach its goal so I didn’t get money, but it did generate a fair bit of early press and additional users.
In broad strokes, 15% of my first 500 users are friends and family. 5% are identifiable as “friends of friends” where the product spread without my involvement. 5% are people I didn’t know but networked to for business reasons, and who subsequently signed up. The remaining 75% are people I don’t know, who came in through various activities discussed below. About half of them came in as part of the broader Kickstarter initiative — press, social media posts and the like. Many of the people who signed up at launch were queued up from the Kickstarter campaign and waiting for entrance.
Some pre-launch, early tactics that worked:
- Friends and Family. No secret sauce here. These are the people who want you to succeed — all you need to do is ask.
- Your professional network. I shamelessly spammed my LinkedIn connections (about 1000 of them).
- Kickstarter & related Press outreach
- Social Media. A particular success for me was live-blogging my Kickstarter campaign on LinkedIn, which generated a large number of Kickstarter pledges and email list signups, who converted to registered users when we launched, and garnered me ~1500 followers on LinkedIn. I used LinkedIn because that’s where my biggest network was. Choose your biggest / best platform, but keep in mind you can’t just spam them — you have to produce content on a frequent basis, so consider what kind of content you’ll be making and where it most naturally resides. A bunch of posts about startup marketing don’t seem to fit on Facebook.
Those are classic jump-start techniques. Even though the Kickstarter was a lot of work, and didn’t raise funds, it provided a reason for press outreach and a framework for launch that people could embrace.
Since the Kickstarter, there’s been three major “events” that generated significant upticks in users:
- The Launch — having done a lot of work with press and email-list gathering, when I took The Hawaii Project out of private beta, and opened it up, I had a good email list I could blast to — many of those people signed up.
- I invested a lot in LinkedIn, where my network is strongest. As a result of live-blogging my Kickstarter on LinkedIn, a series of posts I wrote (mostly not directly about The Hawaii Project) got featured by LinkedIn editors. One post garnered 25,000 views, another 5,000 views — some of those readers turned into THP subscribers.
- HackerNews. I posted a “Show HN” post on HackerNews. I got some friends to bump it, it picked up steam and snowballed into 100+ users — 20% of my first 500! I don’t know what caused it to catch fire, but the community was really helpful and engaged— I got some great feedback in addition to signups. I am sure many of that community were “tire kickers” rather than just average book readers, but it was very helpful! (A similar attempt at Product Hunt sank without a trace — YMMV).
More along the lines of “doing things that don’t scale”, some other activities that yielded early results:
- Email “Spam” — I found mailing lists of librarians online, web-scraped them for the email addresses, and sent every librarian in Massachusetts an email about the campaign.
- Book Clubs — I visited a number of book club meetings and signed people up. One of them is using THP to source all their reading choices. While it doesn’t scale, it did generate users — I also realized my product wasn’t a complete solution for book clubs, a topic I plan to return to in future.
- Bookmarks — I printed up Bookmarks with attractive “book on a beach” imagery and THP website and contact details, and hand them out at a drop of a hat. (After the first version, I put a trackable URL on them so I can see visits if people type it in). Decent (not high end) bookmarks cost about $0.50 from VistaPrint, so after factoring in conversion rates, the Customer Acquisition Cost is high — but it’s great branding for events, and doubles as a unique business card.
- Partnerships. I partnered with the Nahant Library to embed The Hawaii Project in a frame in their website, which generated ~500 visits and a number of subscribers (plus some revenue!).
- A side project. As part of the CODEX hackathon, I built BookPlaylist (a bastardized THP where you can build Spotify music playlists to go with your favorite books) and cross-linked it to THP, which generated customers.
- Quora. Recently I have started answering books-related questions on Quora, and including links to The Hawaii Project for books I mention. So far, when I answer 2 or 3 questions a day for a week, I pick up 2 or 3 people a day for that time, pretty much a 1:1 ratio of answers to subscribers. Not super scalable but it seems to be reliable and repeatable. It’s now part of my day.
Longer term investments that may or may not pay off:
- Social Media Platforms and Content Marketing. I’ve been running a twitter account since I started work on the project, long before I even had a private beta (come follow us!). I tweet out interesting books every day, and have about 700 followers. Probably 50% of my followers appear to be authors, which is an interesting dynamic I hope to make use of some day. I run a Medium account which doesn’t seem to help much. I have a Facebook page which I don’t have time to manage — it gets views but I don’t think generates users. Most every blog post I write gets posted to LinkedIn, my personal blog, my personal Medium account, The Hawaii Project on Medium, and Twitter. The jury is still out on whether my Twitter time investment is really going to pay off.
- SEO. I saw the power of SEO with goby, where at peak we were pulling 1M+ monthly visitors from SEO. But SEO takes a LONG time to develop and so far my SEO traffic is a trickle, not a flood. But I’m a firm believer in getting this right and have invested a fair bit in SEO (probably worthy of a separate post).
I also tried some tactics that I thought would work very well. And they didn’t:
- Book Bloggers — I hypothesized that Book Bloggers, because they need things to write about, and love books and reading, would naturally want to write about The Hawaii Project. I wrote to about 20 of them, and heard absolutely nothing back. I believe there’s something there but early experiments weren’t encouraging — I haven’t found the right angle yet.
- Startup Events — I have a rule that I will talk to anyone who wants to listen, about THP, and I’ve been fortunate to speak at a number of startup pitch events. They’ve all been useful for various reasons, but none have led directly to significant signups.
- Author outreach — I hypothesized that Authors would want to help promote their books and would write about THP. Many of my twitter followers are authors. I’ve written to many (authors are surprisingly approachable, even famous ones). I’ve had many good conversations but it’s not turned into much in the way of users.
- Bookstore outreach — while it’s more of a stretch, I got in touch with a number of bookstores, in hopes of cross-promotion. Had a few interesting conversations, but in the end, we couldn’t connect the wires on their offline experience and my online experience. And most of them view themselves as being in the book recommendation business, interestingly, especially the “Indie” bookstores.
I also ran a variety of tests on paid acquisition, primarily Google and Facebook ads, so that I had data on cost of acquisition on those channels — they are scalable, if expensive. So far cost of acquisition significantly outpaces customer lifetime value, so I can’t just “arbitrage” my way to success, unless I find a way to reduce the ad costs.
In summary, there was no “one thing” that did it for me. I invested hard in “friends and family” and my personal network, and I tried many things, looking for things that showed promise. And kept at it. I invested hard in LinkedIn, because that is where my network was the largest, and it paid dividends. I followed my mantra of “Everything is Practice”, online and offline, kept trying things, and found a few hits and even more misses.
You should not wait for lightning to strike — invest in getting new customers every day, and plan for the long haul. I haven’t found the repeatable, reliable, scalable customer acquisition strategy, yet. Rome wasn’t built in a day.