Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could just build a great product, put it out there in the world and then watch as willing users flock gratefully to sign up for your new masterpiece?
It sure as hell would make my life a lot easier. Being a serial startup founder I find myself praying to the user acquisition gods more often than I would like to admit, because getting your first users is bloody hard work. However, over time I have learned that there is some sort of playbook of activities (not a formula, such things are nearly always snake-oil) that will do the job of getting the first users onto your product, regardless of what it is.
In this post I will aim to shed some light on some of these activities while explaining why they work and roughly how long they will take to deliver. These are not tricks or hacks, they are widely used strategies that work for very simple reasons, and are time-tested. I should caveat this by saying that my focus is primarily on tech startups, particularly SaaS businesses with a subscription model, so adjust your expectations accordingly if you are not in that particular sphere. Nonetheless, much of this stuff is pretty generalized marketing strategy so you should be able to get some joy regardless of your sector. YMMV, as they say.
With that said, let's start with the fundamentals.
When to start acquiring users
If you've spent any time at all in tech as either a consumer or industry professional, you will have come across at least one pre-launch landing page. These are the one-page websites dedicated to products that are yet to be launched. They tend to feature a large hero image of some kind, a bit of blurb and some sort of lead capture, normally a big email address field with an inviting "Sign up for early access" button. You know the ones.
What this tells you is that user acquisition can start as soon as you've had the idea for your product. In fact, it probably should. If not, you could spend weeks building a product only to discover that nobody wants it, which would be a huge waste of time. Validate your idea first, build second.
I always use Buffer as an example of early validation executed well. You can read about it on their blog here, but essentially they threw up a landing page for the product with some pricing and then tracked which pricing plan people clicked on. Ta-da: validation that not only did people want the product, but that they would pay for it. They started building it after this.
This was over 10 years ago now but the principle remains. Throwing up a landing page is easier than ever before now (more on that shortly), so there's no real excuse for not testing your idea first.
The other upside of getting users early, before you build the product, is that it will help you if you are trying to raise money. Many people assume that fundraising only happens with fully built products - or at least an MVP - but that's not always true: many early-stage companies have raised money with nothing more than an idea and some evidence that the idea has demand. At Firedrop we raised our first round of funding with a simple prototype that took us two days to mock up, and some social proof that we were solving a genuine pain point. Our second round of funding - still pre-launch - happened because we had used some of the techniques below to acquire 8,000 early beta testers who were all itching to get their hands on the product.
Acquiring users should start as soon as possible.
Cost and speed
The next consideration is how long it will take to get to your first 1000 users. This is a function of effort, specific market, how much money/time you are willing to spend on acquisition, and even a little bit of luck. In short, there is no catch-all answer to how long it will take to get to the 1000 user milestone, but you would be sensible to set aside at least 6-12 months if you're not really going to go hell-for-leather on this.
Money is obviously also a factor. If you have budget for advertising then your timeline will shorten significantly assuming you have a half-competent advertising strategy. There are marketing agencies who specialize in helping with this, including one I founded for precisely this reason (shameless plug).
Generally speaking though, I will assume you are building a startup with very little budget as you're just trying to get something off the ground, and will focus this article on non-paid tactics (although you may have to pay small mounts for things like website hosting).
1. The foundations
Before you start shouting about your startup from every rooftop, make sure you've got your house in order. There's nothing worse than generating a buzz that dies out because people don't know what you're shouting about or how to get involved.
- Get a website. Even if you've decided you're not going to collect email addresses at this stage (for which I hope you have a great reason), you need to have a destination for people to land on. There are loads of options available for getting a website online quickly, but my personal favourite for early stage startups is Unicorn Platform. It's just so simple to use, looks great, and you can hook up an email field to something like Google Sheets just to get started. It's very cheap too.
- Buy a domain name. Not strictly essential as platforms like Unicorn do provide a URL for you, but it is highly recommended. A professional domain is more likely to get users to sign up because it provides assurance of professionalism. Domains are dirt cheap nowadays, you can get a .com or a .co for less than £10 per year. I tend to recommend Namecheap for this.
- Grab your social media URLs. This is a defensive tactic but one you will regret not doing if your startup takes off. Grab the URLs for every single social media channel you can think of. The idea isn't to start using them all yet, merely to prevent someone else grabbing the name.
As an aside, here are some things not to do at this stage, which I only mention because I've seen so many people get over-excited once they've got their website online:
- Don't register a company. Once you've registered a limited company you immediately add unnecessary admin to your workload. Hold off until you are taking money from either sales or investment.
- Don't buy business cards. Honestly, nobody really cares about business cards these days and they're a waste of money.
- Don't pay for a professionally designed logo. You'll probably change your logo once your startup takes off. Just use a free logo builder like Canva's one for now.
- Don't quit your day job. It's going to take you much longer than you think before your startup is going to be able to pay you. Don't cut off your source of income before you can afford to.
2. The target audience
This might sound boring, but before you can start marketing your startup you need to do some groundwork to ensure you're doing the right things. As minimums, I would strongly urge you to:
- Create a user persona or avatar. Understanding your target market is one of the most critical things you'll need to grasp if you're going to make a success of your startup, not just now but in future too. At this early stage, doing the work of sketching out a proper persona or avatar will really help you to nail the messaging you can use to speak to them, as well as giving you some insights into where to find your users. You can grab a template for a user avatar here.
- Understand the adoption curve. The way people find and sign up for any given product is usually the same: it starts off with a small number of technically savvy enthusiasts who are curious about the product and willing to invest time in trying it out, before the userbase grows through progressive levels of risk tolerance and excitement. At this early stage you're targeting the first tranche of the curve (see below) - the Innovators - with the goal of getting them to attract the early adopters.
- Nail your audience's pain points. This should have come out of your avatar if you've done that, but really understanding your audience's pain points will give you the focus needed to hit them with the right messaging, in the right place. Don't just focus on the pain point you're trying to solve, think about the other related pain points too. This will help you with content marketing (see section 5) as well as engineering-as-marketing (section 6).
This may all sound very obvious, but I can't stress enough how important it is to actually go through the process of understanding your playing field, as very often our own bias obscures insights that we would miss without going through the thought process in a systematic way. Set aside some time for a brainstorm and write down your user avatar and pain points. You can even stick them on the wall if you're into that kind of thing.
3. The first 100 users
Now we're getting into the actionable checklists. Going from 0 to 100 users is a great first step; you'll feel validated and the thrill of seeing things starting to happen will motivate you. Here's what you should do.
- Tell everyone you know. So many people miss this obvious step, but it's a really important and easy one. Broadcast your new startup to your network on social media, email people, talk about it with everyone who might be interested. Encourage them to visit the website and sign up, and nag people to share it with their networks too. You might become a pain in the backside within your social circle, but I'm sure they will still love you and more importantly, want to support you.
- Post it on Betalist and similar sites. There are lots of websites focused solely on showcasing new startups. Betalist is great for pre-launch campaigns and you can get featured for $200 if you have it (otherwise there is a free listing option). Other similar sites which accept submissions at various stages of pre-launch are Betafy.co, BetaTesters.io, 10Words, BetaTesting, LaunchingNext... the list goes on.
- Go through this list of 280 directories where you can publish your startup. This is an excellent curated list of places where you can share the URL of your startup, which will not only give you direct traffic but also generate fantastic SEO opportunity.
That should be enough to get you over the 100 users mark. If it doesn't, use this as a signal that your product or idea may not be of interest, and you should re-evaluate. Or, keep reading to try some of the other tactics below.
4. Engaging the innovators
Having got your first few users and gained some early validation of the product idea, it's time to throw yourself into the lions' den and start targeting the tech enthusiasts. This means engaging with them where they live. Here are some ideas:
- Post your startup on Reddit. If you're looking for tech enthusiasts, Reddit is the place. It also happens to be the fourth most popular website in the world, which not many people realize. If you're not familiar, it's essentially a forum platform with lots of communities - called subreddits - for different interests. There are several subreddits you could post your startup to, including /r/startups, /r/startup_ideas, /r/startup, or even /r/roastmystartup if you're feeling thick-skinned. You should also target subreddits focused on the topic or pain point your startup is aiming to address, as well as join in with the communities aimed at entrepreneurs such as /r/entrepreneurridealong. Just be mindful of the rules in each subreddit and don't spam the site. There is a great write-up of relevant subreddits over at Logic Rank.
- Submit to ProductHunt. In many ways, ProductHunt is similar to Betalist et al but with a higher cachet. The idea is to be "hunted", aka discovered, by one of the website's members, which adds an element of prestige and authenticity to a listing on the site. It's also generally a one-shot deal so you need to get it right, but with careful preparation and coordination it can be a huge boost. Here is a guide to help you prepare and launch on ProductHunt.
- Find and engage with relevant people on social. Find and follow influencers in your industry and start commenting on their content. Set up a search term on a tool like Tweetdeck and engage with people who are expressing the pain you're aiming to address. Join groups and answer questions there. The one thing to keep in mind is the target audience: if you're after business customers for your B2B startup, focus on Linkedin and Twitter. If you're targeting young consumers and have good visual content, look on Instagram. Engaging on social is something you need to do alongside your actual posting strategy (more on that next).
- Answer questions on forums and groups. Forums are still a thing in 2022, and many of your users might be found lurking on forums related to your industry or topic. If so, sign up and start answering questions, particularly if they relate to one of the pain points you are aiming to solve. Linkedin and Facebook groups are also decent sources for this. One of the biggest sites for engagement of this nature is Quora, a highly popular Q&A platform where you can really show off your expertise and gain a wide audience. The controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson once wrote a response on Quora that directly led to a book publishing deal. The founders of Unbounce also invested a lot of time early on in answering questions on Quora and other forums.
5. Content marketing
This is where the proper marketing effort comes in, but it is probably the single most effective technique for getting early traction that I have seen being consistently effective. Content marketing is a chore, but it really works.
- Blogging. Writing about topics that are interesting to your target audience (see why it's so important to understand your audience?) will not only give you great SEO juice that will drive traffic to your website, it will also give you additional material to post on your socials as well as sites like Reddit. Write well, and write regularly, and this could be enough to land you your first 1000 users on its own. It certainly worked for Buffer, Mint, Plausible and many other startups. You can set up a blog on your own website using something like Ghost at a subdomain (blog.mywebsite.com), or just use Medium.
- Promote your blog posts on social. Seems like an obvious one but many people forget this part. Every time you publish an article, tell everyone about it! Not just your followers either, it's fair game to @mention relevant influencers to ask their opinion on your blog posts.
- Email your blog posts to your signup list. Another oft-overlooked promotional avenue for blog content, the people who sign up for early access via your landing page. Assuming you've got their opt-in permission, email them each time you write an article and encourage them to share and invite other people to sign up to your landing page.
- Repost your blogs on sites like Ezinearticles.com, it's a bit of effort but it's excellent for SEO. If you're hosting your own blog site, you can also repost your articles on Medium by using their import feature. Just don't copy/paste articles all over the place without ensuring the repost has the canonical meta tag, or you'll get punished by Google for duplicate content.
- Guest blogging. When you're starting out your audience will probably be tiny, so guest blogging is a great way of piggy-backing on someone else's established audience. Reach out to niche blogs in your industry and offer to write for them. If you've got time, you can even go after the bigger blogs as well; if a Wired or TechCrunch feature you, you'll get a huge boost.
- Sign up to HARO. Help A Reporter Out (HARO for short) is a service that connects journalists working on a story with experts that can comment on that story. Sign up as an expert and you will get emails three times a day from writers looking for quotes or interviews. This can help generate publicity as well as contributing to that all-important SEO effort.
- No time for blogging? Micro-blog on social media instead. Linkedin and Twitter are especially good for short-form mini-articles where you can tell a short story instead of writing a full blog post. You can also post carousels on Instagram of mini presentations that offer value to your audience. Don't like writing? Post regular insightful videos on Instagram or TikTok if that's where your audience is.
Content marketing is one of the most widely used and effective ways of growing your user base, but it's important to be realistic about the time it will take. You will need to be posting regularly - at least once or twice per week - for a period of 6 months or more before you can reasonably expect it to take off. If your focus is more on social media posting, up the intervals to once per day at least, on top of your efforts to engage with other users.
Finally - and this is really important - make sure to focus on quality over quantity. Resist the temptation to outsource your article-writing to volume-focused Fiverr freelancers. In 2022 people are wise to blogspam and it will hurt your brand if you are seen to be peddling poor quality content for the sake of it. Outsourcing your social media posting is acceptable if you work with an agency that truly understands your product and market. Otherwise, do it yourself but do it regularly and consistently.
6. Engineering as marketing
If you have a tech startup there's a reasonable chance you have programming skills within your founder group. Use it.
There are plenty of examples of startups who have successfully leveraged their engineering skills to build traction by building mini-products and in-app features whose sole purpose is to provide value to their audience while capturing their details and/or encouraging signups. Below are a couple of examples to inspire you.
- Dropbox's referral program. In 2008 Dropbox had 100k users. Less than 1.5 years later, they had 4million. Their main source of growth was a simple referral program, built into their app. Between 2008 and 2010, their users sent out 2.8 million invites to other people encouraging them to sign up to Dropbox. Existing users were incentivized with free storage space for every friend they invited, and users jumped at the opportunity.
This approach worked because it leveraged the enthusiasm of the platform's early innovators and encouraged them to spread word out to the early adopters further up the product adoption curve. In SaaS products, referral programs can be very powerful and often simple to implement. Trello used a similar approach with similar success.
- SEMRush's free site audit tool. Developing free lead magnet products like a free audit tool is still an effective strategy, because it quite simply delivers value for nothing to potential users while simultaneously building your brand in their mind. In SEMRush's case, they try to tempt you to sign up before using their tool but this is entirely optional. Once you get past the sign-up screen they let you in to a restricted version of their full app, effectively allowing you to try the product out for free.
WPEngine, a Wordpress hosting platform, did something similar with a simple tool that offered to speed test your Wordpress site in exchange for your email address. This tool was credited with playing a significant part in their ascent to market dominance in an extremely crowded space.
The reason these approaches work is that they target their customers' main pain points and amplify it so that potential users are inclined to sign up to their platform to solve the problems. SEMRush's audits will nearly always throw up warnings and errors, and WPEngine's speed testing tool will tell you your site could be faster. In other words, telling people that the way they're doing things is bad is far more effective than just selling features to them. As human beings we respond much more strongly to negative stimuli than positive ones.
Get creative. Focus on the pain points and how you can hook potential customers in by allowing them to evaluate a problem they might have, and push your product as the solution.
The best thing about engineering-as-marketing strategies is that they can be evergreen, bringing you new customers for years after your initial traction efforts.
7. Evaluate, iterate, experiment
I have deliberately chosen a narrow route to just your first 1000 users in an effort to present an easily-achievable strategy that won't cost money and can be executed by most people well. However, whatever you do it's important to measure and track results. One big mistake startup founders make is sticking to a failing strategy and then throwing their arms up in frustration that it's not working.
In truth there are many variables that can impact the effectiveness of any given strategy, so you need to measure everything you do and adapt accordingly. Here are some simple ways of doing that.
- Get familiar with website analytics tools. Whether you're using Google Analytics or one of the more privacy-focused solutions like Fathom, get into the habit of tracking your efforts and learning from them. This is especially true with content marketing: if you find out that one type of content or topic gets a particularly big hit rate, try more articles on that same subject. Similarly, if a topic is a dud, stop wasting time writing further similar articles. Measure where your traffic is coming from. Is reddit a good referrer for you? See if you can spend more time on contributing to the platform by engaging in discussions and posting more content. Do you have a lot of visitors from Quora? Answer more questions. It's all common sense really.
- Try different messaging on social media. Social is actually helpful in learning to understand the type of content that people want to engage with, so first of all spend some time following competitors and influencers in your industry and analyzing the type of content they post. Then try different approaches on your own audience and measure the response. Double down on what works, drop what doesn't work. Just remember that your audience size will need to be something reasonably significant before this is useful, but the same principle applies to the earlier stages of engaging with influencers in comment threads and so on. If you're posting visual content on platforms like Instagram, try different styles of design and messaging. Use Canva to experiment with different aesthetic styles, and try little tweaks to the copy like adding emojis.
- Speak to your early users. This is so, so important and something that so many startup founders fail to do for whatever reason. Once a user has signed up to your early-stage or pre-launch product list, they're a potential advocate. Speak to them frequently, email them personally to invite them to a call to discuss their feedback and suggestions, ask them what they would do differently. The very first users will happily contribute and are therefore an essential source of measurement and improvement.
The tactics discussed in this article are a small handful of free or almost free activities you can engage in to build up your first base of users. If applied correctly and consistently, I can say with reasonable certainty that they will get you to the first 1000 users and quite likely beyond if executed well enough. There are other tactics that require different skills and, usually, some spend. If your budget is tight or you're not especially experienced in marketing, it's usually best to look at these later on, or experiment with them carefully. However, there are times where other tactics may be the best option for you and so here are some of the best ones, briefly:
- Paid online advertising. Buying ads on platforms like Google, Facebook, Instagram etc can be extremely effective if done right. You will need to be good at copywriting and design (for the ad creative), and invest some time into learning how the ad platforms operate - itself no small undertaking as they are generally quite complicated - if you want to get the best return on your spend. I also always recommend looking into paid ads only once you have some data of your own to bring to the party, so that you can leverage the more effective approaches like retargeting and custom audiences. In the last couple of years there has been a heavy push back against third party data so you'll need to use your own. If you're interested in paid online advertising, speak to Red Ant Social, which I am a founder of. We'll help you get the best returns without wasting your money (that's the last shameless plug for this article, honest).
- Public Relations and press. Publicity is often an excellent way of building buzz around a product, but it's not a straightforward process. You really only have three options: create enough noise on blogs and social to get picked up by journalists; pitch to journalists directly; or hire a PR firm to do all this for you. The latter is the risky option and I would only recommend engaging a PR firm if you really have a unique and compelling product and a lot of money to throw at it. PR firms are only as good as their network, so research which publications they work with and get examples of coverage they have achieved in the past.
- Publicity stunts. If you're the creative type and are willing to invest the time and effort into one-off efforts that don't scale, consider it. Publicity stunts are generally the domain of larger companies but many startups have used cheaper stunts to gain traction. For example, the founder of Tinder went around university campuses giving presentations at sororities and fraternities. In the pitches she would attend a sorority, persuade all the attendees to install Tinder, and then would go immediately to the sorority's favoured fraternity and persuade the guys to install the app as well, where they would immediately see a bunch of girls they knew from the nearby sorority. A simple, effective stunt that doesn't scale but it got them 15,000 users. Just be aware that publicity stunts do carry risk and can backfire if not executed correctly.
- Speaking engagements. Everyone's a "professional public speaker" nowadays, but speaking engagements should not be dismissed as a means of generating leads for your startup, especially if you are B2B focused. Industry events are a prime target for speakers and you can work on generating engagements by pitching the event organizers who, don't forget, need to fill up their event's schedule with relevant speakers. Do this with plenty of time in advance of the event itself though otherwise the speaking slots will likely be filled.
- Trade shows and events. If your startup is B2B, trade shows are still a solid way of finding new customers. Thanks to Covid there are increasing numbers of virtual and hybrid events to attend, making it easier than ever before to attend. If you have budget, hire a stand to present your product, or if not then just circulate and talk to other vendors. It can be a great opportunity to forge potential partnerships or even just get inside information on your competitors. Even if you're not a B2B product, events can connect you to journalists who could in turn create excellent publicity.
I could go on, as there are seemingly endless ways to build traction especially once you want to go past the 1000 mark. One thing to know is that you will need to change strategy fairly frequently as each stage of growth takes shape. What worked in getting your first 1000 users may not work in getting the next 99,000. Keep experimenting, measuring and adapting. And keep the consistency.
If you want to dig deeper, I would recommend Traction by Gabriel Weinberg (founder of privacy-first search engine DuckDuckGo) and Justin Mares, which covers the 19 most commonly used channels in a very digestible format.
For now, feel free to hit me up for a no-strings chat if you want more specific input into your own startup early-stage traction strategy. I'm always happy to talk to startup founders.