As startup founders or new business owners, it’s hard not to compare your tiny seedling to the billion-dollar companies that are out there. It’s even harder to imagine that they all started off where you are. While some were lucky enough to get initial funding and resources fast, many still needed to figure out how to acquire those first few customers.
I’ll tell you now that every one of these behemoth companies in existence struggled with acquiring new clients. We are so focused on success stories that we forget that many of these CEO’s or founders faced multiple failures before “making it”.
I’ve decided to highlight a few of the most inspiring stories that will hopefully provide you with fresh perspectives on how to strategize and tackle acquisition.
These founders went the extra mile for their earliest users. In fact, they shuttled from coast to coast just to talk face to face with their first users.
Founders Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharczyk and Joe Gebbia didn’t worry about the fact that this strategy wouldn’t scale. They held onto a good idea and felt that personal effort and push would be enough for their company to take off and they weren’t wrong. First, they went to NYC to acquire their earliest users, then they followed up with them extensively.
“When New York took off, we flew back every weekend.” – Brian Chesky, for the Atlantic.
These founders dived right into the product marketing themselves by creating all the initial content.
“We went door to door with cameras taking pictures of all these apartments to put them online. I lived in their living rooms. And home by home, block by block, communities started growing. And people would visit New York and bring the idea back with them to their city.” – Brian Chesky.
Another smart move was taking advantage of an already popular event that was happening at the same time. In this case, they leveraged the popularity of the Democratic National Conventions happening in New York. People were already listing their homes for short-term rental on other sites, so they reached out to these people and figured out what products they needed.
“We tried to build loyalty knowing that if we did that, they would tell their friends. We’d host parties and meet-ups and all sorts of different things.”
It was mostly about generating as much buzz and excitement to get them to tell their friends about us.” – Chesky, Startups Open-sourced
Airbnb founders put their bet on word of mouth. This would generate press, which would generate more word of mouth.
They passed out fliers in coffee shops, train stations and all the grass root things. The press was the goal, and these founders hoped that press would spark another group of users which they would then personally visit.
I’ve written in the past that organic reviews and testimonials are a godsend and should be revered. Yelp knows this better than any other company. So much so that they built in a system that “gave Kudos” for good behavior. Wanting to create a tighter community based on consistent and high-quality reviews. Yelp thought that people would be more likely to write well-crafted reviews if they were recognized. Yelp tapped into the psychology of recognition by thinking that people would be more likely to write in-depth, well-crafted reviews when their names appeared alongside them. “Kudos”, a unique point system was assigned to reviewers who were the first to review a business or had witty, and good reviews.
In 2006, Yelp reviewers got hooked on the site, and Yelp played that to their advantage by engaging them more e.g. treating their best reviewers generously. Users who were more active and engaged were elevated to “Elite” status.
It doesn’t take much to incentivize people to become engaged. These generous rewards weren’t monetary; they were purely recognition such as a shiny online badge icon beside users names. At regular Yelp Events, Elite Users got the first-chance to RSVP and were offered free food, drinks and swag.
No one leverages other people’s followings better than Buffer did. That’s how they got to 100k users in the first place. This is another company that played into the psychology of human nature. No matter how big you grow, you will always appreciate being recognized. Which is how Buffer got a lot of guest bloggers. Co-founder Leo Wildrich wrote 150 guest posts in the first 9 months of running Buffer, and he swears by it. Not only did he tap into content marketing early as a business growth strategy which will already increase organic reach, he also built a solid professional network.
“Relationships are actually the most valuable things that you gain from guest posting. At the end of the day, if you do a lot of guest posting you simply make a lot of friends. You provide someone with free content, that’s a great favor if you think about it, so it’s a great opportunity to make friends with these awesome people.”- Leo Wildrich
Don’t know if you have a good product-market fit? Go to your targeted communities and find out. That’s what Etsy did.
Etsy harvested interested before even launching their website. Etsy founders found out there was a market for their product when they realized early on that they needed a website like Etsy.
So, while they built Etsy, they reached out to craft communities like getcrafty.com and Craftster.org, which had a large user base. Before even launching, they made sure that had enough generated interested to keep their business alive through word of mouth.
Tinder’s startup story is probably my favourite story of all. Tinder is a dating app that started by targeting college students through an easy to navigate smartphone app. What is crucial for any dating app is an early user baser. Would out a solid user base, people are going to lose interest in the app quickly. CMO Whitney Wolfe’s idea was to go to prominent college campuses around the country.
She tapped into her own personal network by going to chapters of her sorority, doing a presentation and having incentives for them to sign up on the spot. Once this happened, she would go to the fraternities on the same campus and show them that all the cute girls they knew were already using the app.
During Wolfe’s trip, she tripled the user base.
Reddit founders are champions of content marketing. For a primarily content-focused business model, they understood how important it was to have a solid starting amount of content on their site. So, they solved this by contributing the bulk of the early content themselves. Reddit founders not only wrote most of the early questions and answers, they also created fake profiles. It took months and months before the front page filled organically without their own submissions.
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